The collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie brings together an array of 20th-century art-masterpieces by various artists from Europe and North America, such as Ferdinand Hodler, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Francis Bacon, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Werner Tübke, Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol. Among the Neue Nationalgalerie’s most famous and iconic works are 'Potsdamer Platz' by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 'The Skat Players' by Otto Dix, and 'Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV' by Barnett Newman.
November 2015 saw the opening of the "Neue Galerie": a new exhibition space at the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart – Berlin, designed with the specific purpose of keeping the Nationalgalerie's modern art collection on public display while the Mies van der Rohe building undergoes renovations. The space hosted different modern art exhibitions every six months until the re-opening of the Neue Nationalgalerie.
The history of the Neue Nationalgalerie’s collection is inextricably intertwined with the turbulent political history of the German nation. No other museum lost as many works through the actions of the Nazis as the Nationalgalerie did. The Nazi’s 'Degenerate Art' campaign was launched against modern art which was deemed offensive to public morality, intellectual, elitist, foreign, socialist-influenced, or Jewish. Public museums were systematically 'cleansed' of all supposedly 'degenerate' art which was created after 1910 and owned by the state. Many of the works were subsequently publicly derided in a touring exhibition that aimed to debase them while simultaneously promoting a kind of 'true' German art that showed no sign of abstraction. Much of the confiscated art was sold abroad to raise foreign currency to finance the war machine and acquisitions of the kind of art favoured by the regime. In the period 1937 to 1945 the Nationalgalerie’s collection was bereft of more than 500 of its works. They were either seized, sold, or lost in the chaos of the Second World War. In their efforts to rebuild the collection, two very different strategies were adopted by the two German states post 1945. In the West, the Greater Berlin Authority, acquired numerous works for the 'Gallery of the 20th Century', primarily of modern art – the very kind of art that had been confiscated and disposed of by the Nazis a decade earlier.
When the Neue Nationalgalerie opened in 1968, its first director, Werner Haftmann, was assigned the difficult task of combining those paintings from the Nationalgalerie’s original collection of 19th-century art that had survived the war either in the west of the city or in locations much further afield in West Germany, with those in the 'Gallery of the 20th Century'. Haftmann’s long-term goal was to enrich this newly combined collection with new accessions that would gradually fill the gaps to form a unified whole. The gallery’s rotating exhibitions and events held in the Upper Hall soon helped establish it as a primary cultural centre for West Berlin. The Neue Nationalgalerie’s second director, Dieter Honisch, took over in 1975 and dedicated himself to the task of closing the gaps in the collection of modern art and, crucially, acquiring contemporary works to bring the collection up to date. A particular focus in the collecting activity under his tenure was on international art movements such as ZERO, Nouveau Réalisme, Arte Povera, and Colour Field Painting. Stellar acquisitions under his directorship (which lasted for two decades) included works by Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Mark Rothko, as well as Barnett Newman’s last spectacular painting 'Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV.' It was also Honisch who, in 1977, refounded the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, which continues to finance new accessions and numerous exhibitions. The donation in 1992 by the Munich gallery owner Otto van de Loo valuably enriched the collection with the wildly expressive painting of the artist collectives Cobra and Spur.
After the reunification of Germany, the exhibition buildings that made up the Nationalgalerie were radically overhauled and restructured. The holdings of 19th-century art held in the West, which up to that point were also exhibited at the Neue Nationalgalerie, were returned to the collection’s original home, where they had hung over a century earlier: the newly renamed Alte Nationalgalerie on the Museumsinsel Berlin. For art created after 1960 a new exhibition space was opened in 1996: the Hamburger Bahnhof. The Neue Nationalgalerie was now enriched by many works that had previously belonged to the East Berlin Nationalgalerie, including many key works of modern art. As a result, the Neue Nationalgalerie boasts an impressive number of strong Expressionist paintings by such artists as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller, Karl Schmidt Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde. In addition to these, the political art of Otto Dix and George Grosz and the works of Max Beckmann complete the survey of early modernism in Germany, a complex time of great political and social upheaval.
The Neue Nationalgalerie’s collection was also broadened with the addition of art from the GDR: something which accentuates the unique character of the collection. For while the Nationalgalerie (West) had strived to rebuild its collection after 1945, the Nationalgalerie (East) had implemented an acquisitions policy that documented art production in the GDR over a period of forty years. Its collection included works by the most famous representatives of East German art, figures like Werner Tübke, Wolfgang Mattheuer, and Bernhard Heisig, as well as other works by artists such as Harald Metzkes, Walter Libuda, and Werner Stötzer. No other museum in Germany can claim to own such a superb collection of iconic works produced during the fifty-year division of Germany.