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Celebrating the Collector

   Emily Fisher Landau is a big name in contemporary art. But she's neither an artist nor a muse, neither a museum director nor a scholar. She's a collector, one whose breath of generosity is paralleled only by that of her massive collection.

   In 2010, Fisher Landau pledged more than 350 works of art, a gift estimated between $50 million and $75 million, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Last February, "Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection," a selection from that Whitney donation, arrived at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. Whitney Chairman Emeritus Leonard Lauder and Whitney Museum Director Adam Weinberg joined Norton Director Hope Alswang to welcome the exhibition.

   "This fits into my view as to what service to the nation means: putting together a great collection and showing it to as many people as possible," Lauder said.

   Fisher Landau, a part-time Palm Beacher, began collecting art in the 1960s. Though she's amassed art from all fields and genres, the majority of the pieces in her 1200-plus collection are by American artists. She's accumulated art from the likes of Kiki Smith, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, James Rosenquist and Cy Twombly. In addition, she's collected the works of three artists in depth: Richard Artschwager, Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha.

Emily Fisher Landau, 1982, Andy Warhol (The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts)

   The exhibition notes to "Legacy" outline Fisher Landau's motivations and curatorial philosophy. "I've never collected something because it was fashionable. It was always about what I instantly liked." This self-assured quality is palpable in the exhibition, which is full of conceptual works with strong visual impact, art that emphasizes the process of creation and pieces that embrace controversial material. "She doesn't shy away from pieces that are tough," said Cheryl Brutvan, the director of curatorial affairs at the Norton.

   "Legacy" is representative of Fisher Landau's collection as a whole. It spans a variety of mediums–such as photography, sculpture, graphite drawings and canvas work–and more than four decades of American art. It also features a few masterpiece works, including an untitled 1987 piece by Willem de Kooning.

   One large theme that emerges in "Legacy" is conceptual art, particularly art that incorporates wordplay or delves into the theoretical side of art. For example, Lion in Oil (2002) by Ed Ruscha features palindromes, both verbal and artistic. The words "Lion in Oil," a palindrome, occupy the center of the massive canvas. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the mountain in the background is itself a palindrome, one side a mirror reflection of the other. An earlier piece by Ruscha entitled Give Him Anything and He'll Sign It depicts a bird with a pencil point as a beak; this piece is more visual wordplay, a seemingly oxymoronic idea that gains traction in this exhibit. Finally, a selection of benches (yes, benches) by Jenny Holzer plays off of the memorial benches popular in cemeteries and parks alike. A 1989 bench from Holzer's Living Series reads "It can be helpful to think of them eating their favorite foods and occasionally throwing up and getting bits stuck in their noses." This tongue-in-cheek quality is another mainstay in Fisher Landau's collection.

Lion in Oil, 2002, Ed Ruscha

   Words pop up throughout this exhibition, and art that examines theory is copious. What this Painting Aims to Do (1967) by John Baldessari is a beige canvas emblazoned with a description of what a painting aims to do. The formulaic advice was taken from an artist how-to manual, and Baldessari commissioned a commercial sign painter to produce it. This piece, and others like it in the collection, may prove too much of a deviation from the norm for some art-viewers, but it illustrates Fisher Landau's interest in the life of the artist as well as the artistic process.

   One more theme worth mentioning is the prevalence of controversial material. A Manhattanite herself, Fisher Landau has acquired a number of pieces that depict or reference the struggles faced by New York City artists. In the 1980s, that struggle was dominated by the AIDS epidemic. "Legacy" includes an untitled 1985 painting by Keith Haring, the late artist and social activist remembered for his graphic and daring artwork. Bright reds and yellows scream for attention from across the gallery, and the milieu within which the piece was created is made clear by the inclusion of the words 'Safe Sex.' Fisher Landau selected this piece not only because it appealed to her eye, but also because it appealed to her humanity.

   "The eye of the collector is something that's not commonly celebrated," Lauder said. "But the eye of the collector is everything." Emily Fisher Landau's impressive collection is made all the more remarkable because of her keen eye. She knows what she wants and why she wants it. "Legacy" celebrates this conviction with profound insight, into the artists featured, the museum-goers in attendance and the woman behind it all.

"Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection" is at the Norton Museum of Art through June 2. For more information visit norton.org

 


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