inFocus

February 2014

Alfond-Lunder Pavilion and Art Collection  reviewed by Carla Maria-Verdino S├╝llwold  Scene4 Magazine-February 2014

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

The Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion and Art Collection

Waterville is a gritty industrial town some seventy-five miles north of Maine's largest city, Portland. Situated on the Ticonic Falls of the Kennebec, in its heyday this community of fifteen thousand hosted a plethora of textile mills, but today, the last of these has closed, and the town is better known as the home of the respected Little Ivy liberal arts Colby College, where luminaries such as Pulitzer Prize writer Richard Russo have taught, the town inspiring his novel Empire Falls.

These days, however, it is the Colby College Museum of Art which is putting Waterville on the map.  With its new wing, the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion which opened in July 2013 and the Lunder donated gift of some five hundred art works, the Colby College Museum is now not only the largest in Maine, but also one of the premier institutions of American art in the country. In short, the half-century-old Colby Art Museum has become an important destination for art lovers everywhere.

"Transformative is the word that comes to mind," says Langlais Curator of Special Projects, Hannah Blunt of the Lunder pavilion and gift of art. Blunt, who wrote the catalog and oversaw the intake of the collection and management of this ambitious first exhibition, says that the museum's "previous gallery and storage space would not have been able to handle such a large and generous donation, so the announcement of the intended Lunder gift in 2007 necessitated plans to build a new wing."

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Designed by the Los Angeles firm of Frederick Fisher and Partners, the Alfond Lunder Family Pavilion is a minimalist design of prismic glass, aluminum, and granite, attached to the original neo-Georgian brick building. Though one might think this would create a jarring contrast, the structure, instead, seems an integral union of old and new, reflecting the natural and architectural surroundings in daylight and, when dramatically lit at night, glimpses of the art within. The fifteen million dollar project adds 26,000 square feet to the museum with four new galleries, as well as housing the college art department's studios, classrooms, offices, and student spaces on its upper floor and the museum administration on the ground floor. The overall aesthetic combines breathtaking drama with functionality and a philosophical emphasis on education. The building, together with the vast new acquisitions, will have far-reaching ramifications for Colby College and its community.

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Blunt speaks of the impact the Lunder gift has already made. "From the academic and scholarly standpoint, the museum has become an incredible resource for the study of American art, and the new physical space is a draw as well. We are now the largest museum in Maine and have become a destination both as a student hub and for visitors to Waterville and the college. On campus the lobby of the new pavilion has become a real gathering space for students; it is alive with so much activity and enthusiasm. And since the July opening, not only has the museum, but also the city seen increased visitors to its downtown restaurants, shops, and galleries."

The Colby College Museum of Art's evolution from a modest campus collection of American paintings and folk art into a world-class institution reads a little like a fairytale. In the early 1950s then Colby President J. Seelye Bixler convinced Adeline and Caroline Wing, whom he had known at Smith College, to donate paintings by Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase. Bequests of seventy-six important American works from Ellerton and Edith Jett├ę (of the Waterville Hathaway manufacturing family) followed, as did gifts from the co-founder of the nearby Skowhegan School of Painting. By 1959 two galleries were created within the Bixler Art and Music Center (today attached to the older museum wing), and the Colby College Museum of Art was inaugurated. During the 60s and 70s Museum Director Hugh Gourley III built the collection, securing acquisition funds and acquiring important bequests from the Jett├ę family, the Lunders, and artists such as John Marin, Richard Serra, Alex Katz (some 800 of his own works plus a foundation to acquire contemporary work). In addition to American art, Classical and Chinese antiquities, prints, and sculpture were gradually added.

In 2000 the new college President William D. Adams and Sharon Corwin, now the Carolyn Muzzi Director and Chief Curator, took the helm and made plans for an ambitious future. Finally, in 2007 Peter and Paula Lunder, who had donated the original Lunder Wing in 1999, now promised the museum their collection of five hundred works valued at $100 million and this gift, which combined with the funds from the Harold Alfond Foundation, led to the construction of the new pavilion.

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The choice of architects Frederick Fisher and Partners came about according to Blunt, in part because the Lunders and the museum already had a relationship with the firm. Fisher, who had designed the original 1999 Lunder wing, which harmonized with the traditional style of the college architecture. "This time the  architects enjoyed presenting a very surprising glass box design. Their vision was the building as a lantern, a transparent space that drew people into the design."

The current exhibition at the museum is designed to showcase the breadth and quality of the institution's holdings, as well as to pay tribute to the scope of the Lunder Collection. Discussing the donors as collectors, Blunt characterizes the Lunders as people "who buy what they love and what they want to live with. They tend to be fascinated with American art which, in and of itself, is eclectic," and they cherish the works they have chosen "almost as if they were children."

The journey through the museum is carefully orchestrated, beginning in the two-story new lobby through which the visitor enters the Alfond -Lunder Pavilion with its spacious white-walled galleries, subtly recessed lighting, blonde pine floors and slate accents and gradually progressing to the smaller, older galleries of the first Lunder Wing and then downstairs to the lower level, where the itinerary is repeated. The contrast between the bright, new spaces and the more traditionally painted and decorated older galleries corresponds to the shift among the works displayed. The intent of the current installations appears to be focused on the diversity and extensiveness of the museum's holdings, so the curatorial decision to arrange the collections by thematic correspondences is wise and helps create smaller, encapsulating experiences within the vast whole.

Blunt explains curatorial choice of a thematic presentation: "We tried to consider what approach the viewer would find most interesting. We wanted to create a visitor experience that transcended the Lunders, themselves, and gave the viewer something more than the personal to think about. And as we surveyed the entire collection, we were able to identify interests and themes – family, for example, or children, or industry on the water" – all of which had not only personal resonance but also a deep connection to place and to the larger universal perspective.

The progression through the galleries is loosely chronological beginning with the contemporary and modern in the new wing and moving into the 19th century in the older exhibition spaces. Among the thematic groupings are galleries devoted to  "Contemporary Art" (1960s onward) "Multiple Modernisms" (earlier 20th century), "Art of the American West," "Portraits and Models," the "Poetic Mode," "Whistler," "Working the Waters," "A Man's World," Views from Abroad," "Camaraderie," "American Myths," "The Civil War and its Echoes," "Childhood," the "Seasons," and "Rest."

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If one enters from the grand lobby, the first gallery houses the collection's newest works  - paintings and sculpture from the 1960s onward: Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, Alex Katz, Robert Bechtle. The eye goes instantly to Katz's large, bold Canoe, which dominates the room in its Japanese acrylic print-like simplicity.  

One moves on to the earlier 20th century in the gallery entitled "Multiple Modernisms" an impressive selection of works by Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, George Ault, and Elie Nadelman among them. One standout is Jacob Lawrence's 1968 gouache and tempera Builders.

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The bold geometric shapes and sharply defined colors, as well as the exaggeration of the central figure's powerful hands, speak of the influence of abstract expressionism on this pioneering African-American artist.  But perhaps the construction which attracts the most attention is Duane Hanson's life-sized figure of Old Man Playing Solitaire(1973). So realistic is this weathered gentleman that inevitably spectators stop and have to restrain themselves from reaching out to touch the sculpture. One is reminded only slightly of George Siegel's plaster figures in quotidian poses, but Hanson's piece has an eerie, quiet animation.  The sculpture creates a startlingly reciprocal dynamic between viewer and art work – as if we the spectators are silently being observed by the subject himself.

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One of the most cohesive and original assemblages of work is found in "The Art of the West" gallery which features an extraordinary collection of early 20th century genre paintings from artists inspired by the Taos Society. Founded in 1915 this Southwest school set as their goal the depiction of Native American myths in the European manner.

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The paintings range from the atmospheric Buffalo Hunters with Lances (1858) by Alfred Jacob Miller, with its Delacroix-like romanticized mist and muscular "noble savages" atop powerful steeds, to the compelling Maynard Dixon 1906 painting, Navajo Women in the Canyon de Chelly (1915),where the artist takes an original turn on the nude bathers of European art, using a Cezanne-like composition combined with the unique light of the Arizona desert.

