Gerhard Richter, “Vesuvius” (1976)—detail
We’re supposed to be grateful that finally, in “Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection,” we have the opportunity to see the paintings in Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s burgeoning art collection.
“We are very excited for this exhibition of paintings from Paul Allen’s collection—all extraordinary landscapes—to be seen by the public as it travels the country on its five-museum tour. The exhibition explores landscape painting through works by a wide variety of artists and artistic movements over almost four centuries—it’s this breadth that makes the show so fascinating,” says Mary Ann Prior, director of art collections at Vulcan, the organization that produced the exhibition.
The show is comprised of works spanning five centuries by such artists as Paul Cézanne, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Gustav Klimt, Claude Monet, Thomas Moran, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gerhard Richter, and J.M.W. Turner. “Seeing Nature” is co-organized by the Portland Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, in collaboration with the Paul G. Allen Family Collection. “These are really exceptional pieces of art, and there’s something about landscapes that is universally attractive, which is why I find them so interesting,” Allen says. “By sharing these paintings with the public, it is my hope that people will have the same eye-opening experiences I had when I first saw them.”
But not Philip Kennicott. He focuses attention, first, on the Richter painting in the show.
It is one of several volcano pictures in the Allen collection, but it is perhaps the most ominous and unsettling. Rather than depict the drama of volcanic eruption, Richter shows the mountain asleep, barely visible in the distance, viewed from a small rock outcropping across a vast, hazy sea. The painting captures the double nature of the sublime, the terrifying power of nature (in this case dormant) along with the inherently arrogant belief that man can overpower, assimilate and tame nature (implied ironically by the vantage point, high and distant).
The Richter is the most keenly critical work in the show, dramatizing and undermining the idea that man can stand above and survey the world as if he owned it. Many wealthy people believe that this is true, but in the end they are always disabused of the notion. “Ars longa, vita brevis” comes for everyone at some point.
It’s not clear whether Allen understands this, sees the irony, or just likes the painting, which can pass surreptitiously for a postcard view of a pretty place. And that’s the problem. Like so many other shows devoted to work amassed by individual collectors, the collector himself is a cipher. His comments in the catalogue interview are disturbingly inarticulate and jejune. The promise that an exhibition such as this one will illuminate something interesting about the collector, or the idea of collecting, is almost never fulfilled.
And, then, Kennicott raises more general issues about the show itself and Allen’s collection:
In the end, we’re supposed to feel grateful. But I don’t feel grateful. I resent the fact that when this show is over (it will travel to Minneapolis, New Orleans and Seattle through 2017), all of the art will remain in the private collection of Paul G. Allen. And I can hear the retort: That’s life, that’s capitalism, and get over it because at least it’s not in Qatar.
But the problem with collecting masterworks of great artists is that the act of ownership is in itself a kind of theft, stealing from the public commons of genius. Put another way, once a work of art is important enough to be of interest to a man like Allen, it belongs to all of us. He may not know that, but we do. And so when the show is over and the art is subsumed back into the private palaces of plutocracy, one feels its loss more keenly than any fleeting gratitude to the person who made it temporarily accessible.