hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture November 2016


Research center set to reopen at the Clark

New gallery space features exhibit of early photography


Tucker Bair photo/courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art InstituteBy KATE ABBOTT
Contributing writer



Graduate students and scholars-in-residence are already using the newly renovated Manton Research Center at the Clark Art Institute, but the center will have its grand reopening to the public on the weekend of Nov. 12-13, with exhibits, lectures and a performance by jazzman Arturo Sandoval. Tucker Bair photo/courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

She stands in profile with one arm lifted, pointing toward his forehead, and he closes his eyes against the light.

These are not the well-known poker faces of daguerrotypes. Their expressions are fluent, feeling, and the light touches their skin like the glow in a pre-Raphaelite painting. They look alive.
Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits surprised her contemporaries. In the mid-1800s, when photography was new, she became one of the first women to experiment with it.

To pursue photography in the early 1800s meant working half in an artist studio and half in a chemistry lab, coating plates and exposing them to light over long hours. Cameron developed a large body of work, and when she died, her photos were forgotten for nearly a century.
This month, her “Vivian and Merlin” is coming to light again in an exploration of photography’s early years.

Jay Clarke, the Manton curator of prints, drawings and photographs at the Clark Art Institute, will gather images from London to Yosemite to the Sphinx in “Photography and Discovery,” an exhibit in the new Works on Paper Gallery, one of two new spaces opening at the Clark this month, when the museum will reveal the last component of a decade-long renovation project.

Along with the auditorium and the two new galleries, the Clark’s newly redesigned Manton Research Center will offer an expanded bookshop, a quiet common space with a low-key coffee bar, and a study room where visitors may ask to see any work in the collection. Anyone in the Berkshires can come in and order a Rembrandt, Clarke said.

The Manton Center also holds the museum’s library of 270,000 books, one of the few museum libraries left in the nation with entirely open stacks.

The center will reopen Nov. 12-13 with a weekend of events, including talks with architect Annabelle Selldorf and the Clark’s new director, Olivier Meslay, who will speak about his plans for the museum’s future.

The opening-night gala, from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 12, includes a performance by Cuban-born jazz trumpeter, pianist and composer Arturo Sandoval, a 10-time Grammy winner.


Research, performances, exhibits
Graduate students and scholars-in-residence are already bringing their work into the Manton Center’s quiet, naturally lit common area, to read to read in nooks and comfortable chairs of dark wood and dove-grey wool.

“We’re returning this space to the communion of people who think about art and like to talk about it,” said Victoria Saltzman, the Clark’s director of communications.

The central gathering point is open two stories up to a skylight in a ceiling of rippling curves. On the second story, 24-foot-tall shelving units display American photographer and filmmaker Allan Sekula’s library of 15,000 books.

These are books Sekula read and used, Saltzman said -- bright, varied and gently worn with years of handling. She reveled in the messy liveliness of it all.

“These are discordant books,” she said. “It’s not a room full of leather-bound volumes. … It’s fascinating to get an artist’s entire collection of books, all the sorts of things he was influenced by -- ‘War without Heroes,’ Mexico, Sam Walton’s autobiography -- a mind trying to soak in so much.”

The expanded bookshop will carry art books, she said, but, like museum’s shop here before the renovations, it will stretch that theme across novels, biographies and children’s stories to such far-ranging material as travel writing on The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul -- a real museum based on a novel by Orhan Pamuk, a Turkish writer and winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Around the central atrium, the Manton Center building has transformed, Saltzman said. Many changes seem subtle, almost undetectable, but have involved substantial reconfiguring.
The Clark has re-balanced the acoustics in the auditorium and stripped away years of varnish on the stage to reveal the original golden-brown teak boards.

Saltzman said they have brought the building up to full compliance with state requirements for accessibility and safety. The Clark put in a new lift to the center’s auditorium, slightly leveled the pitch of the floor and added six accessible seats. To ensure enough space for free movement, all of the bookshelves in the library have been moved less than an inch farther apart, and this change throughout the room ripples outward to move whole shelves onto the floor below.

Other changes are as clear as the jazz and classical concerts, London National Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD that are returning to the auditorium.

The Manton Gallery of British Art will gather well-known works from the collection, from J.M.W. Turner’s “Rockets and Blue Lights” to John Constable’s “Malvern Hall,” Clarke said.

And the new 1,350-square-foot Eugene V. Thaw Gallery for Works on Paper will allow the museum to show works from its collection that have rarely appeared before. This new gallery is named for the art dealer, collector, scholar and author known for his collection of Old Master drawing. The Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust has given the Clark a $2 million gift to support the gallery space.


Special space for sensitive works
Works on paper are sensitive to the sun, Clarke said, so for the sake of their preservation they can only be shown for short stretches of time. With lighting and environmental controls to protect these delicate works, the new Thaw gallery will hold year-round exhibitions of prints, drawings and photographs.

To have a gallery space dedicated to these works, where she can rotate exhibits, fills Clarke with light.

She has curated “Photography and Discovery” from some 1,000 photographs in a collection of more than 6,000 prints, drawings and other works, as an exploration into the first 70 years of photography as an art form.

The show stretches back to Henry Fox Talbot, one of the earliest pioneers of photography.
Talbot invented a salted paper process, Clarke explained. He wetted ordinary paper in salt water and dried it, then coated it with silver nitrate, which created a surface that would darken slowly under light. With sunlight or a camera lens, he could form an image in time.

As Louis Daguerre was inventing the daguerrotype in France, Talbot was working with paper negatives in England. Light passing through one sheet to print on another gives his images a hazy quality, Clarke said, whereas “daguerrotypes are crisp mirror images.”

Clarke has grouped the show thematically around people, places and things. Photography helped people discover the world in a new way, she said, from armchair travel to experimental and abstracted imagery.

Early photographers carried their heavy equipment from the American West and Yosemite to the Pyramids. And they experimented with still lifes.

“The easiest way to capture images early on, with long exposure, was to be sure they didn’t move,” Clarke said.

She said the Clark’s photography collection began with her predecessor, Jim Gantz, and he and she in succession have oriented it to the museum’s permanent collection of British, French and European painting and sculpture from the 1840s to the 1920s and to the Clark’s other holdings. Over time it has expanded from well-known names, like Francis Frith in the Nile valley, to lesser-known, unconventional and significant artists.

Gertrude Kasebier, raised in the Colorado territory, developed her career in New York at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design; she photographed Lakota performers in the city, work now preserved at the National Museum of American History, and she knew and worked with leading photographers and artists of the time, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Kasebier photographed Auguste Rodin, who was internationally celebrated in her lifetime as he is today; the Clark has several of his works in the permanent collection.

“Kasebier was very independent of her husband,” Clarke said. “Photography was her way of getting away from him, in some ways. She was part of a male world -- like printmaking, photography was seen as messy, dirty, working with chemicals in a dark room.”

It was also more difficult for women to sell their work, she said. It was considered unseemly for a woman to walk up to a dealer or to hold a show of her photographs, and women could only approach collectors through friends or curators at museums.

Here, in a friendly place, their works are seeing the light again.