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More than meets the eye

By  Stephanie Reike Miller


A new exhibit calls for curators to take a refreshingly novel approach, and aims to provoke audiences to rethink conventional expectations of art, history and the museum experience.

When University of Michigan Museum of Art Director Joe Rosa brought up the idea of organizing an exhibition of material completely removed from her field of expertise as part of the Museum’s new Flip Your Field: Abstract Art from the Collect, a series supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Celeste Brusati jumped at the chance.

The exhibit opens June 8 and runs until Sept. 2 in the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery I.

As U-M Professor of History of Art, Women’s Studies, and Art and Design, whose scholarly interests center around seventeenth-century Dutch art and culture, she is well versed in multiple methodological and conceptual approaches to works of art. According to Professor Brusati, though seemingly a world apart, in many ways twentieth-century abstract prints and Dutch realist imagery share more than meets the eye.

“I believe all figuration involves abstraction; one has to abstract in order to make a very precise, naturalist, realist image, we just don’t recognize it as such,” said Professor Brusati. “Certain Dutch artists central to my research, notably Johannes Vermeer and Pieter Saenredam, are abstract in many ways. Rather than treating them as modernists before the fact, I try to understand the abstract dimensions of their art in relation to artistic concerns of their own time.”

After perusing a few thousand prints in the UMMA collections, Professor Brusati found a number of things that piqued her interest and that also dovetailed with issues that informed her work. Instead of considering artists as an organizing principle, she decided to focus on visual impact and correlating themes like perspective and medium.

“I have been thinking about horizons a lot, and what caught my eye right away were those prints with very tightly designed, very rectilinear, carefully framed compositions,” said Professor Brusati. “When we look at any array of lines and colors on a surface, we tend to look for orienting vectors, like horizons. I was particularly attuned to horizons because of their importance in northern European perspective theory and practice, especially in pictures that have many focal points, eccentric vanishing points, and variable horizon levels, from bird’s eye to worm’s eye views. I suddenly realized that there were a number of twentieth-century abstract artists who were making the horizon a subject, and that set me on my way.”

Professor Brusati was also struck by the range of techniques reflected in the works she was drawn to and thought that visitors would appreciate learning firsthand about this dynamic experimental moment of the mid-twentieth century. Some artists were exploring techniques of lithography and color woodblock printing, for instance, which led to exciting collaborations and exchanges among American, European, and Japanese printmakers.

“Once I reviewed the tentative exhibition checklist and began looking into the artists themselves, I realized in just how many ways their biographies were connected. Starting from visual prompts without particular historical questions in mind turned out to be an enormously stimulating approach to this material, something I cannot do in quite the same way when working in my own area of specialization. It made me think I should work that way more often. Who knows what I might learn in the process?”

Artists in the exhibition include Lee Bontecou, Helen Frankenthaler, Stanley Hayter, Wassily Kandinsky, Saitô Kiyoshi, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Motherwell, Joan Miró, Howardena Pindell, Anne Ryan, and Takahara Takeshi.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


TOP — Joan Miró, “The Skyline (La Ligne d’horizon),” 1938, drypoint and etching with roulette, Gift of Mrs. Florence L. Stol, 1964/2.51

MIDDLE — Rikio Takahashi, “Springfield,” 1964, color woodblock on paper, Gift of Dr. Seymour and Barbara K. Adelson, 2008/2.174

BOTTOM & MONTAGE HOMEPAGE — Helen Frankenthaler, “Tales of Genji I,” 1998, 33-color woodcut on light sienna TGH handmade paper, Museum purchase made possible by a gift from Helmut Stern, 1998/2.18