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Colby College Museum becomes a true destination

WATERVILLE, Maine — College art museums are the great under-appreciated jewels of New England cultural life. Being primarily teaching museums, they tend to collect art from all cultures and periods. Most often, given their limited resources and dependence on fluky gifts, they come to resemble ancient textiles, with areas of astonishing detail and sumptuousness, but whole areas arbitrarily missing.

When Colby College Museum of Art opened its new Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion last weekend, its community of supporters celebrated a transforming gift of more than 500 works of art by the museum’s longtime benefactors, the Lunder family. Suddenly, the old cloth filled out and, in parts, came up looking almost new.

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The Lunder gift has propelled Colby into the first rank of college museums — not quite up there with Harvard and Yale, but certainly in the same league as Smith, Williams, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Wellesley’s Davis Museum of Art. For art lovers it has made a trip to Maine all but obligatory this summer.

What will you see when you go?

A handsome new building, to begin with. Designed by Los Angeles-based Frederick Fisher and Partners Architects, the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion adds 26,000 square feet to the preexisting 38,000. The project cost a mere $15 million — impressive when you consider that the cost of several recent museum extensions hereabouts has been in the hundreds of millions.

The pavilion is a minimalist, glassy box containing attractive new galleries, with a spacious lobby and sculpture court that knit together old and new.

If the pavilion’s most attractive feature is a colorful Sol LeWitt wall drawing filling out the three-story façade that fronts onto the campus’s main thoroughfare, its lamest is a commissioned text piece by Luis Camnitzer that dominates the entrance façade. In large sans serif letters, it reads: “THE MUSEUM IS A SCHOOL: THE ARTIST LEARNS TO COMMUNICATE; THE PUBLIC LEARNS TO MAKE . . .”

Sorry, I fell asleep. “CONNECTIONS” I think that last word is. But why not “LOVE” or “CHOPSTICKS”?

For an immediate antidote to such dutiful cant, head straight to the bathrooms, where you will, if you wash your hands, trigger Julianne Swartz’s intimate audio piece, “Affirmation,” which whispers sweet nothings in your ear.

Inaugurating the new wing are several smaller exhibits to which I’ll come; but the main draw is undoubtedly the marvelous Lunder Collection, now safely entrusted to Colby, and installed with great panache by Sharon Corwin, the museum’s director and chief curator.

The collection comprises mostly American art, although it has a smattering of interesting 19th-century French paintings by the likes of Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, and Bouguereau.

Within the Lunders’ American holdings, there is a noteworthy cache of nearly 300 works in all media by James McNeill Whistler, plus a library of related material. There are deep and impressive holdings in late-19th-century art, and strengths in early-20th-century and contemporary art. (Mid-century abstract expressionism was presumably either too expensive or not interesting to the Lunders.)

In a delightful deviation from expectations, a large gallery is given over to the art of the American West — lots of bellicose cowboys, and exotic, but not insensitive, renderings of Native Americans.

And just for good measure, the collection is rounded out by the 2004 acquisition of a trove of important early (late Neolithic through Northern Qi Dynasty) tomb objects from China.

So much for the outlines. I hereby grant myself permission to unleash more partial enthusiasms.

The contemporary galleries, organized not so much according to theme as by serendipitous association, are a pleasure to walk through. There are fine things, for instance, by Maya Lin, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, and Richard Estes all having to do with water. There’s also an array of three-dimensional works (a particular strength of the entire Lunder collection) by Kiki Smith, Fred Sandback, John Chamberlain, Louise Nevelson, and Claes Oldenburg. All chewy stuff.

But very little stays in the mind like Duane Hanson’s “Old Man Playing Solitaire.” Hanson’s hyper-real sculpture — it presents just what the title says — is a rude, yelp-inducing intrusion into art gallery decorum. As sensitive to the surrounding space as to codes of realism, Hansen transposes the old barb about sculpture being something you bump against when you back away from a painting into a weird, hair-raising new social register.

The smaller-scale downstairs galleries take us back through American modernism, with terrific things in particular by Edward Steichen (a 1905 painting), Elie Nadelman (two sculptures) and Georgia O’Keeffe (a pastel and an oil painting). In the same gallery a lively painting for a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell almost — but not quite — repeats the rude vigor and offense to good taste of the Duane Hanson upstairs. I loved it.

