"The primacy of the object" -- it's an art world and academic maxim that has been advocated by art historians for generations. In a time when it is possible to access practically any major museum's collection online, or to take a virtual tour of the museum itself, it might seem like this focus on actually seeing a work of art in person is an anachronism. The Stanford faculty and staff at the Cantor Arts Center obviously disagree and are celebrating the joys of directly engaging with art, thanks to a complete and dramatic overhaul of the museum's permanent collection.
Titled "Object Lessons: Art and Its Histories" and presented alongside the Stanford art history department's introductory courses, the transformation encompasses five separate galleries on the museum's second floor. According to Jodi Roberts, curator of contemporary art, much of the permanent collection had not been changed for 15 years. During that time there has been much rethinking about how museums view their exhibition practices and even how exhibitions are installed.
"The Cantor is not a standing monument with no changes but rather a dynamic institution," she said. She anticipates the galleries will be reinstalled again in two years.
Interest in reconfiguring the permanent galleries began several years ago when former museum director Connie Wolf came on board. Both she and Associate Director Alison Gass felt that addressing the permanent collection was a "top priority" but how to make the changes was problematic. Initial efforts began five months ago with small sections in each gallery being reinstalled. It quickly became apparent that a major effort was needed, so the galleries were completely closed for the summer months, allowing for art to be moved out and for all of the interested "stakeholders" (students, faculty and staff) to collaborate on how to make the permanent collection really relevant.
Art history faculty members Alex Nemerov and Nancy Troy were given the opportunity to suggest works of art that they wanted to see on the walls and even how they wanted the art to be installed, so as to make thought-provoking juxtapositions. In some cases, they selected pieces that had not been seen in decades.
"It was intriguing to consider how the works might be grouped in a variety of ways to prompt new ways of thinking," said Troy.
One might wonder how input from so many sources actually coalesced. After all, too many cooks can spoil the broth. According to Roberts, however, it was a fairly seamless process.
"There has always been an intense collaboration between the museum and the art history faculty," she explained. "The curators took into account all outside suggestions and found a way to make them mesh with their mandate."
The results can be seen in the Sigall Gallery, which displays art from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. The paintings, sculptures and works on paper are installed in small vignettes, each focusing on a genre such as landscape, portraits or still-life. They are not, however, placed in chronological order or by "ism" as in most museums. For example, portraits by Pablo Picasso, John Singer Sargent and Max Pechstein are grouped together, even though they worked in vastly different styles and in different times. Picasso's "Courtesan with Hat" (1901) surprises with its impressionistic style, while Sargent's "Portrait of Sally Fairchild" (1884) is typical of the artist's soft-focused realism that always flattered his subjects. Pechstein's "Kurish Bride I" (1909) is a lesson in expressionistic bold colors and solid modeling of figure. What can be learned from such an unexpected combination of pieces?
"Students see these works at the proper size and scale, they can closely examine the materiality of each piece, and they can see how these works interact with other objects in the spaces where they are currently displayed," Troy said.
Troy also said that next quarter her Modernism and Modernity class will spend time in the gallery and participate in a museum-sponsored competition to write short labels that will accompany the artwork. As a result, students will "deepen and enrich their encounters with objects."
In the Mondavi Family Gallery, European paintings from the late 16th century to the late 19th century are now installed with much more room around each piece. The low lighting, gray walls and improved sightlines make for an almost meditative experience with each work of art.
The changes are clearly a hit with the art history faculty.
"The transformation is spectacular," Nemerov said. "The same paintings that were on display before, and in some cases new ones that had been in storage, have become newly visible. That is, you can see them, almost for the first time."
The shake-up continues into the Freidenrich Family Gallery, which showcases the largest installation to date of prints from the Marmor Collection. The museum's new series of exhibitions featuring emerging artists debuts with the work of Los Angeles painter Dashiell Manley, whose large-scale canvasses incorporate abstraction and collage to make a point about contemporary events.
Be sure to walk around the rotunda, where Spencer Finch's colorful fluorescent light sculpture "Betelgeuse" (2015) is suspended, just above Rodin's "The Thinker" (1904). It's an odd pairing, but visual proof of the Cantor's mission, as an encyclopedic museum, to recognize current trends while honoring the past.
What: "Object Lessons: Art and Its Histories"
Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford
When: Wednesdays-Mondays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays until 8 p.m.
Info: Go to Cantor Arts Center.