Monday, July 12, 2010

Three Gifts on View at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Sol LeWitt, Untitled, 1989. Wood and paint. Wadsworth Atheneum, gift of Coosje can Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg. Photos: 16 Miles [more]

One of the few things that is better than coming across a great, strange work of art (like the Wadsworth Atheneum’s untitled Sol LeWitt stalactite shown above), is discovering that the work happens to have been donated by someone rather exciting. It turns out that the LeWitt was given to the museum by none other than Claes Oldenburg and his wife and collaborator Coosje van Bruggen. Though the Minimalism of LeWitt occupies an aesthetic space far removed from the Pop splendor of Oldenburg and van Bruggen, it’s possible to see a shared sensibility in their practices.

As art historian Rosalind Krauss has written, it is tempting to see LeWitt’s work as a product or representation of cold, clear rationality, a tribute to human reason. But, Krauss has argued, that position does not withstand close scrutiny. “His math is far too simple; his solutions are far too inelegant,” she writes in her 1977 essay “LeWitt in Progress. “[T]he formal conditions of his work are far too scattered and obsessional to produce anything like … [a] diagram of human reason.” Writing of the 1960s, Krauss continues, “It was an extraordinary decade in which objects proliferated in a seemingly endless and obsessional chain, each one answering the other…” That is a thesis that seems to apply equally well to LeWitt's cubic outgrowths and Oldenburg's absurd sculptures of everyday objects.



But wait. There are other works with fascinating provenances at the Wadsworth. For instance, Barnett Newman’s 1948 Onement II, the sequel to his pivotal Onement I and the prequel to Onement III (both in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art), was donated by sculptor Tony Smith. (The color is terrible in the photograph that I took of it, so I will spare you that image.)

Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924. Oil on canvas. Wadsworth Atheneum, gift of Ettie Stettheimer.

There’s also a particularly nice Florine Stettheimer painting, the 1924 Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, donated by her sister Ettie Stettheimer. Ettie also gave one of Florine’s paintings to MoMA and, in a rather unfortunate decision, 50 painting to my alma mater, Columbia Unviersity, in 1967, when the school was planning to build an arts center. That building was never constructed, and most of the paintings are reportedly sitting in storage. This is especially unfortunate because Stettheimer’s works are typically displayed with wonderfully bizarre frames. Thankfully, the Wadsworth is showing the one it owns. (The Stettheimers moved in a rarefied artistic circle. Look in the upper-left corner of the painting above. Thanks to the very helpful placard posted next to the work, I can inform you that is the photographer Edward Steichen!)