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Color me bronze: Louise Nevelson’s Self Portrait.

Home Is Where the Art Is
By David Brickman

Form(ation): Modern & Contemporary Works From the Feibes and Schmitt Collection
The Hyde Collection, through Dec. 7

Whenever I enter someone’s home for the first time, I can’t help checking out the art. Usually, there isn’t much—even more rarely much of real interest—but it’s an opportunity to see something otherwise hidden and an irresistible window on the soul of the occupant, whether old friend or new acquaintance.

In the case of Werner Feibes and James Schmitt, Schenectady-based partners in architectural practice (and in life), this window has been flung wide for all the world to see in an intriguing and challenging exhibition at the Hyde Collection titled Form(ation). The purpose of the show, selected and installed by Hyde director Randall Suffolk, is to examine the process of forming, over a 50-year period, a collection of art particularly involved in form.

Though there is a conceptual range from dada to abstract expressionism to pop to op, the unifying factors in this collection are taste (as ineluctable as it is individual) and a fairly strict modern/
postmodern esthetic. A great deal of the work is nonobjective—that is, the image is not simply reductive of natural forms to abstraction or minimalism; rather, it springs forth directly from form itself, representing nothing else. It is hardly surprising that a pair of architects would tend in this direction; it is, however, pretty eye-opening to see what an impressive collection they have amassed.

Suffolk points out in a short introduction to the exhibit that there is “not one museum” in the Capital Region with such a broad and high-quality collection of 20th-century art, naming the Rockefeller collection at the Empire State Plaza as perhaps its only rival. Though this is no exaggeration, it is important to remember that the work shown here was chosen to be lived with, not displayed in public, and the Hyde does a good job of retaining the feeling of personal intimacy in this installation.

Comprising more than 55 works by 35 artists, Form(ation) features paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints and collages (or constructions); it is roughly divided into two groups: art in color and art in black-and-white. Both halves are strong, but it is my gut reaction that the black-and-white is where the collectors’ hearts really live, and many of the most outstanding works on view are marvelous examples of how much an artist can do with just line, contrast and composition.

Take, for example, Ellsworth Kelly’s 1980 collage drawing Slow Curve, which presents a square floating in a white space, its dark lower half separated from its white upper half by a diagonal edge. At first, the dividing line appears straight, but it slowly dawns on you that it is, in fact, a very subtle curve, exactly as the title suggests. Juxtaposed with this piece, in one of many sublime living-room moments in the installation, is Stephen Antonakis’ 1976 graphite drawing Fragment of a Circle, in which the titular form, in white, is set against a rich, dark background.

Together, the two pieces reinforce the lesson to the eye, telling us to look more carefully, more openly, more receptively. But they are just part of a setup along the rear wall of the spacious gallery that takes 13 works and makes them sing together in a lyrical chorus of call and response. Also among this group are a delicious Josef Albers gouache from 1929, a 1971 Robert Motherwell oil-on-canvas, a one-of-a-kind cast-bronze figure made around 1940 by Louise Nevelson, and three pieces by Jean Arp that span nearly four decades. If it weren’t so subtly presented, it would be breathtaking. As it is, it is exhilarating.

The Nevelson, incidentally, is a self-
portrait and one of the truly outstanding pieces in the collection. Another Nevelson, instantly recognizable as one of her black spray-painted box constructions, joins other more boldly conceived works in another part of the gallery where color has its say. In that section of the room, there are paintings by Grace Hartigan, Ray Parker, Paul Burlin, Gene Davis and Milton Resnick that energize with busy brushwork and a bright palette.

Nearby, the wittily phallocentric Woody by a very young Keith Haring and several more Arps, as well as a very strong eye-teaser by Bridget Riley and a slowly waving, mirror-finished George Rickey, remind us of these collectors’ (monochromatic) priorities. Another Rickey, mounted outside, can be seen through one of the big, angled windows that allow plenty of natural light into the gallery, an increasingly rare phenomenon in museums these days and most welcome in this particular installation.

Other aspects of the installation are less perfectly rendered. A large Sol LeWitt sculpture, titled Wall Piece #2, Cube Structure Based on Nine Modules, is inexplicably mounted on a low Lucite pedestal on the floor—in the catalog it is shown properly projecting out from a wall—although a lot of trouble appears to have been taken to create a large alcove just for the sculpture. Elsewhere, some pieces are stacked or crowded together—perhaps in the spirit of hominess, but in this case somewhat at the expense of satisfying viewing.

There are a few disappointments in the selection as well. An apparent drawing from 1941 by Wassily Kandinsky turns out, upon close inspection, to be a heliogravure reproduction initialed and numbered by someone other than the artist in who-knows-what-year. Perhaps it would have been better left out. Also, Man Ray’s It’s Springtime (a dadaist construction of two bedsprings tied together in a cross formation), with its little etched plaque bearing the artist’s signature, the title and an edition number, feels more like a collector’s item produced for the market than the spontaneous and irreverent work of art that the original would have been. And, let’s face it, that’s a pretty bad pun to begin with.

But there is far more here to enjoy and celebrate than lapses of this sort can begin to tarnish; the show is a generous gift to art lovers, and may just presage a future permanent gift of work from the collection to the Hyde (that’s a guess, by the way, not a scoop). In the meantime, the Hyde has unwittingly added a terrific new piece to Feibes’ and Schmitt’s collection that I suspect they’re happy to have: a big Christo-esque wrapped building, in the form of the Hyde House next door, shrouded in plastic-covered scaffolding for extensive renovations. It fits the collection as if it was meant to be there—happenstance adding to careful consideration.

 

 


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