Free University regional museums class attracts student to the world of art

This past Sunday, Ian Berry, curatorial assistant of Williams College Museum Art took several students to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT to view the exhibition Pieter de Hooch (pronounced “Hoke”), 1629-1684. The trip was the first of three events of a Free University course (new this year), entitled “On the Road to Regional Art Museums,” led by Berry. The exhibit is the first one-man-show featuring de Hooch. It was organized with the Dulwich Gallery in London and runs until February 28, 1999.

The general museum exhibition began even before we entered the doors. Berry pointed out the enormous “stabiles” (as opposed to “mobiles”) of American sculptor Alexander Calder in the courtyard of the atheneum. Even before getting tickets, we were greeted by a modern work of Sol LeWitt painted on the museum’s interior entrance. To a cultured follower of his work, the painting was a transition out of LeWitt’s traditional straight-lined displays. To me, it recalled swirls and colors associated with Woodstock.

We arrived at the museum just in time to tour a side exhibit and whet our pallets on a rather extensive collection of Bierstadt and others of the Hudson River School. Among these traditional works was a modern piece by Felix Gonzales-Torres, “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) where two identical clocks displaying identical times hung side by side to represent a relationship through time.

Next, we embarked on a small and relatively painless half-hour tour of de Hooch’s work. The tour and, more prominently, Ted Melnick ’99, who recently completed a class on Dutch art last fall, pointed out de Hooch’s superior command of perspective, interiors, lighting, and portrayal of domestic Dutch scenes.

“The de Hooch show went above and beyond the paintings we had seen in class. De Hooch was known for his innovations in perspective and the museum had clever labels to explain the incorporation of some of those perspectives,” said Melnick.

View boxes, curved mirrors and perspective diagrams illustrated the idea of perspective in the paintings. I particularly appreciated de Hooch’s depiction of floors, be they wood, tile, or earth; as well as his overall attention to detail.

As an artist of Holland’s Golden Age, de Hooch’s art is so similar in style to Johannes Vermeer that art historians have difficulty telling them apart. The similarity of style between de Hooch and Vermeer is so acute that only subtle clues — if present — can differentiate the works.

Only de Hooch, for instance, will portray women and children in the same scene. De Hooch also has a propensity toward dogs, of which he paints with superb accuracy.

Plus, de Hooch inserted striking details such as a bright orange atop a dark mantelpiece, as well as maps on walls within the paintings with more consistency than Vermeer.

Following the tour of de Hooch’s 40 paintings, Berry led a super tour of the modern art collection—his main focus at WCMA. Wolfgang Laib’s “Milkstone” was particularly entertaining; a small amount of milk poured into an indentation in a marble slab leveled off its surface so that it appeared to be a solid cube.

On Kawara, who paints “Date Paintings” the day’s date in white, block letters on a dark, canvas every day of his life since the mid sixties, was also on view. The artist considers the paintings to be an ongoing project about his life. Great works by Ana Mendieta, Robert Ryman, and Andy Warhol were also on display.

I will admit that, at first, I was hesitant to go on the trip. Having not taken a single art history class at Williams I was hesitant to step into an exhibition on the Dutch painter. I felt considerably distant from painting as a whole due to my unfamiliarity with the entire genre. Before this trip, paintings, to me, were things that hung on the wall with the sole purpose of intimidating the uninformed (me).

Okay, so the scene I am painting is a rather bleak and exaggerated, but it gives you an idea of where I was situated on the rung of art museum experience before the trip I took to the atheneum.

As we drove through picturesque New England towns, Berry flinched when I said I was hesitant to plunge into an exhibit I knew nothing about. “ I hope that museum visits become more of a regular activity for everyone,” he said. “Each painting has many stories.”

The trip turned out to be one of the more inspirational and educational experiences Williams has offered me, chiefly due to this truth. It awakened me to the fascinating world of art to the extent that I anticipate uncovering more “stories” during visits to the superior collections in this region.

Berry arranged the Free University with the aim of “seeking the best of current exhibition offerings” in the area, complete with lectures from curators and educators who introduce the exhibitions.

Berry received his MA in curatorial studies from Bard College in ’98. The Free University course culminates Sunday, January 24 with a visit to the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, CT to attend the opening of a new installation by Ann Hamilton.