Cars whiz by on Nassau Street. Small World’s delicious-smelling line winds out the door. Work meetings and school days and social commitments run long—and our busy, plugged-in days leave little space for vital reflection or rejuvenation. But just a quick stroll away, in the heart of the Princeton University campus, there is a true respite from the rush of daily life. Fronted by the monumental, jewel-like glass structures commissioned by brother team Doug and Mike Starn, this otherwise unassuming building houses one of the nation’s leading art institutions and one of our area’s greatest treasures: the Princeton University Art Museum.
Universal in scope, P.U.A.M.’s world-class collections bring a globe-spanning breadth of art—more than 100,000 pieces ranging from ancient to contemporary—to lucky students, scholars, and the community-at-large. This is home to artist powerhouses like Stella, Warhol, and Homer, who have influenced culture as we know it with their soul, thought, and talent, and who continue to elevate the spirit in a world that sorely needs it. We couldn’t be luckier to have the works of these masters, and so many more, right in our own backyard.
Welcoming more than 200,000 visitors a year, P.U.A.M. serves as a gateway to fine art and the University itself. At the helm is museum director James Christen Steward, who keeps “the visitor in mind” with P.U.A.M.’s innovative and dynamic programming, a cornerstone of its commitment to education. Exciting exhibitions, panel discussions, “Late Thursdays” offerings, family friendly activities like Saturday’s “Art for Families,” and synergistic community pairings such as those between the Museum and the Princeton Garden Theatre, with happenings like “Modernism on Screen.” Events like these attract visitors from near and far, but perhaps it’s the casual afternoon that carries the most meaning: the quiet hour stolen amid the hurry, when it’s just the viewer and the solace of the art.
We sat down with P.U.A.M. curators to get their P.O.V. on an arresting trio of collection highlights, an important bequest by a cherished faculty member, and a new exhibit that will knock your proverbial, art-loving socks off.
Sometimes the story behind the art can as interesting as the art itself. These three masterworks, chosen by P.U.A.M. curators, provide an intimate look at provenance, history, and relevance, as interpreted by an iconic movie star, way-before-their-time feminists, and marital “politics.”
“Pop artist Andy Warhol was fascinated by celebrities and preoccupied with loss, mortality, and disaster. Warhol began producing his iconic portraits of Marilyn Monroe shortly after the troubled actress committed suicide, in August 1962. Around the same time, he began experimenting with silk-screening, a technique he used to reproduce existing photographs repeatedly, as if on an assembly line. Silk-screening tends to flatten the resulting image both literally and symbolically, and even the addition of acrylic paint, applied by the artist, does little to animate the Marilyn depicted here. Blue Marilyn belongs to the “Marilyn Flavors” series, eight of which, including this one, debuted at the Stable Gallery, in New York, in 1962. Like many of Warhol’s Monroe portraits, they are based on black-and-white publicity stills from the actor’s 1953 film Niagara. Alfred H. Barr Jr., a Princeton alumnus and a founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, purchased Blue Marilyn the year it was made and donated it to Princeton in 1978.”
“This rare portrait of a self-made woman by one of the few professional female artists of the period suggests an unusual sympathy between artist and sitter. Kauffmann, one of two female founding members of London’s Royal Academy, shows Harrop in the wilderness, a lyre by her side and a roll of music in her hand. The background alludes to Mount Parnassus, the home of the ancient muses, while the lyre likely identifies Erato, the muse of lyric poetry. The sheet music grounds the portrait in the modern world: it is an aria from George Frideric Handel’s opera Rodelinda, Queen of the Lombards (1725). The picture dates from the time of Harrop’s marriage and the music reinforces its role as a marriage portrait. The aria, “Dove sei, l’amato bene,” is sung by Rodelinda’s husband, King Bertarido, in hiding and believed dead, when he learns his wife has agreed to marry the usurper to save the life of their son. This plaintive aria begs Rodelinda to console his soul and laments that he can bear his torments only with her. Harrop, whose husband and mentor was a musician of modest origins and a promoter of Handel’s works, was a celebrated interpreter of the composer’s operas and oratorios.”
