Drawing from alumni collections, the Blanton pairs great works of art in intriguing ways
Annette DiMeo Carlozzi didn't know what she was getting herself into.
Well, that isn't precisely true. The Blanton Museum of Art's curator at large definitely knew she was going to be pulling together a major anniversary exhibition for the museum – make that the anniversary exhibition for the Blanton's 50th year. And she knew that the art in it would be culled from the collections of art patrons who had at some point attended the University of Texas.
Still, she didn't know who among the hundreds of thousands of Texas exes seriously collected art or, once she tracked them down, what she'd find in their collections. She didn't know that she'd be making 135 trips to meet alums to find out and looking at some 3,000 works of art. She didn't know that those trips, plus 15 more made by other Blanton staff members, would yield 200 works of art spanning 21 centuries – making this the largest show the Blanton has ever mounted. She didn't know how she was going to organize something cohesive out of a concept as broad and loose as artistic masterpieces belonging to former Longhorns. And she didn't know how much fun she'd have doing it.
The idea behind "Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks From Alumni Collections" had been kicking around the Blanton for years, though no research had been done on the subject. "We'd never asked the broad question of who went to school here and who was an art collector," says Carlozzi, so the project remained relegated to some unspecified future, like, you know, cleaning the garage. But when Simone Wicha took over as museum director in 2011 and identified it as the perfect project for the 50th anniversary, the alum collection show went from "something we should do someday" to "something that has to be done in just over a year."
For Carlozzi, the first step was playing detective: figuring out who the collectors were. No such data had ever been collected by the museum or UT's development office, so the curator searched her own notes for references to alums who owned art. She turned to collectors on the Blanton's museum council to identify their old classmates and running buddies who also happened to be into art. "You know how UT is," says Carlozzi. "Most Texans stay in Texas, and they're still in touch with people that they were in a sorority with or studied with, so there were those tentacles that went out." From there, she and the Blanton team began scouring the lists of board directors for museums, first around the state and then around the country, and checked them against the university's database of former students. Carlozzi checked out 6,000 names of College of Fine Arts graduates to see if any rang bells for her from her years in the art market. And as she began to visit collectors, she obtained new leads from them.
"It just kept growing, because we wanted [the exhibition] to be inclusive," Carlozzi says. "The process of learning who was out there and what they had was so organic, and I like more, not less, usually, and there was always something right around the corner that was really promising. How can you stop now? So we would push ourselves a little bit more, and I would take what should have been a deadline for the end of August and [push it] to the middle of October."
In this phase, Carlozzi also took on the role of diplomat, jetting wherever was necessary to look at collections and, equally important, make the personal contact with the collectors that would assure them their masterworks would be in good hands at the Blanton. In the case of a Minneapolis couple who'd had no contact with UT in some 40 years, Carlozzi had to undergo an interview with the husband just to garner an invitation to see the art. In Carlozzi's words, she "passed muster" and was granted access to a "palace of great works of art," the likes of which she'd never seen. A new friendship was formed, and the Blanton was loaned five prints from their collection.
Each trip like that was its own mystery. "I didn't know what I was going to find most of the time," says the curator. "It was wide open." This being Texas, Carlozzi expected to see work by Port Arthur homeboy Robert Rauschenberg, and, with her own experience in contemporary art, she knew that she'd see many of its major figures. Beyond that, Carlozzi wasn't sure how deep the masterwork well was in the burnt-orange art set. Then, she says, "early on, I found three Monet Water Lilies, and I thought, 'We've got a show.' It's Texas, and there's likely to be incredible stuff out there, and we can probably go for the good stuff."
And so she did, gathering in numerous art-world brand names – Monet, Manet, O'Keeffe, Warhol, Gainsborough, Matisse, Pollock, Holzer, Calder, Rousseau, Ruscha, and Rauschenberg, of course – but also artifacts of ancient cultures – an Egyptian statue, a Roman bust, Chinese jade, African masks, a Mayan flint – and contemporary works from every corner of the globe, Old Master prints and drawings, Renaissance paintings, art created for modern dance and theatre productions (Ballets Russes, Martha Graham, Robert Wilson), and more. "It's more diverse than you might think in certain ways, but I was pushing for that diversity in the show," Carlozzi says. "I was paring back what I had dozens and hundreds of examples of to get to the things that were more rare and unusual, just to be able to see the scope that would result from it."
The decisions about what to include in the exhibit finally came down to Carlozzi's final role in the process: matchmaker. "[We] made the choices not only on matters of quality – the most rare and compelling objects I could find – but how they talked to one another," she says. "In the beginning, I tried to stay as open as I could. Probably two months into it, I was letting my subconscious start to make couples. I was matchmaking, thinking, 'Oh! Oh, oh, oh! That thing I saw there, oh my God, it would look amazing with that.' And the 'that' that I saw in the person's collection was one of seven amazing things they had, but I knew it was that because I knew how it was going to talk to that other thing.
"It came down to 'how do you get things to talk to each other?' More often than not, I was most satisfied if I could put older history or faraway culture together with modern things to allow them to be read differently." So a classic marble bust of a Roman goddess from the second century sits in relationship with two 20th century busts by Janine Antoni, one carved from soap and the other from chocolate. Henri Rousseau's flat, primitive painting of an African jungle scene hangs near Thomas Struth's lush, large-scale photograph of a jungle in Brazil.
The curator calls her process "very intuitive, very improvisational. I realized that the exhibition would only sing if I allowed my creative impulses to be the primary gestures. The fun of it was bringing together works from across the UT diaspora, from different collections across the country, to talk to one another. And then to mix time and place and culture. Because I was taking them out of peoples' homes, I felt the freedom to be playful and whimsical with the works as I grouped them. It didn't need to be the orthodox museum perspective on how to present works of art. It's all interwoven, but in the most open-ended ways I could find, where it's really just about looking, and then it's about riffing."
But even after she'd made all the trips and all the choices and paired all the works, there was still something Carlozzi didn't know: how the collectors would respond to her matchmaking. "I was nervous, because every single work was going to look different than it did in their homes, where they're used to seeing them a certain way. I told a friend that it was like having a big dinner party, where you have to explain why you put seatmates together. Would they get along? Would they play well? I didn't know."
The curator got her answer at the museum's 50th anniversary gala after Valentine's Day, and it was a message of love. "They loved seeing the work in different settings," Carlozzi says. "Everybody commented on the playfulness and the creativity of the hangings. 'Ooh, I could do that in my house.' If one result that you want from a museum experience is a kind of openness and creativity to the world, these collectors – who I would imagine already knew their relationships to their objects, already felt like they'd seen everything there was to see in that work – were coming up to me and saying, 'I'm seeing it differently now. This is so cool.' They were willing to play along, so I'm thrilled."
"Through the Eyes of Texas: Masterworks from Alumni Collections" is on view through May 19 at the Blanton Museum of Art, 200 E. MLK. For more information, visit www.blantonmuseum.org.
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