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Art Review: Rembrandt at Vassar College Loeb Art Center; Pollack at Williams College Museum of Art

By Raymond J. Steiner
ART TIMES June 2006

Oil painting by American artist Henry Taylor of Huey Newton
“The Three Trees”
(Photo Courtesy the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

REMBRANDT NEVER PALLS — no matter how many times we stop to look once again at his work, it always seems to astonish, to grip the viewer in wonder, surprise, and delight, and this exhibit is no exception. Some thirty-three of his works on paper* — including one copper etching plate — from Vassar’s impressive permanent collection are presently on view at the Loeb Art Center, the lot enhanced by five loaned works (among which are two drawings) from David Tunick, Inc. and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. There is much to see here and the visitor ought to take enough time to take it all in.

Not that anyone needs urging to browse or pore. No matter how many times I’ve spent time viewing Rembrandt — including a very special afternoon spent with my friend Heinrich J. Jarczyk (himself a master etcher) and my partner Cornelia Seckel at a private viewing in the Kupferstichkabinett (Copperplate room) of the Staatliche Museen Preuschischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin with white-gloved attendants anxiously standing nearby as we closely studied the plate for The Hundred Guilder Print (included in this exhibition) — I never fail to discover new lines, lights, nuances, expressions, I had previously overlooked. Indeed, it has been my experience over the years that I can almost spend more time viewing a single Rembrandt etching than I can a gallery showroom exhibit or an entire floor of some museums — such is the compelling attraction of this man’s work.

The exhibit, entitled “Grand Gestures”, is spread over three gallery walls and is roughly grouped under the themes of “religious scenes” and “contemporary life.” Although it is difficult not to associate the word “grand” with any of Rembrandt’s oeuvre, I find the title somewhat misleading since, strictly speaking, there is only a handful that fit the bill insofar as size is concerned — namely, Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves, The Death of the Virgin, The Descent, and, of course, The Hundred Guilder Print. “Grand” in the sense of magnificent or sublime, on the other hand, is evident throughout the three rooms that house the exhibition. To my taste, Rembrandt is never more masterful than when he is depicting common people in small-scale size — beggars, peasants, and the like — many of which fall under the second category mentioned above, “contemporary life.” What he can manage to cram in (without in the least appearing as crammed) to a relatively small space is simply astounding (hence the understandable phenomena of most viewers overlooking what is actually there). Aside from such obvious examples as James Uytenbogaert, Receiver General of the Netherlands, even the deceptively “simple” A Peasant in a High-Cap, Standing Leaning on a Stick offers a wealth of detail. Enlightening, then, to stop and contemplate the small copperplate and “needle” that comprise the etcher’s tools of the trade. The commonplace homeliness of such implements notwithstanding, it is of course Rembrandt’s superlative “tool” — his trenchant and uncanny aesthetic sense — that tells the story.

If you love fine art, you’ll not want to miss this exhibit. Getting the chance to see Rembrandt van Rijn’s work up close and personal is always a special event — and Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, has the gift of knowing how to select and present a memorable event.

*“Grand Gestures: Celebrating Rembrandt” (thru Jun 11): Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY (845) 437-5632.


Oil painting by American artist Henry Taylor of Huey Newton
Jackson Pollock (American, 1912–1956) Number 2, 1949, 1949 
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, New York © 2006 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

IF I ENCOURAGE you to view Rembrandt’s work because it has so much to offer the discerning viewer, I urge you to go see “Beneath the Surface”** because, in truth, there is no other way than at first-hand to properly receive the full impact of Jackson Pollock’s power. Attempting to assess Pollock through reproductions of his work is indeed seeing the world (his world) darkly, as through the lens of a smoky glass. I confess to making this error myself in the past — allowing my tradition-bound sensibilities (What a surprise! I hear my regular readers exclaiming) to dismiss images of his drip and spatter paintings as rather prosaic replications of “plates of linguini.” Then, I saw my first real Pollock, stood, in fact, open-mouthed in awe as I allowed myself to become lost in his mesmerizing swirls of color. “Grand gestures”, indeed! Here was a man who all but overwhelmed you if only by virtue of his audacious scale. There are only three on view at Williams College — Number 2, 1949Number 13A, 1948Arabesque, and Number 7, 1950 — but enough, I assure you, to experience that “hit over the head” that only a first-hand viewing of a Pollock can deliver. Number 2 — the “star” of the show (and the largest, at 16 feet long) — is specially displayed, its backing removed to allow for a “two-way” view that reveals a first-of-a-kind beneath-the-surface look that is well worth the looking.

Mounted as a tribute to Kirk Varnedoe (Williams Class of 1967 and one of Pollock’s early cheerleaders), the exhibit is the result of a collaboration of Lisa Corrin, Williams College Museum of Art’s director, and Tom Branchick, the College’s Director of Art Conservation, who oversaw Number 2, 1949’s restoration and is responsible for its present, one-time-only dénouement. In addition to the two smaller paintings that flank Number 2, 1949, are a series of photographs that feature both Pollock and Branchick at work, Pollock on his painting, Branchick on his restoration.

“Beneath the Surface” offers non-Metropolitan residents a rare opportunity to not only directly experience a “Pollock moment”, but also to perhaps gain a better understanding of just what it was that occasioned his fame as an innovator. Sure, maybe your kid could do the same thing — but Jackson Pollock did it first, and not without a certain flair at that.

**“Jackson Pollock: Beneath the Surface: A Tribute to Kirk Varnedoe” (thru Oct 1): Williams College Museum of Art, 15 Lawrence Hall Dr., Williamstown, MA (413) 597-3178.

George Inness, American 1825-1894
“The Valley of the Shadow of Death”