Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum acquires works by Ernst Wilhelm Nay

Commerce Bank donates two paintings by influential German abstractionist

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, “Composition,” 1963. Watercolor and ink on paper, 16 3/8 x 23 3/4″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Commerce Bancshares Inc., in honor of Laura Kemper Fields, 2013.

The parent company of Commerce Bank has finalized donation of two paintings by one of the most important German artists of the mid-20th century to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis.

Commerce Bancshares Inc. acquired the paintings by Ernst Wilhelm Nay (1902-1968) in 1972, and they have been on display at the bank’s headquarters in Kansas City and St. Louis.

“Nay is one of the best-known German Abstract Expressionist painters, an artistic movement called Art Informell,” said Sabine Eckmann, PhD, the William T. Kemper director and chief curator of the Kemper Art Museum. “Together with his American counterparts, he exhibited at the important international contemporary art exhibition ‘documenta II’ and ‘documenta III,’ in 1959 and 1964, respectively.

“’Terz’ (1962) and ‘Composition’ (1963) are important additions to our strong collection of European and American mid-century abstract painting,” said Eckmann, a noted scholar of modern and contemporary German art. “They not only join major canvases by German exile artists like Max Beckmann and Max Ernst — both of whom, like Nay, were reviled in the Nazi’s infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition — but also strengthen our postwar holdings.

“Nay’s work serves as a bridge to the gestural abstraction of American post-war artists like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as well as European practitioners like Pierre Soulages and Karel Appel, who are also included in the museum’s collection,” Eckmann added. “We are deeply grateful for this gift.”

The paintings are a gift of Commerce Bancshares Inc. in honor of Mildred Lane Kemper’s daughter, Laura Kemper Fields, who died Jan. 9, 2014. A longtime member of the Board of Trustees of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and director of the Commerce Bank Fine Art Collection, Fields was a champion of contemporary art with a reputation for generosity in lending pieces from the bank’s collection as well as her private collection for public viewing. The Kansas City Star recently called Fields “a prime mover” behind the 1999 plan to expand the Nelson-Atkins’ exhibit and gallery space for modern and contemporary art and to secure funds to add to the museum’s collection.

“Terz” and “Composition” are both currently on view in the Kemper Art Museum’s Bernoudy Permanent Collection Gallery, along with important works by Asger Jorn, Jean Dubuffet and Alfred Jensen.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay, “Terz,” 1962. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 23 3/4″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. Gift of Commerce Bancshares Inc., in honor of Laura Kemper Fields, 2013.

Ernst Wilhelm Nay

Born in Berlin in 1902, Nay developed an interest in art at a young age and taught himself drawing and painting. Nay was admitted to the Berlin Art Academy in 1925 and quickly became the master student of Realist painter Carl Hofer.

Nay’s early expressionive paintings found success, but it was short lived. Like many avant-garde artists of the time, Nay’s modern work was rejected by the German National Socialists and in 1937 was included in “Degenerate Art,” the notorious anti-modernist exhibition.

In 1940, Nay was drafted into the German army as a cartographer and later traveled to France, while his art studio in Berlin was bombed. Remarkably, Nay continued to paint and draw in his spare time during military service, and in 1943, he arranged for an exhibition of his wartime works on paper at Galerie Günther Franke in Munich; a short time later, he traveled to Paris on a duty trip, where he befriended Kandinsky and artists of the Parisian avant-garde.

The trajectory of his painting style follows a gradual and deliberate transformation from expressive realism to total abstraction and it is the works of his late period that represent the pinnacle of Nay’s artistic achievement. The two pieces at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum are examples of Nay’s works from the early 1960s – the period when Nay fully embraced color and abstraction in his work.

Although Nay’s work is included in nearly all major exhibitions of German art in Germany and throughout Europe, his work is little known in the United States. That may change following notable exhibitions at Mary Boone Gallery and Michael Werner Gallery in New York (2012) that surveyed the artist’s career.

Works by Nay are found in numerous museum collections, including Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin; Wilhelm Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg, Germany; Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland; Tate Modern, London; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis; and many others.

About Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum dates to 1881 with the founding of the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts at WUSTL. Its collection was formed in large part by acquiring significant works by artists of the time, a legacy that continues today. Now one of the finest university collections in the United States, the museum contains strong holdings of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures, prints, installations and photographs. The collection also includes some Egyptian and Greek antiquities and more than 100 Old Master prints.

Part of WUSTL’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the Kemper Art Museum is committed to preserving and developing its art collection and continuing its legacy of collecting significant art of the time; providing excellence in art historical scholarship, education and exhibition; inspiring social and intellectual inquiry into the connections between art and contemporary life; and engaging audiences on campus, in the local community, across the nation and worldwide.

About Mildred Lane Kemper

Mildred Lane Kemper graduated from Wellesley College and was a lifelong resident of Kansas City, Mo. She was a trustee of Wellesley College for many years and had an enduring interest in higher education. Mrs. Kemper was the wife of James M. Kemper Jr., chairman emeritus of Commerce Bancshares Inc., and mother of David W. Kemper, Julie (Kemper) Foyer, Jonathan Kemper and the late Laura (Kemper) Fields. David Kemper is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Commerce Bancshares Inc., and past chairman of WUSTL’s Board of Trustees. Julie Foyer is a member of the Sam Fox School National Council and mother of recent alumnus Jean-Charles Foyer (AB ’10). Together with David’s wife, Dotty Kemper, and the William T. Kemper Foundation, James and David Kemper named the new home for the university’s renowned art collection in her memory.