The Housatonic Museum of Art is open for rediscovery.
An excellent, if remote, starting point is a painting from 1963 by the Pop artist Allan D’Arcangelo displayed at the far end of a corridor on the third floor of Beacon Hall, the second of two main buildings at Housatonic Community College.
Titled “Highway (NYC),” the painting by itself may not seem worth the hike. It is a tall, stark canvas with just three elements. It shows the white stripes of a black-topped highway running toward a twilight blue horizon. Done in oil, the paint looks so flat it might have been applied by steam-roller.
The painting is a must see though exactly because of its location and because of the dating information given on its wall label: “1967/1.1.” It signifies that D’Arcangelo’s “Highway” was the very first painting acquired by the museum’s founding director, Burt Chernow.
He was building the collection, piece by piece, from scratch, knowing and wishing that none of it would be displayed in anything like a traditional gallery. Instead, Chernow had what his successor Robbin Zella calls an anti-museum ethic, typical of the sixties. He wanted students and staff to have immediate, daily access to real art.
“Where else can you walk down a hallway and be inches from an original work of art and not just in a building designed for that?” she asks. “This is a learning environment. The work is in the counseling center, the advisory center, in the registrar’s office, in the library. Everywhere the students go they can see a work of art.”
The mixed blessing is that as the collection grew to its present nearly 7,000 mostly donated pieces the placement of those actually on display came to seem haphazard and sometimes dangerous. Works of art languished near heating ducts, for example. Then, about three years ago, most of it disappeared into safe storage for a major renovation and expansion of Lafayette Hall, the college’s other main building. It gave Zella a chance to rethink the collection that is being reintroduced with a long running exhibit titled “Object Lessons.”
The museum now has thematic spaces, if not actual galleries, created by the careful clustering of complementary works of art. D’Arcangelo’s painting, for instance, is a highlight of an installation called City Life and Urban Scenes. Nearby is John Salt’s “Demolished Vehicle near Bridge” from 1970, a painting of a crunched two-tone convertible (or a sedan that lost its roof).
Both Salt, an English artist who mined a scrapyard under the Brooklyn Bridge for images, and D’Arcangelo, who died in 1998, are considered important figures. Their paintings gain real time impact from their placement next to a large window that overlooks the I-95 bridge.
Elsewhere in the cluster are paintings by two women who might be called local artists. One is the ghostly “Commuters/Composition #88” by Ann Chernow, widow of the museum founder. It shows a crowd of half-formed, faded figures rushing somewhere or nowhere.
Another is “White Factory” by Anna Audette, who taught at Southern Connecticut State University for many years. Her factory looks like a cement plant, towering, powdery. The artist, who died in 2013, is said to have often visited a scrap metal recycling plant in North Haven to find inspiration for her industrial paintings.
Audette and Salt, both fans of scrap, face one another from opposite walls. Pairings like theirs, of the local or lesser known with the critically celebrated, recur often in the reorganized collection. For both students and visitors, they teach a refreshing lesson. “You can make great art and not be famous,” says Zella.
The collection’s surprising encounters reward walking and wandering. In addition to the themed installations, Zella has created mini solo shows. Not far from the D’Arcangelo cluster, there’s quiet study area enclosed in glass. The seating looks comfy, but on the wall are four big paintings done in day-glo colors that should keep students awake. Turns out they are all by Robert Stanley, a Pop artist whose work is in also in the Met, the Whitney and other major museums.
On the first floor of Beacon Hall, just beyond inside the entry, a spacious seating area doubles as an expanded gallery for Native American art. Across the college’s sculpture filled inner courtyard in Lafayette Hall, there are spaces for portraiture (mainly photographic for the time being) and line drawings (where Matisse rubs shoulders with a rising young Dominican artist named Scherezade Garcia).
A second floor classroom corridor that turns corners is dedicated to collage. At one end, all by itself and begging for attention, is the wonderfully intricate “Time with Alesso” by the late Fred Otnes, a Hall of Fame illustrator who lived in Westport and Redding. The piece is dominated by a black tree and climbing bird that appear to be stenciled.
The new Lafayette Hall atrium gets an expanded display of African art on the lower level. Behind glass, an antelope mask with downcast eyes and long orange hair appears to be gently bowing. An Angolan chief’s chair on a pedestal records the chief’s royal lineage in almost 30 different carved heads.
The chair is one of several pieces making its public debut. Zella says Chernow was able to acquire the original core of the African collection as a result of a conversation he overheard in an airport. His name is on the museum’s only genuine gallery space. The chief’s chair stands just outside its closed entrance.
The most precious pieces in the collection are displayed on the atrium’s second floor balcony where they are safer from accidental damage. Just a few feet apart are two especially valuable paintings by Alex Katz, a New York artist who has had hundreds of solo exhibitions, and Wayne Thiebaud, a California-based Pop artist best known for his colorful depictions of ordinary pleasures, like cakes and pies and toys.
“You can’t just go out and get another Alex Katz now. It would cost several hundred thousand dollars,” says Zella. “Or the Wayne Thiebaud, which is worth over $2 million.”
The Katz painting is titled “The Incident” and appears to be typical of his style which is said to favor flatness of color and form. His “Incident” shows three full length figures — a woman and two men - suspended in a beige background. The only bright color is the red of the woman’s lipstick and hat ribbon.
Thiebaud’s painting, titled “Blue Mountain,” happens to be a landscape, another of his abiding interests. In “Blue Mountain,” he filled 90 percent of the canvas with a black escarpment. At the very top, tiny, colorful figures suggest someone’s holding a picnic up there. The only blue is a thin streak of sky across the top and down one side.
As different as they are in subject matter, Thiebaud’s “Mountain” and D’Arcangelo’s “Highway” look a lot alike and make good bookends to the reinstalled collection.
The long, enriching walk between the two will be aided by a map Zella was preparing for an official opening in late October. She expects to periodically change up the content of the themed installations. Altogether, there are about 1,250 pieces of art on display, counting works in offices, stairwells and other spaces.