Contemporary art tends to be difficult to categorize and at times seems impossible to understand. “Permanent Change: Contemporary Works from the Collection,” which opened at the Williams College Museum of Art on December 11, 1999, provides an intriguing smattering of artwork from the past three decades. The exhibit features 24 artists and covers many genres of contemporary art. Assistant Curator Ian Berry, with the help of students Alanna Gedgaudas ’00, Victoria Restler ’02, Elyse Gonzales ’00 and Jeffrey Saletnik ’01, succeeds in providing “unusual juxtapositions” (all quotes are taken from a blurb on a wall of the exhibit) and presenting an organized and energetic selection of works.
“Permanent Change” is separated into two sections by decade. Works from the late ’60s and ’70s, minimalist and conceptual works which “shift away from the romantic ideals of post WWII art,” are displayed on one side of the gallery; a video piece and works by female artists such as Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud XXV are also included. The other side of the gallery presents pieces from the last 20 years, primarily works “of artists transforming and re-presenting themselves through self-portraiture” and “artists from diverse cultural backgrounds engaging in social activism.” This arrangement helps to place various unrelated works in context, providing a road map for understanding certain works, which is helpful for inexperienced viewers of contemporary art.
WCMA’s exhibition includes several immediately arresting works. Visitors will recognize Andy Warhol’s large, yellow and black Self-Portrait of 1986; it hung previously above the museum’s foyer entrance. In its new position, at the viewer’s eye-level, Warhol’s silkscreen is rejuvenated. When seen up close, the enormous size of Warhol’s head is reinforced, but the viewer is also drawn into the work; rather than looking down upon those entering the foyer like some kind of sun god, Warhol’s eyes look directly at the viewer’s eyes, establishing a more personal connection.
Another imposing work is Diary of a Slave Girl (After Harriet Jacobs), by Tim Rollins + K.O.S (1998), in which pages of Harriet Jacobs’ diary are laid out over a large canvas and partially covered by vertical, multi-colored ribbons, which spill into cascading swirls on the gallery floor. The meaning of the piece is not entirely apparent, although the ribbons seem to suggest the bars of a jail. The often opaque “meaning” of many contemporary works may be off-putting to viewers; WCMA’s exhibit includes several such pieces, without many explanatory notes. However, this approach allows visitors to form their own impressions of each work in the gallery.
Museum-goers should not overlook the many smaller treats of this exhibit. Ann Hamilton’s photographs (Untitled, Body Object Series #8-16) are intriguing, as are John O’Reilly’s Polaroid collages. The Felix Gonzales-Torres work (Untitled) is an effective piece of social activism, consisting of a black background against which the viewer’s face is reflected, under which various historical events and dates are printed in white. Among the more visually pleasing pieces in the gallery is the Vija Celmins lithograph (Untitled, 1972) of a band of ocean against a white background.
Make sure to step around the corner near the elevator and notice two wonderful examples of Pop Art, Andy Warhol’s Yellow Cow (1966) and Roy Lichtenstein’s Rouen Cathedral (1969). Also fascinating is the video piece Three Transitions by Peter Campus; visitors should make sure to catch one of the five-minute clips shown at 15-minute intervals.
The exhibit consists primarily of painting, collages and photographs, although four sculptures, including Kiki Smith’s Nuit (at the entrance to the exhibit), are scattered throughout the gallery. Both male and female artists are represented in the exhibit but, with the exception of the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar, all are American.
“Permanent Change: Contemporary Works from the Collection” is presented in honor of WCMA’s 75th anniversary, coming up in 2001, and is a worthwhile tribute to the artistic trends of the second half of the 20th century. A visit to this exhibition is an hour well spent for those who already enjoy contemporary art, as well as for those who would be interested in a comprehensive overview of important artists and works of the contemporary age.