“Bather,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

The early artwork of Alex Katz shines in “Brand-New & Terrific” at the Cleveland Museum of Art

By Michael C. Butz

“Four People,” 1953–54. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 60.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of the artist 1991.310. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Four People,” 1953–54. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 60.9 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Seventy-fifth anniversary gift of the artist 1991.310. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

As Alex Katz began his career in the 1950s, contemporaries and institutions largely shunned his artwork because it was a distinct departure from the abstract expressionism – think the emotive splatters of Jackson Pollack or the forceful tension of Willem de Kooning’s “Woman” series – that defined the era.

Some 60 years later, however, Katz’s artistic persistence is rewarded in the form of a comprehensive exhibition of his early work. The featured art – figurative in nature, lush with pastels and cream colors – is immediately impressive and puts on display the shortsightedness of the prevailing mid-century mindset.

“Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s,” which derives its name from Katz’s early manifesto announcing his intentions to invigorate traditional artist subject matter and showcases more than 70 loans from public and private collections, is on view from April 30 through Aug. 6 in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall.

The exhibition was organized by the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, where it was first on view in late 2015, and curated by Colby’s Katz curator, Diana K. Tuite, who says the context in which he made his art is important to consider while taking in the show.

“Especially in the early years, it was so unfashionable – this was the kind of painting that could get you in trouble,” she says. “It was radical to be painting in a more traditional style, in some respects. It was seen as backwards, or regressive – and it meant he didn’t get many exhibitions, except at artist-run galleries.”

“Lincolnville Beach,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 122.4 x 178.6 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Lincolnville Beach,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 122.4 x 178.6 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

So was Katz a triumphant underdog? Perhaps in some ways. But the larger narrative of “Brand-New & Terrific” is one of the Brooklyn-born and Queens-raised artist developing and mastering his craft.

Entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by early ’50s works Katz finished not long after completing studies at The Cooper Union in New York (1949) and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Skowhegan, Maine (1950).

For these figurative paintings, Katz worked from black-and-white photographs rather than with models, and as he translated the photos to canvas, he added colors, blocked out figures, and omitted certain details and features.

The scenes – family gatherings, busy street vendors, neighborhood kids on a sidewalk, groups of adult friends – are all vaguely familiar. Combined with the curiosity the figures’ featureless nature elicits, viewers are naturally drawn in to Katz’s world. “Four People” conveys a sort of stoic melancholy but leaves viewers to ponder the mood and occasion. Further, it’s inadvertently nostalgic. One can easily envision a Studebaker Sky Hawk parked next to the house behind the four figures.

Katz’s use of color is extraordinary. Inspired in part by his surroundings and influenced by works from French artist Henri Matisse, he sophisticatedly harmonizes hues – eggshell blues, goldenrods, grassy greens, peaches-and-creams, burnt oranges – and drops viewers into dreamy landscapes. The soft pink sky and waterfront depicted in “Camden, Maine” transport viewers to an enchanting seaside twilight.

By the mid ’50s, Katz started experimenting with small-scale collages. Inspired further by Matisse, who’d been working with cut paper since the late 1940s, Katz explored the way shapes could inform his art.

“Track Jacket,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 45.7 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Promised gift of the artist, 019.2004. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Track Jacket,” 1956. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on Masonite; 60.9 x 45.7 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Promised gift of the artist, 019.2004. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Katz transferred lessons learned from his collages to his paintings, which were growing larger in scale. “Lincolnville Beach,” which demonstrates his use of structures and color to produce his scene, superbly captures this moment in the artist’s development.

In the latter half of the decade, Katz shifted his focus to portraits. Facial features make their way into the work, but the scenes behind the figures slowly fade away – to the point where he dispenses with them altogether in favor of freestanding wood cutouts, or “flat statues,” as they were called at first.

By this time, he’d stopped using photographs and instead used people as models. “Track Jacket” is a self-portrait, but otherwise he relied on friends and creative colleagues. Katz’s most frequent muse for portraits was his wife, Ada del Moro, a research biologist he met in 1957 and married in 1958.

The solitary nature in which Katz depicts his subjects is reminiscent of portrait photographs from a bygone era – and at times invites psychological interrogations from viewers. But that isn’t the only reason they’re engaging. Katz’s use of color again draws attention, providing intriguing consonance between subjects more complex than in his earlier works and backgrounds equally more muted.

In 1959, Katz completed “Ada Ada,” which as the name implies, depicted his wife twice in the same painting. Tuite points out that in this piece, the “one-for-one concept gets confounded” by Katz, thus raising questions regarding the intent of portraiture. Further, some consider “Ada Ada” a precursor to the Pop Art movement and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.”

“Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 167.6 x 217.2 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.190. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on canvas; 167.6 x 217.2 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.190. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

“Brand-New & Terrific” concludes with a gallery that’s unique to the Cleveland iteration of the exhibition: ’60s- and ’70s-era Katz works that are part of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collection. In fact, Tuite says CMA’s possession of these pieces made it a natural fit for this show.

“We had thought of Cleveland very early on,” she says, adding she’s “excited” that the exhibition is showing at CMA. “It’s such a major museum, and it has a great collection of American art.”

Anchored by “Impala,” a monumental 1968 canvas that approximates Katz’s quick sideways glance at Ada immersed in thought during a drive through the Utah mountains, CMA’s collection serves as a fitting coda to the main attraction.

If widespread praise eluded Katz – who’ll turn 90 during the run of “Brand-New & Terrific” at CMA – decades ago, it shouldn’t now. This exhibition is a delight, and it showcases why Katz’s early artwork deserves recognition equal to that earned by other artistic heavyweights of the ’50s. CV

On view

WHAT: “Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s”

WHEN: April 30 through Aug. 6

WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.

TICKETS: $12 for adults; $10 for seniors and college students; $6 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5

MORE: “In Conversation: Diana Tuite and Alex Katz” at 7 p.m. Friday, May 12, in CMA’s Gartner Auditorium. Join Katz and Tuite for a discussion about Katz’s career and works in the exhibition. Free; ticket required.

INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.

Lead image: “Bather,” 1959. Alex Katz (American, b. 1927). Oil on linen; 121.9 x 182.9 cm. Colby College Museum of Art, Museum purchase made possible by Peter and Paula Lunder through the Lunder Foundation, Michael Gordon ’66, Barbara and Theodore Alfond through the Acorn Foundation, and the Jere Abbott Acquisitions Fund, 2016.189. Art © Alex Katz / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

6. EL 135.58 Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Mark-Woods.com

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s cultural observations and poetic parsings brought to light in journal entries at Cleveland Museum of Art’s “The Unknown Notebooks”

By Michael C. Butz

1. Tamra Davis_Basquiat Still Still from A Conversation with Basquiat, 2006. Tamra Davis (American, b. 1962). 23 min., 22 sec. © Tamra Davis. Courtesy of the artist. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

1. Tamra Davis_Basquiat Still
Still from A Conversation with Basquiat, 2006. Tamra Davis (American, b. 1962). 23 min., 22 sec. © Tamra Davis. Courtesy of the artist. By permission of the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum

Examples of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s masterful wordplay and the peek into his artistic process on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks” are unquestionably — and rightfully — the exhibition’s main attractions. The largely untraditional works, many of them torn-out pages from composition books, offer a rarely seen roadmap of the late Neo-Expressionist’s artistic genius.

But an additional draw, adding even greater weight to these pieces, are the ways in which Basquiat creatively dissects race, culture and class — issues he contended with regularly in 1980s New York as he ascended to the top of the art world — and how his critical commentary still reverberates in present-day America.

“The Unknown Notebooks,” eight notebooks with more than 140 pages of poems and drawings as well as 50 related works on paper and large-scale paintings, runs through April 23 in CMA’s Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Gallery. It’s the last stop for the show, which was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and stopped in Atlanta and Miami before arriving in Cleveland.

In the first half of the exhibition, viewers are surrounded by a log of Basquiat’s artistic musings and observations. Framed single-page notebook tear-outs line the walls, and long, glass-encased tables in the center of the room showcase yet more notebook compositions.

11. EL 135.10 Untitled, 1980. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on paper; 24 x 18 x 1/2 in. Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

11. EL 135.10
Untitled, 1980. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Mixed media on paper; 24 x 18 x 1/2 in. Private collection. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

Noting the way in which his writing — largely in black and mostly in block capital lettering — mimics his artistic beginnings as a graffiti artist, and noting the carefully crafted positioning of words on his paper canvas, it becomes evident what Basquiat meant when he said he used words like brushstrokes.

He also employs scratches and crossed-out words, the visual meant to draw eyes and thoughts closer to the affected text, and his use of single words and fragments of phrases is meant to pull people in, leaving them to speculate about meanings or associations.

While these notebooks have remained under wraps all these years, this intentionality suggests they were always meant to be seen.

Images also appear in Basquiat’s notebooks. The most notable are a crude version of the crown symbol that would become synonymous with his work, the copyright symbol he used to express reclamation and ownership, and a tepee to signify a kinship he felt with Native Americans also subjected to racial inequality.

