A Tour of New England Colleges With Eyes on Art, Not Admission

Foliage. Football. Falling apples. These are a few of autumn's most celebrated events in New England.

Those planning a trip to attend a game or see the spectacular kaleidoscope of fall foliage might also consider the bounty available at the region's ivied college museums.

Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin - all of these schools had libraries and most of them also established museums, which began, in many cases, as repositories for strange items that alumni and other benefactors donated. Today, college art museums offer special delights.

For starters, you don't encounter the crowds. Being jostled and shoved when you're trying to get a good look at a Rembrandt sketch or a Giacometti bronze can be quite disconcerting. Second, because there are typically fewer works on display, you can spend more time seeing what's there. Another plus for college museums derives from their educational character. This often results in smaller, more tightly focused exhibitions. And while some museums have a nominal entry fee, at least you'll be learning something and furthering the cause of higher education in the process.

The choices are many, but this tour features five of the best college art museums in New England as well as a couple of Bay State gems found along the way.

Yale University

New Haven, Conn.

Yale, the nation's third-oldest academic institution, claims to have the oldest university art museum in the Western Hemisphere, dating from 1832, when the American artist John Trumbull donated more than 100 of his paintings to Yale College. Its vast resources, numbering well over 100,000 objects today, are mostly housed in two buildings on the tree-lined New Haven campus: a Gothic structure built in 1928, and, connected to it, Louis I. Kahn's first major commission, built in 1953.

Yale's art collection is more comprehensive than most university collections, with notable strengths in paintings and drawings from the Italian Renaissance, Greek and Etruscan statuary, pre-Columbian art, and American painting and decorative arts.

A major exhibit opening there today is "Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures." It received rave reviews this past summer during its exhibit at the National Gallery in Washington. (It remains at Yale through Jan. 14, 1997.) With a handful of images - nine oils and 14 works on paper representing everything from sketches to finished oil paintings and exquisite watercolors - the show epitomizes what a focused, scholarly exhibit ought to be: comprehensive, enjoyable, understandable, and above all, illuminating.

Taking viewers deep into the heart and mind of the redoubtable Eakins (1844-1916), who went on to become a master of the psychological portrait, the show offers insights into the way an artist thinks and what Eakins was trying to accomplish.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)

Providence, R.I.

Roughly 100 miles up Interstate 95 from New Haven lies Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which, since 1877, has been educating designers and artists - at first primarily for the state's textile mills and other local industries.

Located in Providence, which has done a fine job of refurbishing its image and its skyline, RISD's Museum of Art is extensive (more than 100,000 objects) and varied. Eleven departmental and college galleries have collections ranging from classical sculpture to Old Master, French, English, and Japanese prints to contemporary crafts and decorative arts.

Given its focus on design and art, RISD's exhibits have a strong practical function. There is also an unusually rich blend of painting and sculpture with more varied disciplines, such as textiles, ceramics, woodblock prints, and graphic, industrial, and decorative arts. As a result, the RISD museum experience forces one to think more broadly about the roles of art and design in our lives.

Two fall exhibitions, "Malcolm Grear: The Art of Design" (through Dec. 1), and "Dress, Art, & Society" (through Jan. 5) make this clear. The former is a retrospective of the design achievements of Grear, for many years a teacher at RISD, as well as the head of an internationally known design firm chosen as the major designer for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The exhibit includes Grear's work over 35 years on everything from textbooks, museum catalogs, and posters, to graphic design packages for hospitals, colleges, and corporations. The latter exhibit explores how fashion from the late 18th century through the 19th reflects cultural developments.

What RISD provides in a compact, tightly woven diversity is more scattered on three separate venues along the eastern edge of Harvard Yard.

Harvard University

Cambridge, Mass.

Like the big corporation that it is, Harvard doesn't have an art museum - it has three of them. The Fogg Art Museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and the Busch-Reisinger Museum are very different, but fortunately for the untutored tourist, they're clustered quite literally within a stone's throw of one another.

The Fogg, housed in an Italian Renaissance structure, looks older than it is. (It opened to the public in 1895.) It is stodgy, with clear demarcations of dates and periods so that one can trace the development of Western art from the Middle Ages to the present.

On the second floor, its noted Wert-heim Collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art is buttressed by many collections of photographs, prints, and drawings. Adjoining the Fogg is the Busch-Reisinger Museum, with a grand array of German Expressionism, Vienna Secession art, 1920s abstract art, and the work of German sculptor Joseph Beuys.

The interior has a much more modern, airy feel than the Fogg, and the details of everything from the rectangular floor tiles to the Marcel Breuer chairs reflect the strengths of modern German design.

Founded in 1902 with the intent of housing reproductions, the Busch-Reisinger has since 1930 actively acquired original works of art, many deemed "degenerate" by the Nazis.

The Arthur M. Sackler Museum, the newest of the Harvard art museums, houses the university's collection of Asian, Islamic, and Indian art as well as the offices of the Department of Fine Arts and the Rubel Library, a major research center for Asian art.

