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Art Review

Rose Art Museum display justifies the passions

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 5, 2009

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WALTHAM - For almost a year, the news out of Brandeis University about its Rose Art Museum has been dismaying.

First came Brandeis’s extraordinary announcement in January that it intended to shut down the Rose and sell its collection of 7,000-odd works to help solve a university budget crisis. Then, in the face of widespread public condemnation, Brandeis announced an oddly incomplete about-face: The museum would stay open, but director Michael Rush would go, staffing would be cut, and some works might still be sold.

Now comes the museum’s astounding new show, “The Rose at Brandeis: Works From the Collection’’ - providing, finally, a true look at the scope, coherence, and sheer distinction of the Rose’s permanent collection.

This show makes it indisputable: Nowhere in the Boston area is it possible to get, in one gulp, a comparable sense of the excitement engendered by European and especially American modernism.

Nowhere can you so fully appreciate just what it was that established American preeminence in postwar art. And nowhere else do you get a substantial and contextualized sense of how photography and developments in contemporary art have extended and transformed this tradition.

These revelations bring in their wake various aftershocks. The first arrives as a question: Why, oh why, was a collection of such tremendous quality not placed on permanent display?

The Rose did use its collection as fodder for a steady succession of themed temporary exhibitions. But if people had been given the chance to appreciate the full extent of what the Rose has to offer, rather than being offered fragments of it, might it not have become better known, more frequented? And might this not have prevented the threatened shutdown and sale?

We’ll never find out. But it’s sobering to know that Rush did indeed have plans - well advanced, he told me - to build a new wing that would allow a good portion of the collection to be put on permanent display.

For now, the entire museum is given over to this show, which runs until May 23 and is accompanied by a glossy new catalog. The exhibit is divided into themed categories. First, on the museum’s elegant entrance level, come modernism, surrealism, and social realism. Among the highlights are a small “Reclining Nude’’ by Picasso, showing his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, in ecstatic slumber; an elongated still life by Georges Braque in tremblingly autumnal colors; and a young male bather by Cézanne.

On the whole, exhibit co-curators Adelina Jedrzejczak and Roy Dawes have favored paintings over drawings. A fine Matisse drawing in the collection was presumably omitted by this criterion. But you can see why Oskar Kokoschka’s large drawing of a bony nude hunched in an expression of shame or torment made the cut. It’s woundingly raw.

Three paintings by Milton Avery do at least channel the spirit of Matisse. The best is “Avery Family,’’ a scene à table that combines Avery’s special penchant for in-between colors (chartreuse, rust brown, graying yellow) with a light, oxygenated touch.

The downstairs gallery is dedicated to photography. Classic images in black and white by the likes of André Kertész, Weegee, and Walker Evans rub shoulders with larger works by an all-star contemporary cast: Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Richard Prince, and Matthew Barney.

But if you think all that sounds good, it’s in the neighboring Lois Foster wing, a large and beautiful space that was added to the museum’s original building in 2001, that at last we get a hearty dollop of the Rose’s tremendous postwar holdings: one after the other, sensational works by de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Jasper Johns, Philip Guston, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, and Louise Nevelson.

The de Kooning, an untitled abstraction from 1961 in a dancing palette of blue, yellow, and pink, is hard to beat. But staring it down on a facing wall is an imperious Ellsworth Kelly - a large abstraction of blue shapes on white - that feels as surprising and delightful to the senses as two elephants tentatively touching backsides.

Abstraction, however, is only the beginning. The show also offers a reminder of how impressive are the museum’s holdings of photorealist work. Look out in particular for paintings by Robert Bechtle and Robert Cottingham, both transportingly cool.

In a section devoted to pop art are fine things by Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol. But nothing was quite as surprising as Jim Dine’s 1962 jest “Double Red Bathroom,’’ a painting that comes replete with two protruding bathroom mirrors, a red toothbrush, and a roll of red toilet paper. Dawes, director of museum operations, said the museum has a spare roll in storage should anything untoward befall the original.

The displays of color field painting and minimalist art (Morris Louis, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, etc.) are also brilliant. And a section dedicated to contemporary art contains terrific pieces by Mary Heilmann, Dana Schutz, and Roxy Paine.

Given what is on show, it is amazing to discover from the catalog what works were omitted: Hans Hofmann, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Anthony Caro, and Nam June Paik are just some of the big name artists who fell by the wayside. And it is deeply disappointing that no room was found for Hyman Bloom’s extraordinary “Corpse of an Elderly Male.’’ Bloom died earlier this year. This was a chance to put one of his signature paintings on display, at a time when every other New England museum with Blooms in its collection has failed to do so.

The quality of the Rose’s collection is beyond doubt. What is still in doubt is whether Brandeis will sell any of it. If it does, as Dawes acknowledges, the decision would have consequences.

The Rose, if it continues to function as a museum, would almost certainly be excommunicated from the community of other art museums for breaching a code against selling works (unless it is for the purpose of buying other art). It could be unable to secure loans of work from other museums. This would have a huge impact on its ability to mount exhibitions, and on its ability to attract a replacement director, if it seeks to do so.

It is incredible that this whole crisis occurred in the first place. More incredible, in the light of this extraordinary show, is the fact that the Rose remains in a state of limbo.

“The Rose at Brandeis: Works From the Collection’’ is at the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, through May 23. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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