“Paintings From Midwestern University Collections”

Wildenstein Gallery

“Paintings from Midwestern University Collections” is an exhibition of 76 canvases organized by the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, an organization formed by the Big Ten universities—plus Chicago—which refers to itself as a “consortium” engaged in scientific and cultural cooperation. The show appeared at Wildenstein’s through October and now begins a tour of the member campuses that will end in the spring. The paintings, which vary widely in quality, date from the 17th to the 20th centuries and belong to the respective universities.

I was drawn to the exhibition partly because I am interested in the general problem of provincialism in post-Renaissance art: the question of access to metropolitan developments, of how delayed or diluted stylistic information, exposure to works of less than paradigmatic quality, and exclusive familiarity with inferior practitioners, all combine with an inertia of conservatism that is both positive (involving loyalty to local tradition) and negative (involving a suspicion of metropolitan culture). This issue goes back several centuries in the West, so that some of the inferior paintings now shown here were inferior in their own day for similar reasons, and now find permanent homes in the boondocks. It goes back at least to the spread of the Renaissance into France, where the persistence of Late Gothic attitudes combined with modern Italian impulses often weakened by relay—to produce a synthesis that was ironically fully contemporary in its Mannerist features (rather than simply out-of-it Renaissance). Moreover, when French artists came in the most hip fashion to turn to ancient art for models, especially in architecture they often turned to works that were already provincial—Roman provincial.

Similar problems arise in British art and, later, when London itself became a metropolitan center, in the colonially dependent arts of Ireland, America, and still remoter regions. Needless to say, the whole matter is of direct pertinence to any discussion of regionalism and provincialism in modern American art, especially since the displacement of Paris by New York as the world’s artistic navel.

These matters are also immediately relevant because what this exhibition amounted to in New York was evidence of what is available to nonmetropolitan artists and students. Most of these paintings are by no means news, but they are the best available stimuli for thousands of hardly underprivileged people in the Midwest.

The distribution of Kress Collection paintings to provincial museums some years ago compares interestingly with this group of paintings with regard to provincialism. As far as I am aware, the worse a Kress picture was, the further from Washington (and the Northeast) it got sent. It is perfectly natural that better works by greater artists should have the readiest access to the largest public, even if the means by which the selection takes effect are financial. But an equally natural result of the Kress system is that the art student in the provinces necessarily has inferior material to work with, whatever the minimum standard of the parent collection. His sense of, say, the 16th century, rests on less vital—and, chances are, on less initially metropolitan—examples than that of a student in New York or Boston or even Chicago. The group of paintings that confronts us is more uneven in quality than that, mostly thanks to the accidents of private generosity. The purchase of the worst modern painting here, Joseph Shannon’s Swiftly, 1971, was supported by a federal grant to Michigan State—which, on the other hand, purchased a solid Zurbarán Vision of St. Anthony of Padua, c. 1630, with private help.

Joseph Masheck