If it's your job to oversee an art museum's holdings and exhibitions, do you ever allow yourself to play favorites? Are there works you find uniquely delightful or compelling? The Globe asked directors of a range of area museums to share a favorite artwork in their institution's collections — a piece they seek out for a quiet moment of appreciation or inspiration when the doors are closed. Here's what they told us.
Colby College Museum of Art
Georgia O'Keeffe's radical interpretation of a landscape is unlike any we are used to seeing. There is no horizon line to direct our perception; perspectival space is denied as the blue, aqueous orb in the center of the composition flattens against the picture plane. O'Keeffe's command of her medium — the chalky softness of pastel — blends and bleeds into a swirling vortex of color. O'Keeffe conveys something beyond what this landscape looks like and gives us a sensorial experience of this place — the saturation of the wooded air, the dense growth of foliage, and the teeming pulse of the natural world.
"Lake George in Woods" (1922)
By Georgia O'Keefe
PORTLAND MUSEUM OF ART
I love the collaborative nature of Tim Rollins's work with the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) and his use of classic literature to create conversations with viewers. Taking from Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," Rollins chose an image that is projected and layered directly on the pages. This image is complex, raising issues of race and a critical moment in American cultural history. Like a Winslow Homer graphic, it is poignant but must be digested and deconstructed to reveal greater meaning.
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Asleep on the Raft (after Mark Twain)" (2011)
By Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
SMITH COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART
What one work in our collection do I return to repeatedly? You will often find me — alone or with guests — in our third floor galleries studying this early 20th-century American masterwork.
This is an image of profound change, rich in detail and in ambiguity. It depicts a canyon created in the middle of Manhattan by the excavation for Pennsylvania Station, a project that transformed New York City by connecting it to a national transportation network.
The painting was as revolutionary as the event it portrays, helping to establish Bellows's reputation as a brash young artist advancing a gritty new kind of realism. When it was first exhibited, it was described in the press as a "great gaping wound in the dirty earth." Bellows's representation of the city, with its central void and implication of lives displaced, invites reflection on the costs of progress.
"Pennsylvania Excavation" (1907)
By George Wesley Bellows
YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART
I consider "Sleeping Leopard" to be one of the most remarkable works in the collection. Stubbs's first documented experiment in painting in enamel on earthenware biscuit, produced by Josiah Wedgewood and fired in his factory, this tiny painting (4½-by-6⅝-inches) conveys the artist's extraordinary understanding of the anatomy and behavior of the exotic big cat. Devoting much of his career to the study of domesticated and wild animals from Britain and across the nation's empire, Stubbs portrayed their variety, dignity, strength, and beauty with unparalleled sensitivity. Here, he miniaturizes the powerful leopard into a gentle creature in repose, able to be held in the hand, studied, admired, and possessed without fear. Indeed, the Yale Center for British Art's founder, Paul Mellon (Yale College 1929), treasured this exquisite work, keeping it on his desk for much of his lifetime.
"Sleeping Leopard" (1777) by George Stubbs
STERLING AND FRANCINE CLARK ART INSTITUTE
A North African woman drapes a shawl over her head to capture the intoxicating smell of incense rising from a burner at her feet. It's an enticing, exotic subject, but what makes the painting one of Sargent's masterpieces is his extraordinary use of white pigments — a symphony of white — to articulate this composition. Subtly differentiated tones of blue-white, gray-white, and yellow-white are applied with bold brush strokes, a testament to Sargent's extraordinary talent. The painting has been a constant source of delight and wonder for me as well as for countless visitors to the Clark.
"Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris)" (1880) by John Singer Sargent
DAVIS MUSEUM AT WELLESLEY COLLEGE
I love Eija-Liisa Ahtila's video installation for its beauty, its conceptual sophistication and narrative complexity, for the way it mines art history to find the miraculous in the everyday. Uniquely and unmistakably, Ahtila's totally immersive environment refuses passivity; instead, it demands that every viewer be in the work.
"The Annunciation" (2010) by Eija-Liisa Ahtila
CURRIER MUSEUM OF ART
I love this sculpture's wry commentary on 1960s families. I often compare it to my own family back then. Mom wears a pillbox hat, heels, and white gloves — the quintessential Jackie Kennedy look. Dad is dressed in a suit, white shirt, and wingtips, reminding me of my own father.
Also intriguing is how this woman artist comments on the objectification of women: The shapely parts of the mother's figure are appended to her bodice to exaggerate them; she seems demure, but sexy. The father, who "hangs from the wall," seems removed from the family.
Kids are instantly attracted to it and often ask about the daughter's third leg, which the artist added it to make her more stable. We have other artworks that depict families, but the immediacy of Marisol's materials and her inclusion of real objects draw in kids. Perhaps it is the kid in me that appreciates "The Family" the most.
