In the summer of 2015, the Colby Museum mounted the acclaimed exhibition Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s, the first museum survey of the painter’s formative decade and organized by Katz Curator Diana Tuite. This summer, the exhibition is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through August 6, 2017 where it has been similarly celebrated. Anne Lunder Leland Curatorial Andrew Gelfand corresponded with Mark Cole, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art and venue curator for the exhibition, about the show, its reception in Cleveland, and why Maine audiences might want to make a midwest trip very soon!
Andrew Gelfand: Congratulations on a terrific opening! How has Brand-New & Terrific: Alex Katz in the 1950s been received so far in Cleveland? What has surprised you about the response to the show?
Mark Cole: Thanks so much. It was truly a special event. I’m happy to report that the exhibition has been very well received by our audiences, whose enthusiastic word-of-mouth recommendations to family and friends continue to fuel attendance. One of the biggest surprises so far is the substantial interest the exhibition is generating from the press, both nationally and locally. Even before the show opened, there was an impressively large—and colorful—feature article in the Wall Street Journal. And our art critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer was effusive in his praise, memorably describing the works on view as “joy distilled.”
AG: What first attracted you to Brand-New & Terrific?
MC: Those of us at the Cleveland Museum of Art who review exhibition proposals were struck by the wide variety, top quality, and lasting importance of the work in the show—not to mention its considerable visual and intellectual appeal. We first learned about the exhibition back in 2014, upon receiving a letter from the Colby College Museum of Art requesting the loan of Katz’s Four People [for] their forthcoming iteration of the show. We replied favorably, all the while thinking, “This sounds like a wonderful exhibition. Might it be possible to host it as well?” And here we are, happily, three years later.
AG: We loved having Cleveland’s Four People (1953–54) at Colby when we first presented the exhibit. How do this painting and the show fit into Cleveland’s global collection and its exhibition history?
MC: That’s great to hear; indeed, we were honored to lend it to the exhibition, plus it was both illuminating and thrilling for us to see our painting in the framework of many other early paintings by the artist. The Cleveland Museum of Art has, as you say, a global collection, so it’s possible to view Katz’s creations in several different contexts made possible by these holdings—for example, alongside the work of artists who were inspirational for Katz, such as the modern master Henri Matisse, or abstract expressionist contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It’s also possible to evaluate Katz’s works as precursors to pop art, as in our paintings by Andy Warhol and James Rosenquist.
AG: The Cleveland presentation ends with a coda, looking to work that Katz would go on to create in subsequent decades, including the Cleveland Museum’s Impala (1968). Can you talk about this addition and the goals behind it?
MC: The coda refers to all of the post-1960 works by the artist in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collection. We were eager to showcase this material in order to appreciate the significant extent to which Katz’s work from the 1950s informed his subsequent career. Impala ranks among the most popular works in our holdings of contemporary art, and visitors to Brand-New & Terrific can see it afresh after encountering the artist’s earlier work.
AG: On behalf of our Maine audiences, how might you persuade our visitors who have already seen the show at Colby to make the voyage to Cleveland?
MC: Well, on a personal note, I always find it fascinating to see a given exhibition at different venues, because the varied installations invariably prompt additional insights and connections. Also because the roster of exhibited works differs somewhat here in Cleveland’s presentation, Maine audiences will encounter some objects that were added specifically for our venue, including Katz’s very first portrait of his wife and frequent muse, Ada—a work that was discovered only recently after being lost for many years. And, of course, I have to put in a plug for the Cleveland Museum of Art itself. Our slogan is “A world of great art for everyone.” And it’s true!