The contemporary art world is a complex organism comprised of interdependent parts. Artists, of course, form the nucleus. Galleries and museums offer public exposure and preservation. Critical writers decode, document, and provide academic discourse. Government and other funding sources supply sustenance.
Often overlooked are the art collectors, particularly those legions of modest but determined collectors who focus on the work of a particular geographic region or a particular type of art. Collectors serve as repositories of cultural memory. Serious collectors function as self-directed archivists. The quandary here is that these clandestine collections—snapshots of a particular place and time—tend to be hidden from the public’s eye, usually glimpsed only by the collector’s friends.
Gerald Mead, himself an artist, has collected over 550 artworks, and he’s discovered a solution to this collector’s conundrum. Prompted initially by Hallwalls curator John Massier, who was planning a series of exhibitions culled from private collections called Invisible Archives, Mead began publicly exhibiting selections from his collection at various art venues around town. Seventeen shows later comes Public/Private: Pairings with Works from the Gerald Mead Collection, now on view at the Castellani Museum. This novel exhibition couples works from Mead’s collection with selections by the same artists owned by the Castellani. The majority of the artists included have some connection to WNY, even if they only paused here on the way to New York City. Some were born in the region, some studied here, and a number spent most or all of their lives here. Virtually all of the selected work are smallish, as one might expect when building a show around a collection that is ordinarily housed in an apartment.
It won’t surprise those familiar with the region’s artistic heritage that many of the artists in the show have gone on to national or international fame: Charles Burchfield, Robert Longo, Les Krims, Robert Mangold, Ad Reinhardt, John Pfahl, Joseph Piccillo, and Cindy Sherman are among the famous or near-famous names. Also not surprising, the caliber of all the work—regardless of the artist’s renown—is consistently high. The oldest is an 1887 copper etching by Amos W. Sangster from Mead’s collection titled A Glimpse of the Rapids above American Falls, part of a print series Sangster made along the entire Niagara River. It’s paired with Tree Clump and Rapids from Three Sisters Island, from a portfolio of 1985 photographs by John Pfahl, in which the noted photographer was commissioned to retrace Sangster’s path. The sensibilities of the two artists separated by nearly a century are remarkably similar, the big difference being the shift from the labor-intensive mechanical printing process to a photochemical one. Otherwise, both images contrast darkly clustered trees against foaming white rapids in tightly cropped compositions.
Sometimes two paired works represent a wide gap in a single artist’s career. Arnold Mesches’ aggressively sketched ink drawing of a man with a cigar from 1963 is unmistakably made by the same hand that produced the tiny Echoes #23. The economy of line and dashed-off confidence of the drawing anticipates the artist’s shorthand acrylic painting style thirty-six years later. Conversely, two photographs from Biff Henrich represent a dramatic stylistic shift from a 1979 work, to his oft-reprinted 2001 ceiling detail photograph of the Darwin Martin House. In the former, the twenty-six-year-old creates a pre-Photoshop photo collage with an unruly antiaesthetic attitude, while the newer work reflects stylish restraint and a refined design-school composition: a career path traced in two abrupt steps.
Elsewhere a handsized modernist steel sculpture by Albert Paley owned by Mead sits aside an identical work owned by the museum. The label on the museum’s Paley notes paradoxically that it was donated by Mead. This is something of a clunk-on-the-head statement on the role collectors play in museum acquisitions. There are several other less blatant pairings of Mead’s works with ones he donated, and the exhibition includes numerous works bestowed by other WNY collectors. This is led by Armand and Eleanor Castellani and the Castellani family, whose donations form the core of the museum’s collection.
Herein lies a glimmer of insight: Private collections reflect the choices of a single individual, in contrast to museums which are subject to changing curatorial vision, funding availability, and acquisition-committee oversight. Looking back, Castellani’s donations to the museum that bears his name paint a portrait of the man, his interests, and the time and place he lived. During a stroll through the exhibition, Mead reflects on the role Castellani—the collector and the institution—played in his development: "The Castellani’s collection rotated fairly frequently, so I saw John Pfahl’s work here, I saw Charlie Clough’s work, Bonnie Gordon’s work, all purchased by Armand; that part of my education as an artist and collector was provided through frequent visits to the museum."
Noting the many artists whose reputations have expanded since Mead purchased their work, it’s tempting to wonder if the collector has some strategy for identifying up-and-coming art stars. "If you collect just for the pure love of what you think is good, and these people are passing through the area, just by happenstance down the road some of the artists will go on to international success." Mead stresses another advantage to collecting the work associated with this region. "They are artists that I can connect with. For instance, in addition to having one of Biff Henrich’s photographs, I have the ability to know him. I can have more of an ownership and connection to that artist."
Other highlights from the show include The Me Block by Nancy Dwyer, a 13-square-inch cube of polished mahogany cut to form the letter M when viewed from one direction, and the letter E from another. Dwyer is known for her seductive sculptural renditions of words, and The Me Block is so warmly hued and painstakingly finished, it’s like finely crafted handrubbed furniture that only incidentally shouts an egotistical message. Mead’s work prevails in this faceoff, as Dwyer’s earlier serigraph from the Castellani collection is interesting but comparatively unremarkable.
Two widely divergent works by Ellen Carey stand out for their visual panache. Mead’s photograph is a bit slicker, a negative Self Portrait of the artist’s head and shoulders superimposed with moiré patterns; call it retro sixties pop psychedelia. The earlier Leaning into the White has a down-and-dirty handmade quality that better suits my tastes. I’d concede this one to the museum. Mead’s Burchfield watercolor, Maple Catching Glow of Lightning (1916), captures the artist at his modernist best. The museum’s bold Reveille-First Call (Camp Jackson SC) (1918) is an excellent drawing, though not as balls-to-the-wall audacious as Mead’s. Both works just miss the artist’s self-described 1917 "golden year," but Mead’s work seems to represent him just hitting his stride.
Mead and curator Michael J. Beam have assembled a visually diverse, conceptually unified exhibition lovingly spotlighting the symbiotic relationship that binds artists, museums, and collectors.