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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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What's new at the Chazen Museum
The permanent collection now emphasizes modern art
For more photos, click gallery, above.

Last year's expansion of the Chazen Museum of Art, formerly the Elvehjem Museum of Art, didn't just double the square footage of the exhibition space. It shifted the focus of the permanent collection to modern and contemporary art, including works by artists born just a few decades ago.

"The original concept of the Elvehjem was purely art historical teaching," says museum director Russell Panczenko. "The work had to be proved by the test of time, which meant that the artist had to be 50 years dead."

Those works were generally by white males, the majority of them painters focusing on religion or landscapes.

"We've changed that," says Panczenko. "Now we have a first-rate collection of 20th-century art. Plus, we have 21st-century international works, reflective of what's happening in the art world right now: globalization and a multiplicity of media."

Now that the Chazen's second building has been open a while, I decided to see how the collection is shaping up. Walking through the space, you see what Panczenko means: This is not your grandfather's art museum.

The most spectacular change is the robust presence of Modernism. Anchored by the Terese and Alvin S. Lane collection of 20th-century sculpture and drawings, the style is now the centerpiece of the Chazen.

"It's a wonderfully complete Modernism collection," says Panczenko. "The major movement of the 20th century is very well represented here, and in depth."

Styles on view include Abstract Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art. There is work by stars such as Calder, Miró, Warhol, Rothko, Lichtenstein and Picasso - not to mention female stars like Nevelson, Frankenthaler and Pfaff.

For the first time in the museum's history, there's an African art collection and a gallery dedicated to magic realism. The Asian exhibition has doubled in size. But it's the variety that impresses me most. Seventeen galleries start in ancient times and move from European Renaissance and American regionalist paintings to sculpture, drawings, prints, ceramics, glass, metalwork, beadwork, textiles and more. It's encyclopedic, and there's truly something for everybody.

From here to antiquity

Though it's easy to plunge into the Modernist works gathered near the new building's entrance, the museum is worth exploring chronologically. After all, it's laid out that way. Gallery I holds ancient Roman coins, exquisitely patterned Greek amphorae and the oldest object at the Chazen: a relief fragment depicting a priest from Egypt's Old Kingdom. It's hard to not to gawk at something that's almost 5,000 years old. I'm also drawn to a Roman marble mosaic called Cock, Bird, Pheasant, Bull and Deer in Vine Scroll Pattern.

Classical Ruins, a colorful 1760 oil painting by Frenchman Hubert Robert, shows falling stone columns and a decaying pyramid, with lush flora enveloping and slowly consuming them, like grass poking through the cracks of a broken sidewalk. The sensual lines of Fauness, a bronze nude by Rodin, also catch my attention.

In Gallery VII, Our Good Earth, an oil painting John Steuart Curry finished in 1942, dominates the room. It evokes Midwestern pride - something I can relate to - with its broad-shouldered, sharp-eyed farmer as hero, standing in a windblown wheat field. Two children play at his side. It reminds me of the fields I played in as a kid.

For some, the first seven galleries may have a been-there-done-that feeling, with an air of the Elvehjem days. In 2005, the museum was renamed in honor of UW alumni Simona and Jerome Chazen, who donated $25 million to the expansion. Resist the urge to skip this part of the collection. Here are a few reasons: the Japanese Satsuma ceramic octagonal covered jar, with sharply detailed warriors and dragons covering its surface; a colorful 1935 painting of an industrial workshop called Cable Factory, by Russian social realist Nikolai Ionin; and an eye-catching assortment of Art Deco glass that exudes elegance and luxury.

Modernist marvels

Completing a loop in the old building, I arrive at the dramatic new bridge overlooking the pedestrian mall. Just as advertised, the integration of the old and new building is seamless. One step up and you're in Modernist country - a series of galleries featuring about 200 pieces from the Lane collection.

I'm immediately struck by the Cubist sculpture of Alexander Archipenko. Woman Combing Her Hair is a textured green bronze statuette, while Still Life with Book and Vase on Table is a sort of three-dimensional painting made of bronze and wood.

A minimalist sculpture by Alexander Calder amazes me with its ability to suggest a man's piercing eyes, hooked nose and jutting chin with just a few twists of wire. A Calder ink drawing called Ben Hur is crude and cartoonish but also detailed and funny. Look closely and you'll see a man with broom and dustpan sweeping up horse droppings behind the chariots as they race.

Both the strengths and weaknesses of the Lane collection are evident throughout the Modernist galleries. Strong elements of a teaching collection emerge, with preparatory drawings by Theodore Roszak, Seymour Lipton, Claes Oldenburg and others displayed near the finished sculptures. This is what Alvin Lane called "the tangible evidence of creativity." But the drawings alone aren't enough to gain insight into the creative process. Some explanation of the role of the drawings, what they mean and how they help the artist would be welcome here.

It's a problem I find throughout the Chazen, which surprises me, given its focus on education. Not enough information or context is offered. One exception is the African art room, which is explained in anthropological detail, with placards, photos, even video of a tribal dance.

One of the most impressive galleries is XI, which is packed with works by famous Surrealists: a painting by Joan Miró, two painted bottles by Rene Magritte and my favorite, a small, cast-bronze bird statue by Max Ernst.

When I visit Gallery XI, a young couple, both artists, extol the virtues of Louise Nevelson's sculptures, which look like broken furniture chopped up and spray-painted.

"This is a really great texture piece," says local photographer Brianna Dederich, standing before Cathedral Garden IV. "I think texture is overlooked in a lot of galleries, but it's an important attribute for handmade art."

"It's like a monument," agrees Ben, her husband.

Stephen Fleischman, director of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art says Modernism at the Chazen has made Madison more of an art destination.

"When the Chazen opened, our attendance went up, too," he says. "People go there, the contemporary and modern galleries, and they say, 'Hey, this is really interesting, and there's another venue here in town, let's go check it out.' I think it's a real asset for the community."

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