"The Family" (1963) by Marisol (a.k.a. Marisol Escobar)
Thomas Andrew Denenberg
This portrait is not simply historic, rare, or beautiful, it is a study in courage. Although William Matthew Prior produced over 1,500 likenesses, only a handful of African-American portraits survive. There is more to the story, a tale of two individuals united by geography, commerce, and spiritual belief. Sitter and artist shared origins in the Maine frontier: Lawson hailed from Vassalboro, up the Kennebec River from Prior's native Bath. Their paths crossed in Boston when William Lawson, a well-to-do clothing dealer, commissioned the portrait of his wife at middle age. Fashionable and learned — note her thumb in the open book — the Lawson portrait is not only an extraordinary document of the African-American mercantile middle class in coastal New England, but it captures a forgotten faith. Evidence is strong that Lawson and Prior followed the teachings of William Miller, who preached that the world would end in 1844. That resolve in her eyes speaks to the courage of a woman who faced unimaginable challenges in life and sat in anticipation of the end of days. It also reveals the genius of a painter who bravely employed his gifts to capture her character in an era when abolitionism remained a contested idea.
"Mrs. Nancy Lawson" (1843) by William Matthew Prior
DECORDOVA SCULPTURE PARK AND MUSEUM
The works I fall in love with change year to year. Though deCordova collects contemporary art in all media — photos, paintings, video, performance — I absolutely love seeing our sculptures outdoors. The interplay of site, object, idea, and viewer is almost limitless outside. "Elegantka" just returned to us after two years away on loan. Our staff reinstalled it in a new location out in the Sculpture Park; it was originally on our Rappaport Roof Terrace. Having a familiar piece reappear in a new setting like this never ceases to make me see it afresh. I can't wait to see how "Elegantka" feels — already so icy and grand, with a diffuse white glow inside it at night — when the snow comes. I imagine it might look more at home than ever.
"Elegantka" (2010) by Ursula von Rydingsvard
WORCESTER ART MUSEUM
I love this work, as it refers to one of the fundamentals of the human condition, which is defined in so many ways by the relationship between mothers and their children: connecting and separating, controlling and being controlled — being "woven" and "unwoven." In this mother-child relationship the balance shifts over time, as much as we wish this wasn't the case. Thanks to Bourgeois's aesthetics, both clinical and poetic, we have become observers of a story that is fundamentally our own.
"The Woven Child" (detail) (2002) by Louise Bourgeois
Fitchburg Art Museum
I was thrilled to find a rare print of "The Steerage" in our excellent collection of American photography. This image, familiar to anyone who's taken a photo history course, is a foundational document of Modernism, as important to the history of photography as Picasso's contemporaneous "Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) is to painting. With "The Steerage," photography began to free itself from the context of painting to explore its own formal values, took a giant step away from "objective" documentation, and transferred the emotional affect of an image from subject to viewer. And we have it right here in Fitchburg!
"The Steerage" (1907) by Alfred Stieglitz
PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM
There are always exceptional artists who do not receive the recognition they deserve. T.C. Cannon is one of these artists. The son of a Kiowa father and Caddo mother, Cannon was a highly talented painter, poet, and musician. Renowned in the contemporary Native American art community, Cannon never achieved recognition from a mainstream contemporary art community wedded to dividing contemporary art into narrow and questionable categories.
This woodblock print makes a sharp cultural statement in a highly distinctive and dramatic style that reflects Cannon's unique and eclectic talent and perspective. Cannon tragically died in a car accident at the age of 31.
"Collector #5" (1978) by T.C. Cannon
INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART
I find it hard to resist the seductive power of "Monet's Salon." Using rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel, artist Mickalene Thomas evokes the Giverny home and gardens of Impressionist Claude Monet, reimagining landscape, still life, and portrait painting from a contemporary perspective. Thomas's bold blocks of color and compressed, fractured planes dynamically transport this interior scene from 19th-century France to 21st-century America. The work infuses the modernism of Cezanne, Matisse, Leger, and Bearden into contemporary art history.
"Monet's Salon" (2012) by Mickalene Thomas
University Museum of Contemporary Art, UMass Amherst
This photograph, from Joel Sternfeld's "The Oxbow Archive" (2008), is grand and epic in scope, recording the Connecticut River landscape in summertime as a painterly and expressive season. His image is a very personal diary of a place that he explored, documented, and continued to return to for well over a year. Its timelessness and natural beauty lends this work a highly contemplative feel.
