Carolina Collects: 150 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art from Alumni Collections
Ackland Art Museum
Through Dec. 4

Imagine being commissioned to create a CD set or playlist that would represent 20th century music. You’d have access to vast and diverse databases of MP3s, from which you could choose and organize as you saw fit. You’d want to include one quintessential tune from each recording artist who you felt really mattered, as well as some little-known stuff to round out each genre. Pretty fun chore, yes? And pretty difficult, as well.

Now, replace MP3 files with works of art from the biggest names of the last centurymany of which would trigger a bidding frenzy at Sotheby’sand you get a sense of the task that Ackland Museum of Art Chief Curator Peter Nisbet took on to produce Carolina Collects: 150 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art from Alumni Collections, which opened last month and remains on display through Dec. 4.

Carolina Collects is not only a testament to a Carolina education and, as Nisbet says, “the role it plays in fostering a love of the arts,” but also an entertaining recap of Modernism. In that, it is a real curatorial accomplishment for the Ackland.

Before soliciting and discovering works from the gamut of alumni collections, Nisbet had to establish some ground rules. He would include no more than one work per artist, and a maximum of four works from any collector. The result is 88 works from 60 collectors spanning the UNC-Chapel Hill classes of 1943 to 1996. And these paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings didn’t come from corporate vaults, either. Instead, these works are a part of the collectors’ daily lives: Empty rectangular spaces on living room and bedroom walls await their return in time for the holiday season.

Nisbet and his team at the Ackland have installed the show in the rooms of their museum with a comparable loving care, creating several big moments in each space for visitors to encounter with awe. The first room of the show is the biggest, and it’s suitably packed with big namesnone bigger than the opener, an image of fin-de-siècle leisure in the Paris suburbs, executed with a familiar brushstroke and palette.

“My hope is that the buzz is ‘Boy, have you been to the Ackland to see the Monet?’” Nisbet said the week before the show opened.

That welcoming French Impressionist work, “The Seine at Argenteuil” (1877), features couples promenading on the riverbank beyond a flowering tangle of bushes in the foreground that shows Monet’s aesthetic in flux. And it’s not a minor Monet: It shows him resolving plein air light and color within an old master-style landscape. A few years later, the painter moved to Giverny to begin tending and painting his famous garden.

Around the corner from the Monet hangs an immediately recognizable work, which makes a very different sort of strong impression: a piece by Henri Rousseau, “Exotic Landscape with Tiger and Hunters” (1907). Teeth bared, a tiger steals up through exuberant jungle foliage behind silhouetted hunters unaware of the cat. Jungle fronds open above the hunters for a full moon to light the tense, serene, weird scene.

Minor works will knock socks off as well. “Nude” (1935), an early Louise Nevelson pencil sketch, renders a blocky but casual seated female figure in a minimum of quick lines”very much a sculptor’s drawing,” Nisbet says. The figure’s head and curly locks are conflated into a triple loop, like three cursive e’s. Complementing the Gaston Lachaise drawing beneath it, Nevelson’s work also represents the painful side of curating this show. Nisbet winced a little as he noted that he chose it over a more trademark Nevelson work, a white box from her 1959 masterpiece “Dawn’s Wedding Chapel.” This might be the kind of decision that curators lose sleep over.

The room is dense with big-name artists, so that one almost overlooks Picasso’s 1943 “Head of a Woman” to admire the summery wavering of Milton Avery’s 1944 “Two Women Playing Cards.” Another small wall gathers a sexualized trio of works by Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Harry Callahan, all dating to 1947.

O. Winston Link’s image of a 1950s couple snuggling in their convertible at the drive-in, watching a jet soar onscreen while a gas-lit locomotive roars past the theater in the background, hangs on the back wall of a potent photography alcove. To its right is one of Weegee’s great New York crime scene shots of the 1940s, of gawkers leaning out of a pair of second-floor windows to look down upon the aftermath of a sidewalk murder. Together, the photographs read like a two-frame film about Americans becoming complacent enough with the kinetic acceleration of modern life that they grow detached and bewildered when that machinery spits a flesh-and-blood body into the street.

The second room also features strong photos, and photo-like images. Among those represented are high society portraitist Tina Barney, photorealist painter Richard Estes and East Village demimonde chronicler Nan Goldin. Especially strong are a pair of fire-related images by the influential landscape photographer Richard Misrach and prairie lensman Larry Schwarm.

But the big thrill comes from the holy trinity of Pop Art: Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Lichtenstein’s “Keds” (1961) welcomes you into the room with some immediate relief from the serious bastion of the high Modernists. And it has a fascinating back story: The pair of dazzling sneakers is not Keds brand but a Sears, Roebuck and Co. knockoff of Chuck Taylors called “Jeepers.” Lichtenstein preferred their look, however, so he obscured the brand name in the image while still calling them Keds, a Pop Art two-step that’s hard to know whether to peg as ironic.

Passing a large-scale, tea-tinted Sally Mann photograph into the little alcove room, you’re treated to a polymorphously perverse 1983 self-portrait of Francesco Clemente, as well as a late Giorgio de Chirico lithograph of a pair of horses galloping on the beach. The most contemporary work in the show has been saved for the final room. Startling graphical paintings from Bridget Riley (“Ceres Fan,” 1985) and Mel Bochner (“Vanishing Point: Flash Forward,” 1991) recalibrate the eyes while a 1992 Gerhard Richter abstraction decalibrates them.

The last, and greatest, moment in the show comes from a pair of sculptures and a photograph of a third in the final room. A small, white marble Louise Bourgeois sculpture of her sister Henriette, completed in 1980, sits on a stand. Henriette is represented with one leg folded in front of her and the other extended awkwardly. This portrays Henriette’s medical condition in which the leg stiffened and forced her to walk painstakingly with a cane.

Both seductively abstract forms are willfully ignored, however, by Sam Durant’s gigantic photograph of his sculpture titled “Female Indian (Nude)” (1996). A mannequin-like torso emerges from a white floor, but the composition of her body, when we reach the arms, abruptly switches to bubble-wrapped rolls of butcher’s paper, only one of which has a forearm and hand. She has the stereotypical braids that we associate with B-movie Westerns, and her hyper-real face stares expressionlessly away from the camera, conveying an ambiguous range of reactions to her partiality and mutilation. She delivers a blow to abstraction from the forearm of the real.

Collectors will no doubt thrill at the sight of their works in these new contexts. If you’re a Carolina student, faculty member or alumnus yourself, Carolina Collects might have some heightened pedagogical or cultural resonance. But if you’re not a Tar Heel, or even feel a boo rising in your throat at the mere sight of the word, the exhibition offers a rare chance to enjoy an eyebrow-raising wealth of world-class art in your own backyard.