Ever since the summer of 2015, when Kelly Baum left to join the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Princeton University Art Museum has been without a curator of contemporary art. Yet it has just launched an exhibit that includes some of the largest works of contemporary art, by artists with similarly large reputations, to have entered its space.
“A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art,” on view through October 30, features work by Edmund de Waal, Mark di Suvero, Katharina Grosse, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Matthew Ritchie, Julian Schnabel, Richard Serra, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Kara Walker, and Kehinde Wiley, among others.
The 35 large-scale works offer a look at the varied practices of art making over the last decade. The artists are descended from avant-garde practitioners such as Picasso and Duchamp who embraced industrial and other nontraditional materials. As its title implies, “A Material Legacy” explores the innovative use of materials by artists working today. How does a simple drawing convey an experience, compared with a monumental sculpture? What are the material challenges artists face as they work on a monumental scale?
Julian Schnabel, for example, took a photograph of a decrepit ceiling in an abandoned building, printed it on a sheet of polyester, and spray painted the surface for a purple-y textile that looks like an abstract underwater world where biomorphic creatures swim.
“Artists are using materials in extraordinary varied ways,” says James Steward, the museum’s Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger director (yes, those are the same Nasher and Haemisegger from whose collection the exhibition comes — more on that later).
“The possibilities for manipulating materials through technologies in printing or metalworking didn’t exist 100 years ago. And scale — indeed, scale is one of the things that strikes me most about the exhibition — that artists are pushing the limits of scale in terms of the sizes of their canvases or the weight and density of their sculptures. Many of these are works that artists made with public space and public viewing in mind. And certainly they are working at a scale that tests the limits of our galleries.”
Edmund de Waal’s “Breathturn, I,” for example, consisting of 476 diminutive, precious porcelain vessels in an aluminum and Plexiglas cabinet, takes up a full wall. An artist and author (“The Hare with the Amber Eyes,” “The White Road”), de Waal throws pots for the same reason he writes — to tell stories of collecting, ownership, and loss.
“Pots turn into words and words turn into pots,” he says. By placing hand-thrown ceramic vessels on a metal display case, de Waal calls attention to the strong human impulse to collect things, illustrating how objects accumulate individual biographies along the way. Each vessel bears the handprint of the artist.
Holding his phone’s camera, Steward stands in front of a work by Anish Kapoor, “Full Moon.” Like a large concave mirror, the stainless steel offers back his reflection, upside down, pointing a lens back at him. The work draws in the viewer in a way that is hard to escape; its distortions of movement are hypnotic. In fact, so drawn are viewers that a security guard must chant, like a mantra, “Not too close, not too close.”
David Altmejd also plays with reflection in an untitled work. This architectural sculpture has a curious little ceramic figure in a mirrored niche at crotch height, and a web-like crazing of the glass and a pyramid of rows of spools of thread at its midsection. At head height is an opening through the tower, so you see your headless figure reflected. Altmejd blurs the boundaries as his mysterious objects blend into the reflection, camouflaging the sculpture and animating it with the viewer.
“If you cover an object with mirrors,” says Altmejd, “it becomes invisible, totally transparent-seeming. But if you walk around it, all of a sudden it takes shape, it becomes real.”
In 1958 Alan Kaprow, the performance artist and one-time Rutgers faculty member who helped create the Fluxus movement, said “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights. Smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists.”
In his monumental work “eyes that run like leaping fire,” Elliott Hundley uses a plethora of materials — photographs, magazine clippings, straight pins, sequins, letters — behind a veil of hanging red threads. The installation meditates on Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “The Bacchae,” in which a mother unknowingly kills her son during a ritual.
Nasher and Haemisegger, Princeton University Class of 1976, met while students. “I believe they met on their first day at Princeton,” says Steward.
The couple has continued a family tradition, amassing a significant collection of contemporary art. They are the daughter and son-in-law of Raymond D. and Patsy T. Nasher, art collectors, patrons, benefactors, and philanthropists. While Raymond and Patsy assembled one of the world’s great collections of modern sculpture, largely housed in the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Nancy and David have mostly focused on contemporary art, including painting, sculpture, drawing and multimedia works.
“Nancy in particular grew up surrounded by art,” says Steward. “As a young woman, Nancy was painted by Andy Warhol — so I think it’s fair to say that art is in her veins.”
Nasher and Haemisegger continue to play important roles at PUAM, where she is a member of the museum’s Advisory Council. “Both have shared with me that it is art that unites them in their love of Princeton,” continues Steward, “and so it’s natural that they have both become involved in and supportive of this museum’s work. They endowed the directorship understanding how that would continue strengthening the museum’s financial health and signal our growing maturity as a museum. Nancy’s father was a Duke alumnus and it seemed natural to partner with Duke’s museum on the first exhibition of Nancy and David’s collection — so different in character and focus than that of Nancy’s parents, which focused on the high modernist moment in particular.”