"July 13, 2006, The east meadows, Northampton, Massachusetts" (2006-08) by Joel Sternfeld
ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM
I have so many favorites, but right now I am loving a Roman statue in the museum's garden courtyard of a young goddess, known as the "Peplophoros." She is so very beautiful in her flowing chiton, a kind of tunic, which is carved tenderly from warm translucent Greek marble. She's just about to move toward us with her right foot stepping out from under the chiton. Her toes look so real you expect them to wiggle. Even though she's missing her head and both arms, you feel her vital presence.
Our "Peplophoros" was discovered in 1901 on Rome's site of the ancient Gardens of Sallust, begun in Julius Caesar's time as outdoor sculpture gardens. The "Peplophoros" must have been a beautiful goddess to meditate on in the ancient Roman gardens, as she certainly inspires dreaming of beauty and antique worlds today.
"A Goddess (Peplophoros)" (early 1st century) Roman, after a Greek bronze of about 455 BC
Roman, after a Greek bronze of about 455 BC
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
Visitors to museums so often don't look up to the ceiling, which is how they might miss Tiepolo's ceiling canvas. This truly marvelous picture is filled with sky and light, the clouds parting to unveil an allegorical vision of beauty. It was painted for a palace in Venice, and somehow brings the magical light we associate with that city to our galleries. Another special aspect of Tiepolo's painting is its original Rococo frame — an amazing example of the woodcarver's virtuosity that superbly complements Tiepolo's fantasy.
Virtue and Nobility Crowning Love (about 1759–61) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Selecting a favorite object is an impossible task, but one of the pieces that I always take pleasure in showing museum visitors is an extraordinary early Italian Renaissance sculpture of Apollo. Measuring just over 7 inches high, it's one of the smallest objects on view in our galleries — but it packs a huge jolt of beauty, exquisite craftsmanship, and history. When viewed up close, the intricate detail of Apollo's hair and silver sandals is extraordinary, particularly when juxtaposed against the gilt body. Although we don't know the name of the artist, I like to imagine how proud he must have been of his workmanship.
"Apollo" (circa 1540)
No matter how busy I am — and as the director of the museum I am very busy — I take time to visit our galleries every day. For the past year I've been particularly drawn to a portrait of Martin Luther King, a truly lovely sculpture that was the focus of our recent John Wilson retrospective. I can't help being reminded that President Obama stopped to contemplate a similar version of this bust in the Capitol Rotunda, also by Wilson, just moments before his inauguration last January. But the piece lives outside time. Referencing Buddhist heads at the MFA, African art, and the colossal Olmec heads of central Mexico, Wilson presents a work that goes beyond simple likeness. Instead, it is a timeless portrait of humanity, pulsing with quiet energy and challenging us to be engaged.
"Head of Martin Luther King, Jr." (1982) by John Wilson
Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank H. Goodyear III
BOWDOIN COLLEGE MUSEUM OF ART
We have been fascinated by the five Assyrian reliefs from the royal palace of King Ashurnasirpal II. Nearly 3,000 years old, these reliefs depict the king and the winged spirits who protected him and include cuneiform inscriptions that celebrate the king's ancestry and accomplishments. This particular tablet is especially compelling, as someone associated with a later Medes or Babylonian ruler disfigured Ashurnasirpal's face, severed his bow, and inscribed the ghostly outline of another face onto the stone's gypsum surface. Acquired by Bowdoin in 1860 from the British excavations at Kalhu (an ancient town outside the modern city of Mosul, Iraq), the work is a reminder of art's ability to ennoble and to provoke both contemporary and successive generations, providing powerful insights into the culture of its own day and enshrining lessons for our own.
Relief of winged spirit or Apkallu Anointing Ashurnasirpal II (ca. 875-860 B.C.E.)
Assyrian, from Kalhu (Nimrud), Iraq
Christine M. McCarthy
PROVINCETOWN ART ASSOCIATION AND MUSEUM
Blanche Lazzell made her way to Cape Cod in 1915 after a short study in Paris at the Academie Moderne. Fascinated by what she discovered in Provincetown, Lazzell became a regular visitor to Provincetown for the next 40 years. In Provincetown she studied with both Charles Hawthorne and Hans Hofmann. Lazzell exhibited her work at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum from 1916-1964. She was a master of the American white-line woodcut, also known as the Provincetown Print. There has been a recent resurgence of popularity of this print method resulting in two 2002 exhibitions of Lazzell's work at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Provincetown Art Association and Museum. Lazzell was a pioneer as both a printmaker and a painter, as well as an inaugural member of the Provincetown Art Association, established in 1914. As PAAM gets ready to celebrate its centennial, Blanche Lazzell figures prominently. Painting #12 is currently on view at PAAM in an exhibition titled, PAAM100: A Century of Inspiration, on view through January 5, 2014.
Painting #12 (1929) by Blanche Lazzell