Opening the vaults: New UMass exhibit takes a broad look at 60 years worth of art on campu

  • Work by multidisciplinary artist Tauba Auerbach is part of “Sixty Years of Collecting,” a new exhibit at the University Museum Of Contemporary Art (UMCA) at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow is seen with work by multidisciplinary artist Tauba Auerbach at the museum’s new exhibit. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • This aluminum pyramid by celebrated pop artist Keith Haring is part of “Sixty Years of Collecting,” a retrospective exhibit at the University Museum Of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Loretta Yarlow, director of the University Museum of Contemporary Art, talks about work by the sculptor Jesús Rafael Soto at the new UMCA exhibit. STAFF PHOTOCAROL LOLLIS


  • UMCA Director Loretta Yarlow stands by work by multidisciplinary artist Tauba Auerbach at the museum’s new exhibit, “Sixty Years of Collecting.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • UMass Amherst student Lahcen Aqdim assists with the installation of “Sixty Years of Collecting,” a new exhibit at the University Museum Of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • UMass Amherst student Lahcen Aqdim assists with the installation of “Sixty Years of Collecting,” a new exhibit at the University Museum Of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “Butterfly Girl,” from the Chibok Girls series, 2018, archival pigment ink on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag by Imo Nse Imeh. CONTRIBUTED/UMCA

  • “Karen Kain,” 1980 screenprint by Andy Warhol at the University Museum of Contemporary Art. CONTRIBUTED/UMCA

  • “Stalled municipal housing scheme,” 2006 photo of an unfinished housing project in South Africa by David Goldblatt, who covered the effects of apartheid in his country. CONTRIBUTED/ UMCA

  • “Two Masked Children and Tree, New York,” circa 1940 photo by Helen Levitt Image courtesy UMCA

  • A visitor to the new UMCA exhibit at UMass Amherst snaps a photo of “Equinox,” a hand-sewn lithograph with collage by artist Alison Saar. Photo by Todd Verlander

Staff Writer
Monday, October 24, 2022

In 1962, the University of Massachusetts Amherst was in the early stages of a huge expansion, with new dormitories and other buildings going up on campus. But the university didn’t yet have a major museum — so faculty in the Fine Arts Department began collecting and storing drawings, paintings, prints and other artwork at Herter Hall.

In 1975, UMass opened what was then known as University Gallery in the new Fine Arts Center building to give that growing art collection a permanent home. Now, in what’s called the University Museum of Contemporary Art (UMCA), the school is recognizing six decades of building an art portfolio with a show that looks back to the collection’s beginnings — as well as to its future.

With 115 artworks on display, “Sixty Years of Collecting” showcases just a fraction of UMCA’s collection of over 3,600 items. But Director Loretta Yarlow says many of the prints, photographs and other works on display haven’t been seen in years — or ever — and that the exhibit offers a variety of work that stretches back to the first half of the 20th century.

Curating the show, Yarlow said during a recent tour of UMCA, “has been the thrill of a lifetime.” And if it was a challenge deciding what to exhibit, “Then it was a good kind of challenge,” she added with a laugh.

From work by seminal photographers including Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Helen Levitt, to prints by pop-art maestro Andy Warhol, to the expressionist work of contemporary western Massachusetts painter Imo Nse Imeh, the new exhibit also reflects the contributions of generous donors who have helped the UMCA build its collection from scratch, Yarlow said.

“Now we’re able to draw on that generosity to show the range of work we have, from very well-known artists to some other very talented people who haven’t had as much exposure,” she said.

The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 11 and then Feb. 14 through  May 14, also highlights UMCA’s role as a teaching museum, Yarlow noted. UMass students in a course on museum collection — Yarlow is one of the three teachers — select a new artwork each year for the collection, and for this exhibit they’ve chosen “Equinox,” a 2012 lithograph and collage by California artist Alison Saar.

“Sixty Years of Collecting” is divided into nine separate sections in which artwork is grouped both by style as well as content and theme. “Art and Politics: Changing Hearts and Minds,” as one example, features work in which artists try to visualize a variety of social issues to raise awareness of them, or at least stimulate discussion.

