Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey

The Montclair Art Museum, like many in the U.S., specializes in American art. For many years I had read notes about its significant collection of American Indian art, and have wanted to see it for a long time. This weekend, Tom and I were in New York for a wedding and had some free time on Saturday and a car, so we drove to Montclair to see the museum. I always have some trepidation about visiting small museums because they often do not exhibit much of their best-known collections, and I was doubly concerned when the information desk person said admission was free because some of the galleries are closed.

But the museum was a fascinating surprise. Small, with only three galleries open and only a couple more closed, it really celebrates its collection of Native American works. We looked into one small closed gallery that contained a selection of Pueblo pottery, much of it contemporary. Flanking the entrance to the larger permanent collection gallery of American Indian works were two totem poles, one dating from the beginning of the 20th century and the other from the end. This juxtaposition of older work with contemporary work in similar style, format, or media, is a recurring trope in the Montclair installations. I found it instructive and compelling, giving one a chance to think about change and continuity and permitting me to focus my attention on two objects at a time. Immediately inside the American Indian Gallery was a pairing of shirts, one from the early 20th century, made of buckskin with fringes, horsehair tassles, beautifully geometric beadwork, and significant traces of paint. The other, similar in form, consisted of color photographs, plastic rings and strips, compact disks, computer chips and other manufactured media. I neglected to write down the artist's name and the website does not give a caption for the images of it. And all I can do is link to the Native American collections at the website, where images of the front and back of the shirt come up eventually.

The museum labels say the American Indian collection initially had some 2000 objects (there are 4000 now); fewer than 200 were on view, but they represent an obviously impressive collection. There were three groupings: ceremonial objects, everyday objects, and collectible objects. Each of them is a superb example of its genre and each is adequately, if briefly described in the labels. I was especially taken by some of the northwest headdresses and contemporary masks, as well as the feathered Pomo baskets, among the traditional works. Among the collector’s items is a beautiful small jar by the great Hopi potter Nampeyo with an unusual design. Marcus Amerman’s Indian in a Bottle evoked stereotypes of Indians and was a surprise as a glass sculpture by an artist primary known for his beadwork. Three pots, one by each of the Folwell family, are excellent examples of their innovative designs, and the Diego Romero bowl depicts a grisly moment in the history of the Pueblo relationship to the Spanish invaders rather than his more humorous contemporary subjects.

The surprise of the museum, and its distinguishing and distinguished characteristic, however, is the complete integration of American Indian, African American, and Anglo American painting and sculpture in the exhibitions of the permanent collection and the museum handbook, Selected Works. On view was an exhibition of landscapesEngaging with Nature: American and Native American Artists (A.D. 1200-2004)(May 16, 2010 - September 25, 2011) and we could glimpse the installation in progress of a show of portraiture. In both exhibitions my sense was of nearly equal percentages of Native American and Anglo-American works. Selected Works makes the diversity of the collections even more evident, with strong images of important works by Latino, African-American, Native American, and Anglo artists constantly interspersed in the section on American painting and sculpture and then a separate American Indian section for work in other media.

When we got back to Kansas I found a review of the show in the online New Jersey section of the New York Times. The writer rightly criticized the landscape exhibition for its repeated use of words like “spiritual” and “sublime,” and suggested that it needed a more specific and nuanced discussion of the context for the works, addressing the diverse points of view of the American Indian and non-Indian makers. On the other hand, I was most impressed that the exhibition provided some quotations from the artists about their work and addressed each work without forcing it into a stereotypical slot of interpretation. Indeed, the spectacular Shasta doctor’s basket may not exactly belong in a landscape exhibition, but it is an extraordinary object and I’m so glad I got to see it. Major paintings by Emmi Whitehorse, Kay Walkingstick, Dan Namingha and Tony Abeyta held their own with those of Hans Hofmann, early Mark Rothko and Oscar Bluemner. I read and enjoyed the labels explaining the Louise Lawler and Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs. We loved the Charles Simonds imagined tiny ancient American ruin, suspended horizontally in a vitrine and were surprised to find a drawing by our hometown Baldwin City, Kansas artist Stephen Graber displayed next to the Louise Lawler photograph. If you want to see the label texts, object list, and a few images, they are available online.

In a side gallery I loved the juxtaposition of Dan Namingha and Allan Houser sculptures with The Whirlwind by J. Scott Hartley and Harriet Frismuth’s Joy of the Waters, as I love the pairing of Allan Houser with Melvin Edwards in Selected Works. And Philip Pearlstein opposite Carrie Mae Weems.

Critics, artists, and art historians often complain about the lack of diversity in art museum collections. Many museums have exhibitions or set aside areas for works by subgroups of the American population. I cannot think of another general art museum in this country that is displaying such full diversity and integration of works of art in meaningful, engaging, and even thought-provoking ways.

Finally, the museum has a small gallery with a fine selection of paintings by George Inness (1825-1894), who lived his last eleven years in Montclair (we saw a school named after him while searching for the museum). Inness is an artist I’ve never warmed to, but Montclair’s simple explanation of his association with Barbizon painting and then with the theories of Swedenborgianism that natural forms are manifestations of the divine (Selected Works, p. 39), as well as the range and beauty of their Inness paintings, has opened my mind to his possibilities.

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