ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Since its 1962 founding, the University of New Mexico Art Museum has amassed a palette of artworks that major museums might envy.
“Hindsight/Insight: Reflecting on the Collection” highlights more than 50 of these pieces spanning such familiar names as Georgia O’Keeffe, Judy Chicago, Luis Jiménez and Andy Warhol.
Opening on Friday, Aug. 24, the show is the first in an ongoing series celebrating the gallery’s permanent collection of nearly 30,000 works. This series debut highlights many of the artists who rebelled against abstract expressionism, a movement that dominated the art world during the 1950s and early 1960s. They created and exhibited their work amid a tumultuous decade of assassinations (John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.), the rise of feminism and the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam.
Curator Mary Statzer plans to rotate the artworks every six months to a year to showcase the collection’s breadth and depth. She is the first to admit it features far too few women and minority artists, reflecting cultural, institutional and personal biases.
Visitors can see paintings, prints, watercolors, sculpture, drawings and more extending to the early 1970s. The styles range from pop, minimalism, modernism and conceptual art to California funk. Some of the works have never been exhibited; others haven’t been shown since the gallery’s 50th anniversary show in 2013, gallery director Arif Khan said.
“We’re unique in that it was built as a teaching collection,” he said. “We have artists and time periods the museums in Santa Fe and the Albuquerque Museum might not have.”
The stories of the donors are nearly as compelling as the works of art.
Bay Area dentist Samuel West traded dental work for artwork, Khan said. He donated critical pieces from the California funk period, an extension of the beat movement and West Coast jazz. Artists including Bruce Conner and Joan Brown incorporated found objects such as plywood, feathers and costume jewelry into their work in a reaction against abstract expressionism.
“It’s really more of a junk aesthetic,” Statzer said. “There are pieces where the paint is 3 to 4 inches thick. They were intentionally being provocative. There’s a lot of humor in funk – humor and irreverence.”
O’Keeffe’s “White Flowers” (1926), painted before the artist came to New Mexico, was a gift from her estate. The instantly recognizable painting will be grouped with works by other modernists, including Raymond Jonson, Agnes Pelton, Rebecca Salsbury James, Florence Miller Pierce and her husband, Horace Towner Pierce, of the transcendentalist group. Miller Pierce and Pelton were the only women accepted into the group.
“I selected these paintings in the collection for their connection to the state and their luminous quality,” Statzer said.
Luis Jiménez’s “Rodeo Queen,” 1972, is a miniature rocking horse made from fiberglass, epoxy and metallic powdered paint to produce his trademark muscularity.
“It’s like a magnet; people are drawn to it,” Khan said.
Belen’s Judy Chicago produced her lithograph “Through the Flower 3” (1972) when she was learning to use house paint.
“She’s having this great cultural moment right now where museums are recognizing her as the first feminist artist,” Khan said.
Many of the conceptual works were donated by a mail carrier from Clovis named Vernon Nickel. An art lover who scoured New York galleries, he amassed a collection of critical works by Bridget Riley of op art fame. The carefully placed geometric style provokes a disorienting effect on the eye.
Statzer leafed through stacks of letters Nickel wrote to the artists.
“He had a really good eye,” she said. “They weren’t famous; they were much more affordable.”
The Riley is an early example of her work, Khan said.
“A big retrospective of her is being planned in Europe.”