May 1, 2003

Tales From The Johnson

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The Birth

Thirty years ago the Herbert F. Johnson Museum opened its doors for the first time to the Cornell and Ithaca communities, jumpstarting a tradition of collection, exhibition, and community outreach. On May 23, 1973 the Johnson had 9,000 pieces of art in its collection. Today there are 30,000 items in Cornell’s possession, about 300 on display at any given time. “We are the only full-service museum in this part of the state,” says Catherine Davidson, the museum’s Publications and Publicity Coordinator. According to Davidson, there are between 6 and 7,000 school children alone that pass through the museum each year, not including the typical Cornell traffic and other community visitors. But long before the Johnson was built, Andrew Dickson White was building an art collection for Cornell. Exhibitions were shown periodically starting in 1891 until the A.D. White House Museum was opened in 1953. As the collection grew, however, it became painfully clear that they needed more space. That’s when Herbert F. Johnson ’22, stepped up to the plate and threw his money down to create an entirely new building, with famed architect I.M. Pei at the helm. And now we’re all invited to a birthday party like no other. On Sunday May 4 from 1-4pm the museum is providing music, entertainment, special tours, food, and of course birthday cake in commemoration of the museum’s opening. “We want to celebrate, and so we are inviting everybody in Ithaca to join us,” says Museum Director Frank Robinson.

So while enjoying yet another party this Slope Day weekend, take the opportunity to wind down from an eventful week with a relaxing tour of some of the museum’s latest exhibitions.

The Future

Asian art dominates this season. Even before you enter the museum doors, enter into a traditional 1500s-style Japanese teahouse and garden structure, as created by current Cornell students and visiting Halprin Fellow Marc P. Keane, from the department of landscape architecture. The structure, still under construction, is being made from entirely natural materials collected from forests, fields, and farms around Cayuga Lake. The teahouse will be finished in time for a special tea ceremony event on May 17 led by a team of three teamasters.

Tea & Sympathy

The next stop on the Asian art tour is Dark Jewels, an exhibition of 12th and 13th century Chinese black and brown ceramics from Herb and Eunice Shatzman’s collection. The couple has long been acquiring pieces for this fantastic collection of pottery, snagging pieces that date back as far as 700 to 1,000 years. A great deal of attention was paid to the aesthetics of each piece. But these were functional objects as well, used for tea.

The unknown artists of these works dedicated their entire lives to their craft, according to the Shatzmans. You have to appreciate the amount of time and effort that was placed in this tradition. In fact, you will be able to appreciate it until the exhibition closes on June 8.

Liquid Art

If tea bowls don’t do it for you, try a look at Cornell’s Freeman Foundation Artist-in-Residence Ah Leon’s ceramic art collection, The Long River Carries the Moon Silently Away. Trained as a surrealist in Taiwan, Ah Leon found his calling with contemporary ceramics. Besides his collection of teapots, he has used his surrealist skills to create ceramic pieces from clay and other materials that look like driftwood and pallets, so realistic it’s hard to resist the temptation to reach out and touch them. Leon proves that you can’t always trust your own eyes. The museum will be adding at least one of the pieces to their permanent collection after the exhibition is over. This isn’t uncommon — Cornell’s collection keeps growing because artists are willing to donate or sell pieces from their exhibitions to the museum.

The Throwback

Moving now away from Asia, we venture into the Islamic tradition with a contemporary collection of The Watchful Portraits of Y.Z. Kami. Using the ancient Egyptian Fayyum tradition, where mourning families placed portraits carefully painted on linen onto the sarcophagi of their deceased relatives. These portraits are known for being exceedingly realistic-looking. In this case, Iranian-born Y.Z. Kami has created some very striking and downright creepy-looking portraits of ordinary people, starting from a Polaroid, enlarging the image, and reproducing it on linen. Don’t be daunted by the intense stares of Kami’s subject. Instead take a moment to look at the realism and detail. They are so normal and lifelike, they could be anybody — and that’s the point. These people, like us, are all part of a single community.

The Alumni

Make a final stop at The Bennett Collection of Contemporary Art, a collection of two Cornell alumni’s favorite art pieces of the last half-century. The Bennetts have been adding to the collection for the past five decades, finding pieces to decorate their New York City apartment since they left school. A sad truth we will all eventually be facing as we graduate from Cornell, the Bennetts didn’t exactly have the money go out and buy lots of fine art (paying off those college loans can really put a damper on all your fun!). Instead, they looked to contemporary art, buying anything from paintings and drawings to sculpture and photography.

Ironically, one of the most well-known artists included in the Bennetts’ collection is a Cornell alum herself. Susan Rothenberg, who had her hayday in the 1980s, is famous for her oil on canvas abstractions and has her Blue Oval featured in the display.

The Bennetts loaned their collection to the museum in hopes that the undergrads here would get a chance to enjoy it. As it turns out, it is the Bennett’s Cornell reunion year, so the collection will remain in place through reunion time.

A large amount of pieces in Cornell’s collection can be attributed to the generosity of Cornell alumni.

“We are always looking to add to the collection, and Cornell alumni are extremely generous,” says Catherine Davidson.

The Johnson is sometimes more appreciated for its famed profile than the art it houses. But if you take a trip this weekend, you’ll find out that what’s on the inside is more than worthy of its home.

Archived article by Laura Borden