Art Museum Keeps On Growing At Colby College

One of America’s most popular artists today, Alex Katz, has contributed generously to Colby’s art collection and helped design a wing with basketball-court size galleries to display his works. “Sunset 5,” 2008, measuring a whopping 108 by 192 inches, captures the romantic ambience of day’s end on a lake in Maine, where the artist summers. It is in one of several inaugural exhibitions accompanying the opening of the Alfond-Lunder wing. Gift of the artist.

WATERVILLE, MAINE — The already impressive Colby College Museum of Art has expanded again this summer with the opening of the $15 million Alfond-Lunder Pavilion, a dramatic glass-walled structure that houses a world-class collection of American art. The 26,000-square-foot pavilion includes 10,000 square feet of new exhibition space and an expanded lobby and sculpture terrace, along with an education classroom, staff offices and storage facilities.

Founded in 1959, the Colby museum now comprises four wings, with more than 8,000 works of art and 38,000 square feet of exhibition space, making it the largest art museum in Maine. Sharon Corwin, the museum director and chief curator, observes that the collection is “a perfect complement to” the museum’s strengths in American and contemporary art. “It expands and deepens our holdings in many important areas, such as Nineteenth, Twentieth and Twenty-First Century American sculpture, late Nineteenth Century American painting, Stieglitz Circle artists and contemporary art.”

Moreover, she observes, the addition of the Lunder trove “confirms the museum’s status as one of the nation’s premier institutions of American art.”

Refined and Minimalist in style, the dramatic three-story glass pavilion, designed by Frederick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles, contrasts with the campus’s predominately Federal-style brick architecture. In Fisher’s second addition to the Colby museum, he says he sought “a building about seeing … an iconic presence on the campus, expressing the unique place of the museum in an institution within the college and of the visual arts in a liberal arts college.” He notes that the “glass skin provides constantly changing images, reflecting its architectural and natural setting,” including a stairwell featuring a vivid, monumental Sol LeWitt mural that is lit at night.

Corwin says the pavilion’s spaces are “highly contemporary in look and feel and… appropriately showcase artworks from the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.”

The new structure, named in recognition of a gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation and the partnership/friendship between Alfond and Peter (Class of 1956) and Paula Lunder, is being inaugurated with an exhibition of 280 of the Lunders’ donated collection of more than 500 artworks, valued at more than $100 million. This is one of numerous philanthropic gifts by the Lunders that support art activities all over the United States.

“The Lunder Collection: A Gift of Art to Colby College,” on view through June 8, 2014, is an eye-popping trove of works by a “Who’s Who” of American painters and sculptors. Most artists are represented by first-class examples characteristic of their oeuvre, so their works are easy to spot. There seems to be at least one “Wow!” work in each gallery

Passionate and committed collectors for more than 30 years, the Lunders started out visiting Maine antiques shops, then branched out to museums and art galleries in Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City and Montreal. They sought scholarly advice from art professionals, including longtime Colby museum director, the late Hugh J. Gourley III, and Corwin, his successor

“Our collection,” say the Lunders, “represents a broad spectrum of American art. We continue to collect as we learn more and our vision is refined. The joy of discovery has and always will be an important element for us, whether we are viewing a new piece or rediscovering the beauty in an artwork we have had in our home for years.”

The Lunder works are displayed in eye-appealing fashion in the new wing’s galleries that architect Fisher says were designed “from the standpoint of making the art look good.” Museum director Corwin notes, “The galleries introduce beautifully scaled spaces for our Modern and contemporary collections. The main gallery, with its 14-foot-high ceilings, is particularly well-suited to large-scale, contemporary works.”

The inaugural show is organized by broad themes that underscore the breadth of the Lunders’ keen eyes and diverse interests. An unusual addition to the museum’s inventory is the Lunder-Colville Chinese Art Collection: Chinese antiquities purchased from fine arts dealer Thomas Colville of Guilford, Conn. Focusing on art from prehistoric times to the Jin dynasty (1115–1234) —tomb guardians, Buddha heads and earthenware horses — it is both an aesthetic treat and a splendid teaching tool.

Under the broad rubric “Art Through the American Centennial,” numerous works suggest how artists in America’s first century helped shape a national identity. As the Colby museum’s curator of education Lauren Lessing observes, works from this period provide “glimpses into a pivotal historical period during which artists strove to make sense of rapid social and technological change and to define what it meant to be American.”

Noteworthy here are gleaming, white marble and bronze sculptures by the likes of Thomas Crawford, Joseph Mozier, John Rogers and John Quincy Adams Ward. The latter’s “Indian Hunter,” 1860, segues into portraits and landscapes by such artists as George Catlin, John Mix Stanley and Alfred Jacob Miller, who traveled West in the 1830s–1840s to document Native American life for folks back East.

Expressive portraits of Indian chiefs visiting Washington by the underrated Charles Bird King, described by Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun as “one of America’s best early portraitists,” also stand out. Working on commission to paint three great American orators in the early 1830s, King created imposing portraits of two respected Indian chiefs, Red Jacket and Big Elk, and a brooding Senator Daniel Webster. “They preserve,” observes Broun, “not only the likenesses of these three respected leaders, but also the power of speech itself.”

