The Colby College Museum of Art started out in 1959 as one room in the Waterville, Maine, college’s Bixler Art and Music Center. As it approaches 50, the Colby museum ranks, at least in terms of facilities and perhaps in terms of collections as well, as one of the premier small college art museums in the country. Due largely to generous donors and the good offices of Hugh J. Gourley III, who served as director from 1966 to 2002, the exhibition space at Colby now rivals that of wealthier schools such as Bowdoin, Smith, and Williams.
Over the years, Colby has added the Jette Gallery (1973) named for the owners of Hathaway Shirt, the Paul J. Schupf Wing (1992) to house the extensive Alex Katz collection Mr. Schupf donated, and the 13-gallery Lunder Wing, funded by Dexter Shoe owners to house the museum’s extensive permanent collection. I have a feeling that not much of Maine’s summer tourist traffic gets off Interstate 95 at Waterville to take in the museum and Colby’s lovely Mayflower Hill campus, but anyone cultured or interested enough to do so will be rewarded with a free amble through a virtual palace of art.
Visitors are greeted on the courtyard outside the Colby Museum by a monument to minimalism in the form of sculptor Richard Serra’s 4-5-6, three 30-ton solid blocks of oxidized steel, each measuring 4′, 5′ and 6′ on a side. The Serra announces both the museum’s seriousness and its ambition. Entering the Davis Gallery, named for the Shaw’s Supermarkets family, you get a chance to see some of the museum’s most recent acquisitions, chief among them in my estimation being the bravura black and white photogravure print quartet, Rewriting, a kind of Escher-esque vision of spiral staircases by Olafur Eliasson, the Danish-Icelandic artist whose magnificent urban Waterfalls are currently the toast of New York City.
This summer, the featured exhibitions at Colby are Chuck Close: Self-Portrait/Scribble/Etching Portfolio, 2000 (through September 21), Joe Brainard: If Nancy Was (through August 17), Whistler’s Waterscapes (through October 26), and Masterpieces of American Folk Art (through October 19).
The Chuck Close show focuses on successive states of a 12-color etching self-portrait by the master painter, printmaker, and photographer who is one of the few photo-realists of the 1970s to move beyond the painterly imitation of the emulsified surface of photographs. The etching and its individual color proofs are augmented painted and photographed portraits by Close, who tends to mostly portray fellow artist friends, among them at Colby Alex Katz and Jasper Johns. There is also a wondrous strange 2006 Close self-portrait on a jacquard tapestry that gave me a touch of vertigo when I closely examined how Close had transformed light into stitches.
Joe Brainard is one of the lesser-known Pop Art artists. The Alex Katz Foundation gave Colby 20 mixed-media works from Brainard’s If Nancy Was series, an amusing but rather dated project in which the artist portrayed the rolly-polly cartoon character Nancy as everything from a ball to a rumpled Kleenex, the New York City skyline, and a head on Mt. Rushmore.
The Whistler exhibition features prints from the collection of Peter and Paula Lunder, now the Colby museum’s primary benefactors. The American Folk Art show is part of the state-wide Maine Folk Art Trail discussed in the June 11 posting of Just Looking. From Early American to Post-Modern, the Colby College Museum of Art offers something this summer for every taste.
Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville ME, 207-859-5600.