the juxtaposition: selections from Show Off..
By David Brickman
Off: Directors Select From Their Museum Collections
Albany International Airport
Gallery, through Feb. 16
When is something a work of art, and when is it merely an
artifact? You may find yourself less sure than you thought
about the answer to that question after viewing Show Off
at the Albany International Airport Gallery.
Inspired in part by the success of two recent shows of unusual
private collections, curator Sharon Bates and guest Charles
Stainback assembled the fascinating display after the directors
of 55 museums in the Capital Region (geographically undefined,
but in this case stretching from Lake Placid in the north
to Staatsburg in the south, and from Cooperstown east to North
Adams, Mass.) each chose one favorite object from their institutions’
holdings. To fully encompass an array this diverse, the word
eclectic would need at least a couple more syllables.
How to sum it up in a short review? Allow me to just meander
among the highlights and recommend that you go see for yourself—the
gallery is open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, so you
have ample opportunity.
Among my favorite items in this show are two that do not defy
the art/artifact conundrum. No human hand was involved in
the creation of the New York State Museum’s Randolph mammoth
skull—it’s definitely an artifact—but transporting and installing
the 4-foot skull with 9-foot tusks must have been a feat of
Equally weighty, and an undeniably masterful work of art,
is Isamu Noguchi’s massive sculpture Study for Black Sun
from the Empire State Plaza Art Collection. A 5-foot wheel
of cast iron with marvelously seductive notches, it takes
the medium of horseshoes and andirons to an otherworldly dimension.
Between these impressive bookends are things unassuming and
grand, meticulously crafted and spontaneous, functional and
fearsome. The layout is such that intriguing juxtapositions
are not only possible—they are impossible to avoid.
Who, for example, could resist being touched by the pairing
of a 1770 document created for the purpose of presentation
to Indians who had performed special service to the king of
England (from the Johnson Hall State Historic Site) and a
copy of the last known photo of Civil War hero and former
U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, taken days before he succumbed
to throat cancer (from the Grant Cottage State Historic Site)?
Another such symbolic connection was created within a submission
by the director of Historic Cherry Hill, who combined a wooden
vise with a silver-and-glass mustard pot to represent how
the house’s old-money occupants felt squeezed “from above
by new millionaires, and from below by the immigrant working
More celebratory in nature is the offering from the Albany
County Historical Association at Ten Broeck Mansion. Consisting
of a wooden wine case, straw bottle covers and bottles of
rare vintage wine, the display tells the story of a treasure
trove of potables that were discovered in a sealed chamber
of the house and auctioned off in 1977 to raise funds so the
place could be preserved.
Other delights come in the form of a recently acquired addition
to the collection at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
(who knew they were still buying stuff?) and a Welsh slate
fan from the Slate Valley Museum. The former is a lovely silvered
bronze Hebe and the Eagle of Jupiter by 18th-century
French sculptor Jules Franceschi; the latter is an exquisitely
handmade (but apparently useless) object that demonstrates
the versatility of the quarried stone.
Throughout the exhibition space, the hauntingly beautiful
sounds of digitally manipulated chimes can be heard coming
from the MASS MoCA entry, a descriptive panel and sound installation
based on the renovation of the former factory’s clocktower
by artist Christina Kubisch.
One of the great benefits of this show, and perhaps its raison
d’être, is that it makes you realize how many museums there
are around here—not just the big-name places like the Tang
Teaching Museum and Art Gallery (which submitted a copy of
artist Ed Ruscha’s groundbreaking 1966 book Every Building
on the Sunset Strip), the Williams College Museum of Art
(a gorgeous train photograph by O. Winston Link) or the Albany
Institute of History & Art (a ravishingly detailed cast-iron
It’s the discovery of a Seneca Ray Stoddard panoramic photograph
of the Fort William Henry Hotel—together with the circa-1910
camera that made it—from the Chapman Historical Museum, or
an anonymous Amish quilt from the New York Folklore Society,
or the bamboo-structured replica of a 1909 Demoiselle
aircraft (also known as the “infuriated grasshopper”) from
the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum, that really makes this
And there’s much, much more. From the elegant simplicity of
the Shaker Museum and Library’s oval box to the elaborately
furnished three-story (plus attic) dollhouse from the collection
of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Show Off lives
up to its name.