To celebrate her 10 years as the Burton and Deedee McMurtry Curator at the Cantor Arts Center, Elizabeth Mitchell decided to organize a large-scale exhibition that would highlight some of the works on paper that the museum had acquired during her tenure. "Paper Chase: Ten Years of Collecting Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Cantor'' was planned for the spring of 2020, but with the museum closed due to the pandemic, the show was postponed. There is a silver lining because the exhibition, which runs until Jan. 30, is now even more expansive than its original iteration.
First, an explanation of the show’s name. Mitchell said, “On one hand, it describes a bureaucratic waste of time — completing endless forms instead of achieving tangible results. But, for a curator, that phrase also describes the thrill of pursuing images, connecting with donors, researching and, ultimately, collecting prints, drawings and photographs to make a thoughtful collection.”
According to Mitchell, there are some 24,000 prints in the Cantor’s collection. The last decade has seen “unprecedented growth” in this area, with 9,000 objects gifted to the museum (some from such prestigious sources as the Andy Warhol and Richard Diebenkorn foundations) and 2,000 purchased acquisitions. With such a wealth of objects, how did she select the 118 works that are on display in the Freidenrich Family and Ruth Levison Halperin galleries?
“I looked for gems that we have not shown before, or that our audience might be surprised to see that we have. I wanted to highlight important gifts and show how we thoughtfully spend acquisition funds. Most importantly, I looked for the interesting conversations and patterns that rose to the fore with these objects,” she explained.
Entering the Halperin Gallery, one cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of works in this small space. For photography fans, there are prints by such masters as Lee Friedlander, Brett Weston, O. Winston Link and Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
If you think you know the work of Ansel Adams by his majestic images of Yosemite, you might be surprised at the somber subject of “Cemetery Statue and Oil Derricks, Long Beach” from 1939. There is high drama in the contrast of the beautifully sculpted white angel against the dark and gloom of the background, a sea of oil derricks.
If more contemporary photographers intrigue you, there are two Cibachrome color prints by Richard Misrach, known for his evocative landscapes, and Andy Goldsworthy, acclaimed for his environmental manipulations. In “Icicles Frozen to the Leeward Side of a Rock” from 1991, the artist has actually affixed dagger-shaped icicles to a large rock and then photographed it over time to capture the transformation.
Other works in this space include three hand-ground etchings by Martin Puryear (usually known for his sculptural pieces), entitled “Beijing: End, From Above, Side.” They are good examples of the vivid contrasts that can be achieved by this process, resulting in the black circular forms, much like a necklace, that jump out from the ivory background.
There is also an entire wall devoted to an important series by Jasper Johns, who is now being celebrated with two concurrent shows in New York and Philadelphia. His “Black Numeral Series” from 1968 is a throwback to the pop art fascination with seriality in art. These large-scale lithographs depict numbers from 0 to 9 in various permutations. Some are clear and decipherable while others are obscured by squiggles and hatch marks. "Figure 7" includes, inexplicably, a rendition of the "Mona Lisa." It looks like the artist was having fun with the process.
The larger space, the Freidenrich Family Gallery, has been organized around three main themes: representations of science and nature, images investigating identity and social conflict and different approaches to history. While these themes are helpful from a curatorial viewpoint, most visitors will simply be impressed by the wide range of print media executed by artists of many nationalities.
From the simple but expressive lithographs by Diego Rivera (“Nude With Beads” and “Self-Portrait”) to the haunting digital pigment prints by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat (“Ghada” and “Sayed”) there is something for every taste here. Wesaam Al-Badry’s 2018 pigment prints, “Chanel #VII” and “Hermes #5” are large, colorful and question our assumptions about women who wear niqabs (here, in the form of designer scarves).
Bay Area artist Beth Van Hoesen's work is represented by a lovingly rendered portrait of iconic photographer Imogen Cunningham, executed via drypoint etching. Cunningham is looking directly at the viewer, her aged face a model of calm wisdom. Closeby are two colorful portraits by Mickalene Thomas. Both subjects, Condoleezza Rice and Oprah Winfrey, are portrayed via silkscreen, but it is the hand-applied rhinestones that really make these fun images pop.
There are examples of more traditional techniques, as seen in Henri Rivière’s color lithograph from 1888, which features workers building the Eiffel Tower. A bucolic country scene, appropriately titled “Picturesque Landscape” made in 1789 by William Gilpin, was undertaken using a wash with brush and ink.
The last room in the gallery has been reserved for large-scale works like “Happy Hour-Tequila Sunrise” by German artist Christiane Baumgartner. This bright and lively print, made in 2018, is a good example of a contemporary artist using an age-old technique — in this case woodcut — and putting her own spin on it. The gallery label describes how the artist used a bitmapping program to translate photo-based images into her woodcut designs. She also carved into the plywood with knives, achieving a strong sense of texture. There is the impression of the sunrise on the horizon but also, enigmatically, a ghostly figure in the foreground of this orange and raspberry-red dreamscape.
If enjoying all these prints makes you consider collecting yourself, Mitchell would be the first to encourage you. “Start with prints because they are so much fun you won’t want to stop. So much is possible with print collecting that you can really make it your own. Print collectors can develop a broad view of artists, movements, or subject types and themes, or focus their collecting very narrowly. A thoughtful collection can be built with a modest budget over time, and the pursuit of rare objects can take days or years. The hunt is part of the fun!”
"Paper Chase: Ten Years of Collecting Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Cantor" is on view through Jan. 30 at the Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford. For more information, visit museum.stanford.edu.