Collections matter: VBMA curator builds for future

Late last month a Coffee with the Curator lecture by Vero Beach Museum of Art curator Danielle Johnson was presented by the Gallery at Windsor in the planned community’s clubhouse lounge. Subtitled “Building a Collection: Contemporary Art at MoMA and VBMA,” Johnson’s lecture spoke to her past experience as a curatorial assistant at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and her ideas about the future of the Vero museum collection.

Johnson is a 2012 Ph.D. graduate in Art History from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts; her dissertation was “Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, 1928-1938.” Her undergraduate degree, in art history and French, was taken at Colgate University. She has held adjunct teaching positions at City University of New York Graduate Center, New York University and Hunter College.

For four years starting in 2011, Johnson worked as a curatorial assistant in MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture. Her research for the exhibition “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary” exposed her to René Magritte masterpieces from collections worldwide.

In researching the works in that show, Johnson was party to an exciting discovery regarding a work in MoMA’s collection. Magritte’s 1935 painting, “The Portrait,” was found by conservators to have been painted over a piece of canvas that once was part of a larger (and presumably lost) Magritte titled “The Enchanted Pose.”

The subject of “The Enchanted Pose” was a pair of identical nudes, placed left and right on the canvas in identical poses. “The Portrait” at first glance depicts a table setting for one, facing the viewer. It takes only a moment to notice that the slice of ham before us is looking back: there is an unblinking eye at its center.

As a scholar and art historian, Johnson was interested to learn that the older painting, which had received critical notice before its disappearance in 1932, had simply been cut into quarters by Magritte for reuse; three paintings by him in other collections were subsequently found to have been painted over the remaining fragments.

Johnson related the story of the lost and found painting to illustrate the importance of the museum in collecting and preserving art for the future. MoMA’s acquisition of the painting (it was a 1956 gift from the collection of Surrealist painter Kay Sage) revealed for Johnson the “usefulness,” – i.e. meaning – that an artwork can have in the context of a museum collection. That “usefulness” changes over time, with every new generation of caretakers, researchers, presenters and audience members that interact with it.

When it concerns a living artist’s work, a contemporary art museum’s acquisition choice will reflect current trends and ideas in the art world as well as the museum’s trust in the artist’s potential. As the acquisition ages and the museum’s staff and audience change, the artwork may come to have meaning as a mile marker in the artist’s development; later still it may be researched and exhibited as a historic artifact of the society that produced it. As Magritte’s “The Portrait” illustrates, even a well-known work whose meaning has evolved over the years can still hold surprises 80 years after its creation.

According to Johnson, a collecting museum’s priority is “building a collection for the future.”

Johnson, whose current title is Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, acknowledges that the VBMA has tended toward the collection of early 20th century American paintings. Not to worry; she envisions the continued collection of that material, even though its artists – many of whom were born in the 19th century – have long since departed this vale.

She also anticipates adding more contemporary art to the museum’s collections, especially the work of living artists. That includes artists near the beginning of their careers, as well as underrepresented groups of artists, such as women and artists of color.

Johnson mentioned the works of several living artists, represented in MoMA’s collection, that she would not mind seeing represented here, including Howardena Pindell.

Now 75 years old, Pindell studied painting at Boston University and Yale University. In 1967 she took a job in the print department at MoMA, which she left a dozen years later to pursue her career as an artist and teacher. Her non-objective work of the 1970s was created in part by collaging punched paper dots onto paper or canvas. In her most recent work, Pindell collages words, phrases and photo imagery onto canvas to address social issues that include homelessness, sexism and xenophobia.

Johnson also admires the work of mid-career artist Kara Walker. Her 2014 installation (short title: “The Marvelous Sugar Baby”) in a defunct Brooklyn sugar refinery included a huge, sphinxlike figure sculpted using tons of refined sugar. MoMA collected some of the installation’s smaller auxiliary figures, which were recreated in long-lasting resin.

Closer to home, Johnson is intrigued by the work of Miami’s Edouard Duval-Carrié. Paintings by him that have caught her eye address the revolutionary history and current hardships of Duval-Carrié’s native Haiti.

Acquiring the work of living artists is paramount to building a collection that looks to the future, Johnson says.

“If you don’t collect at the moment, you have to fill in the gaps (in the collection) later,” she cautioned.

Johnson notes that MoMA’s relationship with a young Jasper Johns led to its acquisition of “Target with Four Faces” when Johns was still in his 20s. Today there are more than 350 works by Johns in the MoMA collection: paintings, sculpture and prints from every stage in that artist’s long career.

Another artist Johnson selected for comment was veteran sculptor Lynda Benglis, whose 2015 exhibition at Storm King Art Center featured water-inspired abstractions. In an outdoor grouping from Benglis’ 2014 “Pink Ladies” series, water spilled from the tops of a trio of fuchsia red, polyurethane sculptures into a pool below. Each sculpture was composed of several funnel-shaped cones, with the narrow end of each inserted into the broad top of the next. The tallest sculpture of the three was a little over 9 feet high.

Johnson speculated that the cast polyurethane favored by Benglis for “Pink Ladies” might prove resistant to Florida’s harsh climate.

“We have a strong sculpture garden at the Vero Beach Museum of Art. I want to think about continuing to develop it,” she said.

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