Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gray Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Gray Collection, 7 Centuries of Art,
through Jan. 2, 2011 at the
Art Institute of Chicago

As Richard Gray recalls the first purchases he ever made for the eponymous art gallery he would open in 1963: “I knew that I had to have art, and presumably by people that somebody has heard of, or nobody is going to come to Richard Gray's gallery, because he's a complete unknown”. It turned out to be a successful strategy for business, as well as for the personal collection of drawings that he and his wife have accumulated over the years and now put on display in galleries 124-127 at the Art Institute.

The word “iconic” comes to mind. Iconic themes by iconic artists from iconic periods. So we have two great modernists drawing, yet again, voluptuous women , in the studio with a burly sculptor (by Picasso) or in the salon with tropical plants (by Matisse); the Impressionist, Degas, drawing a cafĂ© singer; and two 18th C. Venetians,

drawing the quay beside the Doge’s palace (Canaletto) or the Madonna and Child floating up in the clouds (Tiepolo). And many of these, like the five mentioned above, are breathtaking drawings, the best of the best. But there’s also a few memorably unusual pieces,

like the small, furtive sketch of a woman’s head by Jacques Louis David, or the large, academic charcoal figure studies drawn by the young Degas or Seurat. Which is not say that there are not also some major disappointments, like the mediocre pieces by those icons of Baroque draftsmanship, Guercino and Rubens.

But good or bad, all these pieces taken together tell the story of two collectors – their tastes and opportunities – and is a good example of why collector-based exhibits do much more than just “glorify a private collector and his/her acquisitiveness rather than independently investigate the history of art and culture.” ( as Tyler Green has recently asserted in “Season of Shame” on his modern art blog). Because the history of art and culture includes the history of collectors like Gray, Goldman, or Braude (all three of whose drawing collections have recently been shown at the A.I.C.), especially in our post-modern age, when art is defined as whatever is recognized as such. Much of what they have collected will be donated to this museum or others. Which reminds us that gradually, all the historic, iconic work will end up in public collections, and eventually professional curators will be the only ones able to assemble a great exhibition of it. Which should make Tyler Green quite happy.

But there is still a lot left to be discovered, made by artists whose fame may never be commensurate with their achievement, and selected by collectors who are distinguished by personal taste and opportunity, rather than by curatorial career.

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