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Five Faves - Favorite new artwork at the KIA

Curator names favorite new artworks at the KIA
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Mary Abbott, Portrait of Elaine de Kooning, 1948. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; Jim Bridenstine Acquisition Fund, 2019

Collecting art can be a uniquely exhilarating experience. People collect to decorate their homes or offices, for the pleasure of sharing with others and even as investments, hoping their art will accumulate value. Collecting art for a museum is a more complex, strategic and time-consuming venture. Acquiring even one piece of art can take months or even years. In the past, the importance of a museum might be tied to the number of objects in its collection. The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts has acquired more than 5,000 objects during its 95-year history.

At the heart of what guides the KIA collecting strategy is the belief that the visual arts are for everyone — that they inspire, fulfill and transform. It is our objective to collect, preserve, study, interpret and exhibit significant works of art that support our mission to promote the appreciation and creation of art. With that in mind, we collect American art of the 18th century to the present, with a focus on paintings and sculpture; works on paper from any period and culture, including prints, drawings and photographs; ceramics and glass from and since the 19th century; works by artists of Southwest Michigan that satisfy the above criteria; and arts of select cultures, including Pre-Columbian, African, Oceanic and East Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Korean). More recently we have acquired even more works by women and artists of color. Although I’ve been at the KIA only since last spring, here are five of my favorite artworks acquired by the KIA since 2017.

Portrait of Elaine de Kooning, Mary Abbott

Mary Abbott was a dedicated painter who was overlooked during her lifetime, largely due to her gender. She studied with David Hare, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko and was close friends with painters Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Perle Fine. Abbott’s canvases are vibrant reflections of her dynamism as a painter and the inner life of her subjects. In this painting, the artist chose to portray her friend in a chair with her cat, turning the pages of a book. It is a complex portrait that depicts a mutual respect and the closeness of their friendship. Abbott conveys de Kooning’s mysterious, but clearly warm personality with the barest hint of a smile.

Untitled, Olga Albizu

A master example of Lyrical Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism, this Albizu painting was created during the height of her career. Considered one of the most important painters from Puerto Rico, Albizu was a student of famed abstractionist Esteban Vicente, founder of the New York Studio School. From 1948 to 1951, she studied in New York City with Hans Hoffman, renowned Abstract Expressionist and teacher. Her works graced RCA and Verve Records album covers during the 1960s. This painting is a stellar example of her painting technique and skillfulness with color — and I can’t wait to see this work in conversation with paintings by other masters of abstraction, Franz Kline and Frank Bowling, when we reinstall our permanent collection galleries in April.

Lady Lotus, Hung Liu

A Chinese-born American contemporary artist, Hung Liu explores female strength as she juxtaposes ancient and modern motifs from Chinese history. This work was inspired by a historical photograph of a woman who served as a concubine for Communist Party officials after the Chinese Revolution. Throughout the world, images of girls and women have often been commodified. Here, Liu combines the languages of photography and painting to restore the woman’s humanity, infusing the image with beauty, empathy and tenderness.

Untitled, Merton Simpson

Simpson was one of the few African-American artists to exhibit during the 1950s at both the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both in New York City. He was a member of the artist collective Spiral, which was concerned with the role and work of African-American artists in the art world and the civil rights movement. His Merton D. Simpson Gallery, in New York City, became a destination for collectors, curators and artists of African art. As it did for so many artists of the period, the global Abstract Expressionist movement inspired his paintings, exemplified in this one. The painting’s palette of grays, ochres and blues juxtaposed against brighter yellows and oranges illuminates the artist’s optimism that African art can inspire a refined visual language, while also demonstrating how abstraction can represent an artist’s social and cultural awareness.

Oroshi (Wind blowing down from mountain), Satoshi Kino

Oroshi is a Japanese term that means “a wind blowing strong down the slope of a mountain.” While oroshis are powerful enough to cause severe damage, the beauty of this work’s circular shape is a lovely — even idyllic — sculptural depiction of this weather event. This ceramic sculpture is dynamic, delicate, aesthetically pleasing and emotionally compelling. Even more remarkable is the artist’s method: Rather than hand-building this elegant form, Kino uses the more difficult potter’s wheel to produce his works.

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About the Author

Rehema Barber

Rehema C. Barber joined the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) in April 2019 as the Chief Curator. Previously, she served as the Director and Chief Curator at the Tarble Arts Center on the campus of Eastern Illinois University. She has also held positions at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Memphis, and The Amistad Center at the Wadsworth Athenueum Museum of Art among others. She is currently working on the reinstallation of the KIA’s permanent collection and previously consulted for the Harvey B. Gantt Center and the Cincinnati Art Museum. Barber holds a B.A. in Art History from Roosevelt University, an M.A. in Art History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a certification in Elementary and Secondary Art Education from the University of Missouri, Saint Louis..