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50 @ 50: Select Artists from the Gerald Mead Collection at the UB Anderson Gallery

"Still Life" by Eugene Speicher
Untitled screenprint by Allan D'Arcangelo

Fifty Sense

Birthdays—especially the milestones of 40 and 50—can be attended by mixed emotions. Feelings of accomplishment and regret, reflection and foresight often accompany the passing of decades in an individual’s life.

While some mark turning 50 with manifestations of a midlife crisis (whether a facelift or a sports car), artist and collector Gerald Mead has chosen to commemorate the occasion in true form: with an exhibition of artwork from his personal collection. 50 @ 50 at the UB Anderson Gallery has been described as “a mathematical manifestation of a middle age crisis” (UB Art Galleries Director Sandra Olsen, in the exhibition catalog), but in this survey of Mead’s impressive personal collection, the number 50 also is a construct to cull a “best of” pantheon of artists associated with Western New York, but canonized in collections beyond.

Of the various recent exhibitions drawn from Mead’s collection (e.g. Public/Private at the Castellani Art Museum, 2011), 50 @ 50 may be the most comprehensive survey because it doesn’t follow a subjective theme (such as portraiture) or alignment with another collection. The 86 works here were chosen by Mead and the Anderson Gallery to represent 50 artists accomplished by their “imprint” in major public collections. In Mead’s increasingly encyclopedic collection of work by Western New York artists, the artists’ reach beyond the region has always been a guiding principle. Delving a little deeper, we see that this reach can be marked by historical distinction (Clara Sipprell, as one of the first female photographers acquired by the MoMA collection) as well as by popular identity (Philip Burke’s painterly caricatures, familiar to most from the pages of Rolling Stone). Within the top-50 construct, other contrasts abound: from the social reportage of Milton Rogovin’s photography to the extreme abstraction of Charles Clough’s painting; from the nature-inspired impressions of Charles Burchfield to the technological pop art of Robert Longo. Mead’s long-standing dedication to building a collection of Western New York artists who have “made good”—whether by moving on or by sending artistic dispatches from home—has produced a collection diverse in subject matter, media, and mode of representation, but consistent by means of connoisseurship and curatorial vision.

Another strength of 50 @ 50 is the depth added to the representation of certain artists—an additional 36 works that form mini-exhibits on some. For example, seven works by Cindy Sherman offer a compact survey of one of the best-known artists associated with Western New York since the late 1970s, while illustrating the range of her work, from the Warhol-like kitsch of Letraset Art Sheet #1 to her signature, synthesized stereotypes such as Untitled (Doctor/Nurse). Other artists represented by multiple works in the exhibition apparently are by virtue of their extensive ties to Western New York (e.g. Harvey Breverman), as opposed to Sherman’s relatively brief association with the region. Without this depth, such a collection survey would run the risk of presenting a series of aesthetic islands that demand outside research to re-establish meaning and context. In 50 @ 50, the emphasis remains on Mead’s quarter-century exercise of assembling the best of Western New York, yet the exhibition offers windows on why each of these artists has been canonized.

Adding another self-reflexive dimension to the exhibition, the UB Poetry collection commissioned Mohawk Press to print a broadside of Carl Dennis’s poem “Birthday,” including an image of Harvey Breverman’s print of Dennis from the Drawn from Life portfolio. While the poem wasn’t composed for Mead’s exhibition, certain lines resonate with the character of the show:

Now that the time remaining is insubstantial,

I need to review my history while asking

What exactly it suggests I’ve lived for,

What pleasures or duties, what moods

Of brief elation or extended calm.

The retrospective mood evoked here is apropos of a private collection survey like 50 @ 50—a review of the personal history of a collector as much as it is a review of a geographically defined canon of artists. And what this survey of Mead’s collection suggests he’s lived for (at least in part) is the assembly, refinement and exhibition of the collection itself.

The poem continues with an ironic metaphor of representation:

To expect a meaning deeper than that,

To believe in a purpose beyond my own

Furthered by me all along without my knowing,

Is to warm myself at a fire painted on canvas.

Dennis’s two-dimensional hearth may not encompass how Mead regards his collection—or, by extension, how we should regard it—but it does suggest that a dossier of accomplishments should not be taken for a representation of a life. This interpretation that the whole does not ultimately transcend the sum of its parts serves as a reminder that the individual works in 50 @ 50 each convey meaning independent of their role in any collection or exhibition.

If a birthday is defined as the anniversary of an origin, then 50 @ 50 celebrates the 25th birthday of Mead’s collection (begun when he was 25). To the extent that Mead is characterized by his collection (and vice versa), one might say that both are only 25 years old. Assuming only a garden variety vanity and a benign bout of midlife crisis on Jerry’s part, I expect that he’ll be pleased to read about this conceptual re-calculation of his age.

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