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'Expressionist Context' 1st Rifkind Center Show

April 15, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

By now, the new Robert Gore Rifkind Center at the County Museum of Art is certainly mantled in scholarly serenity that befits the world's major archive for German Expressionist art. The recently launched center itself is only open to students and researchers by appointment, but all of us can soak up an inaugural exhibition of 30 prints on view to June 7.

The theme showing is called "The Expressionist Context: Artists, Writers and Publishers." Nicely hung in the corridor leading to the library center underneath the Bing Auditorium, it includes self-portraits or images of publishers and writer-types who worked with the artists. Not a very dramatic subject, but it tells important stuff about the heavy scholarly edge on German art and the way the arts of the period were so interwoven that it was indeed more an artistic movement than a style. A terrific color print of a pipe-smoking Conrad Felixmuller and his wife has the same romantic self-seriousness as the young hero of the film "The White Rose."

Images are often that beautiful combination of accurate drawing and expressive distortion that makes this work so psychologically convincing. Oskar Kokoshka's self-portrait on a Sturm poster is still the classic image of the artist with a Christ complex. Four Max Beckmanns have a beefy cosmopolitanism that proves sophistication doesn't have to be svelte. Otto Dix is unflinchingly surgical and Kirchner's searing control amazing.

The center itself is behind wooden doors down the hall. It represents a collection of some 5,000 prints and a library of nearly 4,000 volumes amassed by Beverly Hills attorney Robert Gore Rifkind. It documents, illustrates and evokes that most troubled and creative epoch--this century in Germany before Hitler crushed creativity under an iron heel and a taste for kitsch both bombastic and sentimental.

Rare material includes nearly complete runs of legendary periodicals like Der Sturm and Pan. Some are very fragile, and researchers might have to settle for facsimiles, but the idea of Rifkind's bequest is to keep the material active.

Before its recent opening, the place was gripped with a hushed sense of bustle that bordered on the droll.

A visiting critic sat down at a conference table in the center's library with the two curators responsible for the center--Victor Carlson, the senior keeper of prints and drawings, and Timothy Benson, who heads the center.

They chatted about the facility, the steep rise of prices for this material and a new interest in the art sparked by its recent clone, Neo-Expressionism. They pretended not to notice there was no table yet, just a ring of chairs around a circle of reiterated facts.

The circumstances of the collection drip with ironies so yeasty as to border on the literary. How did it come to be put together by a Jew? Well, after all, these artists represent liberal creativity strangled by the Nazis.

Yes, but how did such heavy, passionate cold-weather art wind up here in the land of plastic palms, eternal sunshine and sensual shallows? Poetic justice maybe. A largely unacknowledged taste for the exotic laces through the German artistic character. The painters of Die Brucke greatly admired Gauguin. Think of Kurt Weill's wonderful "Bilbao Song" with its nostalgia for a tropical bar with a green moon shining through the roof and grass on the dance floor.

A kindly fate let it all come true for this art, but it still feels odd. Without even counting another Expressionist archive recently acquired by the Getty Center for the Humanities or the wonderful Blue Four paintings at the Norton Simon Museum, the world's best study center for this kinda Kunst is right here.

Unbegreiflich .

"Hi. I see you are having a round-table discussion without the table," said museum Director Rusty Powell, strolling in as if nothing special were afoot. He strolled out with the visitor, who wanted to see the little exhibition.

Workmen were changing the lighting tubes over the prints. "These are special fixtures that help conserve the prints," Powell explained. "Those at the other end are regular fluorescents that are all ultraviolet and not good for works.

"We're going to have a gallery for the Rifkind prints eventually," Powell said. "Nothing is ever really finished, I guess."

Rifkind himself appeared, buoyantly boyish at 58, and schlepped the visitor back to the library and into a pretty little room you don't see right away. It has easy chairs and a nice view of the garden where the museum's new Japanese pavilion is a-building.

"This is a lounge I insisted on as a condition of the bequest. You know these German scholars. They absolutely can't stand to not smoke, so we made this alcove where they can come and light up and have some refreshment from the fridge."

Let's not hear anymore about how we aren't civilized around here.

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