UAMA: Academic, but Not Pedantic

University of Arizona Museum of Art, Tucson AZ

The Association of Academic Museums and Galleries says, “Great universities have great museums.” And, despite the unprepossessing façade of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, there is, indeed, some great art to be seen there.

The University of Arizona has had an Art Department and mounted art exhibitions since the early 1920s. In 1955, they broke ground on the dedicated museum facility that is still in use today. Over the years, alumni bequests and an important Kress Foundation donation have helped establish an impressive collection.

Our recent visit began with a leisurely wander through the special exhibition, You are Here: Mediated Understanding of Our World (on through April 1, 2018), organized around the idea that, throughout centuries, maps have served as tools of victory over reality. It made me think about the concept of “maps” more broadly than I have before.

Featuring functional maps and artworks that “incorporate cartographic vocabulary,” the exhibit explores themes of navigation, accuracy, presumed reality, and politics. Very engaging, the show includes items ranging from Renaissance to contemporary, from antique maps to modern representations of exploration and power.

Among the pieces that captured my attention were a complex engraving by William Hogarth, from his novel-length treatise, The Analysis of Beauty.

William Hogarth (British, 1697–1764), Zergliederung Ver!, 1753, etching/engraving 

According to the adjacent text, “The fundamental elements of beauty were hotly debated in the intellectual community of Hogarth’s time; the artist wished to educate scholars and common people alike on his understanding of aesthetics. Hogarth combines meticulous illustration and references to well-known classical sculpture, in order to create a map of contemporary aesthetics.” Note the amusing doodle-portrait in the lower right margin.

Also amusing was an engraving by Fred Becker, called Rapid Transit — from a series of woodblock prints commissioned by the WPA — that captures the chaotic energy of urban America. Per the adjacent text, “Rapid Transit does not map the literal urban environment, but rather the emotional and anxiety-inducing essence of an industrial American city.”

Fred Becker (American, 1913–2004) “Rapid Transit” 1938–39, Wood engraving

Adjacent to the special exhibition gallery is an alcove, in which was displayed a small selection of Jacques Lipchitz’ cubist sculptures, drawn from the museum’s collection of about 90 examples of his work.

Another special exhibition, The American West: The Myth And The Mirror, curated by two MFA candidates, was being installed, so we could only peer in through the doorway before heading upstairs to the permanent collection galleries. The Myth and the Mirror uses works from the Museum’s holdings to consider both glorified and more nuanced views of the American West. (on through April 1, 2018).

We were stopped on the stairway landing by a large and colorful photo-realistic painting by Audrey Flack, called Marilyn (Vanitas). In the tradition of Dutch vanitas still life paintings, it is brim-full of objects associated with the transience of life.

Audrey Flack (American, b.1931), “Marilyn (Vanitas)”, 1977; Oil over acrylic on canvas

The adjacent wall text points out many of the details that add interest, highlighting the conceptual intricacy of the piece. For example, along with an image of Marilyn Monroe, the calendar is open to her date of death, a modern-day memento mori (reminder of death).

The UAMA collection includes many works by top-caliber artists, including Rothko, Kerry James Marshall, and Edward Hopper. Here are just a couple that I spent some time contemplating.

I’ve always particularly liked the work of 19th century American Tonalist, George Inness, so I was pleased to see his End of the Rain, which beautifully illustrates his ability to convey atmosphere. The adjacent text says, “In this piece the tones work deeply to capture that heavy, misty feeling that pervades after rain has ended.”

George Inness (American, 1825–1894) “End of the Rain”, 1891, Oil on canvas

I’m not personally a huge fan of Jackson Pollock’s “action paintings”, but I was intrigued by this one — as much by the back side of it as the front! In fact, it was displayed especially to show off the back of the piece. The adjacent text tells us that 1950 was Pollock’s most prolific year, and the only year he painted in this 22"-square format. This piece was painted on the back of a game board — the Autograph Baseball Game created by F. J. Raff in 1948.

Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956), “Number 20, 1950", oil on masonite gameboard

Interesting to be able to see some of where it’s been in the past 65+ years. Labels show that Number 20, 1950 has been loaned to museums in both Munich and Cologne (1981), the Zimmerli Art Museum in NJ, and to the Whitney Museum in NYC for a show called The American Century (1999). Notable also are the stickers with obvious care admonishments, like, “Do not hang in direct sunlight or over heating vent” and “Report damage. Do not touch up or repair.”

The real joy of UAMA for my companion and me — both of us Renaissance art geeks — was the Samuel H. Kress Collection, featuring religious and secular works from the 13th through 18th centuries.

Samuel Henry Kress (1863–1955) was one of the most important American collectors of European art, acquiring more than 3000 paintings, sculptures and decorative objects during his lifetime. His donation of more than half his collection was instrumental in the founding of the National Gallery in Washington DC, and the rest — some 1300 works — he donated to smaller, regional museums across the US. UAMA was one of 18 museums selected, receiving a permanent gift of 64 objects in 1961.

The highlight for us was the gallery displaying 26 panels from the Gothic Spanish Altarpiece from the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Ascension in Ciudad Rodrigo. Originally there were more than 26 panels, each depicting a scene from the life of Jesus, arrayed in a massive gilt frame on the wall of the apse, behind the altar in the Cathedral. But, at some point, they were deemed “old-fashioned” and removed to the cloister, where they were exposed to weather, and some were damaged during the Peninsular War of 1812. During World War II they were sent to the US for safekeeping, and it was then that Samuel Kress purchased them.

Painted by Fernando and Francisco Gallego and Maestro Bartolomé in a new style that combined the intense religious emotion and use of gold typical of Spanish art, with the tendencies of Flemish art toward realism and landscape. Oil paint —fairly new to Spanish art — was used, giving the works a richness of color and depth that could not have been achieved with traditional egg-based tempera pigments.

The adjacent didactic signage reminded me that UAMA is an academic museum with a teaching purpose.

One example that particularly drew my attention was the panel highlighting the difference in style between Maestro Bartolomé and Fernando Gallego. It zeroed in on how each of the artists handled drapery, reminding me not just to look, but to really see!

Many smaller museums across the US are on college and university campuses. Often the first exposure for many young people to original art, they are temples of learning for the next generation of cultural leaders. Many, like UAMA, have exemplary collections and curate top-notch exhibitions. And they are open to all of us!

I wish that all men with the love of art in their souls would take these words to heart: Help build collections in every corner of our land. — C. Leonard Pfeiffer, the first major donor to the UAMA

I am an art geek, writing about art, exhibitions and museums. Discover more than 1600 art museums, artist studios, historic houses and gardens across the US.

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