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Art at Colby

Art at Colby
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The Colby College Museum of Art is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an exhibition and a book, both entitled Art at Colby. The exhibition runs through February 21, 2010, but it is the book that I would like to call your attention to here. A book is the second life of art, so while not many readers will make it to the Waterville, Maine, college between now and February, Art at Colby ($50 hardcover) is an exhibition you can hold in your hand for years to come.

The Colby College Museum of Art began as a one-room gallery in the college’s art and music building back in 1959. Today, Colby boasts one of the finest small college art museums in the country, both in terms of the collections and space. The museum grew almost entirely through gifts, both of art and money to build the wealth of galleries that now house that art. The Colby museum benefited greatly over the years by gifts from the Wing sisters of Bangor, the Jette family (Hathaway Shirt), the family of John Marin, Jere Abbott (first associate director of the Museum of Modern Art and heir to a Maine textile fortune), the Davis Family (Shaw’s Supermarkets), the Lunder family (Dexter Shoe), Paul J. Schupf (an investment manager and Alex Katz collector), and artist Alex Katz, a trove of whose work is housed at Colby.

The person most responsible for the amazing growth of the Colby College Museum of Art, however, was Hugh J. Gourley, III, who served as director of the museum from 1966 until 2002. The college has never properly acknowledged Hugh Gourley’s 36 years of selfless service to the museum, it is fitting that Gourley provides the written text that accompanies the illustration of the first work of art in the museum’s collection, Winslow Homer’s 1870 oil “The Trapper.”

Art at Colby is a lavish book – 376 pages weighing over four pounds and filled with full-page color reproductions of 176 works from the Colby collection, each image elucidated by one of the 98 contributors to the book. The arrangement of the art is chronological, running from a Late Cypriot terra cotta rhyton (1450 to 1200 BCE) to Vietnam Veterans Memorial creator Maya Lin’s 2008 “Pin River – Kissimmee,” a modeling of the river system in stainless steel common pins.

Always the gracious host, Hugh Gourley is careful in his explication of Homer’s “The Trapper” to explain that it was a gift of Mrs. Harold T. Pulsifer, who married into the family of Lawson Valentine, owner of a successful varnishing company that employed Winslow Homer’s brother Charles and himself a major Homer patron in the 1870s. Mrs. Pulsifer gave the painting of a trapper in the Adirondacks to Colby in 1949 and loaned the college 11 other Homers.

Diana K. Tuite, the Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art provides the text for several paintings by Alex Katz, whose work has a wing of its own at the Colby museum. Vincent Katz, the artist’s son, wrote a long poem to accompany Jennifer Bartlett’s 2003 painting of a map of the “Democratic Republic of Congo.”

Art historian and Colby museum friend Gabriella de Ferrari addresses the Sol Lewitt “Wall Drawing # 803″ and his “Seven Walls” concrete block installation that are signature Colby pieces. And Asma Husain, an architecture student at Rice University, celebrates Minimalist sculptor Richard Serra’s “4-5-6,” three solid cubes of oxidized Cor-Ten steel that greet visitors upon entrance to the museum’s front door courtyard.

If you can’t see the show, at least buy the book. It’s a tribute to a sui generis art museum improbably located in central Maine.

[Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville ME. 207-859-5600.]

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