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In a grand eagle’s-nest penthouse office suite high above 5th Avenue, New York collector Steven A. Greenberg installed his spectacular homage to the finest achievements of France’s decorative artists and artisans of the Art Deco years. His apartment, again high above the city, involved a more intimate, yet equally sumptuous installation of exemplary works that brought to life a unique chapter in the history of style and creativity. In the finest flowering of French Art Deco in the 1920s, Mr. Greenberg recognized a truly exceptional expression of visual sophistication; beside this refinement of line, he also greatly appreciated the fine materials and the high standards of craft execution – meticulous veneers and inlays, rich lacquers – that gave such tactile delight to the exquisite works he assembled. From a serendipitous and unassuming start with the purchase of three glass pigeons by René Lalique in the Marché aux Puces in Paris in the mid-seventies, he was captivated by the echoes of a golden age. He set himself the challenge of building a world-class collection. The end result is a remarkable tribute to a mythical era, composed with flair, finesse and rigor.
In the 1970s, Art Deco – ignored for decades – enjoyed a reappraisal. Pioneer dealers and collectors in Paris and New York, working with little available literature, were piecing together the story of what has since come to be acknowledged as the last great manifestation of French dominance in every facet of style. In the years just before and following World War I, Paris was the unchallenged world center in the fine and applied arts, drawing talent from many nations to flourish in the city’s stimulating environment. French artists found their official showcase in the Paris Exposition Internationale of 1925, a landmark opportunity for the celebration of French creativity and skills. Here, in grand, national pavilions and in myriad smaller boutiques and displays, were deployed the finest examples of fashionable design. These were a modern interpretation of traditions of refinement and superlative artisanship that can be traced to the craftsmen serving the royal courts of previous centuries. The Exposition put certain artists in the spotlight as distinguished ambassadors for the brilliance of which France was capable. It was a bold inspiration on Mr. Greenberg’s part to decide not to be encyclopedic, but rather, in order to best capture the spirit of the era, to focus in depth on certain key artists from the roll-call of the most notable to have been featured in the historic 1925 exhibition.
Sure choices were made in putting Jean Dunand and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann at the very center of the story. For these two towering figures – the great lacquer artist and dinandier, and the distinguished ébéniste-ensemblier – were foremost among the talents that ensured the triumph of French applied arts. As a counterpoint to the furniture and objets d’art of these two creators, the Greenberg collection spotlights the elegant neo-classical graphic art of Jean Dupas, whose paintings and murals were an integral element of such emblematic projects as the Grand Salon d’un Collectionneur in the 1925 exhibition, and the Grand Salon of the luxury liner, Normandie, launched in 1935, that became a floating tribute to French design, and an opportunity to flaunt the nation’s achievements to Americans crossing the Atlantic.
French Art Deco was greatly admired by American artists, who drew freely on this source in creating their own adaptations of Art Deco imagery. In the motifs that adorn the new skyscrapers of 1930s New York can be traced the French sources that provided so rich a lexicon of ideas. Jean Dunand and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann both sent work for exhibition in New York and enjoyed the specific patronage of American clients. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, recognized the exceptional character of this moment in French design and already in 1925 made an important acquisition of work by Ruhlmann.
Steven Greenberg was one the leaders of a generation of American collectors to acknowledge and be inspired by this important trans-Atlantic design dialogue. Perhaps the most high-profile of these was Steven’s friend Andy Warhol, whose innate love of high glamour and sophistication found expression in the acquisition of splendid Deco treasures that were coming to market in New York and in Paris. The Greenberg collection includes pieces that had been in the Warhol collection, effectively underscoring the importance of the role played by Mr. Greenberg and his contemporaries in the reappraisal, from an American perspective, of the glories of French Art Deco.
The Steven A Greenberg Collection Masterpieces of French Art Deco
12-13 Dec 2012
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
20th Century Decorative Art & Design