Robert Selden Duncanson was the first African American artist to gain national and international fame. James Van Der Zee became one of the most important photographers in the first half of the twentieth century documenting the lives of African Americans in the Berkshires and New York City. Sam Gilliam was the first artist to take paintings off the stretcher. And Maren Hassinger was among the women artists combining sculpture and movement and experimenting with non-traditional materials during the 1970s feminist movement. The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is adding works to its collection by each of these important contributors to American art. These acquisitions are made possible by a major monetary gift from Clarence Otis, Williams class of 1977, and his wife Jacqui Bradley (Parent of class of 2015). The Otis Family Acquisition Trust is earmarked exclusively for acquiring works of art by African American artists.
“While at Williams, I took full advantage of its commitment to the visual arts. My studio art and art history classes and time exploring the college’s museum of art are among my most treasured experiences and fueled what has been a lifelong passion. Jacqui and I have been particularly avid collectors of works by African Americans and by other artists of the African diaspora. We applaud the college’s focus on this too-often overlooked body of work as it continues to deepen and expand its visual arts programming. And we’re delighted to help,” said Clarence Otis. Otis is a trustee of the college and the former CEO of Darden Restaurants. At Williams he majored in economics and political science. Soon after Otis and Bradley were married they began collecting art. After seeing an exhibition of prints from the Bob Blackburn Printmakers Workshop at the Associated Collective of Black Artists in Westchester County, they bought their first works. Their collection currently consists of more than 120 pieces by African-American artists and artists from the African diaspora.
Over the last year and a half the Otis gift has supported four pivotal acquisitions of works of painting, sculpture, and photography spanning the mid-19th century to the 1970s. The first is an oil painting by Robert Selden Duncanson (1821–1872) of the Hudson River School. Duncanson traveled and exhibited widely throughout North America and Europe. Title Unknown [Meeting by the River], 1864, was painted during the Civil War when the artist chose to reside in Canada. Currently on view in The Anxiety of Influence, it depicts a domesticated landscape with a vast wilderness in the distance and includes the presence of human figures, showing harmony between man and nature.
In February 2018 WCMA will debut Situation VI–Pisces 4, c. 1972 by renowned artist Sam Gilliam (b. 1933). For over sixty years, Gilliam’s meticulous attention to line, color, and material has allowed him to dispense with traditional understandings of painting, sculpture, and performance to test the very limits of form. Situation VI–Pisces 4 is a signature drape work of gigantic scale. It’s painted with synthetic polymer paint on polypropylene fabric, which settles into a pleated arrangement of folded material. With no specific instruction for installation, each time the work is displayed is like a unique, site-specific performance. Gilliam earned a place in art history when he deliberately draped canvases, creating fluid, sculptural objects out of two-dimensional paintings. A spring semester exhibition, curated by WCMA Assistant Curator, Horace Ballard, will place the Gilliam in conversation with other works from the collection around the hermeneutic and interpretive lens of suspension.
Walking, 1978, is comprised of 148 two-foot-high bundles of wire-rope strands and is a signature installation work by multimedia artist Maren Hassinger (b. 1947). Displayed directly on the gallery floor, the bundles are static, but the play of light and shadow on the spindly forms enliven them in a shared engagement between the space and the visitor, evincing the artist’s background in movement and performance. Hassinger will come to campus to lead a participatory installation of Walking in the WCMA Rotunda on March 9th. This performative action will kick off the symposium, “Dance/Performance in Interdisciplinary Perspective” organized by the Williams Dance Department on March 9 and 10, 2018.
The most recent Otis fund acquisition is a portfolio of eighteen photographs by James Van Der Zee (1886–1983). Born in Lenox, MA in 1886, Van Der Zee began taking and developing photos in his teens moving to New York in 1905. During the 1920s and ’30s he was instrumental in documenting the Harlem Renaissance. He covered a range of subjects and genres, from public events to elaborately staged studio portraits of both ordinary clients as well as celebrities. The portfolio, printed in 1974 under the supervision of Van Der Zee demonstrates the entire range of work created throughout his career, including early photographs of his family in Lenox that give insight into African American life in the Berkshires at the turn of the twentieth century.
“This truly game-changing gift by Clarence Otis and Jacqui Bradley has made it possible for us to significantly augment the museum’s holdings in this critical area, one to which WCMA has had a longstanding commitment, both in our collecting priorities and exhibitions and programs,” said WCMA Interim Director Lisa Dorin. “We are deeply grateful that our goals in highlighting and supporting work by black artists so closely aligned with those of the Otis family. These four major acquisitions by true innovators in American art can now join works by Kara Walker, Carrie Mae-Weems, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Lorraine O’Grady, Mel Edwards, Barkley Hendricks, and others to be studied, contemplated, and enjoyed by students, faculty, and the public in a sustained way.”