Smart Museum celebrates 40th year with collections showcase

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When museums mark anniversaries, they often book a flashy traveling exhibition or assemble a blockbuster offering with high-profile loans from other collections. But to celebrate the Smart Museum of Art’s 40th anniversary, its leaders decided to do something a little different.

They chose to look inward and put together a show that highlights the University of Chicago museum’s own collection, focusing specifically on its wide-ranging and in some ways under-appreciated group of sculptures.

The result is “Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways,” an exhibition that features 160 or so of the works — less than a quarter of the museum’s total holdings in the medium — plus 17 drawings that relate to some of them.

“The museum will be transformed for three months, and it is both looking back to the origins of the museum and to the development of a part of the collection over 40 years,” said senior curator Richard Born, who was a graduate student at the University of Chicago when the Smart Museum opened in 1974.

‘Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways’ When: Sept. 27-Through Dec. 21 Where: University of Chicago, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Admission: Free Info: (773) 702-0200;

On display will be works that date from the 13th century B.C.E. to the present and range in size from a couple of 16th century medals a few inches across to a 1969 light installation by Robert Irwin that fills one-half of a gallery.

Even 175 works is not enough to come close to offering a comprehensive history of sculpture, so the curators (Born, Anne Leonard and Jessica Moss) have grouped the selections into thematic clusters within the museum’s four collecting areas — modern (Impressionism to 1960), European (1500 through 1900), Asian and contemporary.

Born, for example, is pairing two takes on figuration from across the 20th century: Edgar Degas’ bronze, “Woman Stretching” (1919-1921 cast), with “Standing Figure With Turban” (1984) by Anthony Caro, a contemporary English admirer of the famed Impressionist artist.

“It’s looking episodically at different aspects of sculptural production over this whole time,” Born said.

The curators not only strived for a broad art-historical range of selections, but also they wanted examples that illustrated the history of the museum’s collecting in the medium and showcased many of its key donors.

Donations have been integral to the sculpture collection’s growth, none more important than the gift of the Joel Starrels Jr. Memorial Collection. It consists of 164 modern sculptures by such major artists as Jean Arp, Edgar Degas, Julio Gonzalez, Barbara Hepworth, Auguste Rodin and Jacques Lipchitz. Nearly 50 examples were showcased in 1974 in the museum’s inaugural exhibition.

“The receipt of this collection,” Born said, “plus works that had come in off of campus, including a Rodin, an early cast of ‘The Thinker,’ really set the museum on a course of specializing in collecting sculpture from all periods.”

Other works have been purchased by the museum, in some cases using funds from the Paul and Miriam Kirkely Fund for Acquisitions, an endowment that the couple set up in 1999 with a $5 million bequest.

Along with popular works in the collection like John Chamberlain’s “Untitled” (1963), assembled from automobile body parts, are lesser-known sculptures, including some that have never been exhibited previously or have not been on view for five years of more.

Doing research for the show, for example, Born discovered that the Smart owned a 1963 bronze by Parviz Tanavoli, who is considered the father of modern Iranian sculpture and has a museum dedicated to him in Teheran. The work will be shown for the first time ever.

At the center of the exhibition will be Gallery X, a flexible, experimental study space designed by Chicago-based Range Design. It will house small, rotating displays that augment the larger sculpture exhibition and provide areas for informal discussions and other participatory activities.

“Our education staff,” Born said, “working with the curators and everyone here, really, is mapping out different programs that will sometimes look familiar to a museum-goer but other times will be very unusual and interesting and we hope give visitors new insights into looking at works.”

Often in museums, sculpture is given secondary status. One three-dimensional piece might be on view in a room with a dozen paintings. But during the Smart’s three-month run of “Carved, Cast, Crumpled,” the medium will be the star attraction.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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