Looking back

A “Re-View” of the last 100 years at RISD
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  January 2, 2007
POP ART: Roy Lichtenstein’s “Pyramids II” [1969].

The advantage of being a teaching museum is on full display at the Rhode Island School of Design in the exhibition “Re-Viewing the Twentieth Century.” Drawing nearly 100 examples from its permanent collections of more than 84,000 works, the RISD Museum is presenting a comprehensive survey of modernist and contemporary artists and some of their inspiring predecessors.
From a landscape painting by Paul Cézanne to a wall-filling silhouette mural by contemporary artist Kara Walker, the exhibition incorporates many media and categories, from photographs to video loops to decorative arts such as textiles and furniture.
“We tried to get our best things out and put them in context so that they spoke to one another,” said Maureen O’Brien, who headed a team of the museum’s curators that selected the show. As curator of painting and sculpture, she is in charge of the period from the Middle Ages to 1960.
“We now have Latin American art that museums can’t acquire for love nor money,” she said, walking by Argen¬tinian Jorge de la Vega’s image-dense mixed media on canvas, “History of the Vampires (Historia de los vampiros)” (1963).
Selecting the most relevant works was only part of their task. “I also had this very daunting issue of how to represent a hundred years of modern art in the 20th century, which really starts with works that spring off the end of the 19th century and then ends up with art that people find difficult because it’s so abstract,” she continued. “Minimalist art is so much more difficult for some people than painting with narrative or objects you can identify. It’s always an issue, I think.”
Since there were so many themes and concerns in the century’s art movements, a less confusing way to organize the show was with four questions. Works in four galleries collectively ask: “Who are we?,” “How did we get here?,” “What happens to Art?” and “Why is it Art?”
That last question, perhaps the most relevant one to casual viewers, is brought up immediately as one enters the Farago Wing entrance. In the high-ceilinged entry space, the question isn’t answered, of course, on the informational wall card that brings up the matter. Instead, the questioning itself is incorporated into what the displayed art accomplishes.
“When people come in and see a Sol LeWitt sculpture or a Cy Twom¬bly painting, many people still will say, ’Well, why are scribbles on a blackboard art?’ ” O’Brien said as she looked around the gallery. “We are not afraid of the question.”


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