Additional autobiographical elements are on display, perhaps most significantly in a series of five untitled works that share a “Jimmy Best” theme. Though not on notebook paper, they mimic the style of such entries, and the pieces have been interpreted as suggesting a young African-American down on his luck due in part to childhood adversity, and in one, a car crash is depicted.

The son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, who grew up in a broken home in 1960s and ’70s New York, Basquiat was hit by a car when he was 7, sending him to the hospital for a month. In addition, as a high school dropout who for a time made a living by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, Basquiat very easily could’ve pulled from his own experience to tell Jimmy Best’s story — but he also touches on a narrative that plays out to this day.

20. EL 135.05.07 Untitled Notebook Page, c. 1987. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

20. EL 135.05.07
Untitled Notebook Page, c. 1987. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

Upon entering the second half of the exhibition, viewers encounter more traditional Basquiat works — oilstick-on-paper pieces, collages and wood-mounted canvases — that demonstrate how he ultimately expressed the ideas and wordplay with which he experimented in his notebooks, thus bringing the experience full circle. Among them is a piece exclusive to the Cleveland iteration of “The Unknown Notebooks” – “Untitled” (1982), on loan from The Progressive Corporation.

These works are filled with expressive imagery representative of Basquiat as an adroit cultural observer. “Famous Negro Athletes” consists of four African-American faces over a baseball and the phrase from which the piece gets its name. That it’s unclear who the “famous” athletes are is an acknowledgment of racism inherent in the cultural equation, and the graffiti-like way in which the title is scrawled across the bottom provides a tangible edginess.

In “Famous Negro Athletes,” the illustrations and words are equally important — and equally powerful. One gets the same impression when viewing “Untitled (Titian),” “All Beef” and “Famous.” Basquiat expertly juxtaposes the give and take of words and images with the social dichotomies he examines, inviting viewers to explore the many layers of meaning in his art.

That type of dynamic is found throughout “The Unknown Notebooks,” which indeed makes it an exhibition worth knowing. Those drawn to the intersection of contemporary art and contemporary issues, as well as Basquiat fans in search of a deeper understanding of the late artist, will all take something away from this show. The pages and other works on view give a glimpse of Basquiat not only as an artist but also as a person, and it’s a mesmerizing glimpse. CV

19. EL 135.14.04 Untitled Notebook Page, 1981–84. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

19. EL 135.14.04
Untitled Notebook Page, 1981–84. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Wax crayon on ruled notebook paper; 9 5/8 x 7 5/8 in. Collection of Larry Warsh. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum

On view

WHAT: “Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks”

WHEN: Through April 23

WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd.

TICKETS: $10 for adults; $8 for seniors and college students; $5 for children 6 to 17; free for museum members and children under 5

MORE: “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” at 7 p.m. on March 1 and March 3; “Basquiat” at 7 p.m. March 24 and 1:30 p.m. March 26. All screenings in CMA’s Morley Lecture Hall.

INFO: Visit clevelandart.org or call 216-421-7350.


Lead image: 6. EL 135.58. Untitled (Crown), 1982. Jean-Michel Basquiat (American, 1960–1988). Acrylic, ink, and paper collage on paper; 20 x 29 in. Private collection, courtesy of Lio Malca. Copyright © Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat, all rights reserved. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Photo: Mark-Woods.com

This wool and cotton carpet from the second half of the 1500s ushers the visitor into “Art and Stories from Mughal India,” a new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

Cleveland Museum of Art’s Mughal India exhibit tells the tale of a vibrant empire

By Carlo Wolff

It’s easy to get lost in “Art and Stories from Mughal India,” the new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. You may find yourself pulled into a small, gold-saturated painting of a warrior slaying wild boars, one of 100 on view at this sumptuous centennial offering. You might find yourself lost in the detail of the giant carpet unrolled at the entrance to the exhibit.

The painting, “Bijan killing the wild boars of Irman,” dates to around 1610, at the start of the Mughal empire in India. It attests to the exquisite control of court artists the Mughals assembled, employing the best Persians, Afghans and Indians of the time to tell illustrated stories of their conquests and romances.

According to Sonya Rhie Quintanilla, the museum’s George P. Bickford curator of Indian and Southeast Asian Art, the Mughals were central Asian Muslims who were assimilators, able to move across cultures to integrate India in an empire that lasted 332 years. They were liberalizers and assimilators, she suggested in an interview at the museum July 29.

