The famed Diego Rivera cubist painting at the Arkansas Arts Center, a gift by Abby Rockefeller, features the artist's wife, his mistress and his dog, Arts Center registrar/fixture Thom Hall revealed to the Fine Arts Club of Arkansas in a talk Monday. And the Robert Motherwell acrylic-on-mylar "Elegy Drawing No. 17" is bordered in that ashy pink because the wall the final work was to hang on — in the National Gallery — was pink.
Who knew? Thom Hall does, so his talk about the Arts Center's drawing collection was about more than how to look at art, though it was that as well. He covered the early holdings of the Arts Center's predecessor, the Museum of Fine Art, which included reproductions, and how the collection grew thanks to Townsend Wolfe's vision to collect works on paper. Hall pointed out the special appeal of works on paper, especially those that are studies for larger pieces: Here is where the artist reveals his thoughts in what he wants his final piece to look like, creating for the viewer an intimacy — "like the artist is in the room with you" — that fine oils may not. He described Wolfe's first purchases — an Andrew Wyeth watercolor portrait, a DeKooning abstract charcoal and a Morris Graves drawing of a weasel — as three points on a triangle, describing the directions the collection would take.
Hall spiced it up, of course — he is high-heeled showgirl Sylvia Moskowitz's alter ego, after all — noting certain attributes of the works. That the shadows of a hand in Susan Hauptman's 8-foot-tall self-portrait give her a penis, though, he added, she certainly does not have one. That local collectors regret not buying outsider artist Bill Traylor when a wise Wolfe introduced his work to Little Rock years ago ("they're sick about it now," he said). He talked about a Metropolitan Museum curator's delight in being able to muck about in the stacks and grab a Bonnard for a talk she was giving to local arts educators. And that long-time director Wolfe — whose eye guided the Arts Center's collecting for 33 years — was "insecure" in his ability to judge post-minimalist art; thanks to a friendship he cultivated with a dealer who promoted the art in New York, the dealer made a significant gift of post-minimalist works by Sol LeWitt and Richard Tsao and others to the Arts Center.
Hall advised the audience to find the abstract in the figurative, using Georgia O'Keeffe's "Banana Flower No. 1" as an example of light and dark, and added that it is one of only three banana drawings in museums. He suggested they find the landscape in the abstract "Elegy" study by Motherwell. He noted the difference in French and German art, the lyrical versus the aggressive, using an unsettling Max Beckmann drawing of a Berlin jazz club as an example — and added that the drawing in the collection barely made it out of a Berlin gallery before the Nazis invaded it. He talked about the passion and drive of self-taught artists like Bob Thompson and William Edmondson and Clementine Hunter, recalling a visiting stonemason who, seeing Edmondson's stone rabbit, said he "had to be" self-taught, because he'd gone at the stone the wrong way, against the grain. Edmondson "saw a bunny in that rock and let it out," Hall said.
Hall touched on the special collections as well — the significant Paul Signac watercolors donated to the Arts Center by Jim Dyke and the 290 drawings of early 20th century American artist John Marin, a promised gift by Marin's heirs and the 1,500 works by Peter Takal donated to the Arts Center by his family.
While Hall covered a lot of territory, including some of his own early cloisonné paintings and his current work on paper, he was standing (though no longer in high heels) on the tip of the iceberg; what he knows about the Arts Center's collection goes deep. Surely he's writing it down somewhere for posterity? "That might be a good thing for me to do," he said after the talk.
About the future: In response to a question from the audience, Hall said the board has hired a national search firm but is being deliberate in its effort to find the right person to lead the Arts Center "to the next level." He noted that interim director Joe Lampo is among those seeking the job, left vacant a year ago when former director Nan Plummer resigned.
Hall made a reference to the budget-killing "World of the Pharaohs" exhibit, praising it for its educational value, especially for school children throughout Arkansas. But the exhibit's September to July run was too long, he said, and "killed" visits by those who wanted and expected to see new work every month or so at the Arts Center. Now, however, "we are back to what we are about," Hall said: fine art and contemporary crafts that complement and expand on the arts center's own holdings.