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While the large scale paintings dominate the room, one is also drawn to the beautiful bronzes, among them Paul Manship's 1926 Indian Hunter and His Dog, which reflects the decorative inspiration and fluidity of Art Deco. The entire western gallery reminds vividly of the dichotomies of American art: art and artists yearning to create a unique aesthetic forged from the new nation and its primal land and yet deeply influenced by the European tradition they could not help but admire.

This reimagined mythos of the American peoples and land segues nicely to some of the older galleries. Among the treasures here are mid-late19th century works by the Hudson River School and the Luminists, among them George Inness and Frederick Church, who give a vivid insight into the heyday of American romantic landscape painting. Like the Hudson River School founders,Thomas Cole and Asher Durand, the later landscape painters, Church and Inness were intent on finding their subject matter solely on American soil, and they were convinced that the American wilderness (as it still was compared to Europe) contained a sacred, primal energy, whose essence captured on canvas would speak to the glories of Nature and the New Land.

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George Inness' Spirit of Autumn (1891) is a dark, verdant pastoral in which a tiny, single human form is almost absorbed into the sweep of trees and meadow, while in Church's View fromOlana in the Snow (1875), the winter landscape is barren and the cold, devoid of human form, but somehow majestic in the stretch of the distant mountains and mighty Hudson. In these paintings as in others of the day, Nature was the breath of the Universe, a majestic and terrifying force, the soul of the primordial American land, which the artist strove to depict with reverential awe.

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By the late 19th century, while artists like Winslow Homer continued the romantic landscape/seascape tradition, others once again began to seek inspiration abroad. In another gallery, entitled "Views from Abroad," the Colby Museum is able to display some gems by Americans in Europe in the late 19th century, among them Maurice Prendergast, represented by a stunning vertical panel of Venice's Grand Canal.  These segue beautifully to the works of James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. The Lunder Collection's Whistler holdings are significant – some two hundred-eleven paintings, prints, and drawings – a portion of which are displayed in a small, dedicated gallery, where they create an impelling aura against the slate-blue walls.

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Balcony in Amsterdam (1889) is a prime example of the vivid pen work of Whistler's etchings. Lines dance across the surface of the print joining building and canal through the reflections in the water. Even in the black and white medium of the etching, Whistler's genius for light and atmosphere speak to the viewer. Indeed, Whistler's palette, in oils is still subtle, as evidenced by the green and blue tinged grays and whites of the 1864 Chelsea in Ice.  The gray figures along the esplanade seem almost as dematerialized as the smoke from the ship's stack, and the entire painting conveys the gray chill of a London day.

American art in the 19th century continues with a gallery devoted to Civil War themes, where in addition to Winslow Homer's engravings for Harper's Weekly, one finds an arresting 1864 bronze by John Rogers, The Wounded Scout, A Friend in the Swamp, which depicts an African-American freedman helping a wounded Union soldier to safety.

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Not only is the subject matter striking and radical for its day, but Rogers also commands his subject with empathy and pathos. An abolitionist, Rogers is known for his dignified, noble, often heroic depictions of African-Americans in the war years. This small, deeply emotive sculpture makes an eloquent statement not only about American art of the period, but also about the collectors' vision.

The Lunders' sensibilities are further revealed in the gallery entitled "The Poetic Mode," which houses gems of late 19th century and early 20th century works, which espouse aestheticism, or art for art sake.  Whistler reappears here with Study in Grey for Portrait of F.R. Leyland (1870-73) and the sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens is represented by a bronze haut relief of his 1900 Exposition Universelle Prize-winning allegorical depiction of Amour Caritas.

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Among the other thematic gallery installations, the room entitled "Childhood" is dominated by John George Brown's riveting canvas, Watching the Circus (1884) in which more than a dozen young rural children lined up along a fence stare in wide-eyed wonder at the unseen circus performers. That the artist's subjects lock their gaze into the viewer's draws the spectator into the genre scene, making him complicit in the children's magical world. An absolutely brilliant touch is the black and white dog nestled in the front row, his canine glance every bit as animated as those of his human companions, a hint of a curling smile playing on his muzzle.

