Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art cel­e­brates 50th an­niver­sary of ma­jor col­lec­tion with ‘The New Art’ ex­hibit

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SUNDAY LIFE - Brandy McDonnell bm­c­don­nell@ ok­la­

In 1961, the Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern Art be­came the first art mu­seum in the U.S. cap­i­tal de­voted to show­ing and col­lect­ing the work of liv­ing artists. Seven years later, Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s first gallery of con­tem­po­rary art was gone, but its en­tire 154-piece col­lec­tion was en­sconced in a new home at the Ok­la­homa Art Cen­ter.

“For the mu­seum to pur­chase this col­lec­tion in its en­tirety was a very coura­geous act, be­cause the work was new. Even though many of the artists in this col­lec­tion are house­hold names now, they were not at that time. So, the mu­seum was tak­ing both an artis­tic risk and a fi­nan­cial,” said E. Michael Whit­ting­ton, pres­i­dent and CEO of the art cen­ter’s suc­ces­sor, the Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art.

“That risk turned out to be not only cor­rect but vi­sion­ary, and it set the stage for the suc­cesses of the mu­seum. It re­ally set the stage in es­tab­lish­ing the mu­seum as a sig­nif­i­cant col­lect­ing in­sti­tu­tion. And that has been born out since that time.”

The Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art is cel­e­brat­ing the 1968 ac­qui­si­tion of the Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern

Art col­lec­tion with the ex­hibit “The New Art: A Mile­stone Col­lec­tion Fifty Years Later,” open­ing Satur­day in the first-floor spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions gallery.

“This is the first time in 10 years that we’re show­ing a sub­stan­tial por­tion of the col­lec­tion to­gether,” said Michael An­der­son, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor of cu­ra­to­rial af­fairs. “It’s such a di­verse and rich col­lec­tion that there are al­ways new dis­cov­er­ies to be made. There will be pieces that peo­ple that are very fa­mil­iar with our mu­seum will have never seen be­fore — and they’ll be sur­pris­ing and they’ll re­ally kind of change peo­ple’s un­der­stand­ing of what this mu­seum’s col­lec­tion is, what art was in the 1960s. So, I think there’s am­ple space for dis­cov­ery within this ex­hi­bi­tion.”

His­toric sig­nif­i­cance

Al­though pieces from the land­mark col­lec­tion of­ten are on view at the mu­seum, “The New Art” will fea­ture 52 art­works — or about a third of the col­lec­tion − in­clud­ing paint­ings, sculp­tures and works on paper. Cu­ra­tor Roja Na­jafi said her picks for “The New Art” dif­fer sig­nif­i­cantly from the 60 pieces shown in the 2007 Ok­la­homa Cen­ten­nial ex­hibit “Break­ing the Mold: Se­lec­tions from the Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern Art, 19611968.”

“There are works we can­not not put (in) just be­cause some­one else has put them up: Those are im­por­tant works for this col­lec­tion and for us,” said Na­jafi, who joined the mu­seum staff last fall.

“The artists that are present are some of the most im­por­tant artists in our mu­seum. Ellsworth Kelly’s ‘Red Blue’ ac­tu­ally phys­i­cally marked the end of ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism, that this artist is do­ing some­thing (new), not do­ing ges­tu­ral drips and brush­works.”

The an­niver­sary ex­hibit also will fea­ture mu­seum high­lights by Richard Diebenkorn, Grace Har­ti­gan, Sam Gil­liam and Robert In­di­ana, along with the rarely shown works by Mor­ris Louis and Lee Bon­te­cou.

“The New Art” will show­case the col­lec­tion’s ar­ray of artis­tic schools and move­ments, from Pop art and op art to min­i­mal­ism and the Bay Area Fig­u­ra­tive Move­ment.

“The di­ver­sity that ‘The New Art’ tries to keep is a re­flec­tion of the dy­namic time of the WGMA ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It is in the ‘60s, so so­cio-po­lit­i­cally, it is a very dy­namic time, a most anx­ious time: You have the Viet­nam War, the Civil Rights Act, two as­sas­si­na­tions — (John) Kennedy and Martin Luther King — and at the end of this era, 1969, we have the first man go­ing to the moon. And all of th­ese are in a way con­nected to the aes­thetic dy­namism that is hap­pen­ing in art,” Na­jafi said.

