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A museum to be proud of in Greenville, S.C.

By Theodore F. Wolff / August 6, 1984



Greenville, S.C.

It's heartening to see how good many of America's smaller regional museums are - especially since most must manage with very little money, limited community support, and a public attitude that often leans more toward 19 th-century artistic ideals than 20th-century ones.

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The Greenville County Museum of Art here is one of the best of these museums. It first saw the light of day in the late 1930s as a small gallery in the basement of City Hall, grew big enough by 1958 to occupy a mansion, and finally acquired its very own home in 1974.

The latter is a dramatically modern, starkly trapezoidal 80,000-square-foot facility designed by the Greenville architectural firm of Craig & Gaulden. The architects obviously knew what they were doing, for the interior is both handsome and functional, with fascinating angles, intriguing directional shifts, and an overall sense of airiness. Space for both the viewing and the teaching of art (the building also houses the Museum School of Art) has been intelligently utilized with the result that both art and those who study it are well served.

All this would mean little, of course, if the art and the teaching were poor. I can only vouch for the former, but what I saw of it was outstanding, both in the quality and in the significance of the exhibitions within which it is presented.

''Andrew Wyeth: A Trojan Horse Modernist'' is a prime example. It was assembled by Thomas W. Styron, the museum's director, and was placed on view last spring. I have only seen the show's catalog and read Mr. Styron's introduction to it, but it is obvious this was a major and valuable exhibition which should have been seen in New York and other American art centers. This show, whose works ran the gamut from Pollock and Rothko to Smithson and Salle (and which included several Wyeths), was probably the clearest and best argument for Wyeth's ''modernity'' yet presented. It was made doubly effective by the fact that Styron is no hidebound traditionalist but a devoted champion of whatever he feels ''tells the truth,'' no matter how outrageously ''advanced'' or how ''conservative'' it might at first appear.

Wyeth's art is always in evidence here, thanks to the excellent selection of his paintings, watercolors, and drawings on extended loan from Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Magill. These include such favorites as ''Weather Side'' and ''Hay Ledge, '' studies for several of his best-known works, including ''Christina's World,'' and numerous incidental sketches and studies. All are at least interesting, and quite a few are quite simply first rate.

Also on extended loan are several colored plaster body casts made by John Ahearn during his visit to Greenville in January. They are of local citizens, both distinguished and very young, and make a very handsome addition to the museum lobby.

Three other exhibitions are of particular interest: Ann McCoy's large-to-huge colored drawings of mythological themes and subjects; the ''Southeastern Outdoor Sculpture Invitational Exhibition''; and ''5 Fold,'' selected works by five Southern artists. I found McCoy's fanciful and beautifully executed drawings absolutely delightful and thought-provoking and only wish she were better known. I was also taken by Harold Van Houten's wood, steel, and marble sculpture ''Cross Section'' in the invitational exhibit and by Anthony Rice's paintings in ''5 Fold.''

The real story here, however, is the museum itself and how it manages to serve both the community and art as a whole. It is one thing, after all, to hang shows that merely reflect trends. It is quite another to present exhibitions that try to illuminate those trends or that attempt to rectify misconceptions about everything from the nature and the usage of materials to the authenticity of an artist's work.

Also exceptional is the museum's range of interests. There aren't many museums of any size that would present the case for both Wyeth and street art - and give both a fair deal. And yet that is precisely the sort of thing a good contemporary museum should do. No, there's no doubt about it, the Greenville County Museum of Art is outstanding and of more real value to its community than is the case with many, much larger institutions of its kind.

'Women: A Changing Picture'

Women, of course, have always been prime subjects for art. Ancient Greek statues epitomized a feminine ideal, Rubens painted women as earth-creatures, and Matisse altered their appearances to match his formal theories. They have been depicted as goddesses and fertility figures, as queens, mothers, and mistresses, and they have been portrayed for hundreds of years in subsidiary roles as the wives of men, or as the embodiment of fashion.

''Women: A Changing Picture,'' currently at the Graham Gallery in New York, examines the degree to which this limited perception of women has changed during the past century or so. It consists of 22 works by 17 artists ranging from Thomas Sully (1783-1872) to such contemporary painters as Carmen Cicero and Paul Resika.

While this is not a major exhibition, it does make its point quite well by tracing the manner in which sentimental and passive Victorian feminine ideals were gradually replaced by more straightforward accountings of who and what women actually are. Outstanding are Thomas Anshutz's small oil study ''Head of a Woman,'' William Morris Hunt's ''The Greek Slave,'' Guy Pene du Bois' ''Mura Dehn in Dance Costume,'' and Helen Torr's uncompromising self-portrait, ''I.'' I also liked Robert De Niro's ''Nude in Chair with Parrot in Cage,'' although I saw little reason for its inclusion in this show.

At the Graham Gallery, 1014 Madison Avenue, New York, through Aug. 31.