Arts & Culture: A Curator’s Top Picks

Sheryl Nonnenberg, Nob Hill Gazzete , September 1, 2021

The word “curate” is used quite frequently these days, referring to everything from cars to wine. In actuality, “curate” comes from the Latin “to care for” and has historically been used in the context of a museum or gallery.


“Being a curator involves acquiring, documenting, interpreting and advising on the care of works of art so they can be accessible now and in the future,” shares Elizabeth Mitchell, the Burton and Deedee McMurtry curator and interim co-director at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford. To celebrate her 10-year anniversary at the museum, she organized a large-scale exhibition that was initially scheduled to open in April of 2020.


Now on track to open September 29, Paper Chase: Ten Years of Collecting Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Cantor, will be on view in the Freidenrich Family Gallery and the Ruth Levison Halperin Gallery. It consists of 118 of the 11,000 works on paper collected during Mitchell’s tenure.


While the pandemic forced the postponement of the show, it gave Mitchell time to build upon her original plan. She notes, “I was able to expand the exhibition into an additional gallery, which enabled me to bring roughly 33 more works into the visual conversation.”


This is the major fall exhibition at the museum, which was founded in 1891 by Jane Stanford as a memorial to her son, Leland Jr., a budding collector of antiquities. The show encompasses a wide range of media, from woodcuts and etchings to lithographs and screen prints. Photographs are also included, since the museum has received major donations from the Warhol Foundation and the Capital Group Foundation, just in the last seven years. All told, the museum’s holdings of works on paper totals around 24,000. Like most museums with limited resources, the Cantor has relied on the largesse of both corporate and private individual gifts.


“A project like Paper Chase enables us to thank our generous supporters, illuminate for our visitors an aspect of how the museum works, and showcase over 100 treasures from the permanent collection — many of which have never been shown before,” says Mitchell. As for the exhibition’s title, “On one hand, it describes a bureaucratic waste of time — completing endless forms instead of achieving tangible results,” she says. “But, for a curator, that phrase also describes the thrill of pursuing images, connecting with donors, researching and, ultimately, collecting prints, drawings and photographs to make a thoughtful collection.”


Mitchell explains that when she first began at the museum more than a decade ago, her assessment was that its collection was “like a treasure box full of gems.” She felt there were strengths in old masters art and notable examples of 18th century ink drawings by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. “There is depth in 17th century French etchings and 19th century prints in general,” she adds. Mitchell spent months going through storage and learning about how the faculty teaches from the collection before deciding upon a future collecting strategy. “I was very excited that there was great potential to build interesting thematic connections between contemporary art and more historic objects.”


But how did she refine thousands of prints down to a workable exhibition number?

She knew that she wanted to display works that had not been shown before and also to highlight important gifts. “The exhibition explores the idea of collecting art for a university museum, and three additional themes that stood out in this selection of acquisitions: representations of science and nature, images investigating identity and social conflict, and different approaches to history.”


To say that there is something for every taste in the show would be an understatement.


For those who love old masters prints that utilize traditional etching techniques, there are the 1583 engravings of Raphael Sadeler I, with dramatic themes that translate as “melancholic” and “sanguine,” and the ominous Cartouche With Two Figures of Death by Stefano della Bella, 1647.


There is a charming floral watercolor by Pancrace Bessa, dated 1816, and an 1829 pen-and-ink depiction of double datura by Augusta Withers. A self-portrait by Diego Rivera — which Mitchell calls “unflinchingly honest” — is joined by a Nude With Beads (Frida), both lithographs done in 1930. Jasper Johns is well represented by his Figure series (0 to 9), created in 1968. Photography has always been a major strength in the Cantor’s holdings, which seems logical given the historic significance of Leland Stanford’s support for the innovative moving-picture work of Eadweard Muybridge, and the exhibition highlights gelatin silver prints by an early proponent of the medium, Henry Fox Talbot, as well as 20th century American masters Lee FriedlanderRobert FrankAnsel Adams and Brett Weston.


“The exhibition features a lot of 20th century American art, presented with some earlier — or very contemporary — work by artists from around the world. For instance, there is a delicate 17th century French etching by Jacques Callot depicting construction in Paris, which appears near a 20th century drawing of men working at a building site by the African American artist Jacob Lawrence. “The differences and visual continuities are remarkable,” notes Mitchell.


Many of the contemporary pieces in the exhibition are a result of gifts to the museum. A case in point are two prints by Wesaam Al-Badry, an Iraqi photographer whose family sought refuge in America after the Gulf War. His large-scale archival pigment prints depict Muslim women wearing repurposed niqabs that feature couture scarves from Hermès and Chanel. They pose the question: “Would these women be better accepted outside of Iraq if their garb was from fashion houses?” Palo Alto collectors Pamela and David Hornik gifted these prints to the Cantor, after initially viewing them at the de Young Museum and purchasing them.


“How can you not be drawn to Wesaam Al-Badry’s colorful and evocative images juxtaposing traditional Muslim garb with iconic fashion brands? The images are as gorgeous as they are thought-provoking,” says Pamela Hornik.


As for why he and his wife donated the prints, David Hornik explains, “The Cantor is a teaching museum and that is the joy of it,” he says, adding that he sometimes volunteers at the front desk and relishes seeing groups of visiting elementary school children and Stanford students who’ve biked over to meet a professor. “Every so often, I see a piece of art that I think will really excite or engage the students, and that is the work I offer to the museum.”


While a print collection requires a bit more consideration, in terms of conservation and preservation (light and humidity must be constantly monitored and works can only be displayed for limited time periods), Mitchell anticipates that collecting in this area will continue.


“A print collection is never done,” she explains. “The Cantor has always had a strong print collection at its core, and we will continue to engage with the past while seeking relevant responses to our diverse and complicated contemporary world. We want students, faculty, researchers and visitors to be able to see themselves and learn about others through our collection, and so collection building is a never-ending process.”