The curator of The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston discusses the museum’s recent acquisitions, from Jasper Johns to Philip Guston.
How long have you been with the museum?
Where are you from originally?
I’m that rare breed, a native Manhattanite.
And one living in Texas, no less!
What have you noticed about the progression of the collection over those sixteen years?
Good lord, it’s boomed. It’s been really gratifying to see the growth of the collection. It’s been staggering. The [Audrey Jones] Beck building brought forth many gifts and then with this show, the collection has just grown so much in the last ten years.
How long has it been since there’s been an exhibition showcasing this collection?
Actually there hasn’t been one like this in I don’t know how long. It’s about time because many people consider Jasper Johns the greatest living artist, and we’ve never been able to show our three paintings by him altogether. We already had Ventriloquist in the collection, and then we bought a painting called Untitled (Red, Yellow, Blue), which is one of two works in his oeuvre that started out as a print. It started out as three plates printed on top of each other and then he did them as three separate images.
About how many are in the collection overall?
How many are on view in this exhibit?
How in the world do you narrow that down?
Trial and error and tears. What I do is I sort of get images of everything I think I may want and then in the design studio we have scale models of the gallery so they create scale models of the works. Then I can start working there and see what works and what doesn’t.
Do themes emerge when you set it up in the galleries? How do you decide how to group them?
It’s somewhat thematic. We wanted to show strengths in particular artists. For instance, you’ll come in to this group of Jasper Johns and then there’s a very long gallery, which will be basically Abstract Expressionists. We have a very strong collection of Jackson Pollock. We have a wonderful Robert Motherwell painting called Black on White.
Other highlights? Personal favorites?
We had one great Franz Kline, and then Mrs. Caroline Wiess Law (a longtime patron who left the museum $400 million) left us three, including what is absolutely his last masterpiece after he returned to color called Orange and Black Wall. It’s spectacularly dramatic.
Is that something that has not been on view before?
We haven’t been able to show it because it required some conservation. Now we’re ready to show it to the world.
Are there other pieces long-time museum goers will be surprised to discover?
Ten years ago we had one Philip Guston painting. Mrs. Law left us a mid-period Guston from his Abstract Expressionist period, and then we just received two more late Gustons.
What is the range of dates of these pieces?
It goes from the forties. Well, actually probably the earliest is a Jackson Pollock, his first overall composition picture, called, strangly enough, Overall Composition, which is from the mid to late thirties, and it will go to very recent work, certainly to 2000. One of our great things that we never get to show is a 1949 Aleander Calder mobile called International Mobile, all white, sixteen feet by sixteen feet.
Is that the largest?
That’s the largest piece but there are some very big paintings. We have a Kiefer from 2000 called Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom, which is 110.5 by 197 inches.
How do you work around these large pieces? Are they primarily in their own gallery?
That’s what the model’s for. But the thing is, you work with the model and you think you’ve got it, and then you get into the gallery and are working with the real art, and it speaks to you in a different way.
The image that we’re using is Al Held’s Taxi Cab I. Will you tell me more about him.
I love that. Al Held was known as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist. He was in the same generation as Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Al Leslie. I think it’s a group of really interesting artists who got left behind in the shuffle. He went on to a more geometric structure, but these four Taxi Cab paintings from 1959 were sort of rediscovered in the 80s.
I take it there are more paintings than sculptures in this exhibit?
It’s a mix. There is certainly much more painting, but there will be major sculptures, starting with the Calder. There is a wonderful Lee Bontecou wall-mounted sculpture from 1962. I’ll be showing the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s Song of Strength, which to me is perhaps his greatest work. And then there will be our first chance to show another Edward R. Broida bequest, the Wolfgang Laib Milkstone. I’m hoping also to show Jonathan Borofsky’s 2,845,318 Molecule Man.
What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing this exhibit?
I think people don’t realize the strength of our collection and what a really strong modern and contemporary collection we have. There are works I’ve been itching to show that I just haven’t been able to. I’m most eager about the combinations and the strengths of artists we have in depth, like Johns and Guston.
Read Jordan Breal’s review of “Modern and Contemporary Masterworks From the MFAH” opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Dec 8–March 2).