Arts & Theater

Art review: Thoroughly modern works from National Gallery

Another rare exhibition from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., is up at the De Young. The San Francisco museum is the only venue for “Modernism From the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection.”

Like its sister exhibition “Intimate Impressionism” at the Legion of Honor, it is on loan while a section of the National Gallery is renovated. The show of 46 paintings and sculptures features works by many of the leading figures in post-World War II American art, including Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Frank Stella.

The show begins with a selection of works by members of the New York School and other Abstract Expressionists. Beginning with seminal works by teachers Josef Albers and Han Hoffman, the first room of the exhibit includes sterling works by some of the less-well-known artists of the 1950s, among them Burgoyne Diller, Grace Hartigan (one of only three women in the show) and William Baziotes.

This section of the show is a bit uneven, with a sombre and melancholy Rothko that has none of the spiritual lift associated with his work, and a mute, brownish red Clifford Still that is broken only by a couple of touches of red and yellow. Still, it’s a good sampling of the kind of works the Meyerhoffs began collecting in the late 1950s.

A special feature of the show is a room dedicated to the 15 works in Newman’s most ambitious work, “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani.” The spare canvasses with “zips” of pigment in black, white, gray and the cream of raw canvas do not correspond to the stops along the Via Dolorosa but were conceived as expressions of Christ’s cry, “Why did you forsake me?”

The room, meant to resemble a chapel, is instead rather sterile and close-quartered so that the work lacks the spiritual element that Newman intended for the series. Still, it is a rare opportunity to see the work that the Meyerhoffs bought for the National Gallery.

Coming out of the room you see several lively, large-scale works: Stella’s elegant “Flin Flon IV,” a lyrical example of his “Protractor Series” that calls up associations with Celtic and Islamic art; Kelly’s prepossessing “Orange Green,” a huge canvas with a simple orange form on a green background that is both humorously dumb and beautiful; and Robert Rauschenberg’s “Archive,” a mashup of appropriated imagery and paint splotches that is typical of his works from the early 1960s.

From there the works in the show seem to get more expansive (and one surmises more expensive). The display in the large gallery moves from the brooding and complex “Perilous Night” by neo-dadaist Johns, through Pop images such as Lichtenstein’s “Painting With Statue of Liberty,” to one of Stella’s maximalist shaped canvases that projects into the viewer’s space with splashy baroque splendor.

At the center of the room is “Saigon, Minnesota,” a work by a younger artist, Eric Fischl. Departing from the predominantly abstract works in the show, it offers an enigmatic narrative of a suburban backyard party with multiple figures stretching out over a four-piece canvas in a vague cruciform shape.

It almost holds up to a late Philip Guston painting of a Ku Klux Klansman in an artist’s studio that, for me, is a high point of the show, along with Jean DuBuffet’s raw “art brut” canvas “La ronde des images.”

Those two images enliven the last room of the show, which otherwise would be a letdown with a limp Brice Marden calligraphic painting and an oddly pedestrian Agnes Martin.

Still this is a show you won’t want to miss. One can only thank the National Gallery and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for bringing to our region work that has never been seen outside the Washington-Baltimore area.