The Whitney Museum in New York recently received the largest gift of its 70 year history: 87 pieces of post World War II American art, featuring the work of Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
The exhibition, entitled An American Legacy: A Gift to New York, is a wonderland of post war American art. Visitors wander from celebrity silk-screens by Andy Warhol like Elvis Two Times and Nine Jackies, and flag watercolors by Jasper Johns creator of the 1958 Pop Art classic, Three Flags, to a 100 centimeter high bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich fashioned out of soft vinyl by Claes Oldenburg.
Exhibition curator Marla Prather calls the collection astonishing. "The works, one by one, represent works that anyone would be happy to have in any one institution," she says. "So it's not just the whole, the whole ensemble, each individual work is an acquisition that any curator would be thrilled to acquire."
Ms. Prather, a highly regarded expert on post war American Art, says that the interplay between the different pieces makes the whole of the exhibition greater than the sum of its parts. "In some ways you have the ying and the yang of what artists were doing in that period," she says. "You have Jackson Pollock who's known as this hard drinking, hard-driving artist who painted very spontaneous gestures in a high state of emotion, and then a colleague of his, Mark Rothko, painting quiet, contemplative works in a far less spontaneous way."
The work featured in An American Legacy spans the second half of the 20th century, and showcases the most prominent American artists of the period. The earliest work is The Promise, painted by Barnett Newman in 1949, and Soft Viola by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen is the most recent, dated 2002.
Founded in 1931, The Whitney Museum houses one of the world's largest collections of 20th century American art, and boasts a permanent collection of some 12-thousand pieces.
The new exhibit is the brainchild of Leonard Lauder, Chairman of the Whitney. He says that, for him, leading the gift initiative that brought in the 87 works was an act of pure altruism. "It's important that great art be conserved in great museums, and that a lot of this art was in the artists collections, and if we didn't step forward now to try to bring some of it here, it would have disappeared into private collections and probably never be seen again by the public," says Mr. Lauder. "We're responsible to the public to find beautiful pictures for them."
Mr. Lauder, who is also the chairman of international make-up manufacturer, Estee Lauder, called the process of procuring the artwork a labor of love, in part because it involved contact with some of the artists themselves. "Each one of the artists parted with some of their most precious works that they had saved," he says. "In one case, Bob Rauschenberg had kept a wonderful picture in his own collection for 50 years and was willing to part with it for us."
Mr. Lauder says he trusts that visitors to the exhibit will leave the Whitney thinking, this is great art, in a great museum, in a great city.