Ambitious exhibit showcases Rose Art Museum's extensive collection

Chris Bergeron

Facing an uncertain future, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University is showcasing  treasures from its extensive collection in a satisfying, often spectacular exhibit covering the breadth of 20th century art.

Titled "The Rose at Brandeis," this ambitious show surveys the evolution of art from European Modernism to American Pop and Minimalism through 120 paintings and photos drawn from the museum's collection of 7,000 works.

Running seven months through Commencement Day on May 24, 2010, it provides an atypically protracted view of modern art history as revealed through Brandeis' extraordinary collection.

Occupying all the museum's galleries, the exhibit somehow creates a salon-like sense of intimacy and leisurely engagement with a wildly eclectic selection of styles from Paul Cezanne's puzzling 1875 "Young Nude Bather" to Dana Schutz gross and goopy 2007 "How We Would Drive."

In between, visitors can stroll through 10 sections that make broad sense of a creative explosion during which the making, meaning and purpose of art dramatically changed.

Subtitled "Works from the Collection," it was organized by former assistant curator Adelina Jedrzejczak and Roy Dawes, current director of museum operations.

Dawes said the period of extended viewing "will allow museum visitors the time to properly see, contemplate, study, revisit and gain perspective on this stupendous collection."

"The most difficult thing about organizing the exhibit was deciding what to cut. We haven't put out all the 'creme de la creme.' We've still got a lion's share of some jewels to put on display," he said.

The exhibit opens at a time students, faculty, alumni and museum donors are embroiled in a contentious debate about the administration's plans to sell major assets from the collection to carry the university through difficult economic times.

That possibility worries Dawes who said, "It could change the way we do things."

Pausing, he looked around the cavernous Lois Foster Gallery where the sections on Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and Photorealism comprise the heart of the exhibit. This section includes Andy Warhol's morbid "Saturday Disaster," Judy Chicago's erotic "Birth Trinity," Ralph Going's sterile "Bank of America" and Roy Lichtenstein's eye-popping "Forget It! Forget Me!"

"I threw my heart into this exhibit. I really hope people will come," said Dawes. "There's still the possibility of selling works from the collection. I hope that's not the case but it's still out there."

Visitors can gaze upon works by many of the age's visionary painters including Cezanne, Rene Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Ellsworth Kelly, Warhol, Lichtenstein and many others. An exhibit within an exhibit features an exciting range of images by major photographers including Walker Evans, Cindy Sherman and Gregory Crewdson.

There are plenty of works by recognizable masters like Marc Chagall's magical "Woman with Flowers," Kelly's minimalist "Blue White" and Jasper John's enigmatic "Drawer."

But this show also reintroduces several less remembered artists whose distinctive works and styles still excite.

Finished in 1920, Florine Stettheimer's "Music" employs surrealist conventions to portray the ethereal essence of music as well as it's ever been done. Representing Social Realism, Philip Evergood's Kafkaesque "Twin Celebrities" captured the post-World War II alienation of ordinary people oppressed by forces beyond their comprehension. And in works like "Land of the Sleepers" and "Enchanted Night," surrealists Yves Tanguy and Antoni Tapies, respectively, reflected the growing public fascination with the mysteries of the subconscious mind.

If this exhibit has a secret star who deserves even more attention, it's Reginald Marsh, an American born in France in 1898, whose pulsing energetic paintings like "Tuesday Night at the Savoy Ballroom" and "Coney Island Beach" conveyed the raw sensuality and desperation of the world torn by the Depression and teetering on the brink of a worse cataclysm to come.

The exhibit also includes contemporary videos by Anri Sala and Issac Julien.

The show's opening coincides with publication of "The Rose Art Museum of Brandeis," the first comprehensive catalog of the collection, valued before the recession at $350 million.

It is a gorgeous book with scores of color images of masterpieces and lesser-known works that constitute the bedrock of a century of modern art.

Organized by Jedrzejczak with an introduction by former museum director Michael Rush, it comprises six thoughtful essays examining major art movements of the modern age.

Jedrzejczak and Dawes have arranged the exhibit in mostly chronological order following the catalog's division of 20th century art into 10 movements progressing from pre-World War I European Modernism to the American Pop and Minimalist movements.

In some circles, calling an exhibit "accessible" is snob code for saying viewers don't need graduate degrees or chic attitudes to "get it." "The Rose at Brandeis" offers so much stunning art visitors of any and all tastes will find something that excites them.

Intentionally or not, the power and beauty of works in the show - and the 6,880 still in storage - should fuel thoughtful discussion about the future of the Rose Art Museum.

THE ESSENTIALS:

"The Rose at Brandeis," runs through May 24 at the Rose Art Museum on the campus of Brandeis University, 415 South St., Waltham.

The museum is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Admission is free.

For more information, call 781-736-3434 or visit www.brandeis.edu/rose.