Highlights of Yesterday’s Pieces: A selected guide to the RISD Museum collection

Mummy of Nesmin, 170-30 BCE: It rest among us! The mummy Nesmin is the heart and soul of the museum’s collection. On display since 1938, this once high-priest is now the sun around which all other works inside the museum revolve. Nesmin has been the subject of debate about whether it is improper to showcase human remains.    

Coffin of Nesmin, 170-30 BCE: Now in his coffin, Nesmin can rest comfortably, at ease, silent in the dark. This dead celebrity’s sarcophagus is as impressive as the man inside. The ornate nature of intricately gridlocked paragraphs of hieroglyphics scrolled along its surface ensures Nesmin safe travels to the afterlife. 

Portrait of George Washington, Gilbert Stuart, 1805: If not careful, one would certainly pass by this masterpiece tucked away in a dim corner of the 18th and 19th Century American Galleries of the museum. This painting of the first president, by native son Gilbert Stuart, needs to be brought out of timeout and displayed properly on a wall where the viewer does not have to wrestle with a blinding smudge of light from the opposite wall that streaks down Washington’s stoic face. Is that any way to treat the president?

Still Life, Georges Braque, 1918: Perhaps living in the shadow of Picasso, many overlook the impact that Braque contributed to the history of art. This work is a true treasure of the museum and never ceases to surprise me every time I see it.

Magic Lantern, Jackson Pollock, 1947: Once again we’re backed into a corner. But this time, it’s a bit weird. In one of the corners of the Modern Contemporary is where the Pollock hangs. Given to the museum by historical collector and arts advocate Peggy Guggenheim, Magic Lantern is located on the back/front side of a small protruding wall, attached to one of two large obstructing units in the middle of the room. On its tiny wall, I find myself waiting in line to see Lantern with dispenser ticket in hand, peeking behind others who also want to pinpoint the carpet tacks imbedded in the master’s painting. In the same room, I was really upset to see Roy Lichtenstein’s Pyramids II had vanished. It was replaced by a small neon painting with a photograph of actor Matt Dillon adhered to its surface titled Abstract Matt 2.   

Abstracted Matt 2, Richard Hawkins, 2014: I’m going to take a detour here to take about this piece because after looking at it and thinking about it, I ended up liking what it was doing and how radical and brave the move was to take away the Lichtenstein and replace it with what people would say, “With that!” Apparently from a larger body of work, this one piece seems to be taken from a larger shrine devoted to the actor and to the artist’s obsession. It shows the repurposing of images and speaks volumes on how we all look at hundreds of images a day and transform them to fit our lives and the times in which we live. It is a piece right from yesterday, made for today. It will hold up well as the culture becomes more visual than literal. I like the work.

Nancy Selvage, Alice Neel, 1967: Don’t miss this one! It’s the most powerful portrait in the collection. The sitter, artist Nancy Selvage, is painted by the brave and bold Alice Neel who, during her time, did not let the irascible style that was abstract expressionism distract her sharp-cutting vision. Neel captures her subjects with fierce lines that counter any prettying or cosmetic enhancements. Her subjects are as real on the canvas as they are, or once were, in life. Specifically, Nancy’s gaze is patient and hungry, ever penetrating, and dispels the viewer from catching her off guard. She is direct, in the moment, and watching. 

Untitled (Grey Plank), John McCracken, 1978: With its surfboard polish, Grey Plank interacts with us in time and space. It is quiet and fully present to the point of being invisible — simple shape and simple color, and leaning up against the wall. That’s all it is, and that’s all it needs to be. Side note: Please excuse the rock with hair.

Patchwork suit (women’s), Alexander McQueen, 2004: Make sure to also look for McQueen’sButterfly-print dress. If you don’t see it, ask about it.

Exclamation Point, Richard Artschwager, 1980: !

View of Auvers-sur-Oise, Vincent van Gogh, 1890: Although small in size, Auvers is right up there with as much turmoil and angst as the best van Goghs. I consider this work a bridge-piece in van Gogh’s career. The swirling clouds above the bell tower show where van Gogh was with The Starry Night, and the yellow wheat fields below show where he ends up with Wheatfield with Crows.   

Hugnet Frères Fireplace Surround, 1900: The Nouveau fireplace is simple and elegant in its design, but not in the best place. This majestic piece can be found tucked beneath a stairwell. Its plaque indicates that in its original setting, it was accompanied by matching cabinets. The museum should try to locate the cabinets and display them rightfully alongside the Hugnet, or at least have replicas made.  

Repose, Edouard Manet, 1871: Maybe as scandalous as John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, this portrait of artist Berthe Morisor was shamed due to the sitter’s nonchalant pose and informal attire of the day. Hey, at least she sits with her legs crossed.    