The popular view of America as a Nineteenth Century Eden, with man living in harmony with nature, is reflected in works by the Hudson River School and Missouri’s George Caleb Bingham. Other standouts in this section include floral still lifes by John La Farge, Frederic Church’s evocative “View from Olana in the Snow,” a wonderfully detailed midcentury depiction of a militia parade by an unknown folk artist and a view of maple sugaring in wintry Maine by Eastman Johnson.

A special strength of the Lunder Collection is some 300 works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and a library of related material, described by preeminent Whistler authority Margaret F. MacDonald as “ideal for exhibitions, teaching, research and inspiration.” The works run the gamut from a deft pastel and chalk “Self-Portrait” and delicate etchings and pastels of Venice to etchings of the Thames and London, where the artist settled.

Notable are a vigorously painted likeness of an aged flower seller, “La Mere Gerard,” 1858–59, which the artist said “is likely to be the best thing I have yet done,” and two quite different portraits of Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler’s red-haired Irish mistress, a broadly painted oil profile and an expressive drypoint in black ink, “Weary.” As MacDonald summarizes, the Lunders “have created a magnificent tribute to a great American Nineteenth Century artist.”

The comprehensive Lunder trove includes paintings by Benjamin West, Sanford Gifford, George Inness, Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Thomas W. Dewing, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Alex Katz.

Sculptures include works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Frederick MacMonnies, Frederic Remington, Elie Nadelman, Paul Manship, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, George Rickey, Duane Hanson, John Chamberlain, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, Jenny Holzer and Maya Lin. Saint-Gaudens is represented by such masterworks as “Amor Caritas” and “The Puritan,” and several perceptive bas-relief portraits.

Art from the Gilded Age provides variety in subjects and styles, many stimulated by study in Europe, as America’s artists sought to redefine their work for their modern age. “If these artists share any characteristic,” says art historian Erica E. Hirshler, “it was their embrace of growth, whether in artistic, geographic, philosophic or societal terms. The United States, including its creative class, was in an expansionist mood.”

Venetian works by Sargent and Maurice Prendergast reflect their embrace of foreign scenes, while paintings by Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson and Chase demonstrate how these artists adapted their European lessons to American subjects. Also documented in the Lunder works is the increasing number of talented women who became professional artists, including the expatriate star Mary Cassatt (whose opera box prints are singled out for attention), Elizabeth Nourse and sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

Rising appreciation for watercolors as finished works of art, spearheaded by Homer, Prendergast and Sargent, is documented, while still life masterpieces by William Harnett and John Peto demonstrate the diversity of styles and subjects in post-antebellum America.

Homer is represented by a cross-section of oils and watercolors that demonstrate his versatility and enduring appeal. They range from depictions of fashionable young women on beaches to women in hammocks to waves crashing relentlessly against resilient shoreline rocks.

The Lunder Collection is particularly strong in art of the American West. Works run the gamut from a mid-Nineteenth Century depiction of a Western caravan by Alfred Jacob Miller, panoramic views by Thomas Moran, cowboys and Indians by Remington and Charles M. Russell, and numerous more modern, empathetic portrayals of Native Americans by Taos-Santa Fe painters of New Mexico. Among the standout sculptures are a proud Multnomah chief by Hermon Atkins MacNeil and James Earl Fraser’s ever-poignant “End of the Trail.”

Some of the strongest canvases on view fall under the rubric of “American Modernism,” representing “multiple moments,” says art historian Virginia M. Mecklenburg, that “serve as case studies that illuminate concepts woven through almost five decades of artistic practice,” ranging from “The Ten” and “The Eight” to Norman Rockwell. Standouts here include colorful closeups of nature by Georgia O’Keeffe, George Ault’s Cubist view of the Provincetown skyline, several powerful marines by Rockwell Kent and sleek bronzes by Manship and Nadelman.

In recent years, the Lunders have devoted considerable attention to acquiring post-1945 art “that has selectively followed the emerging artistic trends of the Twenty-First Century,” according to Colby’s Lunder curator of American art Elizabeth Finch. Citing the Lunders’ “openness to…[the] stark divergences … from the historical foundations of their collection” has resulted in a collection that inspires “looking, thinking and learning….” Highlights include a spectacular Dan Flavin piece, Katz’s iconic birchbark canoe, a giant clothespin and typewriter eraser by Oldenburg, photorealistic views of Mount Katahdin and Columbus Circle by Richard Estes and Duane Hanson’s uncannily realistic “Old Man Playing Solitaire.”

The Lunder works will eventually be integrated with Colby’s existing collection that is particularly strong in American and contemporary art, with deep holdings in works of Whistler, Homer, John Marin, Terry Winters, Richard Serra and a whole wing devoted to Katz.

As Corwin observes, the Lunders’ “transformational gift will allow generations of students and faculty, Maine residents and visitors to Colby to appreciate these extraordinary works of art brought together over decades by two visionary collectors, who have always understood the power of sharing.” Already a beacon of creativity and innovation, the Colby museum is now a must-see site, “a destination for art enthusiasts” from near and far, concludes Corwin.

The Lunder Collection: A Gift to Colby College, is a 379-page, profusely illustrated, survey of the Lunders’ gift, featuring nearly 30 essays by authorities. Published by the Colby College Museum of Art and distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc, it sells for $50, hardcover.

The Colby College Museum of Art is at 5600 Mayflower Hill on the Colby campus. For information, www.Colby.edu/museum or 207-859-5600.

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