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Figge Gig: O’Harrow Gives Shelter to University of Iowa’s Homeless Collection

Now for the upbeat part of the story of the flooding of the University of Iowa Museum of Art: It resulted in a terrific, beautifully installed exhibition—A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock’s “Mural” and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art . That show is the most visible part of the new, win-win cooperative relationship between UIMA, Iowa City, and the Figge Art Museum, an hour’s drive away in Davenport, IA:

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This is the Figge’s David Chipperfield building—115,000 square feet in need of a more distinguished collection (particularly weak in modern and contemporary) and a larger audience. The place was so empty when I visited that I asked if it was then open to the public. (It was.) The UIMA’s modern and contemporary highlights show, with the monumental 1943 Pollock as its star and with many other great works in supporting roles, should raise both institutions’ profiles and audience.

After having seen the perilous proximity of the university’s museum to the Iowa River, I got nervous when I saw the mighty Mississippi only a few more stone’s throws away from the Figge. So I queried its ebullient and affable director, Sean O’Harrow, to assure myself that his institution was not in a flood zone.

He cheerfully assured me that it was: “This building was designed to be flooded,” he informed me. In fact, since the museum opened in 2003, the river had already risen to the height that he obligingly indicated for me here:

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The black lower walls (which you can also see in the top photo of the entire building), are made of concrete that’s been imprinted with wood grain (in the manner of Tadao Ando‘s Stone Hill Center for conservation at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA). They are meant to be impregnable to water. And if the Mississippi ventures further up the street, the parking garage is intended to contain the overflow. (I hope they don’t get a chance to test this.):

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I got to chat at length with Sean at the dinner that followed my deaccession lecture at the University of Iowa, and I was impressed by this knowledge and his ideas for energizing the Figge (pronounced “FIGgee”). I’ve got a feeling that his current position will not be his gig for life.

Happily, all the works from UIMA (including those now being moved into storage at the Figge) are on high floors. Here are the two long flights of stairs over which the UIMA’s heavy and unwieldy Pollock was hand-carried when it arrived by truck from Chicago. The masterpiece had to be flipped over to make the U-turn:

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And here is the space where truckloads of UIMA works, still coming from Chicago, are being unpacked:

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We’d love to know what’s under wraps. This box is merely labeled “African”:

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The first work you encounter upon entering the “Legacy for Iowa” exhibition is not the Pollock, but another “wow” canvas: a huge, dramatic Robert Motherwell, commissioned by UIMA’s first director. Ulfert Wilke. The artist had envisioned his painting hanging opposite the Pollock, which had been given to the museum by the legendary collector and Pollock patron, Peggy Guggenheim.

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Motherwell, “Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 126),” 1965-75

And you encounter many other great works en route to the Pollock. In front of one of them is the UIMA’s interim director, Pamela White, talking to KCRG-TV a few days before the exhibition officially opened:

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Here’s a closer look at her backdrop:

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Beckmann, “Carnival,” 1943: the sixth of the artist’s 10 extant triptychs, purchased from Beckmann in 1946 by dealer Curt Valentin, sold to the university that same year

Also striking was this Marsden Hartley, another UIMA purchase:

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Hartley, “E,” 1915

There are many other gems among the 22 works in the show. I had no idea that this Midwestern university, perhaps best know for its prestigious writing program, had an art collection this deep. But I’m saving the best for last.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Confronting the Pollocks (TWO of them!)

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