The gift of art

In 1968 there were altogether too many reasons to be awake and alert to the world: Vietnam, the aftermath of the Detroit riots, Nixon’s election, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and Russia’s invasion of Prague. Somehow art had become a way to mediate the experience of the world, to digest and be nourished by it in another way. Frequent trips to the Detroit Institute of Arts, the secular temple of choice, were times for tinkering with the soul, quietly focusing on works of art and road-testing one’s perceptual faculties. It was a troubled world and one did what one could to make sense of it.

The experience was strangely rekindled this week while visiting the Cranbrook Art Museum to see the Dr. John and Rose M. Shuey Collection. Since the late ’60s, the Shueys, longtime residents of Detroit, had quietly amassed a monumental collection of contemporary art (mostly paintings), with plans to build a home designed by modernist architect Paul Rudolph to house their collection.

In 1997, Dr. Shuey, a cardiologist and formerly chief of staff at Mt. Carmel Mercy and St. Mary’s hospitals, died with the dream house unbuilt. The collection (still sitting in the crates in which it had been shipped from galleries in New York) had to be dealt with, and Rose Shuey graciously gave it to a deserving Cranbrook Art Museum. (We won’t go into the painful saga of the DIA’s relationship with the philanthropic community.)

The exhibition of the collection, entitled “Three Decades of Contemporary Art” (through April 7 at 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills — call 877-462-7262) has many astonishing moments and an overwhelming sense that one has never seen these paintings and sculptures in quite such a lucid and profound way. A specific person’s vision, or in this case a couple’s vision, seems imprinted on the collection, with each individual work that the Shueys selected complementing the whole. And because of the period when they were collecting, most of the work is about looking, about the visual experience of the world, as opposed to narrative-laden pieces.

As we enter the collection, the first work encountered is Zoltan Sepeshy’s “Rock Garden” (1955) which, because he was the resident artist and eventually director of the Cranbrook Art Academy, provides a neat segue between the museum’s own signature collection and the Shueys’. Sepeshy explores the possibilities of a cubistic, almost abstract representation of earthly structure. Rock, plant and flower forms interlock to create an all-over pattern that suggests the later optical experimentation that the Shueys focused on in their collecting. Then there is Bridget Riley’s “Shih-Li” (1975) which, in its mesmerizing, undulating wave pattern of a steely, sea water-gray palette, is at once an op-art masterpiece and a painting of the simplest lyrical beauty. Then, a marvelous example of abstract expressionism, Joan Mitchell’s “Preface for Chris” (1973), is a rare teasing mixture of sheer painterly beauty and submerged narrative.

As the exhibition unfolds, each of the 46 works from 38 artists articulates yet another aspect of this feast of visual experimentation. In the realm of geometric abstraction, three works by Frank Stella, each from a different period of Stella’s ongoing expansive career, offer amazing visual conundrums and orgiastic indulgences. Donald Judd’s wall-mounted sculpture, “Untitled” (pictured), is at once a test of one’s visual acumen and a beguilingly beautiful but enigmatic form.

With this exhibition of its recently acquired Shuey collection, the Cranbrook Art Museum clearly becomes part of the larger public cultural dialogue and opens itself up as significant local and national destination, where people can go to participate in our artistic heritage and find a place to consider our lives. The Shuey collection in particular and artistic production in general provide a subtle antidote and perspective in yet again another time of human crisis.

Glen Mannisto contributed to the Hot & the Bothered, which is edited by George Tysh. E-mail him at [email protected]
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