by Sarah Osborne Bender
As a native of Richmond, I attended the ARLIS DC-MD-VA chapter meeting at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on November 5, 2010 with great anticipation. The first thing I noticed about the newly rebuilt, reinstalled, and renovated institution was how beautifully the city’s stately Boulevard extended the museum’s interior space through a seemingly permeable glass wall. The Ryan McGinness mural Art History is not Linear (VMFA), hanging high in the atrium, made me feel like part of the in-crowd as I decoded hidden icons from the collection’s best-loved works layered in his graffiti wallpaper. Escorted by a docent with a true Richmond accent, our tour group made its way up in to new galleries; light-filled, open spaces connected to the older structure by floating bridges. This was the museum that introduced me to art. Now I stood in front of one of the museum’s new acquisitions; a vast, busy space with decorations dangling, frozen in mid-air, as if a tablecloth had just been yanked out from under everything in the universe. Appropriately, in the museum where I had my experiences of art, I was seeing my first Julie Merehtu (Stadia III) in person.
Visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as a child, I found the experience to be purely sensory: shape, color, beauty, shock. Visits were occasional and special, for school trips or on Saturdays, but the details are vivid and fresh memories. I clearly remember the dark velvety room that held a spotlit and bejeweled Fabergé dandelion in a vase of crystal water as well as an actual, and terrifying, Egyptian mummy in a recreated tomb. I remember peering over the edge of a dark vitrine and looking down, down, down to a small, swaddled body. A Stuart Davis painting that looked to me like a panel from a comic book, like a “Kapow!” And a funny memory of lunch with a friend’s grandmother in the exclusive member’s dining room, featuring mysterious food. (“It’s called hearts of palm, dear. Try it.” Hearts?!)
My developing teenage obsession with Andy Warhol, New York, and pop culture conveniently aligned with the 1985 opening of the VMFA’s West Wing. I was dropped off for afternoons at the museum with friends and once I could drive, it was one of the first places I took myself. The new contemporary art galleries of the Sydney and Francis Lewis collection (located across from the Paul Mellon sporting arts, which were definitely not on my teenage radar) were white, light filled, and in some areas, soaring. At this age, my concept of the whole museum was reduced to these rooms. It was still all about shape, color, beauty, and shock, but accompanied by a real sense of wonder and awe. I stood before Triple Elvis as if I were standing in front of the pelvis-shaker himself, but Warhol was the real subject of my celebrity sighting. I walked around and around John Chamberlain’s Johnny Bird, a top-heavy construction of rusted metal parts and I wondered, “How could he make that stand up?” The bodies — fleshy, prone, and discomfiting— in works by George Segal, Mary Frank, and Phillip Pearlstein made strong impressions. And speaking of fleshy, the raw-meat look of Phillip Guston’s The Desert, with its huge, veiny eye, made me stare and look away in turns. Looking away, and up, Anselm Keifer’s ominous Landscape with Wings soared high on a wall looking like a vast, droughted plain, brittle, crunchy and apocalyptic. Nearby, Susan Rothenberg’s huge Blue Head with floating hand and blue face always seemed mystical to me, the shapes reading like code.
I took my first real art class at the museum, a pastel class taught on Thursday evenings in a neighboring building. I had been accepted to a fine arts university program my senior year of high school and started to panic that I’d only ever picked up a camera. My mom took action and somehow wrangled me a spot in one of the museum’s adult education art classes. John Morgan was my first drawing teacher and I’m still proud of the drawings of flowers and nudes I made then. It was the first time I’d ever used charcoal or smelled a greasy oil stick. The museum was one of the only places I was allowed to drive to on school nights. I was the youngest in class by decades, surrounded by charming and skilled retirees who brought cassettes of favorite classical recordings to listen to while we worked. I entered a nude drawing from that class in an art contest at my high school and it hung in the school’s front hall with a second place ribbon on it, causing a bit of a scandal.
I frequented the museum as an art student at Virginia Commonwealth University, visiting works mentioned by my professors. I puzzled over Donald Judd’s cubes, Ad Reinhardt’s reds on reds, and coveted Lucas Samaras’s mixed media treasure boxes. The rest of the museum started opening up to me as well, thanks to art history classes. Three Scenes from the Life of Buddha was a fascinating example of bas relief, all of those curiously angular faces leaning out of the dark, deeply carved background to observe the central holy figure. And I was drawn to other religious works like the German St. Gregory altarpiece figure with his peculiar s-shaped posture, whose face always looked worried to me. Across from the altarpiece was a reliquary of St. Barbara, looking strong and beautiful, who was gazed upon by a stooped and shamed Adam and Eve in a nearby stained glass window.
After I moved out of Richmond and started working in museums, my perspectives on art, exhibitions, and collecting changed. Other museums became my “home museum,” including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, much to my delight. And the VMFA closed for a major building project, demolishing spaces, sending works on the road, and building, building, building. The museum’s theater where my Dad had worked when he was in high school was torn down, as well as the building where I took my drawing class. The sunken sculpture court with its crashing fountain, the subject of some of the first photographs I ever printed myself, was gone. On visits to Richmond with my husband, we took in a few of the galleries open during the expansion, but the experience was certainly limited and not very familiar.
Returning to the VMFA last month as an art museum professional, I can say that my experience of the institution, the space, and the collection was very different from my visits of the past. I met curators responsible for the items I held so dear. By listening to them, my own organic knowledge of the collections was framed for the first time in an historical context by their scholarship and research. I was able to step away from the objects and see them as part of a museum and not just elements of my own artistic coming of age. I learned that the sculpture of the Buddha that had interested me as a student was part of one of the largest collections of South Asian art in the country, curiously located in my southern hometown. Although the early American paintings had not interested me as a teen, as an adult I found them to be fascinating examples of naive art, filled with period costume in wonderful colors and solid bodies of odd proportions. The decorative art collection, which I foolishly dismissed as “furniture” when I was younger, left me whispering, “Wow,” as I leaned in with a slack jaw for a closer look at lines, materials, inlays. The scale, the detail, the forms and materials of Tiffany, Guimard, Gallé, and Hoffmann were transporting in their romance and luxury.
As a native of Richmond, I feel such pride that the VMFA finally has the profile it deserves. Not even a week after my visit, I learned that photographer Sally Mann, a fellow Virginian and early inspiration to me as a photographer, would be speaking at the museum in relation to her first exhibition there. Imagining Mann speaking at my “home museum” about photography, artistic process, and her life as an artist, made a wonderful full circle for me.