“Art his­tor­i­cally, what is go­ing on is Jack­son Pollock dies in 1956, and that was sym­bol­i­cally the end of the New York School. Ev­ery­one is in this con­fu­sion: ‘What is com­ing?’ Artists them­selves are work­ing very ac­tively in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions . ... The new thing is hap­pen­ing, and this is now frozen in time.”

Al­though in­flu­en­tial, the Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern Art closed in 1968 due to fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties.

Na­jafi said a mem­ber of the board of trustees at the Wash­ing­ton gallery and the trea­surer of the Ok­la­homa Art Cen­ter knew each other, so a deal was quickly struck.

“In two weeks, a deal was made, the funds were raised. It was a very quick pur­chase, and the first ex­hi­bi­tion of the works, they showed the en­tire 154 works in the spring of 1969,” she said. “They knew. There was a feel­ing that ‘This is a big thing that is com­ing here.’”

En­dur­ing ef­fects

The de­ci­sion to buy the Wash­ing­ton Gallery col­lec­tion was mon­u­men­tal. It led the art cen­ter to di­vide into two sep­a­rate mu­se­ums that were not re­united un­til 1989, but Whit­ting­ton said it also laid the ground­work for some of the great­est mile­stones the Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art has achieved.

“It cer­tainly pro­vided a fo­cus to the art cen­ter — the mu­seum’s pre­cur­sor — that had not ex­isted, be­cause when you ac­quire a col­lec­tion in depth of that merit, it gives you the courage and also the con­fi­dence to say, ‘This is a di­rec­tion for us,’” he said.

“If you look at the ac­qui­si­tion of the (Dale) Chi­huly col­lec­tion af­ter this build­ing was opened in 2002, the prece­dent for that, I would ar­gue, was in pur­chas­ing the Wash­ing­ton Gallery col­lec­tion.”

Last year’s gift to the mu­seum of 125 paint­ings, sculp­tures, draw­ings and more by Wash­ing­ton Color School artist Paul Reed from the Paul and Es­ther Reed Trust is a more re­cent ex­am­ple of what Whit­ting­ton called a “pos­i­tive rip­ple ef­fect,” as Reed is one of the key artists in­cluded in the Wash­ing­ton Gallery col­lec­tion.

With the gift, made by Reed’s daugh­ter Jean Reed Roberts, the OKC mu­seum is now the home of the largest pub­lic col­lec­tion of his art.

“That is a di­rect link to that pur­chase in 1968. She wanted her fa­ther’s work to be in a mu­seum home where the con­text would be ap­pro­pri­ate,” Whit­ting­ton said.

“The Wash­ing­ton Gallery had this col­lec­tion for a pe­riod of, what, seven years. We’ve had it for 50. It’s ours . ... This is a col­lec­tion of which we have been stew­ards now for half a cen­tury, and we’ve done a very, very good job.”

The di­verse ar­ray of 20th-cen­tury mas­ter­pieces is ex­pected to draw art col­lec­tors and en­thu­si­asts from far and wide, but it’s also spark­ing ex­cite­ment from lo­cal art lovers ea­ger to see “The New Art” again.

“It re­ally is one of the great col­lec­tions that we have at this mu­seum, and so I think there’s al­ways that kind of sense that th­ese are long-stand­ing fa­vorites for a lot of peo­ple in this com­mu­nity,” An­der­son said.

“It was an ex­cit­ing con­tem­po­rary col­lec­tion when it was amassed in the 1960s, and now in the very best sense, it’s the art of art his­tory text­books . ... It’s some­thing that re­ally has stood the test of time.”


BACK­GROUND ART: Sam Gil­liam’s (Amer­i­can, b. 1933) 1965 acrylic on can­vas paint­ing “Khufu” is part of the Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art’s Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern Art Col­lec­tion. Robert In­di­ana’s (Amer­i­can, b. 1928) 1962 oil on can­vas paint­ing “Coen­ties Slip” is part of the Ok­la­homa City Mu­seum of Art’s Wash­ing­ton Gallery of Mod­ern Art Col­lec­tion. About a third of the col­lec­tion will be show­cased in the an­niver­sary ex­hi­bi­tion “The New Art: A Mile­stone Col­lec­tion Fifty Years Later,” open­ing Feb. 17.

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