Courtesy of Cornell University

February 5, 2018

Cornell’s Artistic Window: Highlights from the Collection

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From Picasso to Piranesi, Cassatt to Cunningham, the Johnson Museum’s Highlights from the Collection: 45 Years at the Johnson showcases a wide variety of art. The scope is immense in both historical and geographical breadth. Upon entering the exhibition, I found myself face-to-face with a cow with its head turned to the side, eyeing some distant pastoral horizon as though musing over the kinds of deep insights only cows are sensible of. Its front legs are posed as though aware of an audience — Constant Troyon’s 19th century bovine scene is at once striking and peaceful, unique and unobtrusive.

Past the cow is a row of medieval Asian art where a bronze 12th century Ganesha is adjacent to a 15th century Burmese tile depicting two elephant-headed warriors. This links to works that display the intricacies of religion in Asia. Richly decorated manuscripts from the Quran, the Ramayana and the Buddhist Prajaparmita are juxtaposed as well. It’s no doubt that the Asian collection is one of the Johnson’s strengths. Elsewhere throughout the exhibition, Asian art abounds: from Zao Wou-ki’s 1953 “Lune Noire,” a dreamlike vision of blue and gold, to the delicately detailed ukiyo-e woodblock prints, to Nam June Paik’s “Global Grove,” an avant-garde 1970s video art that both reflects on and foreshadows the growing impact of television as “the landscape of tomorrow.”

In fact, the idea of a “landscape of tomorrow” is seen in a variety of pieces. The vast temporal spaces covered by works such as pre-Columbian ceramics and a 2004 sculpture of plastic bottles and other found objects, serve to remind us that indeed, all art has, at one point in history, been contemporary. In fact, Edward Hopper’s “Monhegan Landscape” utilizes rich colors and heavy brushstrokes in the modernist tradition; this provides a unique contrast to some of his later, more well-known works. Several paintings in or following in the tradition of abstract expressionism highlight the modern spirit especially well. Against one wall, a series of stencil cutouts by Matisse pulse with nearly-neon colors and abstract shapes and evoke a sense of movement and rhythm similar to a cubist print by Fernand Léger in another section of the exhibit. These foreshadow more contemporary works such as Syed Ahmed Jamal’s “Rockin,” a medley of rich colors and bold brushtrokes, and Joanne Greenbaum’s “Color System,” a maze of bright abstractions, pigments, and gridlike patterns.

The Museum also boasts an impressive photography collection. Although categorized thematically, these photographs flow smoothly into each other and are well-integrated into the context of their surrounding mediums. Nineteenth century Meiji-era photos serve to bridge the gap between Japanese woodblock prints and early 20th century British and American photography.

On the opposite wall, a series of mid- and late-20th century photographs, such as Sebastião Salgado’s image of the horrendous conditions suffered by workers in gold mines, demonstrate the importance of photography’s social and documentary power.

I also really loved the exhibition’s collection of prints and drawings, which featured works by well-known artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Cassatt, Picasso, Goya, Piranesi and Dürer. Goya’s “El Sueño de la Razon Produce Monstruos” in particular stood out due to its small size and the prominence of its subject in a mob of owls and bats which represents the artist’s fear of darkness and ignorance in the midst of the Enlightenment.

Finally, it wouldn’t be 45 Years at the Johnson without the celebration of Cornellians. Specifically, the exhibition features several sketches from Arthur Garfield Dove 1903 and went on to become one of the first American abstract painters and modernists. Dove’s early works show the influence of impressionism while his later works demonstrate a willingness to experiment with style and form. For example, “Sunset” almost seems to depict the sun melting into its surroundings and darkening into moodier colors, though the shapes remain simple and unadorned.

Through the breadth and diversity of the works displayed in this exhibition, the Johnson Museum shines a light on the richness of its permanent collection and points out the contributions of Cornellians over the years. In doing so, the exhibition demonstrates the ways in which the past and present continually reshape each other, transcending geographic and social boundaries.


Ramya Yandava is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].