Sure, it's satisfying when a local venue gets a crack at, say, a major Picasso show. But one of the great pleasures of going to museums is getting exposed to artists we know little or even nothing about.
Case in point: The Boca Raton Museum of Art has done justice to nearly half a dozen lesser-known artists in the past few years, including Stanley Boxer, Stephen Althouse, Gary T. Erbe, Cleve Gray, and Andrew Stevovich. The current "Valerio Adami" exhibition is a worthy addition to that list.
A news release from the museum repeatedly refers to the Italian artist, who was born in Bologna in 1935, as "important." When I did a spot-check of a handful of art references, however, he was nowhere to be found. All that means is that he may well be underappreciated. And to judge from this retrospective, which includes nearly two dozen acrylic paintings and a smattering of drawings, that's certainly the case.
Although technically a retrospective, with works stretching back to the 1960s, the exhibition emphasizes the artist's more recent output. Adami apparently shifted in the mid-'60s from an early expressionist style to the more stylized work seen here, and in the 1970s and beyond, he incorporated mythology, sociopolitical commentary, and the fine arts into his work. For Metamorfosi (Metamorphosis) (1982), the splendid large painting that opens the show, he turned to Ovid for inspiration. Building Capitalism, from 1991, finds him taking a dim view of what strikes him as Western imperialism.
As with some of the other underdogs the Boca Museum has championed, Adami has an instantly recognizable style. He delineates his forms with thick, black lines and clearly defined fields of flat, bright colors, none of which bleed into one another. The influence of pop art and cartoons in particular is evident, although what immediately comes to mind with Adami's paintings is stained glass — almost any one of his works could be readily translated into that misunderstood medium.
If the Adami show strikes a chord with you, consider splurging on the exhibition catalog, an unusually fine volume of its kind. The artist's crisp, clean style lends itself especially well to reproduction, and the book covers not only the 23 paintings on display but also a great many other works as well. It also features contributions by a stellar lineup of writers that includes Italo Calvino, Carlos Fuentes, and Octavio Paz.
The Boca Museum, which reopened October 12 after $435,000 in renovations, is also featuring work by better-known photorealist Robert Cottingham. In 1973, Cottingham — who like Adami was born in 1935 — embarked on a road trip during which he took more than 2,000 Kodachrome slides with his 35-millimeter Canon camera. One of these, a shot of a multilayered, star-shaped neon sign, is the basis for "Robert Cottingham: Twenty Ways to See a Star."
True to its title, the show gives us 20 silkscreened paintings, 79 inches square, that are variations on that original Star, differing only in their color combinations. Presented side by side, they resonate off one another in much the same way as Warhol's famous multiple takes on the same subject matter — think Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup cans.
Cottingham was among the first generation of photorealists, which included Chuck Close and Richard Estes, although here his style seems less significant than his raw material. I kept thinking of Gertrude Stein's infamous line of poetry, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," in which she claimed the rose was red for the first time in the English language. Cottingham's repetition serves the same function, to make us really see (and think of) a star for the first time.
The star paintings are supplemented by a portfolio of a dozen 38-inch-square silkscreen prints from the museum's permanent collection. These also focus on signs, sometimes in such close-up that you can only partially read them. They effectively round out this surprisingly pleasing little show.
Not long after these two exhibitions opened, the museum announced that its longtime director, George S. Bolge, is retiring next summer. It will be, literally, the end of an era in the South Florida art world. Bolge served as executive director of the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale from 1970 to 1988 and moved on to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in 1995.
During Bolge's unusually long tenure, the Boca Museum achieved national accreditation and beefed up its already substantial permanent collection. More significantly, the museum moved from its cramped quarters on Palmetto Park Road into its magnificent 44,000-square-foot building in Mizner Park, where in just under a decade, it has presented more than 200 exhibitions and attracted nearly 2 million visitors.
While regime change at a major institution is always daunting, it also clears the way for an infusion of new ideas and new directions. It's easy to be excited about the prospects for one of South Florida's finest museums.