March 10, 2010

Looking fab at 50

BOB KEYES

— By

Staff Writer

WATERVILLE —

Considering that the first piece of art it ever acquired was Winslow Homer's oil-on-canvas painting ''The Trapper,'' the Colby College Museum of Art has always aimed high.

Homer completed ''The Trapper'' in 1870 on his first trip to the Adirondacks. The painting -- one of two by the artist of a nearly identical scene -- depicts a trapper standing on a tree trunk that has fallen into a lake.

The setting is calm, even pristine. The still lake, with lilies in the foreground, reflects a distant island. The man stands on the log, his canoe at the side and paddle in hand, presumably attempting to lure a deer.

A masterpiece? Perhaps.

Better that we leave that debate to the art historians and scholars. More to the point, the painting represents the storied and ambitious history of the Colby museum.

This summer, the museum on Mayflower Hill in Waterville celebrates its legacy with an overarching and eye-popping exhibition, ''Art at Colby: Celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Colby College Museum of Art.'' It is the largest exhibition the museum has ever mounted, and arguably the most significant fine-art exhibition in the state of Maine, at least in recent memory.

Granted, that's a highly subjective statement. But the argument has merit given the scope of the exhibition. It's a big show with many major pieces of work. Further, the exhibition says as much about Colby as a collecting institution and its aggressive, almost single-minded devotion to acquiring great art as it does about the art itself.

''Art at Colby'' includes hundreds of pieces by some of the most significant names in American and European art, and it highlights Colby's history by focusing on the museum's depths: American and European art from 18th and 19th centuries, contemporary and modern art, and ancient art and artifacts.

Museum director Sharon Corwin and her staff have packed gallery after gallery with paintings by the figures who have populated textbooks for decades: Gilbert Stuart, Albert Bierstadt, John La Farge, James McNeill Whistler, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, John Marin, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Fairfield Porter, Roy Lichtenstein, Rockwell Kent, Adolph Gottlieb -- and on and on.

If this were a traveling show, we would rave over its scope and content. That this is a show assembled entirely from the museum's collection makes it all the more interesting.

It includes the Homer painting as well as the many paintings that have come to Colby in recent years thanks to the Alex Katz Foundation.

Katz, who has a wing at the museum dedicated to his work, has a long history with Colby. Lately, he has given the museum paintings and other works of art by leading contemporaries, including Chuck Close and Jennifer Bartlett, as well as a trove of paintings by Maine native and modernist master Marsden Hartley.

''Art at Colby'' also includes more than 70 pieces that the museum acquired in 2007 as part of a larger $100 million gift of art from Peter and Paula Lunder. This exhibition marks the first time such a large segment of the Lunder gift has been shown collectively.

It also includes recent purchases, such as Agnes Martin's luminous ''Untitled #6,'' a 1994 painting that came to the museum with funds from the Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund.

GAME BEGINS WITH A HOMER IN '49

As art stories so often do in Maine, Colby's story begins with Winslow Homer.

Colby acquired ''The Trapper'' as a gift in 1949, a full decade before the museum actually opened and almost 80 years after Homer made the painting.

At the time, the college was adamant about enriching its liberal arts curricula on the orders of college President Seele Bixler, who took office in 1942, trading Harvard for Colby.

Right off the bat, Bixler hired fellow Harvard colleague Samuel Green to teach fine arts. Green borrowed exhibitions from major museums in Boston and New York, setting high standards for Colby as early as 1944. By 1948, Green was gone, having departed Colby for Wesleyan University.

Among his successors was another Harvard man, James M. Carpenter. An art professor, Carpenter believed in the value of having examples of work on hand to illustrate his lectures, and he and Bixby began assembling Colby's collection by encouraging the donation of ''The Trapper.'' The gifted painting was part of a larger loan of Homer works, and it laid the foundation for what later became the Colby museum.

This history is included in one of two new books about the museum and its collection, ''With the Help of Friends: The Colby College Museum of Art: The First Fifty Years, 1959-2009,'' by Earl H. Smith.

The other new book is a tome: 376 pages about the collection, featuring 202 color illustrations and 144 essays contributed by 98 writers, including several artists. Two years in the making, the coffee-table style book shares the title of the exhibition, ''Art at Colby.''

The original museum opened in 1959, and in the 50 years since has expanded time and again. It now boasts of having one of the finest art collections of any small college in the country. The collection was built largely on the generosity of wealthy benefactors as well as the steady influence of longtime museum director Hugh Gourley, who retired in 2002 after 36 years on the job.

Corwin has been director since 2006, and has worked as curator since 2003.

Under her stewardship, the museum has shifted its collection strategy into overdrive, although that is a relative term. The museum has always vigorously collected. Lately, though, Corwin has managed many key acquisitions.

In addition to the Lunder and Katz Foundation gifts, Corwin has overseen the donation of prints by Terry Winters and 150 Richard Serra prints by longtime Colby supporter and art collector Paul J. Schupf.

Corwin and her staff opted to install the show chronologically, by acquisition.

''The history of this museum really is about, and always has been about, the collection. So assembling this exhibition by decade of acquisition made a lot of sense to us,'' Corwin said. ''What struck me as we began to work on this was just how strong this museum was from the very beginning.''

FIVE DECADES AND COUNTING

Each decade of collecting has its own space, and each gallery its own color to distinguish the decade. The exhibition encompasses every bit of available space in the museum and on the museum grounds.

In walking through the show, one notices the diversity of the collection within a given decade. In the early years, the museum acquired traditional American landscape paintings by Homer and European expressionist work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. There was Asian art, and a remarkable collection of American folk art.

The museum had no single theme or focus, but cast a wide net. That decision set the tone for the collection in the decades that followed, and also provided a deep undercurrent for this exhibition.

The juxtaposition of the works -- a Gilbert Stuart painting placed next to a Philip Guston piece, or a John Singleton Copley portrait alongside a portrait by Andy Warhol, or a John Singer Sargent drawing abutting a John Whalley -- are the delight of this show. It mixes the very old with the very new, traditional with contemporary and new techniques with standard practices.

Because of that, this exhibition is quirky and deep, and it unfolds with waves of surprises.

Corwin said she and her staff had more fun organizing this exhibition than any other in her career.

''This is about exploring your collection. It's about telling a story about your collection that looks at both breadth and depth,'' Corwin said. ''We had to make a lot of difficult decisions about what to put in and what to take out, but ultimately, I feel very good about what we have on view.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

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