A Material Legacy
Nancy Nasher and David Haemisegger—both alumni of Princeton’s Class of 1976—have been collecting contemporary art since 2007. Highlights of their collection are now on view in A Material Legacy, which reveals the range of their aesthetic and cultural interests—varying from abstract to figurative, gestural to geometric, minimal to extravagant—while demonstrating that no single visual idiom dictates the output of contemporary artists.
In covering this range of contemporary art making, the exhibition also highlights how artists—dating back to the avant-garde which emerged more than one hundred years ago, the Renaissance, and even antiquity—have been continuously fascinated by the potential of raw materials and how disparate artistic practices can share similar creative strategies. Artists of our time inevitably embrace wide-ranging visual languages, yet many are investigating similar themes or concerns, responding to the conditions of our time.
For example, several artists in A Material Legacy turn toward literature and the written word for inspiration. Matthew Ritchie, known for his energetic paintings that visualize scientific theories and chart the development of human knowledge, named Link of Nature not after an empirical treatise but a line from the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton to comment on how various intellectual disciplines influence our understanding of the world. Onomatopoeic imagery of comic books provides Christian Marclay with source material for works that explore the intersection of the aural and the visual. The verses of poet Paul Celan motivated Edmund de Waal to write poems with pottery instead of words, to use porcelain as a means to tell tales of collecting, ownership, and loss. Euripides’s ancient Greek tragedy The Bacchae, which considers the way in which humans are both rational and intuitive beings, drives the narrative of Elliott Hundley’s series of the same name, of which eyes that run like leaping ﬁre (2011) is a part. In this piece, Hundley stages a personalized version of the play—complete with a curtain made from hanging threads of colored string—whose dramatic content is acted out by the interplay of found materials, light, and air rather than performers.
As you walk by eyes that run like leaping ﬁre, sequins appear to twinkle like stars and threads flutter in your wake, making you both a viewer of, and an actor in, the scene. Among the artists in A Material Legacy, Hundley is not alone in blurring the boundaries between art and audience, making our presence integral to the work and drawing our attention to the act of looking. The monumental scale of Katharina Grosse’s graffiti-like Untitled, for example, immerses its onlooker in a psychedelic vista punctuated by large abstract swaths of bold color, encouraging us to traverse an unfamiliar yet stimulating landscape. Anish Kapoor’s Full Moon, whose polished stainless-steel surface reflects and refracts, not only reproduces our likeness but turns us—and the surrounding space—on our heads, compelling us to experience the gallery anew. Reflection also intrigues David Altmejd. In Untitled 16 (Guides) (2013), he covers a sculpture, whose form is reminiscent of a human body, in mirrors. This choice of material both defines the work’s edges and provides it with camouflage, for the final statue is inescapable yet indistinguishable from us and the environment.
Notions of inclusion, in regards to race as well as space, are of great concern to many artists working today. With Life Magazine, April 19, 1968 (1995), Alfredo Jaar alters an iconic photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession—marking black mourners with black dots and white mourners with red dots—to highlight the ethnic imbalance of attendees and draw attention to the racial divide that marked this event and that plagues our nation today. Kerry James Marshall further abstracts the black body in Untitled (Blot) (2014), whose imagery is more akin to a Rorschach test than a ﬁgurative portrait. Figuration, however, is unabashedly employed by Kehinde Wiley in Naomi and Her Daughters, which reimagines a nineteenth-century painting of the same name by the British artist George Dawe. In this work, and most of his oeuvre to date, Wiley inserts contemporary black subjects into Western art historical narratives—narratives from which they have been largely excluded—to bring the past into direct confrontation with the present, arguing for a more inclusive account of history. Even as Naomi and Her Daughters draws inspiration from the neoclassical past and the old masters, it proﬀers a positive message of empowerment and connection.
A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art is organized by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in collaboration with the Princeton University Art Museum. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible with generous support from William S. Fisher, Class of 1979, and Sakurako Fisher; Christopher E. Olofson, Class of 1992; the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; Stacey Roth Goergen, Class of 1990, and Robert Goergen; Susan and John Diekman, Class of 1965; Doris Fisher; the Anne C. Sherrerd, Graduate School Class of 1987, Art Museum Fund; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; and the Sara and Joshua Slocum, Class of 1998, Art Museum Fund. Additional support has been provided by the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum.