PROVIDENCE - Once, when it came to contemporary art, London slept. If a British artist wanted serious attention in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, he or she had to show in New York, because in the United Kingdom, collectors’ interest in art waned after Impressionism - not unlike the reputation Boston has had for years.
Richard Brown Baker, a savvy, prescient New York collector, got behind British artists early: Ben Nicholson, David Hockney, Bridget Riley, and more. His collection of British art, and works acquired with a bequest after his death in 2002 to expand that collection, are now on view in “Made in the UK: Contemporary Art From the Richard Brown Baker Collection’’ a generous, enthralling show at the Museum of Art at Rhode Island School of Design.
Baker acquired contemporary art internationally and left much of his meaty collection to the Yale University Art Gallery (at his alma mater), but he bequeathed the British art to the RISD museum. As a native of Providence, he was tapped as a Rhodes Scholar and went to England; he wanted to bring a bit of England back to Providence. The result is remarkable: RISD has the best collection of British postwar art in the United States, better even than the Yale Center for British Art.
“Made in the UK,’’ organized by Jan Howard, RISD’s curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, and Judith Tannenbaum, the museum’s contemporary art curator (whose position was endowed by Baker), is as avid and wide-ranging as the collector’s passions, ambling from abstract expressionism through Pop Art, Op Art, and photo realism, on into the explosion of conceptually cocky artists in the 1990s, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, known as the YBAs, for Young British Artists.
The show does not serve as a comprehensive survey of British art in the past 55 years. It’s more eclectic and personal than that. Missing, for instance, are London’s dark figurative expressionists Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. Maybe Baker was caught up with Pop Art when their work was affordable. Perhaps the emotional rawness of their art didn’t appeal to him. As if to make up for that lack, in the 1980s he did acquire a group of quirky, gritty Scottish neo-expressionist figural narratives by artists such as John Bellany and Ken Currie.
Baker liked to discover artists. He bought Hockney before that artist’s first New York show. The collector had an instinct, and he was careful with his money. Although he was well to do, he often paid for works in $85 or $100 installments, Tannenbaum says in an interview in the show’s catalog.
Hockney’s “Plastic Tree Plus City Hall’’ (1964) was, according to the artist, the first painting he made after he moved to Los Angeles - a smudgy, smoggy sky, a vertical zip of a red tree trunk. Thought-bubble clouds lead to a tiny, separate image of Los Angeles City Hall, as if the plastic tree were ruminating about city politics.
The exhibit truly begins, as if sprung from a single seed, with a small watercolor by J.M.W. Turner. Baker picked up “Dazio Grande’’ (1843) before he devoted himself to contemporary art. Here it seems to spawn a generation of abstract expressionists. Gossamer washes in cream and blue flow against a boulder and a cliff, which anchor Turner’s composition, but feel no more earthly than the diaphanous sky.
It’s near Peter Lanyon’s 1961 oil painting, “Airscape.’’ Lanyon was in a group of artists who painted in St. Ives, Cornwall, who caught Baker’s eye. Lanyon rooted his abstractions in landscape references, but this one is all air - he had been a glider pilot. The painting pivots and swirls around a blue vertical. The right is an exhalation of white, tan, and brown. On the left, gestures are tight, a whorl of blue and white, a vaulting veil of blue. Lanyon’s roiling strokes and swooping washes could be descended from Turner’s.
A gallery and a half away, Tacita Dean’s “Kronos’’ (2004), made up of three panels of incised alabaster, is not even painting, but the translucence of the alabaster, the wandering marks of her incisions, and the traces of the stone’s mottled surface look like a more delicate iteration of the same visual themes. And Anish Kapoor’s untitled gouache on paper drawing from 2005, a dark shimmer, is as equally eerie and porous.
“Made in the UK,’’ although presented roughly chronologically, invites such delicious leaps. My eyes were already popping out from looking at Riley’s 1981 painting “Gather’’ when I happened on Hirst’s 2008 mixed-media painting, “Utopia,’’ and I nearly swooned from sheer retinal stimulation. “Gather’’ is a buzzing, energetic curtain of stripes made with pairs of complementary colors that push against each other like magnets. “Utopia’’ features hundreds of butterfly wings mounted on high-gloss blue paint in a mandala. It’s dizzyingly kaleidoscopic.
Long an outpost, London became a hotbed for contemporary art in the mid-1980s. The Turner Prize was instituted. The Saatchi Gallery opened. And Baker was there, collecting the work of emerging artists. Since his death, curators Howard and Tannenbaum have taken up the charge. The art they have purchased with Baker’s bequest has depth and edge, and they’ve filled out gaps in the collection.
Richard Long, for instance, is a longtime British environmental artist; his works involve walking. His “Mountainside Ellipse’’ (1999) is a cairn, of sorts, with the rocks collected from a walk in Greece lying flat on the floor in an oval, distributed with a surprising orderliness. Roger Hiorns likewise uses everyday materials, but he makes them dazzle. His untitled sculpture (2005) features thistles crystallized in copper sulfate. They are a cerulean blue, gritty like sugar candy, hanging in crystal formations from stainless steel rods like dried flowers - at once delicate and electric.
The clock is running on Baker’s $2.25 million bequest. Curators must spend it by 2020. Then, they’ll have a time capsule - roughly 60 years of British art that charts trends in the UK and around the world, as seen through the eyes and legacy of a modest yet most daring collector.