Center of Attention 

Set to open this week, the Frist Center delivers on its immense promise

Set to open this week, the Frist Center delivers on its immense promise

Frist Center for the Visual Arts

Opening April 8

919 Broadway

Hours: 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Wed., Fri.-Sat.; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.; 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $6.50 adults; $4.50 seniors and college students; free for ages 18 and under

For information, call 244-3340 or visit www.fristcenter.org

Much has been made of the amazing transformation of the old post office building on Broadway into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. But while the superb renovation of the 1934 building’s exterior and the inspired adaptation of its interior are worth applauding, the fact remains that a visual arts facility is only as good as the art it exhibits. In the case of the Frist Center, the real news is that its beauty is more than skin deep.

The four exhibitions chosen to open the center reflect the enduring yet ever-evolving nature of art. In the space of one visit, patrons can sample art by Europe’s greatest masters, explore fine art and antique treasures from Nashville’s top public and private collections, experience a cutting-edge contemporary art installation, and even study the fascinating past of the very building that houses all of this. Each of the opening shows was organized especially for the Frist Center and will not be seen anywhere else.

It’s European

In a classic Seinfeld episode, Jerry takes a lot of ribbing for carrying what looks like a woman’s handbag. He repeatedly defends the object as being “European” and therefore no mere purse. A lot of people take the same snobbish approach to art—if it’s European, it’s inherently better than anything from this side of the Atlantic. Consequently, exhibitions of minor works by major European artists are often promoted as being far more significant than they actually are.

Candace Adelson, exhibitions curator at the Frist, is quick to dispel that assumption about “European Masterworks: Paintings From the Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario,” the Frist Center’s most ballyhooed opening exhibition. “It’s such a great show, I can’t really even single out the best pieces,” she says. “There’s the huge Tintoretto painting that’s 14 feet wide, one of the greatest landscapes Gainsborough ever painted, a wonderful Rembrandt, and three Picassos from different periods that show how he could do just about anything.”

The 95 works in the show are displayed in chronological fashion, though there is some variation within the 1400-to-1989 timeline. That enormous work painted by Venetian master Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto in the mid-1550s, for example, confronts viewers as soon as they enter the Frist’s main gallery, located in the vast space beyond the now removed service windows where Nashvillians once lined up to purchase stamps and mail packages. “Christ Washing His Disciples’ Feet” is actually one of a related pair (the other hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and is part of Tintoretto’s epic series of works depicting the life of Christ. After this dramatic introduction, viewers are free to follow the chronological sequence by touring the main gallery’s connected spaces in counterclockwise fashion—or they can break ranks and enjoy works in random order.

Some may want to make a beeline for the section devoted to the great French Impressionists, most of whom worked in the mid- to late 19th century. Highlights here include “Beach at Trouville” (1864), which Adelson deems “one of the great works by Eugene Boudin.” The scene of women in billowing dresses and men in slim, dark suits strolling on the beach illustrates the artist’s skill at capturing the changing effects of light—an approach that would inspire Claude Monet, for whom Boudin served as a mentor. Indeed, Frist visitors can make the connection between Monet and his teacher by comparing Monet’s “Vetheuil in Summer” (1879), also in the show, with Boudin’s earlier work. “The idea is that the arrangement [of works in the show] allows the viewer to explore European art as it has evolved over six centuries, while at the same time seeing the links between the various artists, styles, and themes,” Adelson says.

Other great 19th-century artists included in the Frist show are Delacroix, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Degas, and van Gogh. The exhibit also features some 20 works by such 20th-century masters as Picasso, Modigliani, Magritte, and David Hockney. Still, the show’s real strength lies in works from the 17th century—something that personally pleases Adelson, whose own specialty is European tapestries. “The 17th century is a period that often gets skipped over, but it’s the one best represented in our show,” she says. “What distinguishes works of this period from art that went before is that we see the artist beginning to look at the real world. The exploration of how to do that on canvas is what characterizes European painting from then on.”

