50 Works for 50 States: New Mexico, New Mexico Museum of Art, 107 W. Palace Ave., 505-476-5072; through April 13, 2014
As a recipient of 50 works from the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection, the New Mexico Museum of Art is in good company: 2,500 pieces from the collection — early works by Minimalists, post-Minimalists, and Conceptual artists — were divided up and given to institutions throughout the country, with 50 works going to one institution in each of the 50 states. Many of the works have made their way into some of the nation’s prominent collecting institutions, including the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Rhode Island School of Design, the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, and Yale University Art Gallery.
The Vogels’ story is atypical. They were not wealthy art patrons but civil servants working in low-paying jobs. Dorothy was a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, and Herbert, who died in 2012, spent most of his life working as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service. But they had a passion for art and agreed to live on Dorothy’s income while devoting Herbert’s to collecting sculpture, paintings, and works on paper. The Vogels built up most of the collection while living in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. Works on paper were easier to store there, and they make up most of the collection and most of what was donated to the New Mexico Museum of Art.
The 50 works on display are challenging pieces. Conceptual and Minimalist art can seem a little highbrow, appreciated by artists, art historians, and aficionados but inaccessible to some museum-goers. Such works defied conventions and, particularly with Conceptual art, were often anti-aesthetic and idea driven. For the general public, that means a lot of scratching of heads, not to mention the feeling that someone (the artist or the institution) is pulling the wool over their eyes or not letting them in on the joke. Critics may find more to sink their teeth into.
Among the more prominent artists in the exhibit are Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, and Edda Renouf. The works by Tuttle are significant series from his early career. His Rome Drawings and Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings are uncompelling individually — simple line drawings and abstract watercolors on notebook paper, their perforated edges still visible — but if one takes the work as a whole, it’s possible to appreciate Tuttle’s reductive eye and wonder about his frame of reference. The title Rome Drawings, after all, suggests it was the ancient Italian city. While such works might strike some as being no more than simple color or line studies, sketches, and ephemera from the artist’s studio, they should be considered in light of Tuttle’s later career. He continued working in abstraction using simple geometry, minimal color, and unremarkable materials, such as cardboard and rough, unpainted wood.
50 Works for 50 States: New Mexico gives some idea of the kind of art that appealed to the Vogels. The strength of their collection was in recognizing, early on, the talent of artists, like Renouf, who would go on to prominence. There is strength, also, in the Vogels’ early recognition of art forms that were an affront to the status quo (but later became the status quo) — not because they were controversial per se, but because they were materially antithetical to the “finish fetish” movement of the 1960s, with its emphasis on handcrafted, precision work. The works collected by the Vogels intended to challenge perceptions of what art is, and it sometimes was rendered with a childlike and naive perspective, as in Joan Jonas’ Double Dog. Several pieces in this collection were executed with a minimum of artistic intervention, no doubt intentional, as in the case of Richard Nonas’ untitled wood sculpture. Renouf’s Primal Energy III: Earth Sounds and A Visible Sounds and other works treat surface materials such as cotton paper and linen as integral components of the piece, not just as the ground for an image, by taking advantage of the lines in the grain and making them a part of the image.
But without the greater contexts — without knowledge of the breadth and scope of the Vogels’ collection — these works won’t resonate with most viewers, even though they’re important in the development of many of these artists and will likely continue to circulate among major exhibitions and retrospectives and be valuable to art historians. To those ends, the works from all 50 institutions are slowly being added to a searchable database found at www.vogel5050.org.
The works at the New Mexico Museum of Art are an important selection for an institution whose focus on contemporary and Conceptual works is a strength of its collection. Some thought seems to have gone into what works went to New Mexico: Tuttle, for instance, has ties to the state. But works of historical importance do not necessarily make for a compelling visual experience, so patrons will have to dig a little deeper to understand what makes these works valuable. The exhibition does not provide much background other than to briefly state what genres interested the Vogels. Without more explicit information available on site, the context is lost.