Discover more from I Require Art
Chance Encounters, Edition 12
"Refiguring Modernism" at Oberlin College, Ohio
Wishing you could visit a great museum without trekking to a big city? Perhaps you want to experience art in a more intimate setting than one of the huge world-famous museums. Why not look around for a local college or university? Most have a gallery or museum, often with free admission. Recently I returned to my alma mater Oberlin College for a visit and took advantage of the opportunity to visit one of the finest academic museums in the country, the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Housed in the original 1917 Cass Gilbert Renaissance Revival building and the 1977 Postmodern Robert Venturi addition, the Allen exhibits art from the ancient world and from diverse cultures, as well as characteristic examples of nearly every period and movement of Western Art History.
One needn’t enter the museum proper to see one prominent work of Modern art. Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug (Cube Tap) of 1970 sits in the grass near the Venturi addition. The sculpture was Oldenburg’s first commission for a permanent outdoor sculpture. Typical of Oldenburg’s public sculptures, Plug is an enlarged version of a mundane object, a whimsical challenge to our neglect of such objects. Oldenburg himself suggested that the work could serve as a monument to Thomas Edison who was born in Milan, Ohio, not far from Oberlin, but in most of his discussions of the work he focused on the idea of connection. In the video below, Oldenburg oversees the installation of his sculpture in 1970.
This film documents the original installation of Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Three-Way Plug outside of the Allen Memorial Art Museum in 1970. (Its orientation relative to the surroundings has changed since this was filmed.) In addition to quotes from Oldenburg, the process and spectacle of the event is captured. This film was made by former Oberlin College student Richard Haass (Class of 1973).
One of the excellent exhibitions currently on view at the Allen is “Refiguring Modernism: A Fractured and Disorienting World” (continuing through May 31, 2025). Comprised of a group of Modern artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, this survey includes some of the biggest names in 20th century art, as well as some others who may be less familiar. Among other artists from early in the century, including Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier stands out with its dramatic color contrast and Expressionist representation. The artist depicts himself in the uniform of his World War One German artillery unit, a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his right hand missing. The artist had served in the artillery in 1915 but due to physical and mental illness was released from service. Though he didn’t suffer the loss of his hand, the injury depicted in the painting symbolizes the damage his exposure to the horrors of war had done. After leaving the army, he suffered a nervous breakdown and spent some time hospitalized. The elongated figures and blood red details impress on the viewer how the soldier and his suffering continue even as the artist strives to return to the canvases that loom behind him.
In contrast to Kirchner’s violent image, Zao Wu-Ki’s Landscape is soothing with its combination of warm sandy and cool watery colors. Sketchy lines suggest but don’t fully define the hills and structures of this dream-like place. Born in Beijing, China, Zao was attracted to European modernism through his exposure to postcard reproductions. He studied traditional Chinese painting techniques in his home country but eventually traveled to France and gained French citizenship. This work was created just a few years after he had relocated to France. The lines are reminiscent of the Chinese ink landscapes he would have studied and executed as a student, but the painterly background reflects the influence of European art. Under the influence of American Abstract Expressionism, Zao would later abandon representation, focusing on the expressive power of color and paint application.
The expressive power of color and paint absorbed many artists of the mid 20th century. At almost seven feet tall, Judith Reigl’s bold Écriture en Masse (Mass Writing) dominates the viewer with its black masses and streaks which partially cover two shapes, one bright blue and the other deep red. Reigl’s life was also dramatic. In 1950, when her native Hungary was separated from Western Europe by the Iron Curtain, the artist managed to escape to Paris after traveling through Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. It was her ninth attempt to escape the restrictions of her career in Hungary, where she was limited to painting portraits of Communist rulers. After encountering the Surrealists, Reigl committed herself to automatic writing, a process in which the artist makes marks without any planning. The Surrealists saw this process as allowing the subconscious to act in the art making. For Reigl, automatism became her primary approach. "My entire body took part in the work, in the wake of my arms wide open. I wrote in the given space with gestures, beats, impulses.” Écriture en Masse (Mass Writing) is part of a series of works with the same title and shows how the artist combined the influence of Surrealism with the newer ideas of Lyrical Abstraction.
Another artist whose work is associated with Lyrical Abstraction is the Peruvian painter Fernando de Szyszlo. Like other works in this exhibition, The Execution of Túpac Amaru contrasts darkness with flashes of bright color: red, orange, yellow and pink. De Szyszlo was a pioneer of non-representational art in Peru and his geometric shapes and patterns of raised glossy paint contrast with more matte backgrounds and amorphous clouds of color. This painting commemorates the execution of the last indigenous Inca monarch and reflects the artist’s interest in Pre-Columbian history and Peruvian culture. The circular form is a frequent element in de Szyszlo’s work and usually symbolizes the sun, a reference to the Incas as “Children of the Sun.” The blackening sun can be seen as a reference to Túpac Amaru’s death but also to the end of the independent indigenous culture.
Surface and texture also play a role in the work by Sam Gilliam exhibited in “Refiguring Modernism.” Parallel is a rectangular canvas with mitered sides. The fall of light on the sloped sides alters the colors as they fold around the edges. The paint has soaked into the canvas in many areas, while in others the paint thickness rises slightly above the canvas surface. The effect is of a carved slab of colored stone, set perpendicular to the natural striations of the rock. The warm peach and yellow tones contrast with the many dark colored works in the gallery.
Another bright, and very cheerful, work in this gallery closes my look at this exhibition. Miriam Schapiro’s The Secret Garden is an acrylic painting with collaged elements, mostly of floral-patterned cloth. Though the clouds of color in the background are reminiscent of the earlier Abstract Expressionist movement, Schapiro was a pioneering feminist artist who helped establish the Pattern and Decoration movement which valued the design elements of non-Western cultures and traditionally feminine crafts. In this work, the floral printed fabrics, bright colors and repeated patterns reflect Schapiro’s connection to Pattern and Decoration, as well as creating the titular garden.
These paintings and others are joined by a group of sculptures by prominent artists of the period, among them Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Käthe Kollwitz. “Refiguring Modernism” is worth visiting as an art historical survey of the 20th century and for the impressive individual works it contains. Thought-provoking, educational, and absorbing exhibitions have been the standard in my long experience of the the Allen Memorial Art Museum. If you’re in north central Ohio, check out this gem of a museum; you won’t be disappointed.
The Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College is located at 87 North Main Street, Oberlin, Ohio, 44074. Closed Monday and Sunday, open Tuesday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm; hours may vary during the summer months.
Do you have a favorite local museum? Have you visited any college or university museums? Let us know about your experiences in a comment.