THE NEW CRITERION, February 2018
On the controversy surrounding the Berkshire Museum, and on “Ann Purcell: Caravan Series” at Berry Campbell, “Ben Godward: Sculptures” at Sean Scully Studio, and “Katherine Bernhardt: Green” at Canada.
“All of the paintings that are scheduled for sale are in the care of Sotheby’s.”
Such is the welcome you now receive upon a visit to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The phrase might as well be the museum’s new motto, emblazoned on the banners by the entryway. Times are tough. Forget the past. Everything must go! Through a $50 million liquidation sale, the leaders of this century-old institution have been flaunting their decision to monetize the most valuable non-performing assets, as the saying now goes, of what was once known as the permanent collection.
On the auction block are forty objects selected purely for appraised value, regardless of their ties to the institution, its history, or its mission. Most notable: two innovative motorized sculptures by Alexander Calder, purchased by the museum’s pioneering director Laura Bragg in 1933, the year she gave Calder his first museum exhibition; works by the nineteenth-century painters George Henry Durrie and Albert Bierstadt, both of the local Connecticut River Valley; and two paintings by Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) and Blacksmith’s Boy—Heel and Toe (1940), given to the museum’s permanent collection by Rockwell himself, who lived and worked in nearby Stockbridge. Through a sale that has been directly opposed by his heirs, one Rockwell painting alone could fetch $30 million at auction.
“Securing the future of this museum requires bold and imaginative thinking,” says Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw, the president of the Berkshire’s board of trustees. In an interview with Berkshire Magazine, Van Shields, the museum’s director, explains what this “bold and imaginative thinking” will mean: “We envision almost being like in Harry Potter.” With the revenue from the sale, “We are going to elevate the museum into becoming a higher-tier attraction. By differentiating in the marketplace, we are going to fit into the cultural mix better.” The collection, or whatever will remain of it, “is going to be on view in a way that is going to be pretty spectacular.”
The Berkshire Museum was already “pretty spectacular” to anyone who cared to notice. Located in the largest town in the Berkshire mountains, the museum was founded in 1902 by Zenas Crane (1840–1917), an heir to the Crane paper company, to be an encyclopedic museum inspired by both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just a stone’s throw away from Arrowhead, the farm where Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick (the view of Mount Greylock from his writing desk was his “hump like a snow-hill”), the institution maintained a singular relationship with the artists and writers who congregated in the Berkshire mountains and who enriched the museum’s collection—in particular, Calder and Rockwell.
The museum’s Renaissance Revival design, which will be gutted along with its collection should the sale go through, was the work of the notable local architect Henry Seaver, who also designed halls at nearby Williams College. Exhibits of natural science were built into the lower levels, while the upper floor, illuminated by skylights, was set aside for the art collection. Alexander Calder’s first works of architectural sculpture were commissioned in 1932 as site-specific mobiles for the museum’s central auditorium, which would be destroyed in the redesign.
Shields, in pushing his “New Vision to Serve the Community,” has been markedly unsentimental regarding both the collection and the history of his institution. “These paintings, it is not like we are throwing them out the window,” he gracelessly explains. By selling his collection, he promises to underwrite “learning experiences that will teach skills that foster success in the twenty-first century: critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to collaborate.” “Art,” “donor intent,” and the “public trust” will, presumably, not be on the new curriculum. Nor do such antiquated notions have a place in this future of museum stewardship. “If the paintings leave here, so be it,” Shields concludes. “There’s a Rockwell museum right down the street.”
At press time, Shields has stepped aside on a medical leave, and a court order has temporarily halted his sale. But the museum is moving ahead with plans for the auction, and the Berkshire’s collection still appears on Sotheby’s website. The Pittsfield community has rallied valiantly against the sale of its treasures. Several museum professionals have also spoken out against the “deaccessioning” of a permanent collection to generate operating and capital income, which violates the peer-reviewed standards of American curators and would prevent the Berkshire Museum from borrowing art in the future from member institutions.
Yet through the brazenness of its “bold and imaginative thinking,” the leadership of the Berkshire Museum is seeking to push a “New Vision” not only on its own institution but also on the museum world at large. Other institutions seem to be picking up on the slumlord approach to arts management, where even the copper pipes might be ripped out of the walls, it would seem, for the right return on investment.
Just last month, Philadelphia’s La Salle University consigned forty-six works of its collection to Christie’s. According to the university’s spin, the proceeds from this sale would fund a “five-year strategic plan—a blueprint for La Salle’s sustainable and vibrant future, and a pathway to enhanced student experience and outcomes.” A bumper crop of editorialists has likewise sprouted up to push the new anything-goes mentality: “Art museums should sell works in storage to avoid raising admission fees,” declares Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at Berkeley, in the San Francisco Chronicle; “9 Works the Met Should Sell Right Now to Avoid Raising Ticket Prices—Forever,” speculate Menachem Wecker and Margaret Carrigan at Artnet.
