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A collective breath of fresh air

Most museums have far more art in their permanent collections than they can exhibit at any one time, so I always look forward to shows that haul out some of the best from storage for our temporary enjoyment. Alas, this year's contemporary art exhibit from the Museum of Fine Art's collection is a disappointment, as is the photography show. Thank goodness a third exhibit spotlighting works from private collectors has spirit.

"Artists' Marks: 20th and 21st Century Works from the Collection" is not nearly as interesting as past roundups. The organizing principle is, according to a press release, to present "works that reveal the movement of the artist's hand, whether broad brush strokes or smaller markings." I don't see that as a news flash; isn't that what most art does? (I concede that a lot of new media reveals more about the viewer than the maker, but there are no examples of that here.)

What's interesting is that some important names are on the walls _ de Kooning, both Willem and Elaine, Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, Vasily Kandinsky _ and some are new additions to the collection. But the overall effect is moribund. Side by side, Leslie Dill's subtle, complex print, Twist of Funnel, and a Motherwell collage that uses the same neutral tones seem to suck the life out of each other. And the exuberance of de Kooning Breaks Through, the three-dimensional color lithograph by Red Grooms that almost flew out of its frame at the Grooms show last fall, is somehow muted by its proximity to a pallid work by de Kooning. Even William Wegman's oversize Polaroid of his Weimaraner decked out in a blond wig as the Sun King doesn't pull the show out of its somber seriousness: maybe because it has been jammed into a corner. The inclusion of Jimmy Ernst's Sea of Grass, a summer staple perennially hung on the same wall, was a blessed addition of color, even though it's time to give it a rest for a year or so.

Nor does "Corpus of Meaning: Figures Through the Lens of Female Photographers" stir me the way other recent photography shows at the museum have. The selections just don't hold up under the burden of their weighty purpose, which is to determine if "there is a gendered way of looking at the body inherent in images by female photographers and if so, what is that view?" (Again, I'm quoting the press release.) That's a doctoral dissertation, not an exhibition of 20 photographs. If we're really serious about that rhetorical question, let's get examples by practitioners such as Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, even Annie Leibovitz. I doubt we'd agree on an answer, but at least the conversation would be livelier.

I suggest you ponder briefly these questions of high art, then spend your time in the back galleries where you'll find "Collector's Vision II: Contemporary Art," an exhibit in which most of the works are far less pedigreed, but the whole thing is a lot more fun. I confess to a soft spot for collectors, disclose that I consider some in this group friends and admit that I've had the pleasure of seeing many of these works in their homes, so I make no claims to objectivity.

What any collector worth his gold leaf frames will tell you is that collecting is an obsession, one that continues long after every wall has been covered and vitrine filled. The coherence in this exhibition, expressed in different ways in statements that accompany their groupings, derives from the deep attachments these individuals have to their art and, in most cases, the personal relationships they forge with the artists.

Only one of the 11 collections represented here is owned by an art professional, Eric Lang Peterson, and even he often acts like a collector rather than a dealer, buying far more than he sells and rarely able to part with his best, most beloved works.

The collector named "anonymous" (I'm sorry, but I find that annoying; everyone else in this show was enough of a good sport to have his or her name displayed) expressed a commonly held sentiment among the group that "there is enough representation in nature," so very few of these paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works are representational. That said, one of the few such works is one of the most outstanding, Raven, a superb blown glass piece by William Morris owned by Bill and Hazel Hough.

Dr. Perry and Lisa Everett's collection reveals their bent for fine crafts and 3-D art, with stunning sculptures by James Martin and Hoang Van-Bui and a papier-mache "mask" of Frida Kahlo by Ricardo de la Vega and Felipe Packard. (I'm still mourning that piece; Lisa Everett and I worked on the same fundraising committee years ago for a party at which it was an auction item. She outbid me for it, which illustrates another principle of collecting: It takes money.)

Unlike many of these collectors who are loyal to local artists _ names such as Rocky Bridges, Josette Urso and James Michaels recur _ Doug and Maureen Cohn went after bigger guns, including Alfred Jenson, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Christo. But I love the unpretentious humor of the Cohns, who wrote that they often disagree about choices and that while she won the argument over Basquiat, he still doesn't like it. Which brings me to another principle of collecting: You have to have strong, firm opinions to be a collector or, in the words of Bonita Cobb, "I follow my eye and heart. . . . I hope you will find (the) work to be as significant as I do, but your opinion will not affect mine."

There's nothing startling in the show, though Cindy Spoto presents us with some of the more provocative works: a Robert Rauschenberg "light" made of of neon tubes fitted into a large piece of bamboo, one of Keith Haring's radiant babies and a glass and photographic sculpture by Mariko Mori. And only one collection of an artist is displayed, that of Laura Bryant and her husband Matt, surprising since artists, despite their habitual lack of funds, usually have killer collections because they trade their work with other artists they admire. (Maybe another time.)

Selections from Ron and Pat Mason's collection have a narrative that traces their start with prints when both were students to more recent acquisitions. Dr. Mary Ann Pittman and Steven William Boldt, whose choices include a beautiful burned glassine work by David McKirdy, say their "complex relationship" with their art "reminds us of the love, fascination and nourishment we derive from our pet dogs," which is a big admission, as any dog lover knows, even if it's an odd metaphor.

Joy and delight shine through in this show. It's not a great one, just as personal collections are rarely great, but it has personality. And it brings to mind a quip by Brillat-Savarin, which I paraphrase: Tell me what you collect, and I'll tell you who you are.

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