A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art
Can a solid piece of metal be confused with a piece of canvas? Is a simple drawing able to rival the physical experience of a monumental sculpture? What are the material challenges artists face and overcome as they work on a monumental scale? These are among the questions the artists featured in A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art tackle as they experiment with a variety of materials, pushing both themselves and their chosen media beyond their comfort zones and simultaneously affirming and challenging the traditional primacy of painting and sculpture.
Bronze masquerades as canvas and cardboard in Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Pretty Lost Blue for My Girls, Italian Mask M30.b). By casting a spontaneously composed assemblage of discarded cardboard in bronze, the artist permanently records the dents, tears, and creases of corrugated board. He then covers the metal in splashes of brightly colored finger paint, making its three-dimensional surface rival that of an Abstract Expressionist painting.
Richard Serra, best known for constructing massive structures from industrial materials, believes that two dimensions can be as impactful as three. In Double Rift #10 (2013), Serra duplicates on paper the immersive experience of being in front of one of his large steel works. Using only black oil stick, Serra creates an immense, dense void punctured by three slivers of whiteness. Although affixed to the wall, the work engulfs its viewers in darkness, as if in a dimly lit cave.
The material impulse shared by Grotjahn, Serra, and other artists in A Material Legacy is part of a continuum of artistic experimentation begun by the avant-garde over a century ago. Pioneering artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso incorporated not only abstraction into their work but also industrial metals, manufactured objects, and other nontraditional materials. They forged new territory in which artists could freely innovate, leading the way for many artistic movements that followed, including Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. A Material Legacy, organized in cooperation with the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, invites us to consider the role of materiality—in which no choice is off-limits—in the art of the now.
Most of the work included in A Material Legacy has been produced just in the past ten years, but many of the artists are well established and have been experimenting materially throughout their careers. Famed abstract sculptor Mark di Suvero is seen here as an abstract painter. Kara Walker, best known for her life-size cut-paper silhouettes and the monumental sugar sculpture she executed in a disused Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn, has gained international recognition for her engagement with antebellum iconography as well as her exploration of the black female body. In Object Lesson in Empire Building, gestural strokes of charcoal and graphite, rather than meticulously cut paper, describe the voluptuous curves of her subject. Conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, who investigates the politics of imagery, has never pledged allegiance to one medium; rather, he chooses the material best suited for each project. Neon lights, digital projections, and photographs appear in his oeuvre. For Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, the artist manipulated a famous photograph depicting Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral procession in order to demonstrate the lack of racial diversity among the mourners.
As A Material Legacy investigates how contemporary artists are following in the footsteps of the avant-garde, it also explores a legacy of collecting and philanthropy. Collectors Nancy Nasher and David Haemisegger, who met as undergraduates at Princeton University and graduated together in 1976, inherited a passion for collecting from Nancy’s parents, the legendary sculpture collectors Ray and Patsy Nasher. As the founding benefactors of the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and the naming donors of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, Ray and Patsy assembled one of the world’s great collections of modernist sculpture and then placed it in the public trust. Now their daughter and son-in-law are continuing these traditions while largely focusing on today’s most important artists, often with works made at enormous scale. With this exhibition, Nancy and David share their collection with the public for the first time.
Both Nancy and David play important roles at the Princeton University Art Museum, where Nancy is a passionate member of the Museum’s Advisory Council. The couple recently endowed the Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, Directorship of the Art Museum, helping to assure the Museum’s leadership role and contributing to the Museum’s growth as an educational leader. Both Nancy and David also serve as volunteer leaders in numerous other arts institutions, including the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke, where A Material Legacy premiered, as well as the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Dallas Museum of Art.
A Material Legacy continues the Museum’s celebration of the collections of distinguished alumni. In 2014, the exhibition Rothko to Richter: Mark-Making in Abstract Painting from the Collection of Preston H. Haskell displayed works, lent by a longtime Museum benefactor and member of the Class of 1960, that demonstrated the evolution of process, mark-making, and abstraction in the second half of the twentieth century. In 2015, the Museum mounted Collecting Contemporary, 1960–2015: Selections from the Schorr Collection, featuring paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs acquired by Herbert Schorr, Graduate School Class of 1963, and Lenore Schorr, also long-standing Museum supporters.
A Material Legacy will be on view in the Special Exhibitions Galleries as well as Marquand Mather Court, where works from the Nasher–Haemisegger collection will be interspersed with works from the Museum’s holdings, further deepening the resonances of material exploration in some of the freshest art of our time.
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.