March 10, 2020 | By Tony Palms
Last Chance to See 100 Years, 100 Works
Through March 15
Tampa Museum of Art
I once read this quote from the comedian, Fred Allen: “A human being is nothing but a story with skin around it.”
This is a good description of Tampa Museum of Art’s exhibition The Making of a Museum: 100 Years, 100 Works, curated from the museum’s collection of over 7,000 objects. The exhibition celebrates Tampa Museum of Art’s first hundred years, 1920 – 2020 — from the roaring ‘20s to the ?? ‘20s.
Wow, time flies. Blink an eye and a century is history.
This celebratory exhibition is organized into four categories — Building a Collection, Inspired By, Soil, Sea and Sky, and Figure Forward. A very spatial and temporal telling of the museum’s story and collecting history. Here’s the beginning, these are the earliest objects, followed by this and this and these.
Before art was art. One of the first objects encountered in the Building a Collection category is a Cycladic female figurine carved in white marble, dated ca. 2300-2200 BC. Quite amazing, representing an ancient people, which may also be the beginnings of the Western culture, this elegant linear piece surviving millennia of wars, lootings, natural disasters and ownerships.
A side note, when I first moved to Tampa and visited Tampa Museum of Art (TMA), I was a bit surprised seeing the antiquities gallery, part of the museum’s permanent collection. What are these objects doing here so far from their origins? Kind of like this fantastic camel saddle in my parents’ very middle-America house in Michigan where I grew up. How did it get here? What is it doing here? Maybe it’s a metaphor that most everything is transplanted from somewhere — and somehow after some length of time, it becomes part of the local fabric, and we can’t imagine living without it.
Hours can be spent just looking and studying all the works in Building a Collection and Inspired By, both of which are interwoven within the museum’s larger permanent exhibition of antiquities. Then there is a big jump in time and space to the next two categories of Soil, Sea and Sky and Figure Forward.
Kind of like time traveling in that ‘90s TV series, Quantum Leap, to suddenly be confronted with the 20th and 21st century stuff. How does the mind reconcile being immersed in a Greek Black-Figure Skyphos drinking cup from ca. 490 BC, and other similar everyday functional objects to standing in front of Bob Rauschenberg’s 1976 Realm (Tracks), a fiberglass and dirt cast of some tire tracks, or Lorna Simpson’s 1994 III (Three Wishbones in a Wooden Box)?
. . .
Curatorially, TMA guide that transition with the category, Inspired By, where artworks from more contemporary artists are hung next to the antique objects that were the inspiration/reference. Like Theo Wujcik’s 2003 Breaking with the Past: Yvonne Jacquette. This graphite on paper portrait of the artist Yvonne Jacquette as a classical Grecian or Roman bust is hung next to the marble Roman bust, Head of Athena (Minerva), ca. 120 AD. Or in the case of the artist Betty Woodman’s Sensuous Triptych, installed in the Building a Collection category, this ceramic triptych done in 2000 stands strongly in camaraderie with the surrounding antiquities. A very smart location.
But it is still a tremendous stretch of mental exercise covering this expanse of time, geography and history — from functional, purposeful objects to a time when aesthetics itself is the objective.
Maybe we need to do that to understand our humanity.
Really, each category can be an independent exhibition in of itself. A lifetime can be devoted to the study of the human figure, as an individual or in action with others, as in Diego Rivera’s thoughtful and determined 1932 litho print, The Fruits of Labor, depicting a women with her arms full of apples passing them to the children and other relations surrounding her in the Figure Forward section.
This is where a viewer can take liberties to wander through the exhibition to find their own direction, rhythm and narratives, outside of the pilgrim’s path that TMA may or may not have intended for visitors to follow with the four categories.
If we reverse the categories, they become chapters in a sweeping story of we, the people in Figure Forward, existing on this planet in all the various landscapes of Soil, Sea, Sky, building family, society and culture in Inspired By and passing knowledge down through the ages in Building a Collection.
In our brief moment in time, we leave bits and pieces behind, even if it’s just a molecule, a small fingerprint. All those handprints in those cave paintings, that’s what we have preserved in museum collections, all those heirlooms in attics and closets. Some become touchstones. So many experiences. So many trails left of our collective existence on this landscape.
These 100 works provide a very thin slice, a glimpse of this long march of humanity.
The Making of a Museum opened in November 2019 and the last day it will be on view is Sunday, March 15. Where does the time go! A precious few days left to visit and celebrate this treasure of Tampa’s growing history, and wish Tampa Museum of Art a Happy Birthday!