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Six Years On, Bechtler Reimagines Its Collection

by Phillip Larrimore

October 2, 2016

Photo credits: (top) Miguel Berrocal's "Romeo and Juliet," © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris; (middle) Pol Mara's "Night Train," © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SOFAM, Brussels; (bottom) Victor Vaserely's "Tridem K," © 2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The Bechtler Collection, which opened six years ago, is presently reframing  its holdings in a show entitled, “The Bechtler Collection: Relaunched and Rediscovered." The title of the show (it runs through April 2017) hints strongly at a need for rebooting in an institution which—in terms of the life span of a museum—is still very new. This newness  cannot be over-emphasized, for it takes years for a museum to develop a mission and direction, just as it is the work of generations  for a culture to develop.  If a sense of tentativeness  remains over the Mint Museum, the Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, and the Bechtler, this is to be expected.

Each of these museums opened in the depth of the recession, when orchestras were folding, and foundations were cutting their funding.  It undoubtedly took skill to steer them through such times. The Bechtler, moreover, in a tragic turn of events, lost its chief curator, Michael Godfrey, who died unexpectedly a few months after the collection opened. No one knew the collection better than he; it was  like a monastery losing its abbot or lama.

As an institution, the Bechtler has done rather well in soldiering on despite this handicap, and a few of its shows—such as an  overview of Alberto Giacometti’s career—have been distinguished.This exhibition will feature approximately 158 works from the museum's permanent collection, 60 of which have not yet been shown in Charlotte or anywhere else in the U.S.  An overriding  concern for the Bechtler collection is the art historical status of the holdings, which chiefly consists of European modernist works from a time when the train track of history was largely co-opted by Americans. In retrospect, the purported irrelevance of these European modernist works can be seen as the result of a combination of aesthetic dogmatism and post-war American triumphalism. But the lifework of a great many artists in the Bechtler collection was sidelined and remains so, though the ideological scaffolding of the arguments against them have collapsed.

With “Relaunched and Rediscovered,” then, the Bechtler is taking its chances on some of the lesser-known artists in its collection, and highlighting artists whose work has been railroaded from the general art historical narrative, which is a good thing.  It is very much in league with  an increasingly global vantage of art history, which is aware of the Egyptian surrealists or the Brazilian kinetic sculptors  innovating far from the main thoroughfares of the art market. The individual artists in the Bechtler collection will have to be re-evaluated on a case by case basis—Is Max Bill a purist or merely sterile? What does Hartung tell us about the relationship of painting to calligraphy In the post-war period?—but our view of history can only be richer for it. 

“Relaunched and Rediscovered” supplies a blueprint for how this might be done. The most remarkable thing about this show, however, for me  was the inclusion of several regional artists  collected by Andreas Bechtler.  How well they sat on the walls next to their better known European coevals  was a compliment to them, to the curator (Dr. Jennifer Sudul Edwards), to the installation, and to the “eye” of  Andreas Bechtler.  Indeed, the largest, most rebarbative, and dare I say, the greatest painting in the entire show was  “Consuming Cause” (1989 ) by Maud Gatewood.

Gatewood is an artist whose stature has increased for me with each painting of hers that I have seen. The drawing, the application of paint, the composition of her paintings have a quality of awkward truth  piled upon awkward truth until awkward truth becomes grace.  There is nothing mellifluous or artisanal about her.  "Common Cause” shows a group of nudes fallen like soldiers at war, becoming as gray as bull tallow.  An American flag hangs behind them. They are at once broken—some crying for help or in outrage—and monumental.  It was done during the peak of the AIDS crisis, but has been felt to be about the  Holocaust, because its subject is the purposeless waste of human life.  It is Gatewood’s truthful awkwardness that keeps it from being a pronunciamento.  There is something of Balthus in Gatewood’s drawing of the human figure—but also Masaccio.  And it may be the nearest thing that the Bechtler collection has to the Douanier Rousseau’s  terrifying "La Guerre" or Picasso’s "Guernica."

It  gave weight to “Relaunched and Rediscovered,” and showed what the Bechtler at its best can do.

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Tags: modern art, sculpture, Alberto Giacometti, Michael Godfrey, Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Max Bill, Egyptian surrealists, Maud Gatewood

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