Last Sunday, the Philbrook Museum of Art introduced highlights from the Eugene B. Adkins Collection of art. On display in the Upper LaFortune Mezzanine Gallery, the Adkins Collection is widely considered one of the finest collections of Native American and Southwestern art ever assembled by a private collector.
Valued at approximately $50 million, the Adkins Collection includes more than 3,500 pieces. This includes 1100 two-dimensional works, 370 pieces of pottery, over 1,600 examples of jewelry and silver work, and nearly 250 pieces of other Native arts like basketry. This exhibit is like the housewarming party of one half of the collection's new home. The second home will be the Eugene Brady Adkins Collection and Study Center in the Mathews Building in the heart of the Brady District. This will be a place to focus on the research and exhibition of Native American and southwestern art.
It's easy to dismiss southwestern art. The unfortunate label conjures images of dusty landscapes, pueblo buildings and sunsets. What's great about the Adkins collection is the exceptional quality of the works presented.
Christina E. Burke, curator of Native American and Non-Western Art is responsible for this. She has been with Philbrook since August 2006. Previously, she worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in D.C.
"The Adkins Collection is impressive because of its size, diversity and quality," said Burke.
Adkins, who had a lifelong interest in the art of the Southwest, amassed this collection over the course of 40 years. He never had a home in that region of the country, but he traveled to Taos and Santa Fe frequently. He kept his entire collection in his house and in a few storage units.
The Adkins Foundation Board announced in July 2007 that Philbrook Museum of Art and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at OU had been jointly selected to receive the collection. The joint partnership by Philbrook and OU was among many proposals submitted by leading museums across the country.
"Even though it is a private collection, there are ties to Philbrook throughout the works. I am really excited that the collection will remain in Oklahoma," Burke said.
This show coincides with the Fred Jones exhibit. Randall Suffolk, Executive Director of Philbrook, stated," Such complementary projects exemplify the collaboration that is the cornerstone of the Adkins partnership."
The Adkins Collection will be on loan to Philbrook and OU. This will create an active exchange of artworks between the two institutions.
"Some of these works have been exhibited and published, but we could have never imagined the extent, or breadth of the collection. We will loan pieces of the collection to other institutions too, as Mr. Adkins did during his lifetime," added Burke.
So what's the big deal about another collection of Southwestern art? Don't we already have a museum in the hills of Gilcrease that's loaded with the stuff?
Well, the Adkins Collection on display at Philbrook features select paintings, pottery, jewelry and other types of art. Featured artists are members of the Taos Society of Artists and such Western artists like Alfred Jacob Miller and Maynard Dixon. There are also works by significant Native American artists like Maria Martinez and family, Charles Loloma and Kenneth Begay, just to drop a few names.
The Taos Society of Artists was a well-known group of accomplished painters who settled in the Southwest. They often depicted landscapes and the Native inhabitants of the area. All six founding members of the TSA are represented, as well as later members.
The paintings on display are of high quality. A piece by Joseph Henry Sharp, entitled "El Greco" seemed to be the crowd favorite. The painting is oil on canvas. A Native American man sits on the right side of the picture plane. His back towards the viewer, he looks down upon what could be a fire that emanates a mystical green-blue smoke. He shields the flame with drapery in his left hand, while in his right he holds an apparatus made of feathers. On the left is a buffalo skull, and a vessel turned on its side.
The cool green of the smoke contrasts vividly with the overall warm, red tone of the painting. Though the title of the painting is a mystery to me, I can't help but conclude that the title "El Greco" is a reference to the elongated figure of the subject.
Ernest Blumenschien's "Village in Northern New Mexico" is a small piece, yet quite powerful. Another oil work, the painting is a study of composition, perspective, light and color. The image is quite life-like, almost in an unsettling way. A snow-covered pueblo village rests comfortably along the center horizon line of the painting. Behind this are green, textured hills. In the foreground, a mass of people huddle together in a group.
The strength of this piece is definitely the effect of the sunlight on the buildings and surrounding landscape. Blumenschien seemed to really capture the fact that sunlight is not white, but comprised of all the colors of the spectrum. The white of the snow covered ground shimmers with alternating warm and cool tones. It is a strong piece.
The series of portraits by Native and non-Native artists is interesting and eye-opening. None of the subjects depicted were stereotyped Indians. These are complex people with varied facial features and costume. One work featured a woman wrapped in a red-patterned coat or shawl. It was covered in abstracted floral motifs and I instantly thought, not of "typical" Native American images, but of the luxe fabrics and overall look of chinoiserie. I think it's great and advantageous to be able to make cross-cultural references like this.
In the third dimension, the Adkins Collection offers works from the best Native potters of the twentieth century. In 1920, Maria Martinez created a stunning pot that displays a neat black on black decorative effect. Martinez and husband experimented and rediscovered how to achieve this particular effect (which had become a mystery) and became famous for it. The pot is overall a shiny, metallic black, but there are decorative elements near the mouth of the vessel that are a contrasting matte black.
Burke informed that this was accomplished by polishing or burnishing the surface of the piece before firing it.
"These ceramics are examples of traditions passed down through families and then innovated on by the younger generations," she added.
While three generations of famed Maria Martinez's work is on display, other pieces like "Polychrome Vase" by Robert Tenorio and Fannie Nampeyo's "Buffware pot with 'migration' pattern" hold their own.
Something quite curious to check out is the clay used to construct some of the Adkins vessels. They shimmer with an iridescence that at first appears to be a glaze, but Burke pointed out that these are natural clays taken from the southwest, and that these sparkling clays are highly coveted.
Also on display are photographs, watercolors, jewelry an "kachinas." A kachina is like a votive figure. They represent religious deities and were used to teach children about various spirits and their supernatural abilities.
The kachinas on display in the Adkins Collection come from the '60s and are non-working reproductions of the kachinas of old. These are quite colorful and remind me of the pageantry of African masks and ceremonies.
"We want these pieces to be seen and enjoyed by the public. We have three future plans concerning the future of the collection. The first is to exhibit as much as possible. The second plan is to publish as much of the art as possible with the help of the OU press. The third is to utilize the new Adkins' Collection and Study Center as a visible storage space so people may come see works not on exhibit."
Burke's love for her work was infections. About the collection, she concluded, "Being a curator is like being a detective. You have to put together clues and make connections. These pieces are loaded with stories. I don't write fiction!"
The Philbrook Museum of Art, at 2727 South Rockford Road, is open 10am to 5pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and from 10am to 8pm on Thursday. Museum admission is $7.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors and students with I.D., free for members and youth 12 and under with accompanying adult. Entrance to the museum is free on the second Saturday of each month. For more info, call (918)749-7941 or visit www.philbrook.org.
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