Saturday, April 23, 2011

Field Trip: Vassar College

Now tell me again: what did people do before the automobile?  I am constantly impressed by those who to this day choose to do without this marvelous invention. I know somewhere in my heart of hearts there is an argument to be made against it but really...can you buy into it? Tuesday this week was yet another gray and dreary kind of raw day around these parts. I had decided to take that day – my birthday - off from all the tedious but necessary bits that have become my new occupation. Since the weather was not conducive to a stroll outdoors I decided to do a little exploring and headed upriver to Vassar College.
I am ashamed to admit that before I moved to this area I did not realize this somewhat legendary college resided just a few miles across the Hudson in the city of Poughkeepsie. I happened upon the interesting little street on which the campus sits, with its quaint brickwork and cozy round-abouts, while passing through for business. When I realized what lay beyond those brick walls I made note to return for a visit. A bit of research on lead me to The Francis Lehman Loeb Art Center, the rather impressive collection it houses, and the decision that this would be the day’s destination. So I hopped into my little red bug - with the top up today - and motored on up for A Good Life Well Lived field trip!
There are several entrances from Raymond Avenue, that charming tree-lined street, to the Vassar campus. I suggest the main entrance – through the gateway arch of Taylor Hall, which also houses the Art Center. You can park right alongside the galleries or you can take a drive through the College's rambling and eclectic campus.
To quote from their web site, “Universally acknowledged as one of the most beautiful in the country, the Vassar campus comprises over 1,000 picturesque acres ranging from the manicured lawns and formal gardens of the main campus to the meadows and woodlands of the Vassar Farm. The buildings, designed over the course of the college’s history by some of the most prominent architects of the day, range in style from Collegiate Gothic to International and include two National Historic Landmarks.”
 The institution's founder, Matthew Vassar, was known for declaring that "art should stand boldly forth as an educational force." Adding action to his words, Vassar donated his extensive collection of Hudson River School paintings to the college, making it the first college or university in the country to include an art museum as part of its original plan. 
Today’s collection of 18,000 pieces includes art from the ancient world up through contemporary works by world class artists from European masters (Brueghel, Picasso, Cézanne, Braque) to the leading twentieth-century American painters (Pollock, Rothko, Stella, O'Keeffe).
The collection recently resettled into a newly renovated 1993 building, designed by Cesar Pelli. Modern and sleek the Loeb sits in interesting juxtaposition to the old Taylor Hall with its elaborate carvings of artists and mythical creatures. The building provides a compelling experience, leading visitors through a low, glass enclosed tunnel, past a small outdoor sculpture garden to a high, sky lit central hall with jewelbox-like displays of ancient vessels under a high coved ceiling.
A huge portrait of the founder looms ahead, marking the entrance to the Hudson River School gallery on the left and the remainder of the exhibits to the right. The multiple galleries are nicely sized and arranged more or less chronologically with an occasional temporary or changing exhibit interspersed.

Though the collection in some ways rivals that of a Met or Chicago Institute in breadth, of course in size it is much more limited. The wonderful thing is that this allows for each room to contain one genre or historical period, making the transition from one to the next startling but also exhilarating.
 To stand amongst the richly carved medieval altarpieces and statuary, kissed with the burnished remnants of a polychrome glaze, and spy the overpoweringly simplistic color fields of an Ellsworth Kelly through an open doorway heightens one’s awareness of each - and jaded one cannot be! All you need to know about the Art Center can be found here. For general info on all Vassar has to offer click here.
The Student Inspiration Room
Mark Rothko
Jackson Pollack
Georgia O'Keeffe (Detail)

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