Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 19, 2023
Stanley Museum of Art, University of Iowa, August 26, 2022–July 28, 2023
Homecoming, installation view, Stanley Museum of Art, University of Iowa, August 26, 2022–July 28, 2023

Fourteen years after the University of Iowa’s art museum experienced a catastrophic flood, the museum has reopened—relocated in a new building on higher ground. In the summer of 2008, the rising Iowa River threatened not just the basement storage areas of the original building but even the art hanging on its walls, including Jackson Pollock’s Mural (1943) and one of the largest collections of African art in the nation. The museum staff, joined by professional art handlers and volunteers from across the state, had just six days to evacuate the building of 14,000 works of art. Ultimately the building was deemed unfit—or, more precisely, uninsurable—for housing works of art, the bulk of the collection was given temporary refuge in the Figge Museum in Dubuque, while Mural went on a world tour, outrunning the Iowa legislature’s attempts to sell it off. Museum administrators take note: this is what climate change looks like for the museum world.

The new building, designed by the Des Moines firm BNIM, is a handsome, rectilinear, modernist brick-and-glass box with a gleaming, manganese-dark, strongly textured surface, lightened by slender slats of white ash throughout the interior. The building features a large interior light well, and open-air third-floor terraces cut out of the rectangular prism, all of which makes for a strongly sculptural presentation. The exhibitions are entirely contained within the second story, while the first is given over to lobby space for public functions, and the third to education, preparation, and storage (anxiety about future flooding has rightly guided some of these design decisions). Part of the Stanley’s collection of African ceramic vessels is showcased in visible storage that wraps tightly around the stairwell.

The museum’s inaugural exhibition, Homecoming, an exhibition of over 600 works centered on the museum’s permanent collection, effectively models the pedagogical goals of questioning the canon and dismantling a gendered and Western-centric ideology of art history. The exhibition is subdivided into smaller units, each a kind of curatorial proposition neatly fitted into the separate exhibition spaces of the second floor.

Half of Homecoming consists of galleries displaying African art, a strength of the Stanley’s collection. Curator of African art Cory Gundlach has organized this material into three sections: textiles, wooden sculpture, and masks. Each subsection includes recent works by internationally recognized contemporary artists along with older, mostly anonymous objects, demonstrating the continuing vitality of the art-making traditions on display. The sculpture collection, “Fragments of the Canon,” presents side-by-side works donated to the museum by two major Iowa collectors: Maxwell and Betty Stanley, who collected under the guidance of academic experts and along the lines of twentieth-century museum priorities, and Meredith Saunders, a Black physician and frequent visitor to Africa, whose collecting activities did not have the same institutional support and guidance. The sculptures from the Stanley’s collection have been widely exhibited, but those collected by Saunders seldom have been. Juxtaposing objects from these two collections questions traditional museological priorities that reproduce Western epistemologies and forms of cultural capital. The aesthetic canons of both collections are exploded by the most recent work in the room, Fantasy Coffin (Fish) (2017), with a glossy acrylic pink luster and silvery painted scales, by the Ghanaian artist Eric Adjetey Anang.

The other half of Homecoming consists of primarily European and American art. The marquee work here is Pollock’s Mural, which the whole building seems scaled to accommodate (including the custom-built freight elevator), and is the largest of Pollock’s career at 18 ft., 10 in. × 8 ft. It is hung in the “Generations” section (curated by interim curator of modern and contemporary art, Diane Tuite), which focuses on modernist art in America up to and through World War II, including exiled Europeans like Max Beckmann (whose Karneval, painted the same year as Mural, rivals it in scale) as well as Americans who sometimes worked abroad, such as Marsden Hartley and Grant Wood. The basic principle of the Mural room is abstraction, geometric as well as gestural, including not only canvases by Philip Guston and Joan Mitchell, but also large-scale ceramics by the Hawaiian-born artist Toshiko Takaezu made between 1950 and 2000, an abstract painted rawhide parfleche by the contemporary Kiowa artist Teri Greeves, paintings by Leon Polk Smith, Yayoi Kusama, and Miriam Schapiro, and a Navajo blanket from 1895. Just as purposeful as this mix of the canonical and the non-canonical, of functional, anonymous craft and high art, of male and female artists, seems the decision to include another large-scale work of gestural abstraction with a strong biographical link to Mural, namely, Lee Krasner’s Portrait in Green (1966). On loan to the Stanley for this exhibition, curators have elected to put it in another room entirely, out of the line of sight of her late husband’s work. No mention is made in the wall text of her marriage to or working relationship with Pollock. This is a useful corrective to the typical narratives of Krasner, which have introduced her contributions to Abstract Expressionism through her adjacency to him.

