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Last year, Hall of Fame ballplayer Ted Simmons and fine art printer Maryanne Ellison Simmons handed over a collection they’d spent decades building.
It was a partial gift, partial purchase by the couple to the St. Louis Art Museum, which paid just over $2.3 million, about half of the artworks’ worth.
At the time, Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings and photographs, said the large acquisition of politically and socially conscious pieces was “transformative” for the museum’s post-World War II print collection.
“It changes the whole character of the American art story that the museum can tell,” she said. The Simmons collection includes 43 artists, 25 of whom were not represented at all at the museum.
Now, the museum is ready to show the rest of the city more than 200 of the 833 works it acquired. They are mostly contemporary prints but include drawings, collages, photographs and even woodblocks.
Alluding to Simmons’ position behind home plate as a Cardinal, the exhibition is called “Catching the Moment.” It runs June 26-Sept. 11.
But although 200-plus works are only about a fourth of the collection, that’s still a lot to see. So curator Wyckoff and Sophie Barbisan, associate paper conservator, suggest 10 “don’t-miss” pieces. Barbisan chose and describes the first two, with the rest from Wyckoff.
Enrique Chagoya, “Illegal Alien’s Guide to Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” 2010 • Chagoya’s lithographs are a mixture of hand-drawn and photolithographic processes, developed in collaboration with master printer Bud Shark at his press, Shark’s Ink. The artist often references Mesoamerican culture both with the imagery he chooses and the amate paper support, which was used for codices in ancient Mexico.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, “Celebrate 40,000 Years of American Art,” 1995 • Jaune Quick-to-See Smith’s print created in St. Louis at the Washington University School of Art Collaborative Print Workshop, now called Island Press, was designed as a “succinct comment on colonial thinking.” She reminds us that there were sophisticated civilizations here before Europeans arrived on this continent. The use of the collagraph technique enabled the artist to play with textures, as she worked on a PVC plate with a thick application of acrylic adhesive, dusted with the abrasive grit carborundum, along with collages of various papers and canvases.
Kiki Smith, “Finger Bowl,” 1995 • Kiki Smith’s “Finger Bowl” is the first work of art a visitor will encounter in the exhibition, and it turns out it was also the first acquisition Ted and Maryanne Ellison Simmons made when they decided to get serious about collecting contemporary art. The solid silver bowl is literally formed by the artist’s own fingers, which press into the bowl’s interior. Three fingers stand in as the “feet.”
Liliana Porter, “To Fix It,” 2018 • There are three works by Liliana Porter in “Catching the Moment,” and one of her captivating videos can also be seen in Gallery 301. All of these works incorporate small figurines or toys that she has collected for many decades. In “To Fix It,” a tiny, kneeling worker labors in the delicate workings of a wall clock.
Bruce Conner, “BOMBHEAD,” 2003 • Bruce Conner’s “BOMBHEAD” is a digital print that had its roots in a much smaller, handmade collage he created more than a decade earlier, in which he cut and pasted a newspaper clipping of an atomic mushroom cloud over the head of a uniformed figure. The work shows the notoriously shape-shifting artist adapting to the latest digital technology in 2003, even as he allowed a tiny dab of red paint to daub the tiepin.
H. C. Westermann, “Dance of Death” from “The Connecticut Ballroom,” 1976 • H. C. Westermann was a master craftsman who was arguably best known for his expertly crafted wooden sculptures that manage to confound, delight and disturb viewers. The whimsically elegant couple in “Dance of Death” are stepping out among rats on an abandoned pier, with the hulking carcass of a listing battleship in the background — a reminder of the artist’s years as a marine aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Pacific chapter of World War II.
Peter Hujar, “Candy Darling on Her Deathbed,” 1973 • Warhol superstar and transgender icon Candy Darling posed elegantly and dramatically for Peter Hujar in 1973, before she died of lymphoma the following year at age 29. The scene was carefully choreographed by both actress and photographer. Hujar subtly modulated the black, gray, and white tones of the flower-filled hospital room with its fluorescent light.
Tom Huck, “Snacktime Marcy” woodblocks, 1999 • The Simmonses didn’t stop at collecting nearly every print Tom Huck ever made; they also sought out drawings and woodblocks, like these for his “Snacktime Marcy” triptych. Having the woodblocks in the collection allows visitors to learn about the printmaking process, but they also reveal Huck’s incredible artistry involved in carving the image by hand into the birch plywood blocks.
Roger Shimomura, “Yellow No Same, No. 1,” 1992 • “Yellow No Same, No. 1” comes from a portfolio of 12 prints, each with the same oblong format incorporating two sets of figures starkly divided by barbed wire. Roger Shimomura is an American artist of Japanese descent who as a child was incarcerated along with his family in an internment camp, as ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942. These prints directly reference that experience, juxtaposing Japanese Americans in their 1940s dress behind the barbed wire with Kabuki actors on the outside.
Helen Frankenthaler, “Savage Breeze,” 1974 • Helen Frankenthaler approached printmaking much like she did painting — with a seriously experimental attitude. “Savage Breeze” is distinctive for its impressive scale and the artist’s choice to emphasize the grain of the wood blocks in the print’s texture. It was printed at Universal Limited Art Editions on Long Island (New York), in collaboration with the master printers there, but she almost gave up on it before deciding to add a layer of white ink underneath: At last, that gave it the “glow” she was looking for.
What “Catching the Moment: Contemporary Art from the Ted L. and Maryanne Ellison Simmons Collection” • When June 26-Sept. 11; hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, • Where St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park • How much $12, $10 for seniors and students, $6 for ages 6-12, free for ages 5 and under; free for museum members and on Fridays • More info slam.org
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