Collecting is a deeply private act, almost shameful. Years ago, the sense of guilty hoarding was palpable in a 60 Minutes profile on John Quentin Feller, an expert in antique porcelain who lifted hundreds of pieces from museums to give them the attention they weren't receiving in a museum vault. In an essay on his life as a collector of books, Walter Benjamin wrote that "ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects."
Cheekwood is giving viewers a chance to get a peek into the intimate life of one of Nashville's most important native artists, Red Grooms, and his wife Lysiane Luong through the works of art they have collected. This is a respectable museum show, so there is no creepy overexposure. But it does open a window onto Grooms' work, even if the personal quality of the selection demands and rewards other ways of looking at it.
You can see a collection like this as a form of self-curation, where the objects serve as a commentary on Grooms' art. Historians use collections to understand their owners—simply knowing what books Thomas Jefferson owned tells you something about his thought processes.
While this collection is the property of two people—Grooms and his wife—it brings out several ways of thinking about Grooms. One room is dedicated to other major figures in Pop Art and related figurative styles: Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, James Rosenquist and others. These were Grooms' peers in New York in the 1950s and '60s. There are also fine examples from their predecessors, such as an important early abstraction by Ad Reinhardt and a Christmas card created by Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock, and pieces by their successors Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Other works bring out traces of Grooms' own style, such as his use of cartoon-like figures and his observation of urban streetscapes.
Some items give you a sense of Grooms and Luong's immediate circle, including British artist Raymond Mason, Luong's stepfather, or New York artists Rudy Burckhardt and Yvonne Jacquette (and their son Tom Burckhardt).
Taking this view, Grooms' choice of art provides a context for his work, in the way that a museum curator might select works by contemporaries, predecessors and successors to show alongside a great master. But it's highly unlikely that Grooms and Luong had that intention for their art purchases. This is the collection of a couple, and it reflects the inevitable compromises in their tastes as they've worked out what they would and would not buy. (One telling detail is the small sampling of outsider art—Grooms likes it but Luong is much less of an admirer, so there are only three pieces here.) As a result, the collection doesn't really hold together as a commentary on Grooms. It's too idiosyncratic—too personal—for that.
You might also look at this collection for a display of virtuosity in taste—Grooms is a major figure, so you expect him to pick out the best art. When you see a piece by contemporary painter Amy Sillman, it seems to confirm that she will rise to the top of the current crop of artists. From an earlier period, there's a Larry Rivers portrait of conductor Leonard Bernstein as an older man, emphasizing the sharp angles of his face, his hands gesturing in a way that emphasizes his energy and alertness. The piece catches Rivers in fine form.
Nevertheless, the idiosyncracy of the collection primes you to look for its connections to Grooms and Luong, not to the intrinsic characteristics of each piece or their relation to each other. Something has happened to these works—they've become transformed into private objects temporarily seeing the light of public day.
When an artwork leaves the hands of its maker, it becomes a form of public property. It goes into the gallery where viewers will make of it what they will. The artist no longer defines the work's meaning. The meaning sits with the viewers, giving them a form of ownership.
A second transformation occurs when a work gets purchased. Now the meaning is defined by the individual who bought it and brought it home. He endows the work with memories of the impression it created on him and the circumstances of its purchase. Benjamin describes the particular sensations he associated with the acquisition of specific books. The purchaser now defines the meaning. Each of the pieces in this show has a story attached to it by Grooms and Luong. When we look at these pieces, one of our leading questions is not what this piece means to us, but what it means to them.
One more transformation occurs to such a collection. If it finally makes its way into a museum, it gets transformed back to public ownership. Usually the museum curators integrate the pieces into the larger collection, presenting them objectively, not personally. Last year the Frist Center showed paintings from Baltimore given by the Cone sisters. The sisters knew Matisse and Picasso, and had important works by both men and their contemporaries, but they didn't much care for Cubism. The museum filled out the collection with other acquisitions to make it a more comprehensive survey, smoothing out the personal edges.
The Grooms and Luong collection has its personal edges intact. When you think about their attachment to the works, you may become aware of your own connections to pieces. The Sillman painting reminded me of the day I first came upon her work in a Chelsea gallery. The portrait of Bernstein makes me remember not only what Bernstein meant to New Yorkers but what he meant to me, a teenager watching The Unanswered Question (one of his many educational programs) and more recently relying on his recordings to refamiliarize myself with Mahler. We may envy those lucky enough to own such pieces, but casual viewers and the collector alike rely on private memory to work their way through a room of art.
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