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Friday, July 29, 2011

Reflections on a Museum at WCMA

Edward Hopper - Morning in a City 1944
I've been saying for years that the Williams College Museum of Art, a personal favorite of mine, gets wrongly overlooked because it is next door to the much larger Clark Art Institute and the even bigger MASS MoCA is just a few miles down the road. Now, this imbalance may be even more extreme - that is, the WCMA, after a recent whole-museum re-installation of the collection, is even more deserving of the attention its neighbors easily gain.

Unknown artist, Gabon 20th century
Mbulu-Ngulu (reliquary figure)
To call Reflections on a Museum a revelation is understatement, because it is by design and intention both revealing and enlightening. Augmented by 50 choice pieces on loan through a collection-sharing initiative from the Yale University Art Gallery, this sweeping and thoughtful series of eight exhibitions allows the viewer to get inside the art-making and collecting processes with gentle help from the WCMA's able curatorial staff (and others), but without intrusive label copy or - worst of all - facile explanations.

Rather, the method is to present a remarkably wide range of objects in challenging (but not needlessly provocative) juxtapositions, and then to offer questions about the objects, their context, their provenance, and their ultimate placement in these two prominent university collections. The result is a virtual tour of human civilization, guided but open-ended, which features curious side trips that focus on how we experience objects and art. The natural questions that we would ask on such a trip are posted for us, and some potential answers are, too, but it never feels that we are being pandered or preached to.

Unknown artist (Roman)
 late 3rd century
Sarcophagus fragment of Hercules,
Triumph of Dionysos
A detailed analysis of this ambitious and impressive undertaking would be exhausting either to write or read, so instead I will just try to point out some of the highlights and, as the curators did, leave you to seek your own experience and draw your own conclusions.

Then again, a friend who accompanied me on this visit, and who is a lifelong art lover now past 70 years old, proclaimed about halfway through our tour that Reflections on a Museum is probably the best museum exhibition he has ever seen. So there's a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one.

Two years in the making, the exhibitions began opening in staggered fashion in April and will remain on view through next June. The scale of the project, and the museum's free admission policy, will surely encourage multiple visits, as will The Gallery of Crossed Destinies, where 25 objects are being installed differently by four different guest curators in sequence through 2011; and the Room for Reflection, where a single work of art is showcased each month (through December).

Robert Wilson
Bridge Chair
with Shadow 
The current iteration of Crossed Destinies presents its intriguing cross-section of objects as interpreted by Jenny Gersten, the new artistic director of the Williamstown Theater Festival. Titled Expressions, this installation of ancient through modern items is arranged in a way that suggests theatrical dialogue and embellished with quotes from plays. The piece on view in the Room for Reflection was a dazzling glass and ceramic mosaic by Maurice Prendergast titled Fiesta Grand Canal Venice - I say "was" because I'm assuming there will be something new there as of Aug. 1.

The museum's first-floor galleries introduce the concept of the exhibitions with a show titled The Object of Art. Here, essential questions are posed: How does art start? What is it? What is it doing here? and so on. The two galleries contain a great variety of objects, from the plainly utilitarian to the utterly conceptual, and we are encouraged to consider them in relation to each other and in relation to our own thoughts, freely formed or inculcated, about what their object may be.

In one fine pairing, a work of art that is a door (by Jim Dine) sits next to a door that is a work of art (anonymously carved granary door from 19th- or 20th-century Mali). The wall text reads "Q. When is a door not a door? A. When it's a work of art." The beauty of this presentation is that it leaves it up to the viewer to consider how this Q&A may apply to the particular doors on the wall, and to recognize that intention and context both determine the meaning of an object and are mutable. Not incongruously, a complex collector's item that consists of a miniature museum-in-a-box of Marcel Duchamp reproductions sits nearby.

Wybrand Simonsz de Geest the elder
Portrait of a Man 1630
The next room is dominated by four portraits - a pair of paintings depicting a prosperous 17th-century Dutch couple, and a pair of glossy photographs depicting an estranged, poor, 21st-century South African couple. All four portraits are effective and revealing on their own but, facing off, they raise many important issues, not least of which is the fact that the Dutch were colonizing South Africa in the 17th century, and the legacy of that exploitation remains there today. Meanwhile, these four faces also remain as bookends to that history.

Zwelethu Mthethwa - Untitled 2006
The subsequent upstairs galleries begin with a large exhibition titled The Medium and the Message, where the same sort of extreme range is attenuated but still reiterated in books, prints, photographs, paintings, sculptures and more, all of which form part of an ongoing dialogue about material and process. Here, a painting by Joseph Marioni was part of the focus for a gallery talk by outgoing Deputy Director and Chief Curator John Stromberg on the color red that also brought us to paintings by Chester Harding and Grant Wood in the next gallery, and by Philip Guston in the one beyond that.

Stromberg, working his last day at the WCMA before departing for Mount Holyoke, made a compelling case for his favorite color, and for its use in the works cited. He also makes, in a short and humbly placed "Curator's Voice" text panel in a gallery dedicated to Cosmopolitan Modernism, a compelling case for the entire Reflections on a Museum exhibition and the spirit behind it. He writes, "I feel that objects have a kind of 'bill of rights': They deserve to be cared for, displayed to best advantage, and interpreted in ever-changing combinations that keep them alive conceptually."

Reflections on a Museum lives up to that credo.

Additional sections of the installation are: Don't Fence U.S. In: Crossing Boundaries in American Art; Art Re: Art; A Collection of Histories; and an Artist's Project by artist-in-residence Jesse Aron Green.

Rating: Must See

Grant Wood - Death on Ridge Road 1935
Note: Special thanks go out to Lee at The Daily Grind in Albany for Internet access, without which this review could not have been posted.

1 comment:

D. Lolik said...

My partner and I just took a good look at WCMA's new exhibits and reorganization this week. We were both blown away. The museum looks amazing. The collection seems totally fresh. The juxtaposition of older and more recent works begs you to pay attention to everything. It is also really exciting to see the great new wall colors in some of the rooms. An amazing treasure just 30 miles from home!!