The exhibit consists of 95 paintings from the collection of Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim, which the museum acquired in 2013, along with 39 three-dimensional objects. These span that remarkable carpet, a highly tooled musket, a wine cup shaped like a gourd, a luxurious robe Mughal embroiderers wove for sale to French aristocrats, an architectural panel of beautifully inlaid marble from a Mughal building (the Taj Mahal in Agra in central India, one of the seven wonders of the world, is Mughal), and a ring of gold and chased stone.

Back to that painting of the warrior and the boars. The intricate image is surrounded by script. It’s figurative and highly detailed, its angularity underlining the tension of the event. Beautifully composed, it has the immediacy of a photograph. It shows Bijan as he attempts to spear a boar even as his steed rears up. It pins down action in a frieze-like manner, transmitting turbulence you feel today.

Getting lost in this exotic display at CMA (there are, of course, audio aids, even an app) is something to do again and again. CV

On view

WHAT: ‘Art and Stories from Mughal India’

WHEN: Through Oct. 23

WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland

INFO: Free. Call 216-421-7450 and/or visit clevelandart.org


 

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 1, 2016.

Lead image: This wool and cotton carpet from the second half of the 1500s ushers the visitor into “Art and Stories from Mughal India,” a new exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. PHOTO | Michael C. Butz

The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International

FRONT International aims to shine spotlight on Cleveland with forward-thinking modern art event in 2018

By Carlo Wolff

The Cleveland Museum of Art in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International / David Brichford

The Cleveland Museum of Art in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International / David Brichford

If philanthropist and arts advocate Frederick E. Bidwell has his way, Cleveland will no longer be flyover country when it comes to contemporary art.

Bidwell, along with co-artistic directors Michelle Grabner and Jens Hoffmann, spearheads FRONT International: Cleveland Exhibition for Contemporary Art, a citywide contemporary art program launching year after next and recurring every three years.

The debut of FRONT, “An American City,” is set for July 7 to Sept. 30, 2018. It aims to feature more than 50 international artists, public programs, “artistic interventions” throughout the city, historical presentations, and according to the news release announcing it, “a dynamic system of dialoguing components.”

“A number of things are coming together that makes this a perfect time,” said Bidwell, FRONT’s CEO and executive director. “One is a sort of amazing spirit of collaboration and willingness to work together that I don’t think always existed in Cleveland. I think the second thing is all of the infrastructure and amenity improvements that have come together around preparations for the Republican National Convention; now we have this full suite of hotels and restaurants and infrastructure” making Cleveland “fully prepared to stage a world-class event.”

Bidwell said Cleveland’s history — of industrial prowess and decline, of recent reinvention — makes for a “concentrated and dramatic story. … This is a great time to bring people here and what they’ll see is, yes, evidence of significant economic change; they’ll see income disparity, sure, but they’ll also see a vibrant community built on a proud tradition that’s very much alive.”

In addition, there’s “a real demand for something new and different. In the United States, the art world is really kind of dominated by these very big, very successful commercial arts fairs,” such as Art Basel, Art Miami and the Armory Show in Chicago. FRONT will be based on European models: free, linked by ideas and “about creativity, not about trends.”

The project, designed to elevate Cleveland to the level of such major arts centers as New York, Berlin and Los Angeles, is expected to cost $4 million to $5 million, with support from the Cleveland Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, various founding patrons and donors.

Bidwell, Grabner and Hoffmann suggest they plan to make the city an artwork in itself. All say they couldn’t do it without the collaboration and commitment of presenting partners spanning the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art, SPACES, Cleveland and the Akron Art Museum.

(Multi-institutional collaboration made its local debut in 2015 with “Violins of Hope,” a months-long project culminating in the debut of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.)

The Transformer Station in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International.

The Transformer Station in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International.

Last year, Bidwell — who with his wife, Laura, established the Transformer Station, a contemporary art gallery in Ohio City’s Hingetown district, in 2013 — tapped Grabner and Hoffmann for their local bonds and their international savvy. Grabner is a Milwaukee resident and conceptual artist who exhibited at MOCA Cleveland in 2013, and Hoffmann until recently was deputy director of exhibitions and public programs at the Jewish Museum in New York.

In a telephone interview from Milwaukee, Grabner said she is intrigued by the notion of creating “internationally significant art in what would be kind of an off-center metropolis.” She recently co-curated the Whitney Biennial in New York and was involved in the Portland Biennial in Oregon. She said she looks forward to “pulling in different artists, different kinds of work that will engage in this project about the American city.”

To Grabner, FRONT signifies “the forefront of innovation,” and there are a lot of interesting possibilities “in how one thinks of it as a delineation or philosophy.”