The Lunders' appreciation for artifacts other than painting is demonstrated in the installation "Spaces and Places: Chinese Art from the Lunder -Colville Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts Boston." This collection of Chinese art combines the Colby Museum's resources acquired with the help of art dealer Thomas Colville with those of Boston's large institutions. It groups the wide range of bronzes, textiles, ceramics, and paintings by their functionality: objects from the imperial court, from the home, and from the tomb.  A small but dramatic pocket of the Lunder Collection, they speak to the Lunders' desire to introduce Colby students to the arts of Asia as well as those of America and Europe.

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A visit to the museum is completed by taking in several other installations. One is an extraordinary collection of weathervanes from an anonymous Maine collector, which Blunt says addresses the fact that "folk art has historically always been on display in the museum, and since the Lunder Collection doesn't have a great deal of folk art pieces, this display fills a niche in the museum's reopening exhibitions." Artfully displayed to enhance their sculptural essences, a fluid bronze rendering of a prancing horse entitled Blackhawk catches the eye as the powerful arch of the animal's neck and its flowing tail seem to catch the wind even in its current static surroundings.

Among the remaining gallery groupings, the refurbished Jett├ę Galleries currently display a wide selection of the museum's John Marin holdings: abstract cityscapes and depictions of coastal Maine juxtaposed with photographs by Berenice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz, among others. Then there are the two galleries devoted to Alex Katz and his foundation, which has helped acquire contemporary art for the museum. Katz's large canvasses are rotated in different combinations; the most recent of which installation, "Alex Katz: A Matter of Light" examines the artist's study of light, shadow, and the ability of flat color and geometric shape to convey these properties. In "Here from There: Contemporary Art from the Alex Katz Foundation," the museum has assembled a wide array of styles in media such as photography, prints, acrylic, and mixed media. Chantal Joffe's large-scale painting of a precocious Baby in White Dress ( 2012) makes an eye-catching focal point with the composition's almost primitive simplicity combined with the baby's captivating stare.

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Despite the seeming vastness of the current exhibition, these two hundred-eighty works represent only about half of the actual Lunder Collection, a prospect which opens tantalizing possibilities for future shows, not to mention the thoughts of further donations. Asked what plans the museum has for eventually showing the rest of the Lunder collection, Blunt says thirty percent of the Lunder gift will always be on view and that there will be new exhibitions. "In January we will change out the current exhibit of works on paper, and next summer we will begin a major integration of the Lunder gift with the permanent collection. We will expand on themes and on particular moments in the history of art, using the Lunder Collection to educate and augment what we already have." And then in 2015, the museum plans a major Whistler exhibition and publication.

Blunt also maintains that the museum's relationship with the Lunders is an ongoing one. "They are certainly still collecting, and their recent interest in contemporary art with its often large scale works goes beyond the home, so they have the Colby Museum in mind to show their new and future acquisitions. We look forward to continuing to work with them in the years to come, and we will act as a liaison for their collection. Education is a top priority for the museum and the Lunders," Hannah Blunt affirms. "And visual literacy has long been a major initiative of Colby. This collection provides more resources for students, and professors to learn from works of art."

If the new pavilion and the rich collection of art assembled at the Colby College Museum has, indeed, transformed the artistic landscape in Maine, it has also wrought potent educational opportunities and gifts not only for the college, itself, but for the larger community it serves.

"We want Colby students and the wider Maine community to enjoy what we have enjoyed," affirms Paula Lunder. "It's that simple."

Her modest words harbor a passionate belief, held by the college, the curators, the collectors, and all those who have helped to realize this grand dream.  And lest anyone forget, they have inscribed their beliefs - in the form of Luis Camnitzer's text piece affixed to the glass wall of the fa├žade of the Alfond Lunder Pavilion - which simply and stirringly reads: "The museum is a school- the artist learns to communicate; the public learns to make connections."

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Photos Courtesy of the Colby Museum of Art

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.comCarla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a freelance journalist whose reviews, interviews, and features on theatre, opera, classical music, and the visual arts have appeared in numerous international publications.  She is also the author of two novels, The Whaler's Bride and Raising Rufus: A Maine Love Story, as well as an award-winning screenplay based on the latter.
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