Best of Nashville

In the gallery directly above the one showcasing “European Masterworks,” patrons can literally see the best of Nashville’s public and private art collections in one delightfully eclectic show, titled “Enduring Legacy.” With Frist’s curator of American art Mark Scala and Nashville art consultant Susan Knowles co-curating, however, the show is much more than just an entertaining hodgepodge of items from local collections. Scala and Knowles have chosen a theme of art in the Americas to tie together the 145 objects created in North, Central, and South America.

To further organize the show—which features everything from paintings and sculpture to horse-drawn sleighs and sequined country-music costumes—the co-curators have broken it down into five different sub-themes. “We wanted to use these wonderful objects to show the common inspirations that make art, whether it’s a pre-Columbian stirrup cup from Peru or a painting by Andrew Wyeth,” Knowles says. The organizing conceits range from art as a means of exploring the concept of beauty to art as a means of documenting culture and everyday life. The thematic boundaries of the “Enduring Legacy” show are flexible, however, and the arrangement of pieces encourages viewers to draw their own conclusions about standards of artistic beauty and reality.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the show is the range of Nashville collections represented. Nearly every museum, historic home, and educational institution in the city has contributed work—and many have loaned some of their most prized art possessions. “The Frist Center really wants to be a partner in Nashville’s arts community,” Knowles says. “So this show is meant to point out that these great works of art come from places like Cheekwood, the Tennessee State Museum, Fisk University, and the Hermitage. All of these institutions were willing to loan their choice pieces to the Frist for an entire year. I’m not sure, but it may be unique to have so many arts facilities and private collectors in a city cooperating on a show like this.”

Other objects in the show include Albert Bierstadt and Winslow Homer paintings from The Parthenon, a Charles Russell watercolor from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bud Adams, and a Jackson Pollock from the collection of Vanderbilt professor emeritus Leonard Nathanson. Belle Meade Plantation kicks in with a black lacquer sleigh, while the Country Music Hall of Fame contributes one of Thomas Hart Benton’s original studies for his epic painting “Sources of Country Music” and a country music outfit. Other highlights include a folk carving of Andrew Jackson from The Hermitage’s holdings, quilts from the Tennessee State Museum, and a William Edmondson limestone sculpture of a horse from the Cumberland Science Museum. “I really hope that this show will open everyone’s eyes to the art all around us in Nashville,” Knowles says.

Modern art and local history

After viewing the “Enduring Legacy” show, viewers can duck into the Contemporary Artists Project (CAP) Gallery, just off the main-level gallery, for a dose of installation art. The inaugural exhibition is “The Administrator,” an environment created by Nashville artist and Vanderbilt art professor Michael Aurbach that explores secrecy and power through a series of visual puns. The sculptural tableau consists of shiny sheet metal walls and a variety of objects, including a “hot seat” where an unseen but all-powerful administrator might interview an underling, and a series of hoops that must be jumped through to satisfy authority figures. Other symbolic items are a pitcher and basin where the powerful can wash their hands of blame and a telescope that is focused out a window—but reveals a view of something else entirely. Aurbach’s consummately crafted and thought-provoking work is a perfect counterpoint to the more traditional art found elsewhere in the Frist.

Finally, there’s the Community Arts Gallery, a space designated for exhibitions that explore Nashville’s concept of itself as a community. Fittingly enough, the first show, “From Post Office to Art Center,” traces the history of the Frist building from 1934 to the present day through oral histories, documents, vintage photographs, and other artifacts. If you’ve forgotten—or never knew—what it was like to stand in line for hours to mail a package at Christmas or to wait in a long line of traffic to file your last-minute tax return on April 15, this exhibit will bring the Frist’s past as a post office to life again.

Curated by local architectural historian and Scene contributor Christine Kreyling, the exhibit recalls the creation of the building in the midst of the Depression, when hundreds of unemployed workers lined up seeking construction jobs, as well as its poignant role in World War II, when thousands of soldiers mailed a last letter home before boarding a train at the Union Station next door and heading for combat in Europe. The display also delves into the architectural features that made the building eminently suitable for its second career as a visual arts center—and then documents the long and winding path to the building becoming just that. It’s an exhibit that provides the perfect ending—or beginning—to a visit to Nashville’s first full-fledged arts center.

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