By Luke Williamson
In a reception for the University Archives Gallery’s new exhibition, Department of Art History Chair Dr. Jeffrey Thompson introduced Modern and Contemporary Art: Selected Works from the Permanent Art Collection.
Mandy Johnson, the new director the University Archives, welcomed him by listing his impressive accolades. Aside from being the department chair, Thompson is the director of the interdisciplinary humanities program, the chair of film studies, and a professor of art history.
After thanking staff and supporters of the University Archives, Thompson stated, “Frankly, I’m a bit of an interloper to the world of the Permanent Art Collection, but I am excited to, for once, see a number of the modern contemporary artworks that we have in the collection gathered in a specific location so that we can look at the way in which they converse with one other across time, medium, and style.”
Thompson explained to audience members that his goal for the evening was less to present a thesis about the collection of works and more to tell a story about them.
“I’m going to try and weave a story throughout some of the works. It won’t be comprehensive, but I’ll try and present to you a kind of way of looking that, I hope, will help you to approach the works in various ways,” he explained.
Thompson began with the work of Kathe Kollwitz, a German artist, then, as promised, began to intertwine works and reveal connections between them, pointing out the portrait of Kollwitz being tossed into the air in Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany.
Continuing his discussion of German artists, Thompson moved to the Der Blaue Reiter almanac and artists featured within it, including Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. The Der Blaue Reiter almanac, Thompson noted, is one of the feature items in a vitrine within the University Archives.
“Der Blaue Reiter proposed an aesthetic of abstraction as empathy,” Thompson stated, explaining the nuanced idea of abstraction, something still key in modern and contemporary art today. He explained that for Kandinsky, “the very contents of his work are, quote, what the spectator lives or feels while under the effects of the forms and color combinations of the picture.”
Thompson continued, “And this would probably serve as a great example of the use of the two values of black and white, and the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, to seek out, to explore the possibilities of abstraction as a mode of universal communication without the precision and specificity or the cultural specificity of representation.”
Moving on from a German context, Thompson discussed a collection of working prints called the interaction of color by Josef Albers.
“When one reflects on the pedagogic practice of Josef Albers, it is his color instruction that likely comes first to mind,” he said.
Noting a curious detail about Albers, Thompson added, “Several of Albers’s students are known for their innovative use of material, despite having been brilliant colorists in their own right. This seeming anomaly can be addressed in part by looking more deeply at the principles that underscored Albers’s teachings.
“For Albers, color was in constant flux. In his instruction he emphasized its relativity as material, and its role in creating visual relationships, especially those causing optical effects. But in doing so, Albers taught his students more than the interaction of color; he instilled in them a general approach to all materials and means of engaging it in design. In his teaching, Albers put practice before theory and prioritized experience.”
Thompson continued offering details about Josef Albers, including his time at Black Mountain College and later at Yale. Thompson explored the connections Albers developed with other artists, particularly his students, including Eva Hesse and Robert Rauschenberg.
From there, Thompson shifted into a present context, looking at contemporary pieces in the collection which concern, broadly, identity and place, including work by artists Laurel Nakadate and Zanele Muholi.
Then, flipping to a slide juxtaposing a portrait of Edmund Kirby-Smith and of example contemporary pieces, Thompson implied that Sewanee’s collection of artists exploring the importance of racial injustice and ostracization of LGBTQ individuals was hardly coincidental.
“Portraits say a great deal about institutional values, and I think collecting portraits by Nakadate and portraits by Muholi are a way to interrogate values and particularly institutional values. What you collect and what you display, and where–a public space, or an archive–and when you display it are testaments to the parts of your history that you value. Putting that history in conversation with the present and perhaps highlighting new values is crucial.”
Thompson concluded by exploring Quadroon, a work which he argued would express how the different parts of his reception presentation overlap, both in its modern approach and in its exploration of weighty issues, like race.
“During his time in Sweden, Martin Puryear made the etching Quadroon. The title is a loaded term historically used to describe individuals of mixed race ancestry, specifically someone who is one quarter african. In using this title to inflect an abstract circular form made of four sections, he opened it up to a history that includes slavery, and official categories imposed by the dominant society to define who was subordinate and why,” said Thompson. “What Puryear recognizes in Quadroon, is that everything, including color, has a history, which the dominant group in a society may chose to suppress or marginalize when it becomes convenient to do so.”
Referencing an artist named earlier, Mel Edwards, Thompson concluded, “Both Edwards and Puryear recognize that abstraction does not necessarily culminate in non-referentiality, that it can be open to suppressed, marginalized, and lost histories.”
Thompson’s reception lecture was informative and revealed compelling connections between works across different times. His case study of Quadroon eloquently synthesized important abstract ideas brought to the table throughout the evening; it articulated how abstract art can be universally impactful, and hold deeper meanings and contexts. The exhibition will be on display from February 5 to July 31.