Painting, sculpture, and jokes: one collector's special view

"I don't collect art. It collects me," says Morton G. Neumann. He is currently sharing with the public some of his exuberant, joyous collection of avant garde 20th-century works, at the National Gallery of Art here until Dec. 31.

It is an extraordinary assemblage of paintings, sculpture, and jokery, which convey a great zest for life, for adventure, for fun. He says the works that interest him tell him something he didn't know before, make him see some aspect of the world of which he had not been aware. Some obviously tickle his sense of humor.

By living with this art he can commune with it over a long period of time, let it work on him. Photographs accompanying the exhibition show every available wall space of his Chicago town house covered to the last inch with works by Picasso, Miro, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Klee, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Man Ray, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Dine, Flack, and many more artists who are now famous but may have been virtually unknown when Morton Neumann first bought their work.

He has always gotten to know the artists, found out what they thought they were doing, and then made up his own mind as to what he would buy, even though he may have asked the advice of art dealers and other experts.

Art for him is not an investment, it is a way of life. Fortunately, his family shares his enthusiasm, making it possible for him to be surrounded completely by what he enjoys.Very likely a child would find much to enjoy there, although the art would not be to everyone's taste.

In fact, it may be a very American kind of collection. Mr. Neumann has confessed to wanting to know about the very latest directions in which contemporary art is moving and to move with it. Someone steeped in classical art might not be so adventurous.Yet there are directions in contemporary art not represented at all, including the exploration of new technological media such as computers, lasers, etc. Perhaps the daring entrepreneur finds his counterpart in a certain kind of experimental artist.

There are some jokey mirrors and visual puns by Man Ray that could be called conceptual art, even though they were produced long before that label was invented. And Jim Dine's "Shower," a drawing of water coming out of a real shower head, hangs over a stairwell in the house. The impact it must have there is lost in the gallery, unfortunately.

It looks as if Mr. Neumann really does enter into the spirit of any given work and perhaps even gives it a shove in another direction by the way he incorporates it into his scheme of living.

What the gallery installation may do better than the town house is to present several large fabric wall hangings magnificently, so they may be seen from across the large open space in the middle of the East Wing. They look like fabulous Oriental rugs or kimonos from that distance, even if up close they are something else. Mr. Neumann has said that the "pattern painters have given me a fresh eye for the rugs and tapestries I see all the time."

He seems always to be looking from the present into the past as well as the future, in contrast to many people who look into the present from the vantage point of the past. His viewpoint is a very American one in that most of us in this country do not live in the midst of its artifacts as Europeans or Asians do , nor are the canons of taste as well defined.

At the moment in Washington, we can compare the Neumann Collection with the Hirschhorn and Phillips Collections, both of which include works by some of the artists represented in the Neumann Collection, and thus get an idea of how different tastes can bring out different aspects of a given kind of art.

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