Delighting in his acquiring
Collector’s affection for discovery, landscapes, and abstractions on display in Fitchburg exhibit
FITCHBURG — Collectors come in all shapes, sizes, and currencies. That said, the genus tends to fall into two basic groups: those who accumulate and those who acquire. For accumulators, more really is more. Think of Andy Warhol’s cookie jars, or William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. For acquirers, less is more — so long as it’s the right less. That rightness may be as much a matter of style or genre, technique or period, as quality. The important point is that the purchases fit the character of the collection rather than just fill up the warehouse.
Jude Peterson was an acquirer. He had a distinct collecting sensibility. He liked landscapes, abstractions, images of the West. Those categories share obvious, and intriguing, possibilities for overlap. Yet Peterson also collected street photography and images of rural Ireland. Nor did he restrict himself to any one period. Although he favored contemporary photographers, he also owned works by a 19th-century master like Peter Henry Emerson. And he didn’t discriminate between color and black-and-white. One of Peterson’s purchases, John Pfahl’s “Canyon Point, Zion National Park, Utah,’’ might be seen as a final comment on the idea of a chromatic divide in photography. The delicacy of its palette is such that it’s more the memory of color than itself.
Only 43 when he died, in 2009, Peterson had already spent more than two decades collecting photographs. Ninety-six of the 300 images he bequeathed to the Fitchburg Art Museum are on display in “The Jude Peterson Photography Collection.’’ It runs through March 20.
There are famous names here — Edward Weston, Edward S. Curtis, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith — but no famous images. What self-respecting collector wants pictures that everyone else already owns, even if that ownership is only in the imagination? There are, however, a few reminiscent-of pictures. William Clift’s “Enchanted Mesa, New Mexico’’ recalls Timothy O’Sullivan’s celebrated photograph of Canyon de Chelly. (A useful collecting rule: If you can’t get what you want, get what looks like what you want.)
Discovery is central to the idea of collecting — discovering not just what’s new on the market, but also what, ideally, is new to the collector, too. One senses that feeling of discovery throughout the show, which lends it a consistent quality of freshness. Part of that is circumstantial. The seven Carl Chiarenza abstractions look different in the same gallery with three Bradford Washburn landscapes, and vice versa. Two of the Washburns beautifully illustrate the cousinage of landscape and abstraction. Not that there’s anything abstract about the third Washburn, “Twilight, Mt. Blackburn; Close-up of the South Face, 13,500 ft., Aug. 15, 1938.’’ How could there be, with such a muscularly specific title — let alone so magnificent a band of clouds mocking the mountain’s bulk?
Peterson was partial to images with a clean, even pristine look. One suspects he would have felt right at home in Brett Weston’s darkroom (the show includes two of his photographs). John Sexton’s “Aspens’’ is a particularly fine example of the type. Yet even the most focused collector can have a roving eye. Sexton’s aspen forest seems more than just half a continent away from Jim Dow’s triptych “View of Boston Garden,’’ or half a century from Marion Post Wolcott’s Depression-era “Child with rickets.’’ They look anomalous here, as Sexton’s photo does not. Of course they didn’t look that way to Peterson. Art collectors, after all, accumulators and acquirers both, are also spellers. And “anomaly’’ begins with the same letter as “ardor’’ and “acquisition’’ — or, for that matter, “aspens.’’
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.