Danielle’s ARTicles: ‘A Decade of Collecting’
It is a rarity to view the notorious photograph, “Migrant Mother,” by Dorothea Lange, up close, let alone to see it in the same room as a small Matisse woodcut and a large Kiki Smith drawing, among the work of other acclaimed artists. To celebrate the acquisition of over 700 works on paper by the Saint Louis Art Museum in the past 10 years, a carefully curated and exciting show entitled “A Decade of Collecting Prints, Drawings and Photographs” is now on view in galleries 234 and 235.
Curators Elizabeth Wyckoff and Eric Lutz described many of their recent acquisitions as pleasant surprises. Full of unexpected yet extremely welcomed gifts, from both anonymous donors and local collectors, most of the art on view now has not had an opportunity to be displayed in the galleries before. Part of the reason this exhibit is so special is the fact that paper is light sensitive. The museum holds strict conservation rules about preserving these objects for posterity. This exhibition also celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Study Room for Prints, Drawings and Photographs by showing off an astonishing selection of 62 works on paper.
A piece that stands out in the first gallery is a chromogenic print by Mickalene Thomas titled “Din, une tres belle Negress #1,” printed in 2015. The large photograph is one of only three prints of this particular image made by the artist. This portrait magnetizes its viewer with the poised gaze of a young African American woman. Her black lips and hair are just as bold as the striking gold and royal blue floral prints that cover her clothing and backdrop. The name of the work is French for “Din, a very beautiful black woman,” and, as this title suggests, the image certainly highlights the models’ beauty, darkness and sexual awareness.
“[The model] is a student named Din who the artist worked with,” associate curator Eric Lutz said. “She is apparently a very shy person, but, once she’s made up with this wig, elaborate makeup, clothing and this set design, she assumes another personality and asserts this great confidence. This is a very different way to think about what a portrait can mean in today’s age.”
Lutz also pointed out that this piece is one that must be seen in person to get the full impact. Its vivacity and vibrant colors, as well as the way Thomas has captured the character in a narrow range of focus, at a larger-than-life scale, all contribute to the breathtaking portrayal.
Although the Thomas photo is juxtaposed between two other social documentary and portraiture pieces, one by Nan Goldin and the other by Birney Imes, it also shares the room with a vitrine that holds two archaic books. The “Nuremberg Chronicle” from 1493, with original woodcut illustrations that cover biblical world history, as well as a letterpress book called “The Water of the Wondrous Isles,” by William Morris from 1897, with design references to early medieval manuscripts that sit side-by-side. Both books showcase beautifully embellished details, and, because these leafy pages are on display in the center of the gallery space, the publications act as a reminder to the viewer that all of the acquired art in this show holds the immense delicacy of paper material.
One unique use of paper that is quite astonishing upon entrance to the second gallery is the William Kentridge series, “Sheets of Evidence,” from 2009. Four out of a collection of 18 watermark drawings on paper are illuminated by the light sheets that hang behind them, acting much like a light box or fluorescent bulb, to reveal simple line drawings. Curator Elizabeth Wyckoff recalls receiving the series inside of a box—a short stack of plain white pages do not become the digitally watermarked drawings that they are until held up to the light.
“I don’t know of any artist who has made drawings in watermarks like this,” Wyckoff said. “It shows [Kentridge’s] creativity and ingenuity…he made the drawings that were then digitally stitched into the paper mold.”
The playfulness of this series perfectly interacts with Kentridge’s known work, specifically his animated films and energetic drawings. His lines are further activated by this unconventional use of digital watermarks.
The way that the installation crew at the museum utilized new technology with the light sheets in order to display Kentridge’s series was just as brilliant (literally) as the artist’s practice. The light sheets are usually needed to investigate the age of a print on paper, as its watermark reveals just how old a master print might be. For instance, Wyckoff used another featured print in the exhibition, from the 1400s, as an example of when she would use the watermark to check the paper’s origin.
There are too many distinguished photos, prints and drawings that have been acquired by SLAM in the past decade to pinpoint them all here, but “A Decade of Collecting” should be viewed in person in order to fully appreciate the department’s growth. All 62 of these delicate works on paper, spanning from 15th century engravings to contemporary photographs printed in 2015, are rightfully celebrated and on view from January 29 through July 17, 2016.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that “Din, une tres belle Negress #1” was printed in 2015, not 2011.