Hoffmann, who continues to work on exhibitions and public programs for the Jewish Museum, also has been senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit since 2012. He’s interested in “rethinking large-scale exhibitions,” adding “Fred was very, very open to reconsidering established forms and perhaps opening up to more unusual, new ideas, taking these experiences that both Michelle and I have into consideration to develop a completely unique program.”

Hoffmann said he told Bidwell at least a year and a half was needed “to really prepare this properly, to make it work,” and Bidwell agreed, “a really good decision.” CV


Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 10, 2016.

Lead image: The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in the city’s University Circle neighborhood. PHOTO | FRONT International

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Cleveland Museum of Art’s centennial exhibition, ‘Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt,’ masterfully takes visitors on a historic trip through the once-mighty desert kingdom

Story by Carlo Wolff
Photography by Michael C. Butz

Statue of government official Sennefer, dating back to about 1479 to 1425 B.C.

Statue of government official Sennefer, dating back to about 1479 to 1425 B.C.

How layered reality was to the ancient Egyptians comes clear in the magisterial “Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt” exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Dominated by artifacts from the British Museum in London, with 10-plus pieces from CMA’s own collection, this is the first Egyptian exhibition at CMA in 20 years. It’s a fitting successor to “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse,” the far larger, similarly resonant and wildly popular show the museum concluded in early January.

With more than 150 objects on display, from tiny pieces of jewelry to weapons to colorful sarcophagi to massive temple sculptures, the exhibition is one to absorb over and over. On view in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Hall, it is designed to show the levels involved in the very notion of pharaoh, ancient Egypt’s intermediary between the many gods the people worshipped and the people themselves.

Its spectrum redolent with earth and sun, this covers roughly from 3000 B.C. to the Roman conquest of 30 B.C., and it starts

Statue of Amenemhat III in a devotional pose, dating back to about 1859 to 1814 B.C.

Statue of Amenemhat III in a devotional pose, dating back to about 1859 to 1814 B.C.

with a room dedicated to showing the lay of the land. The red granite Hathor capital from the Temple of Bastet — an imposing and impossibly heavy object indeed — ushers the visitor into the display. That capital certainly commands your attention.

The next room, dedicated to the gods, features highly stylized animal and human figures, all possessing a unique quality of stillness. One of the key sculptures is the head of Pharaoh Tuthmosis III, from the 15th century B.C. The king seems to be smiling; that quality of stillness, underlined by the two-dimensional feel of the stelae and carvings in other rooms, gives many of these artifacts a peculiar timelessness, even modernity.

Tuthmosis’ crown, seeming to rear up conically from his head, has a cobra as a kind of hood ornament. Compared to the opening capital and many other artifacts, this is small, but it’s arresting out of proportion to its size. Tuthmosis’ headpiece would make a gorgeous modern hat. Be sure to check it out from the side.

Sphinx of Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, dating back to about 1814 to 1805 B.C.

Sphinx of Pharaoh Amenemhat IV, dating back to about 1814 to 1805 B.C.

Another room, dedicated to symbols of power, features jewelry and sacrificial objects; each royal crown bore specific symbols and associations, making virtually all the objects in this mysterious and authoritative exhibition both decorative and philosophical.

Texts attached to the displays, which are set back and spotlighted and/or mounted in glass cases, provide details on their provenance and help the viewer interpret them. To the modern observer, this is art — and history. One can only speculate that to the Egyptian of those times, this all spoke of religion and spirituality; the aesthetics were secondary.

A series of shabtis, which were human figurines placed inside tombs to undertake agricultural work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife.

A series of shabtis, which were human figurines placed inside tombs to undertake agricultural work on behalf of the deceased in the afterlife.

Among the more interesting displays are “foundation deposits,” miniature replicas of construction implements buried in temple foundations. These ritual objects, akin to the talismans and amulets that adorned Egyptian royalty, were created and sited to protect and purify those houses of polytheistic worship. They are representations of the permanence of those temples, which the Egyptians built of stone. They built their palaces of sun-dried mud brick, suggesting they regarded their rulers as more temporary than the gods they represented.

As if the multiplicity of gods weren’t enough, the pharaonic age also featured rulers from countries other than Egypt, including the Nubian Shabaqa, and Greeks, like Alexander the Great. The variety of objects throughout this authoritative display attests to a period far more diverse and turbulent than what used to be found in the history books. CV

On View
WHAT: Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt
WHERE: Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Blvd., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 12
TICKETS & INFO: Free to members; $7 for member guests and people aged 6 to 17; $15 adults, $13 seniors and college students, free for children under 5. Call 216-421-7350 or visit clevelandart.org