“Going Home, (Suzhou),” 1986, oil on canvas by Chen Yifei, Chinese, 1946–2005. Gift of Irving Isaacson in memory of Judith Magyar Isaacson. Images courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

BRUNSWICK — Bowdoin College has been collecting art for 200 years, and some objects among the 25,000 or so in its collection date to the ninth century. Its ancient artifacts come from Iraq, Rome, Greece and across Asia, and the museum’s reputation as a leading liberal arts teaching museum was built on the strength of its antiquities.

But this summer, as the Bowdoin College Museum of Art marks the 125th anniversary of the Walker Art Building that was designed to house the collection, museum curators are taking stock of the past by mounting a full slate of exhibitions using nothing but art from the collection while celebrating the museum’s emphasis on contemporary art.

The museum’s major summer exhibition, “Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts,” will present work added to the collection since 1970, including many pieces added more recently. “The museum’s collection of contemporary art has grown significantly in the last 10 years, and there will be many major works never on view before that are now part of the museum’s collection and that we are going to be highlighting in this installation,” said museum co-director Frank H. Goodyear III. “The purpose is, yes, to feature some important recent additions to the collection, but it is rather also to sort of take the temperature of the art world, the nation and the world. The show will be global in scope and a quite remarkable portrait of our moment.”

Anne Collins Goodyear, museum co-director, said Bowdoin has made an effort to acquire contemporary art that explores issues important in the world and that resonates with students. “Contemporary art can provide points of entry for young people to enter the visual arts and the types of lessons they offer and an opportunity to think about the world from a round perspective. In a world where so few things are clear, there is an opportunity through the visual arts for providing a framework to think about big issues,” she said.

“Double Cherry Blossoms,” 1973, acrylic on canvas by Alma Woodsey Thomas, American, 1891–1978. Gift of Halley K Harrisburg, class of 1990, and Michael Rosenfeld.

The exhibition takes its name from an inscription in the Walker Art Building, stating that the building intended “to be used solely for art purposes.” “Art Purposes” opens June 29 and is among seven new exhibitions at the museum all drawn from the permanent collection. Also opening June 29 is “Emerging Modernism, 1900-1950,” an overview of art from the first half of the 20th century. An exhibition of 19th-century painting from America and Europe and masterpieces from Bowdoin’s collection of Chinese art are already on view.

Before the late-June openings, the museum will be closed for 10 days, from June 4 through June 13, so the entry-level floors can be refinished for the first time since 2007 when the museum was renovated. The museum will reopen for Brunswick’s Second Friday Art Walk on June 14 with free gelato from 4 to 7 p.m.


“Art Purposes” is accompanied by a new collections catalog, edited by museum curator Joachim Homann. The catalog describes the highlights of the collection with statements and essays about individual works by 70 scholars, who write about the significance of the work, why it was made 10, 100 or 1,000 years ago and why that work still matters in conversations happening on campus at Bowdoin and across societies. It’s Bowdoin’s first collection catalog since 1981, Frank Goodyear said.

Curators selected Alma Thomas’ colorfield painting “Double Cherry Blossoms” for the catalog cover. An African-American artist of renown who achieved fame near the end of her life and career, Thomas explored the realm between realism and abstraction. “Double Cherry Blossoms,” painted in 1973 and acquired by Bowdoin in 2003, is an infusion of pink and reddish marks on canvas and was inspired by the spring blossoms of the cherry trees in Washington, D.C., where Thomas lived.

There’s metaphor at play, as well. Some scholars view her paintings as a reference to a screen or veil, or what W.E.B. DuBois called the “double-consciousness” of African-Americans. In 2009, Michelle Obama placed at least three of Thomas’ paintings in the White House.

Anne Goodyear called “Double Cherry Blossoms” “a joyful, sophisticated piece.”

Since the museum was renovated and expanded in 2007, the collection has grown by nearly 10,000 objects, the Goodyears said, the vast majority of which Bowdoin hasn’t put on view. “Art Purposes” will give several works their Bowdoin debut.

Among them is an entry in Titus Kaphar’s ongoing “Jerome Project” series, which began as commentary on what the artist calls the prison industrial complex. It began with his own research about his father, who was named Jerome and had a prison record.


“The Jerome Project (Asphalt and Chalk) XI,” 2015, chalk on Asphalt paper by Titus Kaphar, American, born 1976. Museum Purchase, Barbara Cooney Porter Fund.

Kaphar was an artist in residence at Bowdoin in 2017. The piece on view as part of “Art Purposes” features overlaid portraits of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, all young African-Americans who were gunned down in streets and whose deaths sparked outrage, protests and backlash. It’s a triple portrait, made with chalk and asphalt, like a crime-scene outline of a body on a street surface.

Anne Goodyear said the triple-portrait adds to the depth of conversation about portraiture in the history of American art and its role in framing conversations around current events. “The image suggests bodies fallen on pavement, and it’s also evocative to me of outlines on a chalkboard. One of the figures is in a mortar board and graduation robe,” Anne Goodyear said.

Kaphar is currently showing his art at MoMA PS1 in New York and, in that exhibition, is a print he made while working as an artist in residence at Bowdoin. Kaphar is a rising star, and Frank Goodyear said Bowdoin was grateful for his work on campus. “His presence made an extraordinary difference during that academic year,” he said. “He challenged artists and non-artists alike to think about their responsibilities and to think about how they are going to use that which they are learning to make critical interventions in the world.”

Also on view for the first time is the oil-on-canvas painting “Going Home” by the late Chinese artist Chen Yifei, a painter of great renown.  It’s a peaceful painting of a man returning home by boat, framed by the tranquil river and ancient architecture of the city. At quick glance, it might appear to be a traditional Chinese painting that celebrates the quietude of home and the reward of labor, but it’s deeper than that. Chen made this painting after China’s cultural revolution, and the figure in the scene is the artist himself contemplating his place in a changing world. Painted in 1986, it came as a gift to Bowdoin last year from Irving Isaacson.

“Chen is a major contemporary Chinese painter, and it’s a wonderful addition to our historic Chinese collection at the museum,” Frank Goodyear said.

He also noted that the museum is showing recent acquisitions of historic works, including an altarpiece from the Antwerp workshop of Jan de Beer, a John Singleton Copley pastel depicting Elizabeth Bowdoin, and a painting of a Sun Dance Ceremony by a member of the Lakota tribe from about 1900.

Since the winter, nearly every gallery in the museum has been reinstalled. “We’ve been opening shows incrementally and sequencing the new installations so it all will culminate at the end of June when visitors will see a renewed museum,” Goodyear said.

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