Saturday, June 26, 2010

Notes from the Midwest (pt. 2)

As promised last week, here is part two of “Notes from the Midwest:”

My last installment ended with Bill, Beau, and me in Milwaukee, having had an inspiring day at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM). We drove back to Chicago that evening just in time to pick up the indomitable Dr. Perri Lee Roberts from O’Hare. Perri Lee (most people call her “Perri,” but we like to be Southern about it) is Senior Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at University of Miami, and authored our most recent publication, and one of our grandest efforts to date: the three-volume Corpus of Early Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections: The South. Never one to rest on her laurels, Perri Lee is now embarking on an exhibition for us. To quote from the prospectus:

A prominent scholar, teach, curator, administrator, and collector, Ulrich Alexander Middeldorf (1901-1983) is a well-known figure in Renaissance art historical studies. Prompted by his belief that the so-called minor, decorative arts were essential to an understanding of the history of the material world, he assembled a unique collection of Italian medals, plaquettes, textiles, and wrapping paper.

Middeldorf was also a key researcher of the Kress Collection, part of which is now housed at GMOA. Middeldorf’s own collection of medals, plaquettes, and textiles resides at the Indiana University Art Museum. We were originally scheduled to meet up with Perri Lee in Bloomington to look at those objects, but fate was kind and gave us a couple extra days with her beforehand. More on the Middeldorf exhibition research and planning momentarily.

We started the next day with a trip to the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago. Although their space is limited—have I mentioned lately how lucky we are to be getting such a great building in only a few more months?—their collection is superb. I was especially interested in the way they organize their galleries thematically, rather than by period or region. This is a strategy I intend to use on a more limited scale in our Holder Gallery, in which we’ll display our European art from the 18th-20th centuries. I find that this approach encourages meaningful comparisons while allowing one to show a broad range of artistic styles in a relatively small space.

After our visit to the Smart, the three of us hit the road for Champaign/Urbana to visit Beau’s folks and their outstanding collection of American Post-War art. On the way, we made a stop at Governors State University in Middle-of-Nowhere, Illinois (Monee, IL, technically, but I never saw a town). In part one of this post, I said that we visited “one of the best, but least-known, outdoor contemporary sculpture collections in the country.” That may have been bordering on hyperbole, but for its renown—or lack thereof—it really is the best sculpture park I’ve seen. Twenty-six monumental public sculptures reside on a rugged 750 acres tract, where the only groundskeeping is a mown trail through the underbrush. It takes some hiking, but the interaction with the works this offers makes it well worth the sweat and bug-bites. Highlights for me included their sculptures by Mark di Suvero, For Lady Day, 1969 (54’ x 50’ x 35’), and Martin Puryear, Bodark Arc, 1982 (2.25 acres—I love the dimensions in acreage), as well as a temporary installation by Icelandic artist, Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir, Horizons, 2007-08, pictures of which are included in the slideshow above.

Continuing on the drive to Champaign, we brainstormed about possible titles for the Middeldorf exhibition. After some failed attempts at alliteration on my part and Perri Lee’s, Bill came up with the winner: “Materials of Culture.” Of course, this will be followed by the typical colon and more descriptive subtitle.

We made it to Champaign in time to see some of Randy and Shelia Ott’s collection and to freshen up before dinner. Meeting Beau’s parents, it was easy to see where he got both his unfailing charm and his impeccable taste. We had a thoroughly delightful evening at the Ott’s home, filled with conversations ranging from art (of course), to Portuguese Fado music (Bill and Randy are both fans), to cattle breeding (both Randy and my dad were large animal veterinarians), not to mention a meal that was as beautiful as it was delicious. They had us over for breakfast the next morning, and then we hit the road again, this time for Bloomington.

When we arrived in Bloomington, work on our project was already well underway. Christa Thurman, formerly Chair of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago, is helping us evaluate Middeldorf’s fabric samples to determine which we will use for the exhibition, and she and Nan Brewer, IU Art Museum’s curator of works on paper, had already examined most of the hundreds of textiles in their collection. After some more looking and talking, we narrowed our selection further, choosing pieces made in Italy during the Renaissance that offer a range of styles and techniques. I’m really excited about the “wall power” these will bring to the show; they’re gorgeous.

That evening, Heidi Gealt, director of the IU Art Museum, took us out to dinner, where we were joined by her husband, Barry Gealt, and Bill Itter, both accomplished artists and studio professors at IU. Bill Itter actually has a show up at the Lamar Dodd School of Art’s Gallery 307 right now, which I highly recommend. I’m a big fan of both Barry’s and Bill’s work, and had a wonderful time hearing about their pedagogical approaches at IU as well as their student days at Yale (both were in the MFA program there at the same time as artists like Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Nancy Graves, etc.). To top off the evening, we were treated to a double rainbow as we left the restaurant.

The next morning, Bill Eiland went to see Bill Itter’s collection of African pottery while Perri Lee and I returned to the IU Art Museum to look at Middledorf’s medals and plaquettes. Here again, we were choosing objects created during the Italian Renaissance. These will be a perfect complement to the textiles, I think. Although they’re not particularly exciting from a distance, for me, they sustain close study much longer, and offer a range of fascinating subjects, from portraits to mythological narratives.

Our last stop on the trip was Dayton, OH. We reluctantly dropped Perri Lee off at the airport and checked in at our hotel. After a couple hours catching up on emails, we went to Carol and Jim Nathanson’s home for hors d'oeuvres, giving me a chance to see their collection, which is especially strong in works on paper. Carol is a recently retired professor of art history at Wright State University, and is writing our forthcoming collection-catalogue of works on paper, Tracing Vision. Jan Driesbach, director of the Dayton Art Institute (DAI), joined us at the Nathanson’s, and we all went to a German restaurant for dinner, where we “closed the place down.”

The next morning, Bill was up at the crack of dawn for a 7:30 meeting with the Dayton Art Institute’s board of trustees. I met up with Jan and Bill a little later and we went to the DAI to speak with their staff. Since this post is getting pretty long and my time is running short, I’ll restrain myself from waxing too poetically about their galleries and collection, but suffice it to say I was deeply impressed with both. I do have to note that theirs is the only Carl Andre sculpture whose label acknowledges that one may walk on the work (I usually have to confirm with the security guards that to do so is OK). Before closing, I also have to give a shout-out to Will South, DAI chief curator, who joined us for lunch and whom I very much enjoyed meeting. By one o’clock we were back in the car, on the long road back to Athens, GA.

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