Onnasch Collection: Tracing The History of New York’s Art Scene 1950-1970

What is the difference between a museum survey show, showcasing New York’s art scene between 1950 and 1970 and a viewing of a private collection spanning the same period? I would say the answer probably lies in the unabashed passion and freewheeling initiative of the collector, particularly if that collector is Reinhard Onnasch. Let’s face it — some of the best works by known artists are not the ones we get to see on a museum wall. Frequently they are tucked away in private homes or worse yet in storage. So when we get the chance to peak inside a private collection and bear witness to the ardent appetite and personal zeal of an individual we often get to discover hidden gems.

In today’s hyperactive art world, investment potential and auction sales often influence art purchases. This was clearly not the case with Reinhard Onnasch.

He has been collecting for over 40 years and has rarely sold off anything.   Born in Görlitz, Germany in 1939, Reinhard Onnasch made his money in real estate, and pointed his proceeds towards the arts. He wanted to cross-pollinate the exciting German post war artists with what was going on in America. In 1973 he came to New York and decided to open a gallery. He opened the Onnasch Gallery at 139 Spring Street with Gerhard Richter’s first solo exhibition in America. He sold only one Richter! His gallery here did not succeed. Nor did the gallery he started in Cologne. Ultimately, he channeled his passion and uniquely good eye towards building his own collection, something at age 73 he continues to do.

What is clear from this show is that Reinhard Onnasch has a talent for spotting artist’s trends early on, and he picks great examples of their work. Each artwork in this show sings with the creative verve of the time.  The ‘wow factor’ of every piece is remarkable. The Barnett Newman is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is in the first room, with other Abstract Expressionist works by Clyfford Still, and Morris Louis. The three large paintings riff off each other in an ongoing verse. The room is poetry in motion. There are paintings from 1953, 1954 and 1955.

The exhibit progresses into a more personal odyssey with an autobiographical 1956 painting by Larry Rivers ’the Journey’. Beside it hangs a Cy Twombly from 1960 that has male and female genitalia scattered across the canvas. These paintings are offset by a gorgeous and unusual David Smith sculpture. ‘Seven Hours’, done in 1961, has not only David Smith’s typical use of industrial materials but spouts on top, a beautifully rendered Rorschach-like white on black  painting. Perhaps Onnasch bought this piece as a way of having both a Smith drawing and a sculpture rolled into one.

The show then moves on to Pop. There is an early Rauschenberg combine painting, ‘Pilgrim’ 1960; three Jim Dine oil paintings from 1962, and a George Segal ‘The Farm Worker’ 1963. Notably, there are no Warhols, Lichtensteins, or conventional Pop icons. American artists focus on mass production is shown through signature and seminal Oldenberg sculptures.  There are early 1961 ‘pre’ sewn Oldenbergs, ‘Two Girls’ Dresses’ made with canvas soaked in plaster and painted. These illustrate Oldenberg’s early creative sparks. A totem-like sculpture by Christo, ‘Wrapped Road Sign’ 1963, seems to me, to be a seed or germ for subsequent works by Christo. Mark di Suvero has a sweet 1962 sculpture in the room titled ‘Homage to Brancusi’. His homage is actually a break through piece that sets the stage of sculpture’s new direction.

An entire room of John Wesley paintings, 1962-1986 segue into a room of Richard Tuttle sculptures.

Tuttle’s polite, abstract assemblage works set a good contrast for the following room filled with explosive, in-your-face pieces by the West Coast artist Edward Kienholz. Kienholtz was a self taught artist with a lot to say. His sculptures, made from trailer park refuse, are a blatant critique of the underbelly subculture in America’s rural back woods.  With works titled ‘A Bad Cop’ and ‘The Future as an Afterthought’ he exemplifies art with sharp social criticism.

It is interesting to note that the volatile Kienholz constructions are made during the same 1961-63 years as the Pop works by Jim Dine and Claus Oldenberg.  It’s one more indication that Onnasch’s breadth of art appreciation spanned a disparity of styles from the euphoric expressions of pure color and line in the early Ab Ex works to the highly conceptual and political commentaries by Edward Kienholz. Onnasch’s collection is also a testament to his commitment to art as a living breathing, burgeoning history. He nails it with each work proving to be a wonderful example of the artist’s intent and oeuvre.

Ivan Wirth, has been a close friend of Onnasch since the early 90’s. Wirth has always felt that this collection is one of the greatest he has ever seen. While individual pieces have been out on loan, Hauser and Wirth has relished the opportunity to show all the works together. They are not for sale, but offered here to give the public a glimpse into the collector’s mind. It’s not something you get to see often in the art world. Personally, I make a plea for part 2, curious to learn what else is packed away in Reinhard Onnasch’s treasure trove of art.

“Re-View: Onnasch Collection” HAUSER & WIRTH NY 7 February – 12 April 2014, Hauser & Wirth New York, 18th Street

Words: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2014 Photo: Courtesy Hauser & Wirth


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