hot off the presses
New MFAH book showcases collection's American treasures
A new book detailing Houston's most prestigious collection of American art, American Art and Philanthropy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, arrived on bookshelves this weekend. The volume, which made its debut Friday night at the museum's gala ball, is the first installation of an anticipated series of books documenting the museum's illustrious collection. The ambitious initiative represents the first publishing of books documenting the collection since a general volume was released in 1989.
"It tells the world what you have," MFAH director Peter Marzio says of the book, for which he wrote the introduction, drawing on his expertise in American art. "That's important because audiences, both local and national, can know your holdings a little bit better."
The book represents the museum's unprecedentedly rapid growth in the past two decades. "We're on a heck of a run," Marzio reports regarding the burgeoning collection, largely attributable to generous individual collectors. "I don't think Houston is thought of as a city of major collectors," he says, "but what this book shows is that the museum's impressive collection is indebted to an informed local community of collectors."
American Art and Philanthropy showcases acquisitions from the colonial period to the present in a chronological narrative, including such jewels as Louis Comfort Tiffany's "A Wooded Landscape in Three Panels," Man Ray's "Érotique-Voilée," Alfred Stieglitz's portraits of 1930s America, a handful of formative works by Jackson Pollock, and color field paintings like Hans Hofmann's "Sparks," which graces the book's cover.
Marzio has veered from self-congratulation in compiling the book; instead, the images and commentary speak for themselves. Together, the book's entries paint a portrait of over two centuries of triumph in American art.
"We started looking at how many artworks had been added to the collection since 1989," Marzio tells CultureMap, "and realized we had to do multiple volumes. So I asked all of the people in the museum who interface with American art to pick out their top 100 works of the 17,000 pieces added in recent years."
The monumental book, bound in Italy and released through Yale University Press, boasts fold-out glimpses of the museum walls, as well as expert commentary from curators. Explains the director, "In this format, it's very accessible; it's both a coffee table book and a scholarly portfolio."
The MFAH will approach subsequent volumes by area — a new approach for museum collection publications. We can anticipate future books on the MFAH's holdings in photography, European art and the bequests of the Glassell family in the realms of African, Pre-Columbian and Indonesian art.
The next installment in the series will be released in about a year and a half, with the following book to arrive less than a year later.
"We decided to do a different sort of book that mixes mediums and makes juxtapositions that you don't ordinarily think about," Marzio says.
A Frank Gehry corrugated cardboard chair and Diane Arbus print are just as likely to share a spread as two Ed Rusha acquisitions. "It's different from other collection books," he adds, "and despite this new, radical organization, that's what I'm enjoying the most. I don't think it's ever been done before."