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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Masterworks at AIHA

This 1817 map of the proposed Erie Canal is part of Masterworks: Paper
With trips to all the summer shows winding down, I'd like to recommend a really worthy exhibition closer to home. Actually, this is a pair of exhibitions with the unifying theme of a deep exploration of the collections of the now-225-year-old Albany Institute of History & Art, entitled Masterworks: 225 Years of Collecting and Masterworks: Paper.

Thomas Cole - Button Wood Tree, ink over pencil 1823
These shows were mounted during the past year to celebrate the Institute's anniversary and its own history, with the larger, more inclusive exhibition featuring a thoughtfully constructed timeline of the organization, punctuated with compelling artifacts and objects such as grandfather clocks, a book of wool samples, paintings from three centuries, marvels in glass and silver, a fire bucket, travel posters, etc.

The richness of the AIHA's holdings is well displayed here, and would be difficult to exaggerate. Though I am biased toward contemporary art, I can enjoy a sumptuously festooned French-style bed as much as the next guy, along with almost absurdly decorative cast-iron stoves, Americana in the form of elaborately incised powder horns, ceramics from near and far, and plenty of earlier fine art.

Tea Caddy with paper filigree 1804
The Paper show has had a shorter duration, due to the fragility of its contents, but the restriction to one material still allows for so much diversity that its designers created no fewer than 16 distinct sections for it, with titles such as Landscape on Paper, Weather on Paper, Certified on Paper, and so on. Though this organizing principle has merit, I have to say it didn't really work - in fact, the Paper show is so crowded that navigating through it is a confusing chore - but it is so stuffed with marvels that it's worth every effort.

Among my favorites (shown at left) is an architectural rendering of Albany's "first skyscraper," an elegant bank building on State Street that still stands (though in rough shape), where it is now overshadowed by the much taller, nearly new building next door that I happen to work in. There is also a great range of first-rate works of art in the show, including nearly every paper-based medium - even painstaking cut constructions, along with every sort of print, watercolors, photographs, and drawings by some major names: Charles Burchfield, Jacob Lawrence, Ellsworth Kelly, and contemporary artists Harold Lohner and Phyllis Galembo.

Alice Morgan Wright
The Fist, painted plaster 1921
Meanwhile, back at the 225 Years of Collecting show, there are many, many more great artists, most significantly the heart and soul of this collection - its Hudson River School paintings - but also a spate of other excellent works representing social realism, Cubism, Surrealism, Pop, even post-Modern work.

If you're going, you need to hurry, as Masterworks: 225 Years of Collecting ends on Sept 4. For Masterworks: Paper. there's a bit of breathing room - it continues through Oct. 16. And there's a bargain to be  had: Through the end of 2016, Saturday admission to the AIHA is just $2.25. Go and discover - or remind yourself of - the treasure in our midst.