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Art Review

Currier Museum reveals its secrets

Exhibit shows the backstory behind the works of art

Georgia O'Keeffe's 'Cross by the Sea' is displayed in a glass case that shows both the front and the back. Georgia O'Keeffe's "Cross by the Sea" is displayed in a glass case that shows both the front and the back. (Currier Museum of Art)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 17, 2010

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — “The Secret Life of Art: Mysteries of the Museum Revealed’’ at the Currier Museum of Art is more a museum exhibit than an art show. Oh, it’s jammed with art, but it has none of the poetry of a well-made exhibit, with visual and thematic confluences among works that, ideally, elucidate and amplify each one. “The Secret Life of Art’’ is a different beast. It pulls the curtain back on the inner machinations of the museum. There’s a degree of institutional navel-gazing, which more museums engage in as they assess their role as arbiters of culture. But it’s full of backstory, much of which is fascinating.

Andrew Spahr, the Currier’s director of collections and exhibitions, worked with a team of three curators and three staffers from the education department to develop the show, which answers questions Currier visitors posed in response to an online survey: How does a work of art become a masterpiece? How does a museum collect? What’s the science behind connoisseurship?

It even gets down to the nitty-gritty, with a giant wooden crate illustrating how a painting is shipped. In a blog that accompanies the show, Spahr chronicles flying the Atlantic in a cargo plane with Jan de Bray’s 1669 masterpiece, “The Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra.’’ The other freight: a dozen thoroughbred racehorses. This kind of storytelling makes the show a delight.

For instance, in the “Currier Collects’’ section, we learn that Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Red over Brown)’’ (1967) came to the museum from the estate of the painter’s friend and doctor, Albert Grokoest, whom Rothko met in 1956, seeking treatment for gout. Grokoest was buddies with New Hampshire artists Ed and Mary Scheier, with whom he visited the Currier. After the doctor’s 1991 death, the museum contacted his executor to borrow works by the Scheiers, and things went so smoothly, or schmoozingly, that the Rothko was eventually donated.

The exhibit takes several tacks on the question of identifying a masterpiece. Let’s start with Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1932 canvas “Cross by the Sea,’’ an unusual seascape for the artist, brilliant blue, crisply cut into a Modernist grid by a cross mounted above a small picket fence. The painting is in a clear box, so viewers can see front and back; the back, like a passport stamped with visas, has labels documenting every show the piece has been in, beginning with a handwritten one from the gallery of O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz. The more such labels, the higher a painting’s cachet.

Then there’s Charles Sheeler’s 1948 painting “Amoskeag Canal,’’ commissioned by the museum. The Currier’s director, Gordon Smith, facilitated the artist’s visit to Manchester. It’s a gem of the collection, a local scene by a giant of American Modernism, with the clean, brick-red planes of mill buildings framing the curve of the canal. Nearby hangs Sheeler’s study, “Amoskeag Mill Yard #1,’’ a less literal scene, based on the artist’s layering of his photographic negatives. It’s even more daringly modern, with long buildings converging sharply in a V. The museum passed on buying that painting — maybe it was too contemporary for the board. Thank heaven they purchased the study.

Also in the masterpiece section, there’s an Eames chair visitors can settle into to watch an old video of Arlene Francis chatting up Charles and Ray Eames. There’s a gorgeous mahogany desk and bookcase made by Judkins and Senter in 1813, and a detailed evocation of the joinery, including blocks visitors can play with. Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s epic survey photos of the Grand Canyon and other Western sites come along with an explanation of how government documents evolve into photographic masterpieces.

But the paintings seem to have the most stories. In a section titled “Behind the Scenes,’’ the tale unspools of the Nazi abduction of the private collection of Dr. Richard Neumann in Vienna, including Austrian painter Martin Johann Schmidt’s two exuberant Rococo portraits of saints. In 2007, Thomas Selldorff of Weston, Neumann’s grandson, saw the paintings returned to the family after years of legal battles. This is their first exhibition in the United State.

Across the gallery hangs Jan Miense Molenaer’s 1635 romp of a genre painting, “Cardplayers,’’ in which a gadfly grins at the viewer as a serving woman holds a mirror behind a player across the table. We’re treated to infrared reflectography of the painting, which reveals ghostly figures that didn’t make it into the ultimate composition.

The exhibit ends with a consideration of how curators make thematic links. Robert Rauschenberg’s 1968 lithograph “Gamble’’ hangs between works by Josef Albers and Annette Lemieux. The connection to Albers’s “Multiplex’’ woodcuts (made in 1947 and 1948) nods to Albers as Rauschenberg’s teacher, and draws out the essential geometry of “Gamble.’’ Lemieux’s photogravures, both titled “Censor’’ (1994), borrow images from popular culture, one of Rauschenberg’s hallmarks.

I learned a great deal wandering through “Behind the Scenes,’’ but it’s the delicious eyeful of art objects in conversation that truly draws me to museums — and there isn’t enough of that here. In the last gallery, Adolph Gottlieb’s bluesy, abstract 1956 nocturne “From Midnight to Dawn’’ hangs on one wall; visitors are invited to write a label. Beside it hangs Hans Hofmann’s gaudy, rainbow-hued, abstracted “Landscape’’ (1940). I found myself weary of labels and yearning to simply gaze at these two paintings, to let them do their work on my eyes and my imagination. If only the Rothko had hung beside them!

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

THE SECRET LIFE OF ART: Mysteries of the Museum Revealed At: Currier Museum of Art,

150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through Jan. 9. 603-669-6144, www.currier.org