May 20, 2019

From the Curator: State Your Intentions

Samuel Levi Jones, Twenty Seven (detail), 2017, deconstructed medical books mounted on canvas. Intended gift of Bob and Mary Mersky.


This July in the Edith Carlson Gallery, WAM opens State Your Intentions: New Works in the WAM Collection. The exhibition showcases not only notable recent additions to the collection but also the intentionality of WAM’s collecting practice. In 1981 when Lyndel King became the director and chief curator, she openly asserted her resolve to even the gender score by fervently collecting women artists. Today, WAM does have an outstanding number of women artists in its holdings. It was this uncommon aspect of the collection that attracted artist Edith Carlson. Carlson, originally from Minnesota and involved in both the New York and Santa Fe art scenes of the 1960s and 1970s, was searching for a home for her art when she found WAM. After reaching out and meeting with King, Carlson bequeathed her estate to the museum, including funds for the gallery named in her honor, which was part of the 2011 museum expansion.

A photograph of a ball of string on a wooden floor in the corner of a room; a bit of floral wallpaper remains on an otherwise blank wall.

Alec Soth, Green Island Iowa (Ball of String), 2002, chromogenic print mounted on Dibound.

WAM’s commitment to collecting women artists remains strong, as do early collecting initiatives established by the museum’s first two directors. In 1934, Hudson Walker, the first director of the then University Art Gallery, set the first collecting agenda of living American artists. Ruth Lawrence, the second director, used the WPA program and her connections to galleries of American art in New York (including Alfred Stieglitz’s An American Place) to substantially build the collection and fueled WAM’s commitment to collecting prints. Since Lawrence’s tenure, collecting initiatives have emphasized Native American art, Korean furniture, and ceramics. WAM’s relationship with former University professor and key American potter Warren MacKenzie spawned the details of and funds for the museum’s ceramics collection.

The director, registrars, and curators work together to prioritize collection goals in the context of funding, potential gifts, and other means of adding wisely to the collection. This includes designating important new areas for the collection, such as works by African American artists, contemporary international art, Minnesota art, and video and other moving-image art.

State Your Intentions offers a glimpse of works that are helping WAM achieve such collecting goals. In Twenty Seven, contemporary African American artist Samuel Levi Jones creates a beautiful abstraction from the dismantled remains of medical books. He deconstructs the books, tearing out pages and detaching the spines, before mounting them on canvas in a loose grid. Jones builds his works from authoritative texts—encyclopedias, law books, medical volumes, and other reference works. He is interested in the perspectives and information that have been left out of these materials, and the harms caused by this exclusion. Through his body of work, Jones aims to “call into question the authority and institutional power” of these objects.

Teo Nguyen's large-scale painting of a rural, snowy farm scene under a vast overcast sky.

Teo Nguyen, Untitled 13, 2017, acrylic on vellum.


In contrast to Jones’s abstraction, Minneapolis-based Teo Nguyen takes a photo-realistic approach to depicting the landscape of the Upper Midwest. Nguyen says he is mesmerized by “the beauty that lies between the earth and sky,” and the horizon often dominates his paintings. In Untitled 13, distant buildings and trees seem swallowed up by snow-covered fields and the winter sky, strikingly evoking the vast expanses of rural Minnesota. Born in Vietnam, Nguyen has lived in Minnesota for a decade, and he remains fascinated by the flat landscape that is so different from his country of birth. He believes that his outsider status helps him to appreciate aspects of the land that native Midwesterners might overlook, calling attention to its openness and tranquility.

Other works on view are examples of international contemporary art, including Take Me Deeper II by Zimbabwean artist Portia Zvavahera and Blue Kffiyeh by Israeli artist Tsibi Geva. Alec Soth’s Green Island, Iowa, adds to WAM’s strong historical and contemporary Minnesota artists collection. Sam Gilliam‘s Marathon series helps build our holding by African American artists. And, of course, Iva Gueorguieva and Zvavahera strengthen WAM’s ever-growing collection of works by women artists. This is not the entire picture of WAM’s collecting goals and strategies, but with all of the works in this exhibition having formally entered our collection during the past three years, State Your Intentions is both a compelling snapshot of and report on the museum’s progress on collecting with intention.

Diane Mullin, Senior Curator

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