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Skidmore art collection on the grow
What’s new in Skidmore’s permanent art collection lately? Ask curator Robert Carter, then pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable—with 160 additions in the last two years, Carter has a lot to say.
|Philip Guston’s untitled 1973 oil painting is now the most valuable and well-known work in Skidmore’s collection.|
Among the newest gems: an important Philip Guston painting, a nine-foot-tall steel sculpture by Dorothy Dehner ’52, works from photographers Man Ray and Nan Goldin, painter Fairfield Porter, and sculptor Mary Frank, and many more, all with specs and stories Carter is eager to share.
Take the 1973 Guston, a 45-by-48-inch oil that is now the most valuable piece at Skidmore. An early abstract expressionist, Guston late in his career created an unusual figurative series, possibly influenced by the 1960s civil-rights movement, explains Carter. The work donated to Skidmore by Guston’s daughter and son-in-law, Musa and Thomas Mayer, features a background of black and gray dominated by a hooded shape that might suggest a Ku Klux Klan figure, but soft and round and painted an innocent pink. “There’s an aspect here of a child’s simplicity,” says Carter. “But what he was getting at was not simple.”
|Suzanne and Philippe on the Train, Long Island, 1985, by Nan Goldin, is the gift of Leslie Tonkonow ’74 and her husband.|
Not simple either is the compelling Cibachrome print by Nan Goldin, whom Carter describes as “a cutting-edge photographer.” Her 16-by-20-inch Suzanne and Philippe on the Train, Long Island, 1985, catches two friends in an arrestingly unguarded moment that suggests both a bad day on the LIRR and a rumpled, contemporary pietà. It’s the gift of Leslie Tonkonow ’74, who, with husband Klaus Ottman, also gave Skidmore a Philip Hopkins painting and a photograph by Carrie Mae Weems. An art major at Skidmore, Tonkonow owns the Artworks + Projects gallery in New York City and sits on the board of Artists Space, a nonprofit SoHo gallery that supports shows for emerging artists by issuing special benefit editions, like the 100 prints of the Goldin photo. For Tonkonow her gift was a way “to help build the collection at Skidmore and also support Artists Space.”
Recent gifts have come from all quarters. Judith Pick Eissner ’64 contributed five works; Saratoga Springs resident Byron Evans contributed selections from a lifelong ivory collection; and a family whose only connection to Skidmore is a mutual love of art contributed 111 lithographs. Created by such prominent artists as Alex Katz, Wolf Kahn, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher, and Mary Frank, the lithographs have a charming story behind them. As Carter relates it, while touring college campuses with his daughter, Long Island graphic designer Michael Sherman was so taken with Skidmore’s blend of liberal and fine arts that he decided to donate The Drum Lithographs 1960-1963. It seems Sherman’s father, who owned a commercial printing company in Manhattan, invited a client-gallery’s artists into the plant after hours to experiment with printmaking, “to work, play, and enjoy themselves,” says Sherman. “Now their work sells for thousands of dollars, but then, paper and printing were expensive, and the artists were broke, living in cold-water flats.” He gave Skidmore the works his father helped nurture, he says, because “we wanted young people to be able to see this art, to touch it, to feel it.”
|A portfolio of
Man Ray etchings, the gift of Ruth O’Hara (son John ’82 runs the O’Hara Gallery in New York City)|
The late Dorothy Dehner’s tall, powerful sculpture could easily have gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or another national institution, according to Joan Marter, president of the Dorothy Dehner Foundation for the Visual Arts. Instead, Marter directed the black-painted steel sculpture (and nearly a dozen drawings and paintings) to Skidmore because of its proximity to the Adirondacks, where Dehner and sculptor-husband David Smith once lived and worked.
Skidmore’s collection started in 1923 with an engraving donated by the Saratoga novelist turned Hollywood producer Charles Brackett. Says Carter, “Objects from Mrs. Scribner’s house joined the collection after her death in 1931, and it just continued on from there,” with the College accepting almost every work tendered. Now it totals 4,700 pieces, ranging from prints (Rembrandt, Dürer, Hopper, Hogarth, Motherwell, Whistler) to pre-Columbian artifacts, from a Louise Nevelson sculpture and a carved Spanish madonna to an Andy Warhol poster and a dozen tiny 19th-century snuff bottles. Packed away for years in a subterranean storeroom under a campus walkway, the collection was vulnerable to temperature changes and flooding. Worse still, in Carter’s view, exhibit space on campus was at such a premium that works from the collection saw the light of day only when requested for use in classes or in special exhibits curated by faculty and students.
|Snow Landscape, an early black-and-white lithograph by renowned painter Fairfield Porter|
Enter Charles Stainback, hired in 1997 as Dayton Director of the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. The museum was only in the planning stages, but “people started coming up to him and offering things,” says Carter. With this fall’s opening of the Tang, “art donors know the works will be secure, in controlled temperature and humidity —and they’ll be seen.”
Says Stainback, “My fear is that as soon as the museum is open, we’ll be inundated.” And he’s only half-joking. Even with a state-of-the-art 39,000-square-foot facility, “we have limited resources,” he sighs. “We can’t collect everything.” A new acquisitions committee of Skidmore faculty, trustees, and museum professionals will begin this fall to help shape the collection, scrutinizing the professional appraisals of each proposed gift and evaluating how well it furthers the mission of the College and strengthens the collection. Building on the collection’s best current holdings, the focus, says Carter, “will be on prints, photos, paintings, and other works on paper, since World War II.” Skidmore faculty will no doubt offer suggestions for works they’d like to use in teaching, and, adds Stainback dryly, “We wouldn’t turn down an Old Master.”
For Carter, who wants the collection to be “as accessible as the library,” the Tang’s print room and large, airy collections space will come as a gift in themselves, furnished with painting and ceramics racks and several large study tables. And another access route will open later this year when the collection goes online (www.skidmore.edu/tang), allowing for digital previewing of the objects and even the mounting of virtual exhibits on the Web.
“We’ll finally be able to make the collection accessible,” says Carter, “to say, ‘You want it, here it is.’”—BAM