Mountaineers Attacked by Bears, Henri Victor Gabriel Le Fauconnier, 1910-1912: As the title suggests, yes, the men in the painting are being attacked by bears, you just have to look. Within the complexity of the cubist style, the work commands viewers to look closely to decipher the tragic events unfolding. This piece is wonderful and commands an entire wall.

Sarcophagus, Roman, 2nd Century CE: Derived from Homer’s 22nd book of the Iliad, at the height of the Trojan War, Achilles, pushing out from the marble, can be seen dragging the body of Hector, the eldest son of King Priam, for 12 days before handing his corpse over to the enemy. Finally pieced back together, a puzzle containing over one hundred fragments, the sarcophagus found its permenant occupancy at the museum in 1921. 

The Enternal Presence (An Homage to Alejandro Garcia), Wifredo Lam, 1944: This piece is great. It’s erotic and savage, strange and reptilian, and something not to be missed. Enternal Presence, painted seven years after Picasso’s 1937 war masterpiece Guernica, seems to take strong compositional cues and rhythms from the cubist master, but with a voice all its own, and stands apart from any shadows cast upon it. The museum should be very proud to have this piece. 

Portrait of Antoine-Georges-François de Chabaud-Latour and His Family, Jacques-Luc Barbier-Walbonne, 1806: In this impressively large-scale portrait, Antoine is gesturing to a monument attributed to his dead father. On closer inspection, what Antoine is really gesturing to is the vast emptiness of the Grand Gallery’s Benjamin Moore Evening Dove blue and where all the other paintings once hung. His son, overcome by boredom, gazes into the walls, seeing a future overcast by blue.

Saint Peter, French (Burgundy region), 1106 – 1112: The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century is the best room in the house, and its collection is rich with pieces of its time. Walking out from the Grand Gallery’s blueness, and passing under the Romanesque Portal of 1150, guests are presented with the glory of an oak Crucified Christ that towers like Goliath, and giant Head of Christ or Saint as Oz, the great and terrible, with Saint Peter standing guard to its right. Medieval music echoes off the walls, truly immersing one back in time.

Perseus and Andromeda, Giuseppe Cesari, 1592: This paintings pops, calls out, and will not stand to be ignored. The eye does a double-take and is hooked. Found in the European Galleries, it is another piece that goes to the corner.

Forms (Nature Morte), Patrick Henry Bruce, 1923-1924: It’s odd and unfinished.

Pair of Stained-glass Windows (Darwin D. Martin House, Buffalo), Frank Lloyd Wright, 1904: With his vison beyond the building blocks of America, Wright’s craft exceeded not only to the buildings we live in, but the objects that make a house a home. Tables, rugs, spoons, lights and clothing were all transformed to the architect’s liking. His windows of stained interlocking glass can be best described as a Mondrian in light.    

Library Table, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1911: The table is a great example of Mr. Wright’s forthright vision for America, and it is nestled nicely underneath his Pair of Stained-glass Windows. The table’s strong, flat, rectangular surface is strongly modeled after the mid-western planes, and its cabinet tower, that of prairie house flues. Mr. Wright not only built America, he also laid the foundation for a new stylistic language.

For RISD Rejoice!…, Jenny Holzer, 2007: Outside the Benefit Street entrance, it is better to sit on the bench than it is to sit inside Café Pearl. The bench is right by the door and voices a dense paragraph, etched with a cryptic message, biblical in modern times and haunting. The granite bench is elevated on a series of platform steps and overlooks the broken ellipses of Mirth by Jonathan Bonner that scatters across a grass court. Rejoice!

Santa Claus, William Holbrook Beard, ca. 1862: (IN STORAGE) Found on the website and not on the walls of the museum, Holbrook’s depiction of jolly old Saint Nicolas shows the gift-giver piloted by his 12 reindeer, all harnessed with jingling silver bells. They ride over ghetto rooftops, enveloped by the coal burning smoke of chimneys. With Santa masked in the mystery of folklore, so is the painting from public view.       

Child’s Boots, Unknown Artist, American,  early 1900s: (IN STORAGE) Another piece not on view that should be, no question. These black and white, button-up, leather boots give great sensibility to a high point of American fashion at the turn of the century and social status of its time. These little boots tap into a revolutionary style independent from any European ties. 

Gilded Frost and Jet Chandelier, Dale Chihuly, 2008: A cephalopod of undulating glass tentacles ready to climb through the ceiling or shoot out ink. This piece hangs illuminated in front of a large window across from the room where Nesmin the Mummy rests.

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