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William S. Paley’s remarkable collection revealed in exhibition at MoMA

Bequest of modern paintings and sculpture to tour American cities

The collection of works of art bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York by William S. Paley, chairman of CBS and chairman emeritus of the museum’s board of trustees, on his death in October 1990, is a handsome donation and comes at a time when American museums are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with changing tax legislation and the lure of the auction houses. Comprising forty-one paintings, twenty-five drawings and other works on paper, and eight sculptures, the collection is the subject of a new exhibition opening at the museum at the beginning of this month (2 February-7 April).

The quality of Paley’s collection was already known through four pictures which he had placed in the museum long before his death. Those pictures were a fine landscape of L’Estaque, dating from around 1882, by Cézanne, Redon’s seductive “Vase of Flowers” of 1914, and two important compositions by Picasso, “Boy Leading a Horse”, a large Rose Period oil painting executed in 1906, and “The Architect’s Table”, a complex Cubist still-life painted in 1912 on an oval canvas. Otherwise, his collection was a secret treasure, rarely shown to critics and scarcely disrupted for loans. Its range and standards, revealed by this exhibition, will be a happy surprise. From the fields of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the museum has inherited two further paintings by Cézanne, a still-life of a milk can with apples (c. 1880) and a fine self-portrait wearing a straw hat (c. 1875), three canvases by Gauguin, two of which date from his Tahitian period, and a delightful little still-life of roses on a tablecloth painted in Manet’s last years. Two large Fauvist riverscapes by Derain, one of which is a view of the Seine at Chatou, are Paley’s most important contribution to the early twentieth-century French school. There are five paintings by Matisse, two of which, “Odalisque with a Tambourine” and “Woman with a Veil”, are notable works from the Nice period, and a painted portrait of Annette (1950) by Giacometti. Less satisfactory is Paley’s occasional and unconvincing excursus into contemporary American art and the bequest includes canvases by Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Al Held. Two small triptychs by Francis Bacon, dating from 1962 and 1963, represent his best investment in this department.

A catalogue (Abrams, 192 pp. 73 col. ills. 161 b&w ills.) contains entries by William Rubin and Matthew Armstrong, and an essay in which Rubin explains how Paley’s bequest fits into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The exhibition tours other American museums including the Indianopolis Museum of Art (11 September-15 November), the Seattle Art Museum (17 December-7 February 1993), the Los Angeles County Museum (28 February-16 May 1993) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (31 October-9 January 1994). Other venues are being added to this programme, but there are no arrangements, at present, for the collection to be shown in Europe.