Art of the State

That an art collection even exists at the University of Colorado in Boulder became known to the general public only thirteen years ago. And the circumstances for the revelation couldn't have been more embarrassing: a newspaper report that CU's multi-million-dollar art collection had been allowed to "rot" through neglect and that many pieces had turned up missing.

The ensuing outcry led to far-reaching changes in the way the collection is handled by the university. The current show in the CU Art Galleries, Truth, Beauty...and Opinion?, provides the community with a lively reintroduction to the unwieldy collection, which has been in hiding since shortly after the scandal struck. The show also makes sense as a starting-off point for Susan Krane, the latest director of the CU Art Galleries. Finally, it gives Krane--along with the rest of us--an opportunity to review just what the university has and what it lacks. What it has are scores of fine prints. What it lacks is nearly anything by Colorado artists.

Before the newspaper expose, "the collection was out and about," says Krane, and the situation encouraged abuse. Pieces were displayed in offices, lobbies and hallways on campus, where they were exposed to damaging light and were sitting ducks for would-be thieves. A crude cataloguing system compounded the problem, as did the ubiquitous use of dangerously acidic papers as mats and floats.

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Fortunately, funding secured as a result of the scandal helped former collection manager Susan Foster put the pieces together again. Works were freed from their acid mounts and stored in a vault specially constructed with light and climate controls. More recently, an anonymous donor provided for the creation of a proper catalogue for the collection, whose peculiar history helps explain how it got into trouble in the first place.

The CU collection was begun in 1939 by art-history professor Alden Megrew, who started buying works on paper to use as teaching tools. "The idea was to teach students how to look at real works of art instead of only being exposed to reproductions in books," says Krane. Megrew, who taught at CU for nearly forty years until he retired in the 1970s, not only launched the collection, but guided its formation as well. So did professor emeritus John Hoag, and Krane says that in recent years, other CU art and art-history faculty, including Alex Sweetman, Betty Woodman and Ron Bernier, "pushed the collection in certain ways."

The involvement of so many people, coupled with Megrew's original goal of collecting teaching tools, has meant that though the collection has great range, it has little depth. There are some stylistic holes that a truck could be driven through, such as a decided lack of abstraction. On the other hand, the collection has a surfeit of pop art--so much so that Krane has essentially skipped over the style for now and is planning a separate pop show next year.

The university clearly does not yet have a handle on where much of the collection came from. For instance, when asked for details about Anna C. Hoyt, an important benefactor responsible for many of the old-master prints included in the current show, Krane can say only that "we're just now at the stage where we're starting to gather that kind of information."

Krane spent months examining and exploring the collection--a process she describes as "like a treasure hunt"--and found several gems such as a rare and much-sought-after David Smith ink drawing. Because of the wide diversity of the works she found, Krane decided that the easiest way to organize the virtually unorganizable material into a coherent show was to sort things into four thematic categories--"Portraits and Portrayals," "Satire and Social Commentary," "Our Place in Nature" and "Picturing the Body."

The exhibit begins with "Portraits and Portrayals," which in this case means pictures of people. The choices Krane made reflect the collection's chief strength: its many memorable prints. CU has a nice group of old masters, some choice modern masters, real depth in 1930s and 1940s regionalism, and lots of figurative stuff from the last twenty years.

Krane may have removed objects from their historical context, but she took pains to group like items together. One of the oldest pieces in the show, a print of Albrecht DYrer's breathtakingly detailed 1511 woodcut "Last Judgment," is shown alongside other European prints that are from entirely different countries--and centuries--but that reflect the same traditional sensibilities.

"Portraits and Portrayals" includes two Picassos. Next to the splendid 1933 etching "The Sculptor's Studio," from the legendary "Vollard Suite," is the gorgeous 1954 lithograph, "A Troupe of Actors." Other standouts in the first section include Werner Drewes's primitive 1931 woodcut of an African-American woman, and a similar, though more lyrical, view of a seated woman in "Mujer Sentada," a 1945 lithograph by Mexican artist Alfredo Zalce.

Among the many contemporary pieces in this section are an Andy Warhol silkscreen, a silkscreen by Alex Katz, a pair of Robert Longo lithographs, and one of those oddball Philip Guston lithographs. The Guston, 1980's "Curtain," might be equally at home in the next section, "Satire and Social Commentary." Then again, this weird view of heads in a landscape might fit into any number of categories.

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