A great, encyclopedic museum isn’t altogether dissimilar from a world-class ski resort with blue skies and a coat of fresh powder. Climbing its front steps, at the Metropolitan Museum, or descending its glass pyramid in the case of the Louvre, resembles the adrenalin rush of reaching the top of the mountain and pointing your skis downward.
At a museum, the intellectual equivalent of those wide open slopes, chutes, bowls, woods and tempting but terrifying double black diamond trails -- is supplied by art that ranges from ancient Egyptian to modern, from Grecian urns to Calder mobiles, ignited by the genius of particular artists.
But in that case, to what would we compare the rewards of a small museum? Cross-country skiing perhaps? Where you may not reach the same zeniths or dizzying speeds but where the compensations may be intimacy and the opportunities for quiet contemplation and even self-discovery.
Those more modest associations occurred to me last week when I visited the excellent Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College.
The reason for my trip was a new exhibit of photographs, prints and films by Andy Warhol that runs through mid-April. The show, appropriately titled “People Are Beautiful,” is part of Warhol x 5, a series of exhibitions in 2018 organized by five college and university art museums in the region. Vassar’s exhibition includes iconically familiar portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy. But also some of the thousands of photographs Andy took with the Polaroid Big Shot camera he acquired in 1970.
He used the snapshots as the source material for his prints and paintings.
In and of themselves, they may not be high art. But they’re still a lot of fun, communicating the anything goes glamor of Warhol’s world, friends and Seventies watering holes such as Regine’s, Max’s Kansas City and Studio 54.
Indeed, they brought me back to the time I gained entry to Studio 54 quite literally on Warhol’s coattails. I was loitering behind the velvet rope with everyone else when Andy arrived. So I simply joined his entourage, sweeping past the sentries on duty and into the club.
Mary-Kay Lombino, the show’s curator, told me she picked beauty as the show’s theme because the Marilyn silkscreen is part Vassar’s permanent collection. Another reason may be that Warhol was obsessed with the subject.
“My idea of a good picture,” he said of the snapshots of the likes of Diana Ross, Dina Merrill, and Liza Minnelli “is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous.”
A particular favorite of mine is Andy Griffith, looking a lot hipper than Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, in jeans and an open collar shirt. He’s at some nightclub or disco, a couple of fashion models making a fuss over him.
And once you’ve completed the show you can traipse into the museum’s main galleries where I suspect you’ll be surprised, as I was, by the wonderful quality of the collection. It ranges from antiquities and medieval and Renaissance art to some stellar examples of Hudson River School painting.
Among my favorite works was an Edvard Munch far less psychologically fraught than his famous “The Scream.” “The Seine at St. Cloud,” it captures the river at night, the lights of Paris and a passing Bateau Mouche streaking the water.
There’s also a small Georgia O’Keefe painting of two figs at least as suggestive as Warhol’s Marilyn. And a first rate Francis Bacon based on Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X.
But it’s the Hudson River School paintings that truly dazzle, the beauty of smaller works by Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand and Sanford Gifford enhanced by the knowledge that, as great as these painters were, they were also local artists. And some of their best examples portray the likes of the Tappan Zee, the Catskills in spring and the Upper Palisades.
The works were purchased in 1864 by Matthew Vassar, the college’s founder, to help form the school’s permanent collection.
But let’s return to the ski slopes, or rather the cross-country trails, at least for purposes of analogy. I happened to visit on a cold Thursday evening when Vassar was still on winter break and I had the collection virtually to myself.
By the way, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and the rest of the week from 10 a.m. to 5. It’s closed on Mondays.
A small museum may not boast the blockbuster exhibitions or same quotient of world famous masterpieces. But as with Nordic skiing you can proceed at your own pace – no fears of suicidal snowboarders bearing down on you – and stop at your leisure to absorb the brilliance of a late period Picasso.
An institution such as the Frances Lehman Loeb lets you linger before the works of great artists and listen to their voices as you would the wind whistling through pine trees.
Its primary customer base, of course, is Vassar and its students. And they’re lucky to have such a resource in the center of campus.
But it’s also there for the rest of us. And, as I said, there are no lift lines.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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