The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale — under the auspices of Nova Southeastern University and helmed by director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater — is once again in the great national thrash of art and ambition. Along with a traveling exhibition, “Chuck Close Photographs,” the NSU Art Museum recently organized and unleashed two new shows of considerable scope, “Five Centuries of Prints from Rembrandt to Picasso: Drs. Walter and Mildred Padow Collection” and “African Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection.”
In the second-floor galleries, the “Chuck Close Photographs” exhibition — organized by independent curator Colin Westerbeck and Terrie Sultan of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York — is the first comprehensive survey of Close’s photographic work, stretching from monumental composite Polaroids to cozy daguerreotypes. The exhibition could just as well be titled “My life in the big time”: subjects include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Kate Moss, Donna Karan and Brad Pitt. That said, some beautiful portraits are on hand, including the 2008 black-and-white Polaroid diptych “Bill T. Jones,” a study of the famed dancer.
Both of the new NSU Art Museum-organized exhibitions are tucked into the downstairs galleries, with “African Art” anchoring the front room. The 60 works in the exhibition, drawn from some 376 pieces of African art the NSU Art Museum has acquired since 1971, include carved wooden doors, Burkina Faso ceremonial face masks, textiles, beadwork and pottery.
Historically, African art has come out of a workshop system, with pieces worked on by several artists and often attributed simply to a particular workshop or region of Africa. The NSU Art Museum’s “African Art” focuses on work produced in the 20th century and features an unusual number of pieces created by individual artists.
One of the stronger works in “African Art” is a wood ritual bowl, or Arugba, with the figure of a kneeling woman holding a bowl above her head; the piece was created by Yoruba artist Areogun of Osi-Ilorin, from the Ekiti state of Nigeria. Sierra Leone artist Vandi Sona carved the wooden “Helmet Mask of the Women’s Bundu or Sande Society;” over time, the once-glossy surface of the mask has worn away, lending a dimension of timelessness to the mask.
Many of the pieces created by unknown artists are equally powerful. An anonymous Yaka artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo carved the wooden “Mask for Mukanda Initiation Society.” Covered in cloth and raffia, it was worn by young initiates who weathered tribal bush ceremonies.
In the Delta region of Nigeria, an unidentified Abua Igbo artist created “Head Crest with Aquatic Spirit,” depicting a stylized African tiger fish and used to ward off danger. This is one of many sophisticated pieces in “African Art” that bears a striking similarity to the kind of American contemporary art that might be seen in an average New York gallery: African art resonates on many different levels.
“Five Centuries of Prints from Rembrandt to Picasso: Drs. Walter and Mildred Padow Collection” offers another resonant viewing experience. The long-married Padows are true collectors; they began collecting prints as young medical interns, occasionally borrowing money to finance their passion. Now retired, they live in an unpretentious house in Broward County, surrounded by their collection of more than 1,000 prints. The blinds are kept closed to guard against sun damage, and as Mildred Padow notes with a laugh, “Sometimes people passing by think something’s wrong at our place.”
The exhibition covers all the aesthetic bases, from Picasso to Man Ray — even a section devoted to the nude. The 103 prints sweep through Western art history, spanning Edouard Manet’s “Odalisque” — an undated etching and aquatint portrait of a Harem slave or concubine — and Alex Katz’s 1976 screen print “Susan,” a moody portrait with the subject rendered in profile.
The Padow collection establishes connections throughout art history. In an 1890 Pierre-Auguste Renoir etching, “Dancing in the Country,” the figure of a dancing woman is gracefully pulling back from a too-ardent suitor.
The model for the Renoir etching was painter and Renoir-friend Suzanne Valadon, who has an undated chalk on paper piece, “Standing Bather,” in the Padow show. In the late 1800s, capturing nude female models was considered inappropriate subject matter for women artists, despite the fact that artist and model shared the same biological infrastructure: male artists, of course, could hang out with nude female models all day long and not irk polite society.
The Padow collection encompasses some true standard-bearers, such as Edward Hopper’s 1921 etching “Night Shadows,” with a solitary figure engulfed by an ominous cityscape. In Thomas Hart Benton’s 1940 lithograph “Sunset,” a cow and tree are framed by a sunset and a roiling vastness of landscape. At this juncture in his career, Benton had moved from New York to the mid-West, turning against abstraction and capturing the mood of agrarian America.
To Bonnie Clearwater, the NSU Art Museum’s permanent collections and collectors like the Padows provide a deeper museum experience. “Some of the artists the Padows collect, such as John Sloan, tie into our William J. Glackens exhibition, drawn from our collection and up through 2018. Our African art show is linked to our Cuban and Latin art collection. Visitors can make comparisons between all the art here, creating all kinds of echoes and reverberations.”
If You Go
What: “Chuck Close Photographs,” “Five Centuries of Prints from Rembrandt to Picasso: Drs. Walter and Mildred Padow Collection,” and “African Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection.”
When: “Chuck Close Photographs” is on view through Oct. 2. “Five Centuries of Prints from Rembrandt to Picasso: Drs. Walter and Mildred Padow Collection” and “African Art: Highlights of the Permanent Collection” are on view through Oct. 23.
Where: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, One East Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale
Cost: $5 to $12 (Children under 12 free)
Info: 954-525-5500; www.nsuartmuseum.org