“Patsy and Ray Nasher were interested in putting art in public spaces, where the public could see and engage with it,” says Heather N. Cammarata-Seale, a curatorial associate who has been filling in on an interim basis as a search committee seeks Baum’s replacement. “Now Nancy and David are taking the lead with their collection so people can enjoy and engage with it.”
The exhibition, which premiered at the Nasher Museum, has been supplemented with some additions from the Princeton museum’s collection. Included is Brice Marden’s “After Botticelli,” for example, suggestive of Chinese calligraphy, with its black lines on white paper, like dancers holding hands.
“It’s fun to find these affinities,” says Cammarata-Seale, who previously worked for the Johnson & Johnson Corporate Art program in New Brunswick. In January she earned her doctorate in modern contemporary art from Rutgers, where her thesis looked at the historical, cultural, and ethical implications of taxidermy as an artistic medium, with a focus on the human-animal relationship. So for example, Damien Hirst’s 1991 shark in formaldehyde, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” is something she has considered.
Perhaps the shark is Hirst’s material legacy, but here, in “Beautiful Superheroes Painting (with Butterflies),” he creates what Cammarata-Seale describes as a gestural abstract made with spin art technology. Embedded within the swirls of paint are actual butterfly wings, exemplifying the confluence of art and nature.
Were any animals harmed in the creation of Hirst’s work with butterflies? Cammarata-Seale cannot say, but a 2012 report in the Telegraph claimed that 9,000 butterflies were sacrificed for a Hirst retrospective at the Tate Modern in London. UK’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and the chief executive of Butterfly Conservation in Britain all decried the practice. “Is it art, or is it just dead meat,” asked New York Times headline for a 1995 story about Hirst, who also uses sheep and cows in his artwork.
“Since antiquity, artists have been innovating with materials, and the avant-garde artists broke away from the traditions,” Cammarata-Seale says. “This exhibition continues that exploration. Hirst is experimenting with his personal oeuvre, letting chance play a part.”
In “Untitled (Pretty Lost Blue for My Girls, Italian Mask M30.b),” Mark Grotjahn — also known for paying homage to butterflies in his complex paintings — has cast an assemblage of discarded cardboard in bronze, then finger painted it, in essence using a fine, time-tested and enduring material to imitate detritus colored with a child’s favorite medium.
Kara Walker, best known for her life-size cut-paper silhouettes and the monumental sugar sculpture she executed in an abandoned Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, uses gestural strokes of charcoal and graphite, rather than meticulously cut paper, to describe the voluptuous curves of her subject in “Object Lesson in Empire Building.”
In “Actions: Flopppp Sllurp Spaloosh Whoomph (No. 3),” the fun begins with the title. Christian Marclay, a well-known DJ in the 1970s, began experimenting with sound by manipulating turntables and playing them as if they were traditional instruments. Marclay considers comic books musical objects because they render action in the form of explosive onomatopoeias. “Flopppp Sllurp Spaloosh Whoomph” makes visual the actions and acoustics of painting.
One of Cammarata-Seale’s favorites is “Link of Nature” by Matthew Ritchie. This painting of a tangle of lines charts the development of human knowledge through scientific treaties, she says. “It is explosive, chaotic, but celestial as well as microscopic, and named for a place in ‘Paradise Lost.’ Ritchie looks toward physics, astronomy and psychology in making his art.”
Cammarata-Seale grew up in Wayne, where her parents worked from home, running a blog. Her husband is an engineer for a pharmaceutical firm in the Bronx and the couple lives in Edison. She worked as the coordinator for the New York Semester on Contemporary Art at Drew University, an immersive experience in New York’s galleries, and the experience swayed her interest in contemporary art while an undergraduate at Drew. She has been outreach coordinator and programs manager at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, held internships at the Brooklyn and Zimmerli museums and the Morgan Library, and volunteered in museum education, training docents at the Guggenheim while earning her Ph.D. The use of taxidermy in art practice intrigued her because she loves animals and cares for two rescue puppies.
There are no living creatures used in “Material Legacy,” though plenty of dead ones. Huma Bhabba uses everything from weeds and a seedpod to a skull. The use of these materials relates to a concurrent exhibit, “Surfaces Seen and Unseen,” in which African artists employ animal bones, vegetable fibers, the pelt of a rabbit, blood, gruel, feathers, smoke and, yes, mirrors, in layers that reveal spiritual practices, cultural values, and artistic innovations.
A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art, Princeton University Art Museum, on view through Sunday, October 30. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.