Arts Listings

Berkeley Art Museum’s Thought-Provoking ‘Galaxy’

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Wednesday March 18, 2009 - 06:09:00 PM
Rene Magritte's ≤i≥Duo≤/i≥ (1928), brush and India ink on paper.
Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum
Rene Magritte's ≤i≥Duo≤/i≥ (1928), brush and India ink on paper.

Considering that the Berkeley Art Museum is only about 40 years old, it has a remarkable collection spanning the centuries and continents. For too long a time it was largely invisible, but now much has come to light in an exhibition aptly entitled “Galaxy.” As the museum’s founding director I was delighted to re-visit old friends and greet new arrivals. 

Larry Rinder, the museum’s new director, must have enjoyed going through the storage racks, for he has come up with a splendid selection. Avoiding didactic chronology or geography, he uses juxtapositions, congruities and contrasts to make us look anew, with a fresh eye at the work. 

Upon entering Gallery Four, the viewer is presented with two pieces dating back to the museum’s first important exhibition, the International Kinetic Sculputre show of 1966. There is Jean Tinguely’s Black Knight, with its suggestive movement, and Harry Kramer’s agitated chair. An electromagnetic painting by Taxis is installed elsewhere.  

Dominating one wall in this gallery is Gaia, a work of great iconic power by Quattara, an artist born in Ivory Coast and now living in New York. For a long time artists from countries whose native culture was destroyed by colonial power were conflicted as to whether they should adopt the leading art forms of the West or try to re-connnect with their own tradition. Quattara’s painting, first seen in an exhibition organized by Rinder when he was Matrix curator, provides an answer to this quandary by creating a work that fuses both traditions. In this installation it seems to be in discussion with a sculpture called Karuna, by Ibram Lassaw, a New York artist, close to the Abstract Expressionist painters who was also born in Africa (Alexandria). Paul Klee’s etching, Garden of Passion, with it’s writhing organic forms, seems suddenly related to a lithograph by Bruce Connor, with its own profusion of organic wiggly lines. Another Klee in this gallery, showing bending flowers, has an affinity with the eccentric personages by Joan Miró. The solid trees of Forest at Fontainebleau, by Theodore Rousseau, form an amazing contrast to the transparent work of human hair made by D-J Alvarez 130 years later. And the large oil by Jay Defeo, which she called Origin, responds to these pieces as it resembles a forest of grasses.  

On the next floor the visitor first encounters two works, both done in the Bay Area in the late 1960s: the totally abstract sculptures, named Chai (Hebrew for “life”), by Harold Paris and the totally realistic ’60s T-Bird, by Robert Bechtle. The first wall provides an amusing congruity between Dürer’s masterprint, The Great Horse, and a 19th century photograph of a horse’s head. The latter is placed next to Giovanni Caracciolo’s Caravaggesque canvas of St. John the Baptist—one of the finest works in the museum’s collection. Its homo-erotic suggestions are echoed by a French Baroque etching and an Italian drawing placed as its neighbors.  

In the same gallery, a biting comment on ridiculous German burghers by George Grosz is located next to a fat Englishman by Thomas Rowlandson. Rubens’ beautiful oil sketch Road to Calvary, which depicts St. Veronica wiping Christ’s face, is echoed by an etching and aquatint by Georges Rouault of St. Veronica. On this wall are two of the great drawings in the museum’s collection: René Magritte’s Duo, showing two loves whose access to each other is prevented by cloth covering their heads. This 20th century image of total frustration is contrasted to Tiepolo’s freely flying female figure. A painting of human-like figures, produced by Willem De Kooning in 1945, is contrasted with drawings of women by the artist of 1960. The idyllic landscape by the classical French painter Jean Francois Millet is placed in conversation with a classical Chinese landscape by Wen Jia, done about a hundred years earlier: in both paintings an ideal landscape—a serene valley by the French artist, a tower of rocks by the Chinese—is visited by small human figures. There are two very different sculptures of human heads looking at each other in this gallery: Medardo Rosso’s wax portrait Jewish Boy, done in the 1890s, seems to converse with a polychromed wooden head of Christ by a Mexican folk artist done about a hundred years earlier. And Please Touch, Marchel Duchamp’s foam rubber breast, has found a neighbor in a nude with conspicuous breasts in Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s woodcut. The tour of this gallery concludes with two 19th century California paintings: The organizers of the exhibition detected that Thomas Hill’s The Organ Grinder was hanging in Henry Alexander’s Teete’s House when he painted it in 1886. 

In Gallery Six the viewer will be pleasantly surprised to see the comparison between the Zen Haboku splashed landscapes and Jackson Pollock’s poured 1950 canvas, hanging not far from Mark Tobey’s Zen-inspired aquatint and the freely brushed blue canvas by Sam Francis. There are also two masterpieces of the New York School in this gallery, Mark Rothko’s Number 207, and Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting, No. 3. The Rothko was my first purchase for the museum, acquired at a generous discount in recognition of a retrospective I had curated of the artist’s work at New York Museum of Modern Art a few years earlier. Ad Reinhardt donated his painting to Berkeley. Larry Rinder ingeniously juxtaposed this work, which calls for quiet contemplation and inspiring reflection, with the contemporaneous loud and provocative silk screen called Race Riot by Andy Warhol. Rothko’s altar-like painting, with its profound spiritual content, is contrasted with a depersonalized machine-fabricated wall sculpture by Donald Judd, calling for a contrary response. 

This “Galaxy” evokes much thought, which, of course, is precisely what exhibitions are meant to do. The final work in the top gallery prompts a question of another kind: a panel of Judas Betraying Christ, is designated as Sienese, 14th century, oil on wood. The faces of the soldiers, however, are much too realistic for a 14th century painting, and the late medieval painters in Siena did not paint in oil. The provenance of this work needs to be investigated. But, never mind—the exhibition as a whole is a work of stimulating installation art. 



Through Aug. 30 at Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way. 642-0808.