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Indepth Arts News:

"Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art"
2002-09-21 until 2003-02-16
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard
Cambridge, MA, USA

The Fogg Art Museum presents a major exhibition examining the collection and life of Lois Orswell, a collector with a pioneering eye and a tenacious personality who was active from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s. Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art, showcases approximately 180 works from Orswell’s collection of more than 350 European and American modernist paintings, sculptures, and drawings, as well as classical Asian, and African sculptures.

The Exhibition will feature works from the Lois Orswell Collection as a cohesive group for the first time. Orswell was a distinctive collector whose methods were unlike those of her contemporaries because she was a woman of moderate resources who lived in relative isolation from the New York art world. In spite of these impediments, she was able to build a collection of important works by artists ranging from the modernists to the abstract expressionists, including Georges Seurat, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Arshile Gorky, Alberto Giacometti, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning. After placing her collection on long-term, anonymous loan to the Fogg Art Museum around 1970, Orswell donated a number of these works over the next three decades, and bequeathed the remainder of the loaned works to the Fogg at her death in 1998.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a major group of sculptures, paintings, drawings, photography, and mixed-media works by David Smith. The Fogg's holdings of works by David Smith constitute the most important collection of his work in any public institution. Lois Orswell gave the overwhelming majority of these Smith works to the Fogg. Orswell also assembled a major collection of works by Gaston Lachaise; of these, thirteen sculptures and twelve drawings will be presented in the exhibition.

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art underscores the Harvard University Art Museums' ongoing commitment to researching and presenting modern and contemporary art. This initiative has been supported by recent exhibitions and gifts. Among the exhibitions have been Eat Art: Joseph Beuys, Dieter Roth, Sonja Alhauser; Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art from The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection; and Windshield: Richard Neutra's House for the John Nicolas Brown Family. The recent acquisitions have included Georges Braque's La Baie de l'Estaque (Bay of l'Estaque) and thirty contemporary American works given in honor of Neil and Angelica Rudenstine.

"Through her gift to the Fogg, Lois Orswell left a special legacy to the Harvard University Art Museums," said James Cuno, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. "Lois referred to the works in her collection as her 'children,' and she was very pleased that they would continue to have a meaningful life with Harvard's students and scholars. Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art is a result of the research they have done, and it's also a celebration of Lois's life as an independent thinker and individual."

Orswell was a passionate collector who spent the middle years of her life acquiring European and American modern art through visits to New York and Boston. She lived a solitary life in the Connecticut countryside, and her contact with the art world was sustained by correspondence with art dealers and artists with whom she excitedly discussed acquiring new works. In correspondence with friends within the arts community, Orswell spoke of the works in her collection as "living creatures." In the early 1960s, Orswell's collecting interests shifted to Asian art, which she felt suited her financial limitations and resonated with her interest in environmental preservation and animal protection.

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art is curated by Marjorie Cohn, the Carl Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints. Cohn had a close relationship with Orswell, or "L.O." as she called herself. Cohn's friendship with Orswell and the collector's longstanding history with the Fogg provide a platform for exploring the relationship between the collection and Orswell's life. The exhibition will be complemented by personal correspondence between Cohn and Orswell, and the wall texts will draw from the collectors' words about the artist or artwork referenced.

The exhibition will also encompass a catalogue with an essay written by Marjorie Cohn and the complete surviving correspondence between Orswell and David Smith, edited by Sarah Kianovsky, assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the Fogg. Orswell was Smith's most important private patron and the only collector to whom he sold works directly. Orswell and Smith had a unique friendship, and they corresponded about art, the art world, and their lives for eight years before the artist's death in 1965. Their letters and cards, which include more than 110 items, as well as an extensive memoir that Orswell wrote about her relationship with Smith, will constitute an important addition to literature on the artist. The catalogue will also include excerpts of correspondence between Orswell and other artists represented in her collection, as well as letters to Cohn and to friends and dealers in the New York arts community. Public lectures are planned to complement the exhibition and catalogue.

Lois Orswell, David Smith, and Modern Art will be organized loosely by schools and periods; however, a smaller group of African, Asian, and ancient works will be integrated among the European and American works. A small section of the exhibition will be devoted to photographs and memorabilia, including books and letters that offer insight into Orswell as a collector.

David Smith (1906 - 1965).
Doorway on Wheels, 1960.
Welded steel with black and orange paint,
233.7 x 96.5 x 54 cm.
Courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum
Harvard University Art Museums,
The Lois Orswell Collection, by gift. 1994.16

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