With intriguing works by titans of the modern art world — from Jasper Johns to Pablo Picasso — on display, the University of Michigan Museum of Art has continued its yearlong focus on works from alumni collectors. “Victors for Art,” which serves as the museum’s remarkable contribution to the University’s Bicentennial, has brought together an extraordinary array of abstract art, all of it borrowed or donated by prolific alumni art collectors.
At first glance, it seems like a strange idea: borrowing dozens of vaguely similar works of art from collectors, then trying to form a cohesive whole from the hodgepodge of artistic styles and traditions. The curators had their work cut out for them, basically working backwards — rather than coming up with an exhibition theme and then selecting art to fit the theme, they had to take the alumni pieces and somehow make sense of them as a body of work.
Yet, to the curators’ credit, the exhibition is surprisingly cohesive, with a clear arrangement of artwork that provokes reflection and comparison. This was no small feat, as the abstract pieces range from big name contemporary to midcentury monocolors, casual sketches to disturbing collages.
Even abstraction itself is only broadly referenced in the display, which places modern pieces side by side with works not usually considered abstract, let alone art: Ancient Chinese scrolls and an Amish quilt make appearances as “abstract” art. While some might take offense to this extremely loose interpretation, it’s a bold move that expands our definition of “real” art and questions the legitimacy of clear-cut artistic definitions.
This boundary-pushing attitude undoubtedly reflects the diverse group of curators involved in the exhibition: Joseph Rosa, the former UMMA director, guest-curated the exhibition alongside specialists in African art, photography, Asian art and Western art. Employing such a varied group of curators was a smart move, ensuring that global artistic traditions were respected and placed on equal footing. Luckily, the curatorial team had an exceptionally cosmopolitan collection to work with — the University alumni lent a far-ranging assortment of art, from European Modernist sculpture to Colombian canvases.
Rather than throwing a few “token diversity” artists in for good measure, the exhibition makes diverse artwork a main focus and often seems to challenge the status quo by placing works by established white male artists in direct conversation with lesser known pieces.
On one thin white wall, a Picasso sketch called “Weeping Woman” sits next to Grace Hartigan’s painting “Untitled (The Second Mrs. Nash).” The pieces, one by a man famous for painting his mistresses nude, the other by a woman whose work often focused on gender issues, depict a woman’s emotional inner world in starkly contrasting ways. “Weeping Woman” is a brash, beautiful sketch of a woman in torment, her childlike anguish and dark sexuality rendered in violent strokes. It’s striking, and yet placed next to Hartigan’s work, a murky watercolor in shades of orange, a woman’s dreamlike figure scattered around the canvas as if divided internally, the Picasso piece seems oversimplified.
The Picasso is a lovely sketch of an unhappy woman, drawn by a man who loved but did not really understand the women in his life. It seems to ask: Why is she crying? Hartigan tells a different story, at once more complex and more heartbreaking — it shows us a woman whose torment is internal, not written on her face and body; a woman with an interior world as labyrinthine as Hartigan herself. Picasso’s woman is sad, so she cries, a fantasy woman enchanting in her simplicity. Hartigan’s “Mrs. Nash” is harder to read, her cloudy emotions rendering her as unfathomable as, well, a real woman. This intriguing juxtaposition, just one of many in the exhibition, shows the profound thoughtfulness the UMMA curators put into artistic arrangement.
Somehow, despite the overwhelming diversity of artworks and genres, it all just works. More than that, “Victors for Art” offers a refreshing alternative to the ubiquity of Old White Dudes in abstract art. You’ll see plenty of big name artists scattered around the exhibition, but even then, they’re rarely the expected or familiar pieces. There’s a Jasper Johns, of course, but rather than one of his over-used flags, the curators selected a wonderful sober painting in gray tones, a prescient selection considering the current art world fervor over his later-life work.
Beyond these familiar faces, the exhibition really shines, with a superb selection of abstract work by women artists and global artists. This should come as no surprise considering the diversity of curators involved in the project, but it’s still depressingly rare to find such variety and respect for women and artists of color, with compelling works by Louise Nevelson, Seikichi Takara, Betty Woodman, and Jordan Eagles prominently displayed. Whether you’re a fan of abstraction or not, nearly every art lover will find something to admire in this sprawling exhibition — it may well be one of UMMA’s most ambitious efforts in recent years. “Victors for Art” will remain on display through October 29 in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery.