An exhibit of local collections is an opportunity for the Milwaukee Art Museum to display the many kinds of things that do not fit into its permanent collection. As the Flagg Collection of Haitian art or the Conley Collection of Early Chinese art amply demonstrate, Milwaukee area collectors have made eye-popping collections of world art. Unfortunately, this exhibit seems to be functioning more as a way to introduce the museum’s new director Marcelle Polednik to Milwaukee-area denizens who collect, and might donate, the genres in which the museum has now decided to specialize—accordingly, there’s no art from Asia, Africa nor Latin America. There’s plenty of contemporary art, but it’s focused on investment-grade work. Some fluorescent light bulbs by Dan Flavin, a print by Andy Warhol, a painting by Roy Lichtenstein or a photograph by Cindy Sherman (identical to one of the prints permanently installed at the Art Institute of Chicago) are more like pats on the back of their collectors than things that need to be shown. There is not a single landscape or wildlife or portrait painting done after 1900. Don’t Milwaukee-area art lovers collect that kind of thing as well? Must every museum collection of contemporary American art compete for the same brand names collected by the one-percenters?
This exhibit is organized by categories that allow for comparisons within genres. Among the Abstract Expressionists, a small, intense Willem de Kooning plays off against a mysterious James Brooks, a didactic Hans Hofmann, and an enormous, decorative Helen Frankenthaler. Among the Chicago Imagists, three large, luminous, whimsical Roger Browns steal the show from more typical pieces by Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson. Among other non-conceptual contemporary painters, Dirk Skreber’s beached locomotive dominates the room with its size, ominous effect and calligraphic brushwork. Among the early nineteenth-century European painters, the aloof, distinctively Danish portraits by Johan Frederik Møller stand out as a style that deserves more attention. Among the Ashcan American painters, there is an 1896 portrait of a young man by the twenty-five-year-old John Sloan. It’s not a virtuoso masterpiece, but it is a simple, honest, fresh slice of life revealing both the subject and the artist. It’s the kind of thing that less iconic American artists are still doing, and Milwaukee collectors are still collecting. Hopefully, the next iteration of “Milwaukee Collects” will include that kind of art as well. (Chris Miller)
“Milwaukee Collects” shows through May 21 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 North Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee.