The new UMass exhibit takes a comprehensive look at 60 years of art on campus

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In 1962, the University of Massachusetts Amherst was in the early stages of a tremendous expansion, with new dormitories and other buildings being constructed on campus. But the university did not yet have a large museum – so the fine arts faculties began collecting and preserving drawings, paintings, prints and other works of art at Herter Hall.

In 1975, UMass opened what was then the university gallery in the new Fine Arts Center building to provide a permanent home for this growing art collection. Now, at the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), the school is honoring six decades of building an art portfolio with an exhibition that looks back at the collection’s beginnings—as well as its future.

With 115 artworks on display, Sixty Years of Collecting represents just a fraction of the UMCA collection of over 3,600 objects. But director Loretta Yarlow says many of the prints, photographs, and other works on display have not been seen for years — or ever — and that the show features a variety of work dating back to the first half of the 20th century.

Curating the show, Yarlow said during a recent tour of UMCA, “was the thrill of a lifetime.” And if deciding what to exhibit was a challenge, “then it was a good kind of challenge,” added she added laughing.

From works by pioneering photographers such as Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Helen Levitt to prints by pop art maestro Andy Warhol and the Expressionist works of contemporary Western Massachusetts painter Imo Nse Imeh, the new exhibition also reflects the contributions of generous donors helped UMCA build their collection from scratch, Yarlow said.

“Now we can draw on that generosity to show the breadth of our work, from very well-known artists to some other very talented people who haven’t had as much exposure,” she said.

The exhibit, which runs Dec. 11 and then Feb. 14 through May 14, also highlights UMCA’s role as an educational museum, Yarlow noted. UMass students in a museum collection class — Yarlow is one of the three teachers — choose a new artwork for the collection each year, and for this show they chose “Equinox,” a 2012 lithograph and collage by California artist Alison Saar.

Sixty Years of Collecting is divided into nine separate sections in which artworks are grouped by style as well as content and subject. “Art and Politics: Changing Hearts and Minds”, for example, shows works in which artists attempt to visualize a variety of social issues in order to raise awareness or at least stimulate discussion.

A large 2008 print by installation and concept artist Jenny Holzer, for example, is a stunning photograph of giant letters that she projected onto the outside of London City Hall at night (London Tower Bridge is illuminated to the left) and read: “Whatever you say echoes, what you don’t say speaks for itself. So they’re talking about politics anyway.”

Also part of this department is a print of Butterfly Girl, a painting by Imeh, a Nigerian-American artist and scholar who teaches at Westfield State University. Much of Imeh’s work explores the African diaspora, and he often juxtaposes partial portraits of black men and women between rippling ribbons of paint and ink. Butterfly Girl is one of a series of paintings he made in response to the kidnapping of 276 girls from a Nigerian village in 2014.

Another area of ​​the UMCA exhibition is dedicated to Pop Art, and here the university benefits from a donation of original, never-before-exhibited prints by Andy Warhol that it received a few years ago. The colorful 1980 screenprint Karen Kain is based on a Polaroid Warhol took in his studio of Kain, the former principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada.

One of Warhol’s pop art peers, Roy Lichtenstein, also gets his moment in the exhibition with “Brushstroke,” a screenprint of a repeating line of color that, true to Lichtenstein’s talent for parody and tongue-in-cheek humor, ends with dribbled paint that runs from the end of the brush stroke falls down.

Introspective art, photography and more

Concept art featuring work by Jennifer Bartlett, Donald Judd and others also gets a thematic section, as does what Yarlow has dubbed “At the Still Point of the Spinning World,” a line from TS Eliot. The more than two dozen pieces here, including an abstract painting by British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor, focus on “contemplation, perception and the artistic process as a form of inner stillness and experimentation,” as the exhibition notes state.

Three-dimensional art also attracts attention with works by Keith Haring, Jesús Rafael Soto and Tauba Auerbach. The latter, a multidisciplinary artist, has contributed several carefully crafted paper textures that emerge from thick, flat folders.

“Laura’s work really explores structure, form and perception in a wonderfully creative way,” Yarlow said.

One of the exhibition’s real strengths is a solid collection of photographs, mostly black and white photographs, divided roughly between landscapes and portraits, although there is some overlap where people can appear in settings that also reflect the photographers’ enhanced sense of landscape reflect.

“Eleanor, Port Huron,” a 1954 photo by Harry Callahan – born in Detroit in 1912, he is one of the oldest artists represented in the exhibition – has a painterly quality from the Romantic era, as it shows a naked woman from behind, lying on a blanket in a meadow surrounded by bushes and a row of trees.

A 2006 image by South African photographer David Goldblatt, meanwhile, shows the desolate terrain of an unfinished black public housing project: dozens of small, roofless brick houses scattered in a treeless field like a modern-day ghost town. (The late Goldblatt spent much of his professional life chronicling the impact of apartheid in South Africa.)

One of the more mysterious photos is by Helen Levitt, a well-known New York City street photographer whose career began in the 1930s. Her early 1940s Two Masked Children and a Tree gives us an evocative picture of a dingy urban courtyard, with one child halfway up a bare tree and another at its foot; both wear coarse masks. Is it Halloween or something else?

And a large black-and-white photo from 2013 of Latoya Ruby Frazier, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, contrasts the bleak panorama of an old steel mill — spaghetti loops of railroad tracks, billowing smoke, and a cluster of ugly buildings along the Monongahela River road — with forested ones combing in the background.

Aside from the artwork on display, Sixty Years of Collecting includes some video content of some of the artists at work; Public programs associated with the exhibition include guided tours and discussions moderated by some of the participating artists.

Yarlow said the exhibition also reflects UMCA’s revamped collections strategy in recent years, which has committed to diversifying the museum’s holdings, particularly by paying greater attention to works by women and colourists.

“We’re an educational museum, and we want to reflect that larger (UMass) goal of having a collection that really speaks to diversity, community and all the changes that we’re seeing in the world,” she said.

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