“Place of Darkness” by Abraham Rattner

“Picasso to Pollock: Modern Masterworks” from the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, which is the Speed Art Museum‘s newest traveling exhibition, offers a retrospective of sorts of the 20th century and a survey of what we call “modern art.”

The exhibit is the result of a friendship, a renovation project and weakness in the Speed’s collection — three factors that came together to bring Louisville a stunning collection of work. This includes pieces from high-profile artists like the titular Pollock and Picasso, which are wonderful, but even more stunning are the lesser-known painters and pieces, many of which will be brand-new to Speed visitors.

The exhibit’s co-creators — the Speed’s Erika Holmquist-Wall, chief curator, and Mary and Barry Bingham Sr., curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture, and Jenny McComas, curator of European and American Art at the newly renamed Eskenazi Museum of Art — gave Insider a private tour and spoke about the exhibit’s winding genesis and the works on display.  

Erika Holmquist-Wall | Courtesy of Speed Museum

Holmquist-Wall said that when she worked as in Minneapolis, before her tenure at the Speed, there was a great physical distance between her and most other art museums.

“So after I arrived here at the Speed, I made it a point of getting in my car and driving and calling up people and being like, ‘Hi, I’m your curatorial neighbor.’ ”

Holmquist-Wall had met McComas pre-move, so the Eskenazi Museum was at the top of her dance card. The two met up, chatted art and realized they wanted to work together on something down the road.

“Down the road” became “now” when the IU museum received a gift of $15 million from Indianapolis-based philanthropists Sidney and Lois Eskenazi. Along with the gift came the new name, but more importantly, the Bloomington college sensed an opportunity and provided the museum with another $20 million.

Much like the Speed’s own renovation, a temporary closure helped the museum stretch that $35 million, and like the Speed, the priceless art collection had to be stored for the duration of the renovation.

McComas said that’s when she remembered Holmquist-Wall and the Speed.

“I thought, it’s such a shame that our collection will be in storage for three years,” she said. “My thought was, at least maybe we can send a few pieces to the Speed, so I called Erika.”

Jenny McComas | Courtesy of IU

McComas approach the Speed, and they were happy to begin a collaboration.

“‘Picasso to Pollock’ showcases an era that is not well-represented at the Speed. We’re deeper in old masters,” said Holmquist-Wall.

The exhibition was chosen carefully, with many considerations in mind. What will help cover the breadth of early modern art? The show includes Fauvism, cubism, German Expressionism, Dada and Surrealism, and it groups many paintings together in their respect movements.

The selection wasn’t just ism-centric, though. While there are sections that focus on a school or period, there are other selections with a range of works that speak instead to an idea, or a historical period. These pieces include one reflecting the rapid industrialization of society, as well as one focusing on some of the wars fought in the 20th century.

Finally, the selections were chosen for their ability to be safely moved to Louisville.

“The Studio” by Pablo Picasso

The exhibit that bloomed from that cross-pollination is every bit as beautiful as it is educational, and it provides material for deep reflection on 20th century art. Two standout favorites for this writer were Abraham Rattner’s 1943 oil painting “Place of Darkness,” and Harold Cousins’ 1952 metal sculpture “La Reine.”

“Place of Darkness” is in the section that examines artists’ reactions to war. It’s a large and incredibly vivid painting, asymmetrical but mesmerizingly well-balanced, with strong blues and reds dominating the field. It features stylized human figures, almost cubist but not quite, almost Expressionist, but not quite.

Rattner was an American Jew who lived and worked in Paris right until the German occupation, when he moved back to America. “Place of Darkness” was painted just as news of concentration camps like Auschwitz was reaching America.

“I read it as his personal response,” said McComas.

“Danzante” by Diego Rivera

The second piece is “La Reine.” In and of itself, it is a small, graceful work with fluid lines and a sense of movement. Its placement near the end of the exhibit lends it an air of duplicitous simplicity. Like a koan, it reveals its truth in its own time.  

Extra-textually, the sculpture reveals a different truth, drawing the mind to the ongoing labor of McComas, Holmquist-Wall and other curators who examine the 20th century.

Like many art exhibits in today’s museum landscape, “Picasso to Pollock” struggles to move outside the traditionally recognized canon and its focus — works by white men.

That struggle, which pushes museums like the Speed to dig deeper into collections and find works that have been overlooked or glossed over, becomes more difficult with each limiting factor on body a work.

“Picasso to Pollock” is drawn from a single collection. It’s an excellent collection, but it’s still a collection that began long before our contemporary attempts to re-examine the canon and its omissions.

McComas is aware of those shortcomings, and one of the last pieces in the exhibit shows how she is beginning to fill those voids in Eskenazi’s collection.

“(Harold Cousins) fought in World War II, and afterward went to art school, but then he quickly realized he just didn’t want to deal with the art world in the U.S. at the time, the challenges facing an African-American,” said McComas. “So he went to Paris.”

Cousins became well-known, his work respected and collected … in Europe. The American art world still is struggling to catch up, many decades later.

“He didn’t have any recognition in America until after he died,” said McComas. “He’s just starting to become known — we’re only the third or fourth American museum to acquire work by him.”

Untitled by Jackson Pollock

Holmquist-Wall also was quick to point out the pervasiveness of the misogyny and male gaze in many of the early 20th-century painters, which she said might hit museum-goers particularly hard, given that the last exhibit in the space was something of a feminist reconstruction of the traditional canon, “Women in the Age of Impressionism.”

“Picasso to Pollock” catalogs the art of the 20th century and its fractured array of beautiful, disparate styles.

In turn, that disparate collection of art catalogs the events, obsessions, atrocities and lies of the last 100 years, the sum of which presents a picture of a century every bit as multifaceted as the cubism of Pablo Picasso, and random as the drip and spatter in the Abstract Impressionism of Jackson Pollock.

Visitors to the Speed have until Jan. 13th to consider the 20th century and its many schools of art. General admission is $18 for adults, $8 for military, senior citizens, college students and children ages 4-17. Don’t forget that general admission is free every Sunday.

The Speed’s hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. And if you go before Sept. 9, don’t forget to check out the truly excellent “Breaking the Mold.”

Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.


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