Courting donors has long been a fact of museum life. Most institutions hope that, either in the short term or after their passing, art collectors will donate all or part of their treasures. While it's a delicate dance, when it comes together, the public stands to benefit. To wit, the UW's Chazen Museum of Art is currently showing two exhibitions based on the personal collections of donors.
The larger of the two, "Modernist Sculpture: The Terese and Alvin S. Lane Collection," is in the second floor's Brittingham Galleries. And what a collection it is. Even if you only have a passing familiarity with 20th-century art, there are major names you'll recognize: Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and many others. And if you're not familiar with these artists, the collection amassed by the Lanes over nearly 50 years forms a strong introduction to modern sculpture.
The Lanes' taste seems to have run towards metal as a material rather than, say, stone, wood or glass. There's a whole lotta heavy metal in the galleries, from bent sheet metal to rusted steel to gleaming stainless. The couple's leanings are clearly toward abstraction, both rough and refined. (Alvin Lane, a 1940 UW graduate and prominent New York attorney, died last fall.)
Some artists became personal friends of the Lanes, such as Louise Nevelson, an important figure in American art. Nevelson is probably best known for her large-scale wooden sculptures - assemblages of odds and ends, such as architectural fragments, that are then painted a single color. There's a large sculpture of this type in the show; the matte black paint coating the work gives it a melancholy quality.
But all is not so somber: Nearby is one of pop artist Claes Oldenburg's whimsical sculptures of ordinary objects rendered comically oversized. In this case, it's a typewriter eraser, with the rubbery wheel-shaped part formed from painted concrete.
Other highlights include an Alexander Archipenko from 1918 that is a cubist still life in the form of a bronze relief sculpture. A similar piece by Jacques Lipchitz, also from 1918, makes the still life forms even more elemental and geometric. While one might think of cubist still life as primarily a matter of collage or painting, these pieces demonstrate how the revelations of cubism translated into other mediums.
Downstairs in the smaller Mayer Gallery is "A Shared Taste: The Janice and Jean-Pierre Golay Collection." The Golays moved to Madison in 1988 and have made artists from Switzerland and Wisconsin a focus of their collection. While they share the taste for abstraction seen in the Lanes' collection, the Golays also reveal a fascination for the human form, and their collection is especially strong in prints.
French artist Alain Bourbonnais' "Rose Hip X, Miaulant" is a monoprint with a fascinating mix of textures. It looks as if Bourbonnais has inked different objects and pressed them firmly into the surface of the paper. Done in deep shades of oxblood and magenta, it presents us with a fantastical, grotesque character like something out of a folktale: a woman with bulging eyes, sagging breasts and an exposed crotch. There's enough humor to the piece to make it appealingly quirky and not misogynist.
The Golays have also collected UW faculty artists such as emeritus professors Warrington Colescott and David Becker, both known for their mordant takes on contemporary society. Becker's 1980 etching, "Right Turn," mixes precise technical skill with imagery that seems like a cross between surrealism and the sweaty humanity of Brueghel's peasants.
Whenever the university can attract donors' collections - or parts of them - it's certainly a coup for art viewers in Madison. We're all the richer for donors' connections to the university and the city, as the Lane and Golay collections demonstrate.
"A Shared Taste: The Janice and Jean-Pierre Golay Collection"
Chazen Museum of Art, through Sept. 7
"Modernist Sculpture: The Terese and Alvin S. Lane Collection"
Chazen Museum of Art, through Sept. 28