Exploring ISU's Permanent Art Collection

Written by Kari Breitigam, MFA 2012

While the Indiana State University campus is known for its beauty and growing collection of public artwork, the campus is also home to a significant collection of art by A-list names.

Works by current and former Indiana State faculty and students exist alongside locally, nationally, and internationally renowned artists in the university’s Permanent Art Collection. 

“Among the almost 4,000 objects are rare American masterpieces and important print portfolios,” said Barbara Racker, university curator.

The collection boasts works by such art stars as Andy Warhol, Joseph Stella, Pablo Picasso, Robert Indiana, and Salvador Dalí.

The largest body of work within the collection – more than 200 prints, drawings, paintings and sculptures – is from the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Art Project. The project, in existence from 1935 to 1943, assisted unemployed artists through sponsorship of art production, education and research.

These works were allocated to the university in 1943 at a time when many unallocated WPA works were lost or destroyed during the Federal Art Project’s conversion to the graphic section of the War Services Division. 

Artwork created under the WPA was generally in the style of social realism, with images of labor, industry, and American life, but ISU’s collection contains some examples of social surrealism and nonobjective work (images that do not reference the physical world) as well. 

“The Joseph Stella would probably be the most important single work in the permanent collection,” Racker said. 

Part of the WPA collection, Stella produced “Smoke Stacks” circa 1935 yet it exhibits characteristics of the artist’s earlier style. The painting, housed in the office of the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, depicts gray billowing smoke emerging from darkly silhouetted smokestacks.

“It seems to be an image of pollution, but it is really an image of progress,” said Racker. “We view it differently now. It was originally a positive image even though we may view it as negative.”

“Smoke Stacks” is being loaned to the exhibition Manifesta 9, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, in Belgium. 

The ISU Permanent Art Collection is one of only three U.S. institutions from which work has been requested, along with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Columbus Museum of Art. Smoke Stacks will appear in the historical exhibition, The Deep of the Modern:  The Aesthetics of Coal and the Poetics of Restructuring. Manifesta 9 runs June 2 through Sept. 30.

In 1994 Smoke Stacks was loaned to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York for the first museum retrospective devoted to Stella. Loaning works to accredited museums is one way Racker is working to make the Permanent Art Collection more accessible.

George Marinko’s “Moon Ring Fantasy” will be loaned to the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Conn. for its exhibition “Art for Everyone: The Federal Art Project in Connecticut,” which will run Sept. 14 through Jan. 6, 2013. 

Also, approximately 40 paintings and prints will be on view at the Swope Feb. 1 through March 9, 2013 in the exhibition “Rivers to Oceans: From Indiana State University’s Permanent Art Collection.”

Before the merger of the Permanent Art Collection with the University Art Gallery, there was no place to exhibit the collection except in offices and hallways. 

“We are working on plans to make the collection more accessible,” Racker said. “We have a responsibility to preserve the work and make it more accessible.”

“Moon Ring Fantasy” (1938) is a surrealist painting that depicts the dehumanizing effect of the rise of industrialization. Marinko was one of only a few American surrealist painters at that time, as the movement was strongly based in Europe.

“Artwork created for the WPA program tends to be conservative, so it is rare to find surrealist work,” said Racker. 

The Marinko painting “is very unusual,” she said. “It shows the rise of industrialization and the move away from the agrarian. Can you imagine doing this for the WPA? I can’t imagine Marinko’s WPA supervisor letting him get away with it.”

Paul Kelpe’s painting, “Composition” (1936), is an example of a nonobjective WPA work. 

“Kelpe moved from Chicago to New York so that he could make nonobjective work within the WPA,” Racker said. “That’s unusual for the WPA; we think of images of labor or poverty and realism because it was run by conservative government officials. To them, art of the people translated to realism.”

Other artists represented in the WPA collection include Ida Abelman, Eleanor Coen, Stuart Davis, Harry Gotlieb, Max Kahn, Isaac Soyer, and Dox Thrash.

Works by notable pop artist Andy Warhol re also housed in Indiana State’s Permanent Art Collection.

In 2007 and 2008, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts distributed more than 28,500 Warhol photographs to 180 U.S. university and college art galleries and museums.

Through this distribution, the ISU Permanent Art Collection received 152 Polaroids and black and white photographs from the Warhol estate. Most of the photographs are portraits, with some nudes, objects, buildings, and street scenes. Many of the people Warhol photographed were celebrities, friends, and New York socialites. Some of the individuals found in the ISU collection include Carly Simon, Jack Nicklaus, Maria Shriver, Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli, and Warhol’s lover, Jed Johnson. 

The Warhol Polaroids will be on view in the University Art Gallery Sept. 24 - Oct. 26, in the exhibition “Love and Fame: Works by Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol from Indiana State University’s Permanent Art Collection.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, William Ganis, a scholar of Warhol photographs, will speak about the collection Oct. 11.

“The exhibition consists of 10 large Robert Indiana screenprints from his 1971 Decade portfolio and 73 Polaroids and black and white prints of famous, and not-so-famous, people by Andy Warhol. It also includes two iconic Warhol screenprints, ‘Flowers’ and ‘Chairman Mao.’

"‘Flowers’ is an interesting screenprint because it is the only image Warhol was ever sued over,” Racker said.

“Chairman Mao” recently returned from a cleaning at the Oppenheimer Conservation Lab in Chicago. 

“Flowers” (1965) and “Chairman Mao” (1972) are the Permanent Art Collection’s two most valuable works on paper.

The second floor of Stalker Hall is home to a unique piece in ISU’s collection. “Art:pack” is a pack of playing cards with each card designed by a significant Irish artist.

The artists included span a variety of disciplines including painting, photography, sculpture, film/video, and new media. Each artist was given a card size and number and asked to design a card which resulted in 54 pieces of original artwork.

Some of the artists represented include Matthew Barney, Sean Scully, Gavin Friday, and Bono. Proceeds from “Art:pack” benefited the Irish Hospice Foundation which supports hospice care in Ireland.

The Permanent Art Collection acquired its deck in 2001, the same year as its creation.

“’Art:pack’ is great for school tours.” Racker said. “They love those cards. The students can identify them as playing cards, so it makes the artwork more accessible. ‘Art:pack’ is an accessible work, both intellectually and physically. They were inexpensive and a lot of them were produced. Some of the cards deal with serious issues and others are just decorative. It’s a fun piece.”

Learn more about the Collection

Racker encourages the general public and local educators to learn more about the collection.

Groups may request tours of exhibitions or of the PAC work on campus. Requests may be made to research the collection, and ISU instructors may request artwork from the collection for use in a lecture or seminar.

To schedule a tour or submit a request, contact Jason Saavedra at 812-237-3720 or jason.saavedra@indstate.edu   .