After the interlude of art of the American West — yet another welcome prick to the dual complacencies of good taste and political correctness — we are ushered discreetly back into the museum’s old wing and plunged deep into the 19th century.

These galleries, believe me, are outstanding. But what’s with all the gold frames?! With Whistler and his quivering cohort, sure: Their etiolated pictures all but evanesce without those chunky, glistering frames. But beyond the aestheticism of the Gilded Age, I’m not sure the art here always benefits from such a surfeit of razzle-dazzle.

Organized by astutely chosen themes (childhood, masculine pursuits, “the poetic mode,” the Civil War, the seasons, and so on), these galleries are not only generously littered with first-rate works by big names like Church, Homer, Sargent, Whistler, Inness, and Eakins, they are also full of unexpected surprises by lesser-known figures.

“Etude,” an 1891 painting by Elizabeth Nourse, is a superbly confident rendition of two young French peasant women in white bonnets. Nourse was raised and trained in Cincinnati and went to live permanently in France in 1887, at the age of 27. Her picture is full of interiority, generating an electrical charge equivalent to watching one’s lover or children asleep.

Another gulp-prompter is Sargent’s “Study of Three Figures,” painted in the late 1870s. Next to nothing is known about this bewitching picture, which shows a full-length standing boy with a cloth tied at his waist posing in what looks like a studio and could be almost anywhere, given Sargent’s peripatetic life. The boy faces us, one hand placed on his hip, the other propped stiffly on the seat of a tall stool.

Sharing that stool is a much younger boy, nude, facing away. A third presence, an adult woman in work clothes, is close-by but cut off at the edge. Both boys’ faces are blurred. The small boy’s tenderly craning profile would be lost entirely had not the artist set it off against the woman’s white blouse (Sargent’s need for that sharp white may be the sole reason for her inclusion).

The only thing you want to say about this almost offhand study, which carries no particular emotional weight beyond the boys’ poignant physical beauty, is that it is sensationally well painted. Note the different pallor of the boys’ skin, the tall boy’s healthy olive color so subtly contrasting with the pale back, mottled with blue, of the smaller tyke.

Sargent can make you tire of “good painting.” But here his every deft brush stroke is simple and unfussy, as if he had casually distilled his prodigious talent down to these bare bones, sallow skin, tousled hair . . .

Scattered throughout these galleries are first-rate sculptures, including several masterpieces by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Paul Manship, and two terrific works by Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

Among the array of Winslow Homers are “Fishing,” “Evening on the Beach,” and “The Noon Recess,” the latter a justly famous image of a boy reading inside a dark classroom, accompanied by his bored-looking teacher, while his friends outside in sun hats peer in through the window.

Look out, too, for the various paintings and watercolors by the restless, lovable John LaFarge; for Whistler’s “Chelsea in Ice” and his many marvelous etchings; and for Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s late colored pastel, “Standing Woman No. 202,” an instance of sheer exquisiteness turning slowly into the void.

Several other exhibitions will reward your time at Colby: The Lunders’ early Chinese collection has been rounded out by loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, which once again proves that it is better at being generous with its Asian collection than displaying it to its best effect in Boston.

A gracious arrangement of 19th-century weathervanes, a recent gift from local Maine collectors, lines one passageway, salting the sweet refinements of late-19th-century painting. A selection of small cityscapes by John Marin from Colby’s pre-Lunder collection is juxtaposed with modernist photographs of the city by Berenice Abbott and Alfred Stieglitz, among others. And a selection of contemporary works from the Alex Katz Foundation complements the Lunder’s contemporary holdings.

But the highlight of these ancillary shows is the display of 48 paintings, drawings, and prints by Katz himself. These hang in an adjoining wing established in 1996 after Katz donated 414 of his works to the museum.

That number has now swelled, improbably, to more than 800 works. The selection here, made by Diana Tuite, includes small studies, large prints, and several almost absurdly huge paintings.

It’s ravishing. If you saw last year’s show of Katz prints at the MFA, or find yourself seeing a Katz here and a Katz there in museums all over New England and remaining less than entirely convinced, this display may change your mind. It did mine.

In a hothouse setting that cultivates so many jostling views of how to make it in life, college museums embody a modest, unharried and yet truly inspiring idea about what ultimately matters. Colby’s museum, which feels so fresh and taut right now that it positively hums, embodies it better than most.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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