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North Carolina Museum of Art

North Carolina Museum of Art

Two Thursdays ago, the last full day of our trip to North Carolina, we spent the day in Raleigh. I have already written about our visits to the state capitol and the North Carolina Museum of History, which are across the street from each other downtown. After a late lunch at Pharoah’s Grill, we drove out to the North Carolina Museum of Art, about a six-mile drive to the northwest, which conveniently is on the way back to Chapel Hill.

In post after post, I have expressed my wonder at the museums of Durham, Greensboro, and Raleigh. The art museum is no different, and a testament to the cultural priorities of the state. One approaches it just off a highway, in a nondescript area past some state maintenance and motor pool facilities. There’s a parking lot just off the road, with the unpromising view ahead and down the hill of the building pictured above. Leaving the lot, one can choose a path into the woods, which is the start of the Museum Park. Or one can take a path down to a plaza, with the older east building on one side and the newer west building to the other. The signs indicate that the east building has temporary exhibitions and a membership desk, while the west has the permanent collection.

We chose to start in the west. A friendly woman gave us the visitor’s guide, with maps of the two buildings, plus a guide to the park. It was already past 3:00 PM when we got started, and we quickly realized that we would have to be content with a sampling of the collection.

The west building is all on one level. Whatever you may make of its appearance from the outside, it’s quite wonderful indoors. The walls and ceiling admit an enormous amount of natural light, all filtered by drapes. We learned later from a security guard who attached himself to us that the building opened just two years ago. When it was being built, passersby would think it was a warehouse. Our guard-turned-guide taught high school history in Maryland for 30 years, after undergraduate studies in art history. He and his wife moved down to the Raleigh area five years ago to be near their daughter and grandchildren. Now he gets to spend his days with art while his wife spends hers with the grandchildren.

The museum overview tells us a bit about the museum’s collection:

Since the initial acquisition in 1947 of 139 works of European and American art, purchased with a $1 million appropriation of state funds, the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art has grown to include major holdings in European painting from the Renaissance to the 19th century (enhanced in 1960 by an extraordinary gift from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation of 75 works dating primarily from the Italian Renaissance and baroque periods), Egyptian funerary art, sculpture and vase painting from ancient Greece and Rome, American art of the 18th through 20th centuries, and international contemporary art. Other strengths include African, ancient American, pre-Columbian, and Oceanic art, and Jewish ceremonial objects. (The NCMA houses one of only two permanent displays of Jewish art in an American art museum.)

The Museum is actively building the collection with recent acquisitions, including a gift from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation of 30 works by Auguste Rodin, making the NCMA the leading repository of this artist’s work in the southeastern United States. … The 164-acre Museum Park is home to more than a dozen monumental works of art, with artists actively involved in the restoration of the Park’s landscape and the integration of art into its natural systems.

We started our tour with the Renaissance paintings. The Kress Foundation gave gifts of European art to dozens of museums across the country, including our own Seattle Art Museum. It’s not my impression that we’ve built much on it here in Seattle, the SAM having pursued other areas in its acquisitions. But the NCMA has a stronger European painting collection than I anticipated, due as much to state purchases as the Kress gift.

One quirky addition to the collection is Devorah Sperber’s 2005 After the Mona Lisa 2, inadequately pictured below.

After the Mona Lisa 2, Devorah Sperber, 2005

It is described at Sperber’s website as “an enlarged rendering of The Mona Lisa’s face. When seen with the aid of viewing spheres, distorted views of The Mona Lisa’s smile mimic ‘low spatial frequencies’ usually seen only with peripheral vision. Unlike the original painting, in which the illusion of the smile is subtle, in my rendition The Mona Lisa’s elusive smile appears, changes, and disappears in a dramatic and humorous fashion.” Or, as explained at the Coats & Clark website:

The North Carolina Museum of Art has recently chosen an installation by contemporary New York-based artist Devorah Sperber titled “After The Mona Lisa 2.” This work comprises 5,184 spools of Coats Dual Duty thread as the “color palette” to re-create a detail from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.

Sperber has transformed one of the most well-known works in the history of art by inverting and enlarging it over 200 times to 85 by 87 inches. Viewing the work through an acrylic sphere that is part of the installation mimics peripheral vision, turning the image right side up and shrinking it back to a recognizable size.

In her work Sperber explores the reproduction of images in the digital era, links between art and technology, and visual perception – how the eye and brain make sense of the visual world.

I suppose I’m giving this one work more attention than it deserves. But it was fun to see.

As for the Rodin collection, that took us by surprise. We might have thought we had turned a corner from Les Invalides and stumbled into the Musée Rodin. (We stayed just around the corner from it during the Paris portion of our honeymoon and returned in November 2009, it being a favorite of Gail’s.) But no, we were still in Raleigh. The high ceilings and natural light of the interior Rodin Court show the pieces off to good effect. Just beyond the court are doors opening onto the Rodin Garden, with sculptures arrayed on a lawn surrounding a pool. I have one photo of the garden in my coming attractions post. Here’s another:

(In case the Cantor name sounds familiar, you may be remembering the The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Or Cantor Fitzgerald.)

Next we explored the Judaic collection. The display space is limited, but filled with astonishing objects, but old and contemporary.

The gallery and its collection were founded by the late Dr. Abram Kanof, a physician and respected scholar of Jewish art and symbolism. It is one of only two galleries devoted to Judaica in an American art museum. Since opening in 1983, the gallery has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors, the majority of whom are not Jewish and are largely unfamiliar with Judaism’s rich and diverse artistic heritage. Inspired by Dr. Kanof, the Museum has wholeheartedly embraced the role of the Judaic Art Gallery as a forum for religious and cultural understanding, acknowledging as well that ideas are often best communicated through memorable works of art.

The Judaic Art Gallery features objects from the major Jewish traditions—Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Oriental (or Mizrahi)—as well as from modern Israel. All objects are designed for use in synagogue worship, observance of the Sabbath and holidays, or ceremonial occasions honoring the life cycle and Jewish home. Highlights of the collection include a splendid pair of mid-18th-century silver and gilt Torah finials (rimmonim), originally part of the treasury of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam; a large standing Hanukkah lamp, circa 1930, one of the masterpieces of the “Hebrew style” from Jerusalem’s celebrated Bezalel Workshop; a finely filigreed case for an Esther scroll from the Ottoman Empire; and an elegant pair of silver finals and matching Torah pointer (yad) dated 1783 from the Orthodox Synagogue in Plymouth, England. Important new objects continue to be added to the collection thanks to the generosity of the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery. The long-term acquisition plan is directed toward broadening the survey of Judaica to include objects from all important Diaspora communities as well as Israel. Special consideration will be given to ritual objects of North Carolina and southern origin. In addition the plan calls for an ongoing program of commissions from leading American and international designers.

My photos of these objects didn’t come out too well. It was Passover while we were there, so let me focus on two examples of Passover Seder plates. The first is extraordinary, but my shot is hopelessly blurred. Below are three levels for the three pieces of matzoh. At top is the Seder plate itself, with separate figures each holding up a bowl to display the assorted traditional items — the bitter herbs, the charoset, the karpas, etc.

The second is a modern rendering of the same concept.

It was getting late, and we still wanted to explore the museum park. After a brief look at the museum store, we headed back up the hill and onto the walkway. We didn’t get far, only far enough to round the first big curve and see the first two pieces, Vollis Simpson’s Wind Machine

Wind Machine, Vollis Simpson, 2002

and Thomas Sayre’s Gyre (with pedestrians).

Gyre, Thomas Sayre, 1999

The complete loop walk is about two and a half miles. Next time we’ll plan better. But on this day, we had to head out, so we could be back in Chapel Hill for dinner with Joel.

What a fabulous museum!

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