Suppose you’re the curator of an art museum whose most famous paintings are on tour. What do you do? If you are Patricia Phagan and Mary-Kay Lombino, curators at Vassar College’s Loeb Art Center, you dig into the secret vaults where almost 18,000 artworks are stored and create a new exhibit. “Revealed Anew: Selections from the Permanent Collection” opened on November 7 and continues through January 4.
Phagan and Lombino chose 39 works, which will be displayed in three intimate rooms designed to make small artworks look larger. Most of these are rarely shown pieces, in some cases because the drawings are too fragile to be displayed for long.
The three rooms of “Revealed Anew” are arranged chronologically: Old Masters, 19th-century works, and the 20th century. Two of the treasures of the show are Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve from 1504 and Pablo Picasso’s aquatint Blind Minotaur from 1934. Sculptures are rarely shown at the Loeb center, but two appear in this show. Female Allegorical Head is a bronze by Malvina Hoffman (1887-1966), an African-American sculptor who studied with Rodin. Sleep is a luminous alabaster work by Robert Laurent (1890-1970), a French-American artist.
Portraits can be startling. You’re walking innocently through a museum and suddenly you’re face-to-face with a sturdy Flemish tradesman from 1527, as real and vivid as your car mechanic! Joos van Cleve, a 16th-century painter from Antwerp, has just such a portrait in this show.
There are a number of local connections in the show, including three works by Hudson River School painters. Louis Rémy Mignot’s Winter View from Newburgh, chosen for its seasonal resonance, is a rare Hudson River School snow scene. A dazzling William Zorach charcoal depicts Edna St. Vincent Millay, who lived in a farmhouse called Steepletop in the Columbia County hamlet of Austerlitz much of her life. Inside Out is a drawing by Philip Guston (1913-1980), whose studio was in Woodstock. Vincent (as her friends called her) and Guston represent six decades of Hudson Valley bohemia.
Any series of paintings tells a story. “Revealed Anew” may be seen as a three-century dialogue between Europe and America, with the United States ultimately emerging as the victor in the 20th century. The Old Masters room has only one piece by an American: Lot and His Daughters Led by Two Angels, a drawing by Benjamin West, who was born in Springfield, Pennsylvania, but moved to England in 1763, where he cofounded the Royal Academy of Arts.
The last room is dominated by Americans. Andy Warhol’s The New Spirit is a large hot pink-and-gold screen print of Donald Duck from 1985. Photographer Billy Name has a portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Valerie Jaudon’s Untitled is a pastel geometric abstraction.
The concept of beauty changes throughout history. Joos van Cleve would be astonished to learn that by 1985, Donald Duck was considered worthy of portraiture. At some point in the 20th century, humor merged with art.
“Revealed Anew” will be shown at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie through January 4. (845) 437-5632; www.fllac.vassar.edu.