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Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

More to see at Madison's Chazen Museum of Art

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The Chazen Museum of Art on the UW Madison campus is celebrating the opening of a brand new building, effectively doubling the museum's size. Kicking things off is a slate of inaugural exhibitions, including “Discerning Taste: Paintings from the Simona and Jerome A. Chazen Collection.”  As a title, this is not terribly specific, but the curatorial premise of this exhibition is less about scholarly exploration than outright celebration.

Big names of modern and contemporary painting are on view: David Hockney, Hans Hoffman, Gerhard Richter and many others. The works are bold, bright, and as a collection, one starts to get a sense that the Chazen's have a keen taste for bold, brash colors and texture. This could nearly be termed a wordless exhibition, as there is relatively little in the way of wall text. For some visitors, this is a nonissue. If you're looking for interpretations or a contextual overview, there will be little immediate guidance.


But if pure visual pleasure is the order of the day, Roy Lichtenstein stands out. His ironic Imperfect Painting
(1998) literally seems to vibrate off the walls. Thin stripes and orderly polka dots play off gold and blue planes, divided into a foreshortened, if somewhat disjointed, star. The color combination is terrific; hues of bright red, rich gold and sapphire play off shards of baby blue and peach. OK, in writing that sounds like a hot mess, but on canvas, Lichtenstein works it wonderfully.

The centerpiece, visual and psychically, is Robert Motherwell's monumental Elegy to the Spanish Republic #125
(1972). A master of painterly gesture, Motherwell's ovoid figures are tense, pensive, but in suspended animation. The stark black and white contrast is tempered by the varied opacity of paint, touched with slight tenderness in the unexpected presence of brown and blue, like a thought about an abstract horizon somewhere out there. The canvas is but one of 150 works in the Elegy series, described by Motherwell as “a funeral song for something one cared about.”

But not all is so serious, nor so abstract. A number of figurative paintings are organized together and beg interesting comparisons. Tom Wesselmann's vacant-faced nude with tan lines is a characteristically provocative work that gets a jump on the Jeff Koons's brand of high-art kitsch. Philip Pearlstein is part of the group as well, his nudes painted with distant, cool precision in the most unforgiving of light conditions.


This exhibition takes up but one gallery, and there is plenty more to see in the museum. The Chazen, though now expanded in size, maintains an intimate quality, though with admirable breadth in its encyclopedic holdings.


“Discerning Taste: Paintings from the Simona and Jerome A. Chazen Collection” continues through March 11, 2012. The Chazen Museum of Art is located at 750 University Ave., Madison, Wisconsin.
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