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Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about "Embracing the Present: The UBS PaineWebber Art Collection," a show at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art (MoA). Now comes "Return to Realism: Contemporary Art from the UBS Art Collection," a similar but superior exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. (The PaineWebber affiliation is gone, and UBS, as I discovered after some digging, stands for Union Bank of Switzerland.)
I pretty much slammed the MoA show: "...there's something a little sterile about a collection that seems to have been assembled by someone more interested in brand names than in quality... This scrambled show suggests that the people in charge of the UBS PaineWebber Collection have their eyes more on the market than on the studio or the museum wall."
At 43 pieces by 30 artists, the Boca Museum's exhibition is smaller than its MoA predecessor, but it's much better organized and includes some surprises. All of which is to say that it prompts me to reevaluate the UBS collection.
The collection started in 1971 with some prints by such major talents as Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. In the three-plus decades since, it has grown to more than 900 works, from paintings and works on paper to sculptures and photographs. The emphasis is on art from the past half-century.
UBS Chairman Marcel Ospel's statement about wanting "to strengthen these vital connections by sharing broadly the very best products of the creative spirit" sounds suspiciously like corporatespeak, but the collection delivers on those words. UBS regularly sends selections from its vault on the road to such museums as MoA and the Boca Museum, and specific pieces can be made available to institutions for specialized shows. And actually, much of the collection rests not in a vault but throughout the midtown Manhattan offices of UBS. Imagine going to work every day at a company that displays on its walls the works of such artists as Eric Fischl, Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, R.B. Kitaj, Brice Marden, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol, just to name a few of the collection's best-known artists.
One of my objections to MoA's UBS show was the inclusion of such overrated, overhyped but high-profile artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Cindy Sherman. Salle and Sherman are in the Boca show too, and they're still overshadowed by better artists, although one of Sherman's untitled photographic "self-portraits" has unusual resonance.
The color photograph #228 (1990) in one of Sherman's series of reenactments is a highly stylized image of the artist in opulent garments, holding a grotesque head. It's Sherman acting as the Biblical Judith, brandishing the head of Holofernes, the gigantic Assyrian military leader who besieged her village. The story has inspired some of history's great art, including paintings by Botticelli, Donatello, and Giorgione; a bronze sculpture by Donatello; and a section of a wall in the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. All these works echo through Sherman's reinterpretation.
Early in the show is an especially inspired pairing. To the left is My Sweet Lord (George Harrison) (1999), Richard Phillips' reverent rendering of the late Beatle in charcoal and chalk on paper, a portrait with such intense features that it initially comes across more like a sculpture (and makes Harrison look as if he could have been one of the 12 Apostles). To the right is Chuck Close's much larger Self-Portrait (1995), in pencil, marker, and India ink. Like Harrison, Close is captured head-on, although using the artist's distinctive technique of superimposing a grid onto a surface (in this case paper), then applying little daubs of various media.
At close range, Close's works dissolve into a blur. But from 25 feet or so, his subjects come into focus, along with an increasing sense of amazement at how these tiny blobs accrue to form an impressionistic but also realistic image. It's even more astounding when you realize that this is one of the first such pieces Close produced after a devastating spinal injury in 1989.
The show's stated theme is a return to realism. But as the museum's executive director, George S. Bolge, points out in his commentary in the excellent exhibition brochure, the distinction between realism and abstraction has long dissolved, leaving artists great leeway. There's ample evidence here to back up his observations.
The Japanese-born Hiroshi Sugimoto's Peter Stuyvesant(2000) is a huge gelatin silver print portrait of the colonial leader that's uncannily realistic. It's from the artist's "Portraits" series, which includes photos of Henry VIII, Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro, and Princess Diana. The catch is that the models for these pictures are wax effigies of the subjects.
Other photographs take hyperrealism to an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Massimo Vitali achieves an astounding depth of field in his huge C-print Les Menuires Grandes (1999-2000), which draws us right up the side of a snow-covered mountain to the top of the ski slopes. Vitali goes from cold to hot with equally impressive results for Riciccone (1998), a large color photograph in two slightly overlapping parts, portraying a vast beach scene. Tina Barney's Jim and Phil at Graduation (1985) is a cryptic portrait of ten or so figures in a backyard, some in sharp focus, some slightly blurred, as if the image is a frame from a film.