And indeed, far from an anomaly, the Berkshire Museum’s “New Vision” is the logical next step to a gestating and pernicious ideology that has long sought to repurpose museums founded to preserve their collections into collections “monetized” to preserve their museums. As I wrote in these pages in December 2016, this drive to transform museums from “being about something to being for somebody” will result in a museum for nobody.
Any place, after all, could encourage “learning experiences that will teach skills that foster success in the twenty-first century.” Through the integrity of its collection, the Berkshire Museum is the only place where visitors can experience a unique institution deeply rooted in the arts and culture of this community. Filled with great art, at least until press time, its value is far greater than the sum of its shamelessly broken-up parts.
The paintings of Ann Purcell are a tour de force of abstract mechanics. At Chelsea’s Berry Campbell gallery, an impressive selection from her “Caravan Series” of the late 1970s and early 1980s is now on view.1
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1941, Purcell studied with the Washington Color School painter Gene Davis, who became a mentor. Color and movement have likewise been hallmarks of her own work. The force of Purcell’s compositions is not so much based on a tension of in and out, surface and depth, but of up and down. Her paintings owe much to a sense for the choreography of shapes and the effects of gravity on forms. In particular, she uses collage, with strips and squares of canvas adhered to free-form acrylic designs, to explore the implications of movement. These forms seem to hang and swing, twist and turn, as though pinned at odd angles. The blue rectangle of Gypsy Wind (1983) tips like a lever. A jumble of shapes leap from the ground in Race Point (1982). These actions then appear to interact with the paint beneath, wiping and stirring her colors into dynamic compositions.
Ben Godward is the wild man of Brooklyn sculpture. Working with quick-drying foam, he creates colorful accretions that often absorb whatever detritus happens to be in the path of his Superfund creations. The plastic cups that he uses to mix his two-part urethane medium lodge into the sides of his swamp things as he flips and turns them into their final state. The casualness of their making and the colors of their execution are all absorbed into the final work, which is part performance and part product. A few years ago I watched him build a molten tower during the first half of a performance of Norte Maar’s “Brooklyn Combine” at the Brooklyn Museum, only to see him chop the thing apart and hand the pieces out to the audience in the second.
“Ben Godward: Sculptures,” now at Sean Scully Studio in Chelsea, is therefore both a departure from and a continuation of these wild beginnings.2 Working with liquid urethane resin, rather than the foaming variety, Godward has poured his medium into box molds, drying them into sheets. The results compress his wild expression into silky panels that resemble stained glass, all built out of layers of translucent pigment. Propped up against the studio walls (in the case of the larger panels) or arranged standing in series (in the case of several smaller compositions), the objects occupy a space between sculpture and painting. In their swirling colors, they also recall abstracted landscapes, like rays of light, or sedimentary rock.
There’s much to see in these absorbing creations, even if they miss out on some of Godward’s reckless spontaneity and the flotsam and jetsam of his more free-form sculptures. A stand-alone object here called Aspirational Sculpture (2018), made of a dirty ladder with urethane panels poured between the rungs, seems the most “Godward” of the lot. And, indeed, his name is scrawled right on its side.
If “Brooklyn Color School” isn’t yet a popular coinage, it’s time we made it one. The Brooklyn-based painter Katherine Bernhardt deploys color that is fast and heated, part Matisse, part Myrtle Avenue. At Canada, a Lower East Side gallery that has been exhibiting another Brooklyn Katherine (Bradford) to great success, Bernhardt uses acrylic and spray paint to lay down a complex matrix of images, often on enormous scale, often (it would seem) in the time it might take for the next elevated J Train to come screeching into the station.3
The results can be visual explosions glimpsed from a passing window. The best are semi-sensical jumbles, such as the cigarettes, smoothies, watermelons, and birds that populate her expansive Direct Flight (2017). Lima Cola (2017) is a similar rebus of Coke bottles, r2d2s, and Stormtroopers, all in the vibrant complementary colors of blue and red. Up close, her paint soaks and drips. Farther back, her images read as coded messages you just about get. Only in the middle do some paintings fall flat, such as her smaller portraits of Stormtrooper + Round Watermelons #1 (2017) and Dole + Darth Vader (2017). Here you just wish the compositions had the space to go fully bananas.
1 “Ann Purcell: Caravan Series” opened at Berry Campbell, New York, on January 4 and remains on view through February 3, 2018.
2 “Ben Godward: Sculptures” opened at Sean Scully Studio, New York, on January 4 and remains on view through February 8, 2018.
3 “Katherine Bernhardt: Green” opened at Canada, New York, on January 5 and remains on view through February 11, 2018.