Works on paper rock in ‘50 Years’ at DIA

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Take a quick tour of “Fifty Years of Collecting” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and find yourself bedazzled by the breadth and quality of what the museum auxiliary, the Friends of Prints, Drawings and Photographs, has donated over the years.

This show of about 120 objects, give or take, is up through June 18.

It’s all a bit of a happy coincidence. The Friends just turned 50, and Nancy Sojka — the amusingly dry curator who heads the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs — is retiring after 27 years at the museum.

So what better time to stage a big exhibition?

“The hard part was selecting what to show,” Sojka says. “The exhibition is nothing more than a tip-of-the-iceberg summary of what the group has given or bought.”

Most museums rely on auxiliaries to raise money for specific artistic departments, and the DIA has a rich trove of such organizations, including the one in question that was originally known as the Print and Drawing Club back in 1966.

Most of the works on paper here are from the mid-19th century on — which is to say, modernism, broadly defined. But what a range!

There’s Erich Heckel’s 1918 “Self Portrait,” marvelously creepy in that German Expressionist way, with the artist’s face tinted a handsome, aggressive green.

“Heckel’s one of the principal artists of the movement,” Sojka says. “Before this, we didn’t really have a monumental, color, Expressionist woodcut print — or rather, we just had one.”

A Heckel fan? Don’t miss his bright red “Die Brücke Exhibition Poster,” hung nearby, that was one of the Friends’ first purchases.

The Friends’ most-recent acquisition also bears mention. James McNeill Whistler’s “Yellow House, Lannion” is a color lithograph the artist made while on vacation in Brittany in 1893, in a period when many artists were experimenting with such prints.

“Color lithographs of 1890s Paris are very significant,” Sojka says. “It’s when you see the first use of color lithography with Toulouse-Lautrec and all the rest. And Whistler, of course.”

“Lannion” hangs right next to a contemporaneous sepia-toned photograph of Whistler in his art studio by Paul-François Arnold Cardon, which does a nice job of personalizing the work and setting it in context.

Finally, fans of luxurious color won’t want to miss Helen Frankenthaler’s “Tales of Genji III,” a sumptuous 1998 essay in rich blues and greens, which Sojka calls “a spectacular overwhelming American masterwork.”

Sojka notes that the work, with its colors running into one another, reads as very painterly.

But it’s actually a highly unusual adaptation of a woodcut, in which Frankenthaler adapts a medium famous for its hard edges into something unexpectedly fluid and ambiguous.

Fifty Years of Collecting

DIA’s Friends of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Anniversary Exhibition

Through June 18

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Tickets: Free to residents of Macomb, Oakland & Wayne counties; All others — $12.50 - adults; $8 seniors; $7 - college students with ID; $6 - kids 6-17

(313) 833-7900