A large 2008 print by installation and conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, for instance, is a striking photograph of huge letters she projected onto the outside of London’s City Hall (London Tower Bridge is illuminated on the left) at nighttime that read “Whatever you say reverberates, whatever you don’t say speaks for itself. So either way you’re talking politics.”

Also part of this section is a print of “Butterfly Girl,” a painting by Imeh, a Nigerian American artist and scholar who teaches at Westfield State University. Much of Imeh’s work examines the African diaspora, and he often juxtaposes partial portraits of Black men and women within curling ribbons of paint and ink wash. “Butterfly Girl” is one of a series of paintings he did in response to the abduction of 276 girls from a Nigerian village in 2014.

Another section of the UMCA exhibit is devoted to pop art, and here the university benefits from a donation of original, never-before-exhibited Andy Warhol prints it received several years ago. The colorful 1980 screenprint “Karen Kain” is based on a Polaroid that Warhol took in his studio of Kain, formerly a principal dancer in the National Ballet of Canada.

One of Warhol’s pop-art peers, Roy Lichtenstein, also gets his moment in the exhibit with “Brushstroke,” a screenprint of a looping line of paint that, true to Lichtenstein’s talent for parody and tongue-in-cheek humor, ends with dribbles of paint falling from the end of the brushstroke.

Introspective art, photography and more

Conceptual art, with work by Jennifer Bartlett, Donald Judd and others, gets a themed section, too, as does what Yarlow has labeled “At the still point of the turning world,” a line from T.S. Eliot. The more than two dozen pieces here, such as an abstract painting by British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor, focus on “contemplation, perception, and the artistic process as a form of internal quietude and experimentation,” as exhibit notes put it.

Three-dimensional art gets a nod as well, with works by Keith Haring, Jesús Rafael Soto and Tauba Auerbach. The latter, a multidisciplinary artist, has contributed several carefully crafted paper structures that pop up from thick, flat folders.

“Laura’s work really looks at structure and form and perception in a way that’s wonderfully creative,” Yarlow said.

One of the exhibit’s real strengths is a robust collection of photographs, primarily black and white and divided roughly between landscapes and portraits, though there’s some overlap, in which people can appear in settings that also reflect photographers’ expanded sense of landscape.

“Eleanor, Port Huron,” a 1954 photo by Harry Callahan — born in Detroit in 1912, he is one of the oldest artists represented in the show — has a Romantic-era, painterly quality, as it depicts a nude woman from behind, lying on a blanket in a meadow back-dropped by clumps of bushes and a line of trees.

A 2006 image by South African photographer David Goldblatt, meanwhile, reveals the bleak terrain of an unfinished public housing project for blacks: dozens of small, roofless brick houses scattered in a treeless field like a modern ghost town. (The late Goldblatt spent much of his working life chronicling the effects of apartheid in South Africa.)

One of the more mysterious photos is by Helen Levitt, a noted New York street photographer whose career began in the 1930s. Her “Two Masked Children and a Tree,” from the early 1940s, gives us a moody tableau of a dingy urban courtyard, with one kid part way up a bare tree and another at its base; both are wearing crude masks. Is it Halloween, or something else?

And a large black-and-white photograph from 2013 by Latoya Ruby Frazier, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, contrasts the grim panorama of an old steel mill — spaghetti loops of rail lines, plumes of smoke, and a sprawl of ugly buildings along the Monongahela River — with wooded ridges in the background.

Aside from the artwork on display, “Sixty Years of Collecting” includes some video content of some of the artists at work; public programs connected to the exhibit include guided tours and discussions hosted by some of the participating artists.

Yarlow said the exhibit also reflects the UMCA’s revamped collecting strategy of the last several years, which is dedicated to diversifying the museum’s holdings, especially by giving more attention to works by women and artists of color.

“We are a teaching museum, and we want to reflect that larger (UMass) goal of having a collection that really speaks to diversity, to community, and to all the changes we see in the world,” she said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.