Another star of the collection is Grant Wood, so closely associated with the state of Iowa. There are no less than three works by him in the current exhibition, but they are dispersed across three different rooms, and each is made to reveal an unexpected side of the story of American art. The first work is Blue Houses, Munich (1928), hung between quite similar works by Lyonel Feininger and Gabriele Münter, showing a relationship between American regionalism and German Expressionism and New Objectivity. This thread is picked up again with the crowd-pleaser, Plaid Sweater (1931), a portrait of an all-American boy, Mel Blumberg, aged seven, the son of a prominent Jewish family from a small city in Iowa. The portrait, so similar to contemporary European portraiture of the period in its emulation of Renaissance painting, hangs between, on one side, examples of European modernism by Giorgio de Chirico and Hannah Höch, underscoring its family connections to New Objectivity and even Surrealism, and on the other side, works that are primarily about race and identity, by Gordon Parks, Diane Arbus, and Toyin Ojih Odutola as well as Ana Mendieta, who studied at the University of Iowa. This grouping suggests that Plaid Sweater is less an example of sentimental nostalgia, and more a meditation on, as the wall text claims, “national identity, and inclusive notions of masculinity.” A third work by Wood, a charcoal, chalk, and pencil study for Spring in the Country (1941), is hung among other black and white works thematizing agriculture, including Danny Lyon’s photograph of Black men working on a prison farm, and Sharecropper, a linocut by Elizabeth Catlett, who once studied with Wood. This juxtaposition forces us to consider Wood’s depiction of Depression-era farm work as part of a larger narrative about race, power, and agricultural labor, and not only as an unreflective nostalgia for white, heartland America. Further works in this room expand the context still more by including depictions of Native and Hispanic agricultural life in the American Southwest as well as quilts by Nancy and Mary Ann Pettway, from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. These quilts are juxtaposed in turn with the equally colorful works of the modernists Henri Matisse, Alma Thomas, Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Oliver Lee Jackson, Joan Mitchell, and Robert Motherwell. (Because the exhibition will continue for three years, many of the more light-sensitive works are being periodically switched out for conservation reasons, including many of the works mentioned here.)

In Homecoming’s final subsection, “History is Always Now,” Gundlach has juxtaposed works from the African art collection with a variety of non-African modern and contemporary works. Andy Warhol’s Birmingham Race Riot (1964) hangs alongside another Catlett lithograph, Homage to the Panthers (1993). Indian artist Prathup Modi’s overtly decolonizing monumental woodcut triptych Too Much of Anything is Good for Nothing (2009) is placed alongside a nkisi nkondi—a wooden male figure bristling with nails, projecting power dating from nineteenth-century Congo. The theme of racist violence in modern America as well as its relationship to the history of colonialism is here overtly thematized.

The curatorial team at the Stanley have succeeded admirably in balancing the brief of a university art museum with the expectations of local Iowa audiences, and of visitors who have come from far and wide to see the collection’s most renowned objects. Students, experts, locals, and weekend tourists will all benefit from the museum’s rich engagement with contemporary ideas about collection development and display.

Michael Mackenzie
Professor of Art History, Grinnell College