Take the cue from the first gallery.
“Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks of Alumni Collections” at the University of Texas’ Blanton Museum of Art through May 19, smartly undermines any likely preconceptions.
Greeting you at the exhibit’s entrance is a massive, stately 18th-century portrait of an English nobleman by Thomas Gainsborough. That gilt-framed Gainsborough faces Kehinde Wiley’s 1991 highly stylized portrait of a young African-American man, which in turn shares a wall with Alberto Korda’s 1960 iconic photograph of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara and Tom Lea’s 1937 disciplined chalk drawing of a conquistador, a study for a mural in El Paso.
Though wildly different in style, subject matter, medium and era, all four works are in the end, well, portraits.
It’s not untypical for university art museums to spotlight alumni collectors with honorific exhibits such as “Through the Eyes of Texas,” which celebrates the Blanton’s 50th anniversary.
But this alumni show — organized by Blanton Curator at Large Annette Carlozzi — jiggers with the very form such an exhibit usually takes.
“Through the Eyes of Texas” has moxie. Surprising juxtapositions ricochet throughout the immense show, which occupies the Blanton’s entire first floor galleries as well as a sizable portion of the second floor.
Carlozzi chose works of art by their individual merits. However, it’s the manner in which connections are made between the seemingly disparate works of art that proves not just illuminating but entertaining.
A classic Impressionist still life — “Peonies in a Vase” from 1876 — by Renoir hangs in its gilded gold frame right next to Petah Coyne’s ballgown-like sculpture of cascading black wax flowers — “Untitled #1103 (Daphne),” from 2002, wax blooms trailing off the ersatz gown in a gesture of decay.
(Interestingly, the paintings or drawings have not been re-framed for the exhibit. All remain in the frames chosen by collectors for a terrific plucked-from-private-walls effect.)
Around the corner from the Renoir, two enormous hyper-detailed color landscape photographs by German artist Thomas Struth (including “Paradise 24, São Francisco de Xavier, Brazil, 2001” measuring seven by nine feet) share the walls with Monet’s “Nymphéas (Water Lilies),” one of 250 water lily paintings by the French master in the 1910s and 1920s.
For better or worse, Monet’s blurry yet colorful depictions of aquatic gardens near his house in Giverny, France, have huge mass appeal. The subject of numerous blockbuster exhibits, Monet’s water lilies have been reproduced on every conceivable piece of museum shop merchandise from umbrellas to mousepads. (And yes, the Blanton’s shop has several Monet-plastered items for purchase.)
Yet, just like the pairing of Coyne and Renoir, pitting Struth’s enormous landscapes with Monet’s water lilies makes the case for the continuous trajectory of art history. Each new generation of artists — despite vastly different stylistic and philosophical approaches — essentially wrestles with the same problems as the generations before.
For an exhibit at a university museum, that’s a worthwhile lesson to impart.
By the numbers, “Through the Eyes of Texas” is fittingly Texas-sized.
There are nearly 200 objects culled from more than 100 private collections from around the country. (The majority of collections are from the Lone Star State).
Those 200 objects span some nearly 4,500 years of history. And museum officials say that about 90 percent of what’s in the exhibit is normally not on public view, instead displayed in private homes and only occasionally, if ever, lent for exhibit.
Carlozzi and her team conducted visits to about 150 private collections.
Some of those collectors are suitably larger-than-life: tech billionaire Michael Dell, Circuit of the Americas co-founder Bobby Epstein and UT-San Antonio president Ricardo Romo, among others.
And plenty of the works selected for “Through the Eyes of Texas ” are by A-list artists: Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol leWitt and Jasper Johns, among others.
There’s also Mayan, Egyptian, Greek and Roman art plus contemporary objects from African and Brazilian tribes.
It’s a much bigger range of art — historically, culturally — than the Blanton has in its own collections.
Though the Blanton counts several recognized world-class private collectors among its long-time supporters — most notably Michael and Jeanne Klein of Austin and Judy and Charles Tate of Houston — obviously, as the exhibit reveals, there are many top-notch collectors among Texas Exes.
Blanton officials say that part of the strategy in mounting “Through the Eyes of Texas” was to initiate connections with new alumni collectors.
Until the museum opened its spacious $83.5 million facility in 2006 on the south end of campus, it lacked the grand galleries and large-scale presence many art collectors like.
When UT established its University Gallery in 1963, it was just a modest space carved out of UT’s Art Building.
At the time, Austin had little of the busy visual arts scene it does now. Laguna Gloria had just opened as a civic art museum but had little in the way of a permanent collection. And the city had no art galleries in the modern sense.
Nevertheless, the university museum steadily acquired some impressive collections early on, including author James Michener’s donation of contemporary American painting and Latin American art from pioneering collector Barbara Duncan. The museum’s collection of prints and drawings multiplied exponentially and began to rival those of longstanding East Coast museums.
The Blanton’s collection received a significant boost in 1998 when it acquired the Suide-Manning Collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings and drawings.
Fifty years after its founding, and with its respectable collection of more than 17,000 works of art, the Blanton now serves as the academic core of Central Texas’ art scene. And with 35,000 square feet of galleries, it’s the largest university art museum in the country.
When it opened its new building in 2006, the Blanton hosted a free 24-hour party that attracted more than 20,000 people.
And to mark its 50th anniversary, the museum will host “Fifty Fest” a 12-hour free celebration on April 29.
“Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections”
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (third Thursdays until 9 p.m.), 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Exhibit continues through May 19
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Tickets: $5-$9 (free on Thursdays)
Information: 471-7324, www.blantonmuseum.org
“Blanton Fifty Fest”
When: noon to midnight April 29
What: Twelve hours of free art activities and museum-going. Live music includes Minor Mishap Marching Band, Navasota Strings, DJ Tarek, the Ransom Notes and others. Art-making stations include artist-designed T- shirt screen printing with Print Industry Shop. Poets and musicians will perform their riffs on works in the Blanton collection.
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin has been an arts writer and critic with the American-Statesman since 1999. She has covered the Blanton Museum of Art since then, including the several years of news leading up to the 2006 opening of the museum’s $83.5 million facility, one of the largest milestones in Central Texas’ cultural history.