Weekly update — PAFA lets its light shine

[Ed. note: Today’s Weekly has my review of the PAFA exhibit “Light, Line and Color.” Here’s the link. And here’s the story. For more, see Libby’s post on the show.]

“Light, Line and Color,” the vast exhibit of works on paper from the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, is a delight. With 237 works chosen from more than 12,000 pieces-some of which have never been exhibited-the show is respectful of the Academy’s tradition (there’s a show within a show of figure studies), but playful too, demonstrating the collection’s quirks as well as its depth.

In fact, it’s the quirks unearthed by PAFA assistant curator Robert Cozzolino that make the show both entertaining and enlightening.

The show is divided into five themes: portraits and self-portraits, rural vistas and urban spaces, the language of abstraction, the academic tradition, and contemporary strategies. There’s something for just about all tastes.

I can’t say PAFA’s Fisher Brooks gallery space-windowless, high-ceilinged and impersonal-does anything special for the show. I’m guessing the 7,000-square-foot gallery was created to accommodate large contemporary sculpture and installations requiring airplane-hangar-like digs.

On the other hand, this show, with its mostly small works requiring close examination, is intimate. But the art is so strong and the curatorial flow is so well-focused that the space ultimately doesn’t interfere.

The last major exhibit of works on paper at PAFA was in 1986, and since then PAFA has acquired major works on paper that haven’t ever been exhibited, Cozzolino said at the press opening. There’s a wonderful John Singelton Copley chalk drawing from 1764 (Portrait of John Scollay, pictured at top, sorry about those reflections) that was acquired in ’87. This is its PAFA debut. The Colonial-era portrait, a flawless rendering of a man who must have been a strong character, would stand out anywhere for its skill and nuance. Like many delicate and light-sensitive drawings, Copley’s work will go back in storage after this exhibit and may not come out again for some time, so don’t miss it.

In an exhibit with international and historical superstars, there are also moments of local pride. Prints from the 2004 Philadelphia Print Collaborative Portfolio-including works by Kate Abercrombie, Ben Woodward and Charles Burwell-are included in the contemporary section.


There’s also a fantasy figure drawing in pencil by Randall Sellers, and an ink drawing by Charles Burns that was used for the front cover of issue No. 7 of Black Hole. Both Sellers’ and Burns’ drawings are included in the academic strategies section, showing just how far figures have come since Thomas Eakins.

Kara Walker‘s linocut African/American, a new acquisition, is one of the few confrontational pieces in the show. Walker’s black silhouette of a nude female, who’s upside down and whose parted legs reveal a jungle of pubic hair, is an image that shows the Academy’s ability to accept potentially controversial subject matter in its tradition without flinching-a nice surprise.

(image above is Walker‘s print next to a Barbara Kruger print)

Other surprises: John James Audubon‘s 1820 graphite portraits Mr. and Mrs. McClung, sensitive depictions of people-not birds; Reginald Marsh‘s watercolor and graphite Junkyard Scene, which shows a hulking heap in an urban junkyard instead of the artist’s usual fashionable urbanites; Stuart Davis‘ surreal gouache Dalìnian beach scene Sand Cove; and a diminutive Mark Rothko acrylic on paper, ’68’s Untitled (Maroon Over Red)-which, at a mere 39 inches by 26 inches, seems like a tryout for the artist’s later, more robust works.

(image is installation shot of the Rothko, which had the feel of a screen door on a small house.)

The smart exhibit underscores the importance of works on paper to the Academy’s tradition and to the history of art. It’s also a pleasure to view.

“Light, Line and Color: American Works on Paper (1765-2005)”
Through Sept. 4. Fisher Brooks Gallery, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600.


More from PAFA: Curator Robert Cozzolino emailed to say he has another exhibit on display. This one’s at the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin (my alma mater and Cozzolino’s too). The curator, whose Ph.D. thesis is on American fantasy painter Ivan Albright, organized another big group show for Chazen (104 works). “With Friends: Six Magic Realists, 1940-1965” includes work by John Wilde, whose two drawings in PAFA’s “Light, Line and Color” exhibit are outstanding.

>> Rob Matthews and Sharon Horvath, both local artists represented by Gallery Joe, are in a fabulous group show in New York at Adam Baumgold Gallery. “In a Series” explores work made in a series (of course). Matthews emailed to say his work was “mere inches away” from a piece by Ed Ruscha, this year’s American representative at the Venice Biennale. The show’s up through Aug. 12. (R.F.)