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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday time at the Albany Institute

Young Washington - lithograph by Alex Katz
The holidays are a great time to visit the Albany Institute of History & Art, both because the museum shop there overflows with fabulous options for cards and gifts at Christmas, and because the museum's educational/artistic vacation offerings for kids are always first-rate. But I'm here to talk about the exhibitions - and in that department this season has something for everyone.

For the history buff, there's First in the Hearts of his Countrymen: George Washington, which is described as "a visual exploration of America's fascination with Washington's image, ... and how Americans have used it to convey a sense of patriotism and shape a national identity." For the kid in all of us (especially we Boomers), there's Kid Stuff: Great Toys from our Childhood, which features all the toys you'd expect and ample room to try them in. And for the lover of all things shiny, there is A Gather of Glass, filling four freestanding cases with a few centuries' worth of glittering objects from the museum's collection.

George Washington was at the top of my list on a recent visit but, on my way up to the third floor galleries to see it, I could barely resist the siren call of all those nostalgic toys in the main second-floor space. I stopped, took a few hungry glances around and then, with my editor's voice ringing in my ears, got back on the assignment. Though the Washington show is long on historical context and a little thin in the serious art category, it held my interest with a densely packed tour of all kinds of artifacts, including statues, plates and pitchers, printed fabrics, postage stamps, medallions, engravings and more, all bearing the image of that towering figure.

Among the real curiosities are a cast metal savings bank representing the father of our country, an 1812 broadside printed in Albany that proudly proclaims having been "executed with American materials," and a walking stick fashioned out of a branch cut from a tree that grew near GW's grave. There are also several serious works of art, including a decent oil portrait based on Gilbert Stuart's famous one; two large, color lithographs commissioned by the Lorillard Tobacco Co. in 1975 in anticipation of the nation's Bicentennial and then donated to museums across the  land; and a very fine framed bronze bas relief profile of Washington by Charles Calverley.

items in A Gather of Glass
Naturally I was most drawn to the contemporary artworks in this show. The two big lithos, by Alex Katz and Audrey Flack, speak to history in at least two ways, by their own purposely representational content, and by their recognizably 1970s stylistic approach, now more than a generation in the past. A more recent work of art by Michael Vinson Clark, in which he paints whimsical background patterns on three color postcard reproductions of his own interpretation of the Stuart portrait, fits right in with them due to its overt Pop references. The show runs through May 20.

Back to Kids Stuff, there was enough personal history there to render me wholly unobjective about the experience. I think my sisters and I must have had at least 80% of the toys on display, from Hot Wheels to Barbie to Spirograph. My friends with children tell me things haven't changed much: their kids have Lincoln Logs, Slinky, Silly Putty and the rest as well. Go and enjoy, whatever your age (it runs through March 4).

A Gather of Glass is a delight. From functional bottles to Tiffany art pieces, its objects tell their stories, and ours, and sharply underline what a rich trove the Institute's collection is. The show continues through June.

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