Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Is Art and Why Collect It?

The Milwaukee Art Museum’s newest wing was designed by the noted architect Santiago Calatrava. The building itself is well worth a trip and our reason for driving up there from Chicago (90 miles away) to see it. Once there, we viewed the exhibits which were equally interesting.

An exhibit that just ended on Sunday May 6th was “Accidental Genius,” the collection of 200 works from the Anthony Petullo Collection. The collection represented self-taught artists from the United States and Europe many previously unknown. Their stories were varied. Some painted in prisons and psychiatric hospitals. Others, because of poverty, had never had an opportunity to study art. The result was that many of the artists had a refreshing way of expressing themselves generally thinking outside the box of art convention. Some of the artwork appeared somewhat childlike and naïve to me but other pieces seemed really impressive. One artist in particular did large intricate canvasses totally in pen and pencil. Another Minnie Evans (1892-1987) from Long Creek, North Carolina, used oil and pencil on paper to paint portrait-like pictures of mythical looking figures. Some of her work has been exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Friedrich Schroeder Sonnenstern, a German artist who lived from 1892-1982, used pencil and crayon layered over paint washes to do allegorical drawings. Others expressed themselves through sculpture or other art media. It makes one think about what art is and who should be the one to decide.  It makes you think and that has to be a good thing.

I was curious about what motivated Anthony Petullo, a retired Milwaukee businessman, to spend four decades collecting the artwork of largely unknown, self-taught artists. I’m happy to say that he has been able to protect himself on the internet from nosy people like me. I couldn’t find any information about him. In videos that he made for the Museum to advertise the exhibit, he said that collecting this art became a challenge and a passion for him and that he often identified with the art which was made from a fresh perspective. At any rate, it was an eye opener for anyone who was able to view the exhibit. I’ll be looking for more of it in the future.  

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