Betty Goodwin, Red Sea (1984), oil pastel, dry pastel, oil and charcoal on vellum paper, 304.8 x 213.3 cm. Gift of Charles S.N. Parent. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. Courtesy Gaétan Charbonneau
The urge to create a new museum must be similar to an artist’s impulse: to make something beautiful, something meaningful, and perhaps even something immortal.
The Musée d'art contemporain is, as curator Josée Bélisle notes, a “pure product of the Quiet Revolution.” Fifty years ago, every sector of Quebec society was wriggling out of its old straightjackets. Everywhere, Quebecers were asking what it meant to be new and modern. In the midst of this idealistic fervour, a handful of artists, collectors, and galleries, along with a foundation, donated about 100 works of art to create Canada’s premier museum devoted exclusively to contemporary art.
Today, the Musée d’art contemporain is home to nearly 8,000 works of art. But even all these years later, nearly half the collection comes from private gifts. To celebrate this heritage, the museum’s new exhibition, The Grace of a Gesture, highlights 50 years of generosity. All 200 works on display were donated, giving the exhibition the vibe of a really great private collection — as if assembled by a forward-looking tastemaker who bought the coolest artists of every decade.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Room (detail), 2006, 300 incandescent light bulbs, voltage controllers, computer, wiring, heart rate sensors and metal sculpture, 1/1, 13 x 10 x 10 m (variable dimensions according to exhibition venue). Anonymous gift. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Shown here: Fábrica La Constancia, Plataforma, Puebla, México, 2008. Photo: Alejandro Biazquez, courtesy the artist
The Grace of a Gesture — which takes over nearly the entire museum, including the Sculpture Garden and the roof — is organized chronologically by decade, covering many of the major movements and trends in post-war art. Abstraction, Pop Art, the Plasticien movement, photography, video — it’s all here. A stroll through the galleries highlights aesthetic connections between artists, because you can see, side by side, how artists influenced one another, or grappled with the same ideas. If you know someone who insists they “just don’t get” contemporary art, bring them to this show. Everything will suddenly start to make sense.
From Quebec, there’s the post-war canon — including Jean Paul Riopelle’s Abstraction and a colourful, graphic Plasticien painting by Guido Molinari — placed within an international context. And what a context! Charles Daudelin, Paul-Émile Borduas, Alfred Pellan, David Altmejd, Nicolas Baier, Geneviève Cadieux, Pierre Dorion, Betty Goodwin, Pascal Grandmaison, Kent Monkman, Irene F. Whittome, Louise Bourgeois, Anselm Kiefer, Nam June Paik, Giuseppe Penone, Antoni Tàpies . . .
The exhibition is a Who’s Who of the past half-century: you’ll see everything from a Hans Arp textile with free-floating blobs to Christo’s plans for wrapping Paris’ École Militaire in fabric. More recent works include Eve Sussman’s video art and Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs of ships and industrial landscapes. Whatever the art world was buzzing about in any given year, it’s here.
Spencer Tunick, Montréal 2 (2001), chromogenic print sealed between two sheets of Plexiglas, 1/6, 179.8 x 226.5 cm. Gift of Sandra Grant and Gilles Marchand. Collection of the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay. Courtesy the artist
What’s interesting is how daring the museum patrons were in their taste. They were collecting photography back when the Old Guard was still wondering if photography could really be Art. They didn’t shy away from Abstraction or Conceptual Art. And they didn’t just go for conventionally pretty art. Spencer Tunick’s, Montreal 2, is a somewhat disturbing, large-scale photograph of nude bodies piled in a street. Andy Warhol is represented here by his Electric Chair, rather than an easier-to-like Marilyn Monroe or Flowers image.
The Grace of a Gesture is as idiosyncratic as its donors, and that’s why it’s so exciting. None of these works were originally collected based on a master plan. The donors weren’t trying to “fill in gaps” in an art historical survey. These are works of art with which donors simply fell in love, and wanted to share with the public. Every single thing here was somebody’s favourite.
The Grace of a Gesture: Fifty Years of Gifts is on view at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal until September 7, 2014.
Lisa Hunter is a screenwriter and arts journalist in Montreal. Her book, The Intrepid Art Collector, was published by Three Rivers/Random House Canada.
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