The fall lineup at Harvard includes: "The Mediated Object" (contemporary works from the Eli Broad Collections; through Nov. 3 at the Fogg); "Masterworks of Ukiyo-e" (aspects of 18th-century Japanese culture featuring woodblock prints of two Ukiyo masters; through Jan. 12 at the Sackler); "Masterworks of East Asian Painting" (works on paper and silk along with ceramics and jades from China, Korea, and Japan; through Jan. 12 at the Sackler); "Anna and Bernhard Blume Photo-Works" (two German collaborative artists' first major show; through Nov. 24 at the Busch-Reisinger and the Fogg); "David Rabinowitch: Sculptures and Templates, 1968" (through Jan. 12 at the Fogg); and "Tiepolo and His Circle" (drawings from American collections by the great Italian 18th- century artist; Oct. 12-Dec.15 at the Sackler). Several more shows, including explorations of the Renaissance, African art, and what makes prints valuable, are slated for openings in November and December.

Dartmouth College

Hanover, N.H.

Reasons are many for visiting Hanover, N.H., just across the Connecticut River from Vermont: the spectacular scenery en route; the bustling 2-1/2 blocks of Main Street, dotted with restaurants and shops; the bucolic campus of Dartmouth College flowing out from its classic green; Baker Library, where in the 1930s, the second most-famous Mexican muralist, Jos Clemente Orozco, painted a huge fresco along the basement walls. And for the last 15 years, there's been the Hood Museum.

Designed by architects Charles Moore and Chad Floyd, the Hood shows traces throughout of Moore's whimsy, in the backlighting, in the ornaments that seem to pop up so unexpectedly, in the long stairway that looks more like it belongs on a heavy cruiser than in such refined space, in galleries that seem to appear out of nowhere.

And here, as at the Fogg, RISD, and Yale, there are important set pieces college museums all seem to have - Assyrian reliefs, a vase from Attica, silverware from Philadelphia, an African mask.

The Hood's fall offerings include: "Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head" (traditional and contemporary hats, headdresses, and hairstyles from Africa; through Dec. 1), and "Correspondences: African Sculpture" (with figural sculptures from the Hood's permanent collection as well as 20 pieces on loan from the Franklin Family collection; Oct. 12-March 2).

Williams College

Williamstown, Mass.

The journey down the Vermont/New Hampshire border from Hanover to Williamstown, Mass., is breathtaking. And the plum at the end of the trip, the quintessential New England village of Williamstown, has many delights, not least of all Williams College (founded in 1788), with its own Charles Moore-designed museum, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, which, though not directly tied to the college, is a must-see.

In addition to its top-notch exhibitions and its renowned collection of the works of Maurice and Charles Prendergast, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) recently inaugurated a program called "Labeltalk," in which interesting and important works of art aren't identified by a single label, but by three or four labels, with brief, thoughtful commentary by faculty members in different disciplines. The result is as intriguing as it is central to what the great American poet Wallace Stevens articulated in a poem called "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": namely, that works of art lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

This season, WCMA features "Labeltalk 1996" (through Dec. 1); "Dreams and Realities: Charles Prendergast and the 1940s" (through June 1997); and "Robert Frank: The Americans" (major retrospective of photographs published as a book in 1959 that became one of the most influential series of postwar-era photos, Oct. 12-Dec. 1).

Nearby is the Clark Art Institute, a wonderful museum with recently renovated galleries and a superb, if eclectic, collection. The white marble building that opened in 1955, with the scale of the smaller galleries, is complemented by a red-granite addition designed in 1973 by architect Pietro Belluschi and The Architects Collaborative.

Robert Sterling Clark, a Yale alum whose father and grandfather were trustees at Williams, led a life that included military service in the Boxer Rebellion, a scientific expedition to China, and "exile" in Paris as an art collector, where he courted Francine Cray, who became his wife in 1919. The couple amassed a fine collection of art by old masters and then-contemporary artists - Sargent, Homer, Degas, Renoir.

The Clark is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a real crowd pleaser, "A Passion for Renoir," which runs through Jan. 5. It includes 33 paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Phillips Academy at Andover

Andover, Mass.

The trip back on down Route 2 along the Mohawk Trail and up to Andover is yet another lovely drive. The Phillips Academy at Andover, alma mater of many notable figures, is one of the country's premier prep schools.

The Addison Gallery of American Art's collection is modest, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in quality. It belongs in a class by itself. The history of the Addison is recounted in an exhibit catalog published last spring for the gallery's 65th anniversary.

Fall offerings at the Addison include "Charles Sheeler in Andover" (with photographs, drawings, and oils of a section of Andover that Sheeler discovered while artist-in-residence at the academy; through Dec. 1) and "Dorothea Lange, Wendy Ewald, and Judith Joy Ross" (exhibit of three major American photographers; through Jan. 5).

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