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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

46 Years of Art Collecting

The David Barnett Gallery’s ‘Blast From the Past’

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“Blast From the Past: Forty-Six Years, Forty-Six Works of Art” serves as testament to the David Barnett Gallery’s 46 years of art collection and stewardship. Now the owner of more than 6,000 artworks, Barnett nevertheless notes, “I never made a mistake buying anything; my biggest mistakes were when I passed them up.” This exhibition demonstrates just how valuable the collector’s insatiable hunger for diverse fine art is to the Milwaukee community at large.

Among the pieces featured are intricate 19th-century Indonesian puppets. These artworks are in marvelous condition, as Barnett demonstrated when he put one on, turned the stick controlling its head and animated the decades-old figure with unnervingly lifelike movement. In another area are puppets intended for shadow theater—made of rigid sheets of buffalo hide, they are perforated with complex patterns of holes at minute scale.

In a different cultural and historic vein, we find John Steuart Curry’s 1946 oil painting Cock Fight in Cuba. Muted in pallet but full of tension and pathos, the work depicts a large crowd of white men—faces full of bloodlust and hats angled down—screaming at the gladiatorial roosters, while a single black man reaches out to them in recognition of their distress. A striking example of the beginnings of animal rights consciousness, the work remains chilling and provocative today.

A slice of Milwaukee’s history can be found in Study for “Wall of Glass,” a 1951 painting by Edmund D. Lewandowski completed as a rendering for a glass mosaic commissioned by Allen-Bradley Co. Intensely colored and decidedly futuristic, the work resembles a sprawling circuit diagram full of precise representations of switches, relays and controls. Intended as an abstract celebration of the company’s machinery and output, Lewandowski’s work is an impressive testament to the innovations of the mid-20th century.

The piece Barnett calls “most important” in the gallery is a 1904 Kees van Dongen titled Les Artistes du Cirque, a stunning Fauvist work depicting two circus performers the artist observed during his many outings with contemporary Pablo Picasso. Nearly 110 years later, the strokes remain vivid and deeply evocative of the male and female figures’ commanding personalities.

Linked primarily by that most intangible of threads—the aesthetic sensibilities of one collector over half a century—this retrospective’s parade of masterpieces is an irresistible feast for eyes and mind. 

“Blast From the Past: Forty-Six Years, Forty-Six Works of Art” is on display through July 20 at the David Barnett Gallery, 1024 E. State St.

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