Little less than a year after shaking off its construction dust, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art presents the impressive yet unassuming exhibition In Depth: A Closer Look at MMoCA's Permanent Collection. Curated by Richard H. Axsom, professor emeritus of art history at the University of Michigan, In Depth is composed of more than 100 paintings, prints, photographs, mixed-media works and sculptures from the museum's over 5,000-piece permanent collection of 20th- and 21st-century art.
What appears to be an enormous ball of Saran Wrap (actually pallet wrap over a steel mooring buoy) entitled "The East" by Donald Lipski and Robert Rauschenberg's breathtaking photogravure "Soviet/American Array III" are an appropriately eclectic opening to the exhibition. A compelling mix of the expected and the unusual, the household name and the lesser-known, this well-arranged show is divided into discrete areas, enabling viewers to experience each medium/movement/period/school on its own while understanding the relationship between these works in a larger chronological, geographic and artistic context.
Exploring imagery from popular culture, the American Pop Art section features works by renowned artists Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, Red Grooms and Edward Ruscha, as well as a number of Claes Oldenburg lithographs that are whimsical without veering into cuteness.
With its journalistic style and intimacy with its subjects, the Postwar American Photography section includes Diane Arbus' arresting "A Family One Evening in a Nudist Camp" and Garry Winogrand's evocative "World's Fair, New York City, 1964." Contemporary American photographers Jan Groover and Cindy Sherman build on this tradition, exploring issues of ethnicity, gender and autobiography with large-scale pieces and works that incorporate multiple photographs and superimposed elements. John Shimon and Julie Lindemann's depiction of a young punk in "Trish and Matt Downtown, Manitowoc Wisconsin" is notable in this section, as is Sherman's "Film Still #30."
Owing much to a major gift from Rudolph and Louise Langer in 1968, the Mexican Modernism collection includes a number of works by celebrated photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who blended aspects of traditional Mexican culture with surrealism during his 80-year career. This area also showcases works from an artist-run print shop that thrived in Mexico City in the 1930s and '40s.
The 1930s saw the emergence of a number of regional artists who sought to capture the Midwestern landscape through paint and photography. Some of these interpretations are majestic and hopeful (John Steuart Curry's "Madison Landscape 1941," Lois Ireland's "Recess"), others bleakly beautiful (Grant Wood's "January") or unexpectedly moving (Alec Soth's "Cemetery Fountain City, WI," a strangely elegiac depiction of an illuminated filling station at the base of a snow-covered bluff).
In the 1950s and '60s, surrealist elements from Chicago made their way up north, and the exhibition highlights works by celebrated Wisconsin Surrealists including John Wilde and Fred Stonehouse. Erik Weisenburger's "Ursa Memoriam" and Gertrude Abercrombie's "Where or When" are also standouts in this section.
An auspicious ending to MMoCA's inaugural year, the show concludes thoughtfully with a table where one can peruse books on the featured artists.