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