“The British naval commander Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) and his wife, Frances “Fanny” Nisbet Nelson (1758–1831), are portrayed in this sculptural pair. As in a traditional matrimonial portrait, the couple’s character and status are conveyed through the attributes of their clothing: the formal coat of a vice admiral and the empire silhouette of Fanny’s fashionable gown. Here, however, Shonibare has crafted these period costumes from Dutch wax fabric—the signature medium of his practice—to call attention to not only the Nelsons’ position in society but also their legacy: the colonial expansion enabled by Nelson’s naval campaigns during the Napoleonic Wars. Inspired by Indonesian batiks, the Dutch and British both produced wax-resist cloth in their competition for control of West Africa—its land, its people, and its luxury market. As the cloth increasingly became associated with African fashion, it also appealed to the colonial impulse to collect and display the cultural artifacts of foreign lands. By positioning these figures in glass vitrines, Shonibare broadens his examination of the legacy of British colonialism in West Africa to contemplate the responsibilities of museums as they relate to practices of collection and display.”
FRANK STELLA UNBOUND
Literature and Printmaking
Honoring the 60th reunion of Princeton University alumnus Frank Stella, Class of 1958, the upcoming exhibition, Frank Stella Unbound: Literature and Printmaking, is an unbridled celebration of the artist’s powerful visual narrative, his vision for interpreting written work, and, of course, his longtime commitment to abstraction. Completed between 1984 and 1999 in partnership with master printer Ken Tyler, this collection of 41 works is culled from four major print series and, say P.U.A.M. curators, is the “first exhibition to focus on the vital role that literature played in the artist’s groundbreaking explorations of the print medium.”
Four diverse texts provide rich fodder for Stella’s gestural and geometric forms: an illustrated publication of “Had Gadya,” the traditional Passover song; a collection of Italian folktales transcribed by Italo Calvino; the American epic novel Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville; and the illustrated encyclopedia The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. Stella interprets the soul of the texts in works “of an unprecedented scale and complexity” that represent “an active cross-pollination [among] his practices in painting, sculpture, and printmaking that transformed his visual language and working processes in all media.”
GILLETT G. GRIFFIN
Small Objects, Big Impact
Gillett G. Griffin (1928–2016) used his extraordinary eye to see value where others did not. A 38-year faculty curator at Princeton University Art Museum, Griffin began collecting art of the Ancient Americas in the 1960s, a time when few were, eventually shaping for Princeton University “what is widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest collections of the Art of the Ancient Americas,” according to museum director James Steward. Adds curator Bryan R. Just: “Griffin collected while the market under-appreciated the material, so his relatively modest means could afford objects of the highest quality.” Amassing an incredible personal collection in this way, Griffin has now bequeathed thousands of objects to Princeton University, many small in scale but big in historical impact. Although the curators are hard at work processing, cataloging, and photographing Griffin’s superb bequest, they’ve been kind enough to share a sneak peek at one of the collection’s standout pieces.
Other remarkable gifts include Griffin’s collection of children’s books that predate 1846, now housed at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum; contributions to Princeton University Library Graphic Arts Collection; and a collection of Albert Einstein memorabilia, including 50 photographs, that was donated to the Historical Society of Princeton (to wit, Gillett and Einstein were personal friends). But perhaps his most lasting legacy is the way he inspired and excited his students about art. His generosity,
incredible knowledge, and spirited personality made him a great mentor to many, including Just, who says, “There is no doubt that the knowledge and enthusiasm that Griffin imparted will continue to teach visitors to appreciate the subtle aesthetic aspects of art as they engage with those objects he has brought to the Museum for that very reason.” —Rae Padulo (photographs provided by the Princeton University Art Museum)
The Princeton University Art Museum, Elm Drive, Princeton; 609.258.3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu. Museum hours: Sunday, 12–5 p.m.; Monday, closed; Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.– 5 p.m.
(Article originally appeared in Bricks & Mortar: Spring/Summer 2018)