Cross-Discipline Responses Create New Breadth to Contemporary Work in Close Readings

by Megan Kelley

As a collection of powerful American works whose conceptual foundation has spanned two years in the making, Close Readings: American Abstract Art from the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery celebrates recent gifts of contemporary work. Drawing from donations from the collections of Werner and Sarah-Ann Kramarsky and of Monroe and Edna Kornfeld, the exhibition pulls these significant contributions alongside existing showpieces from the Vanderbilt collection and works never before exhibited to the public.

The uniqueness of Close Readings comes not only from the strength of its inclusions, but from the deep vibrancy of the university community and the cross-discipline development of the exhibition itself. Aided by the advocacy of Vanderbilt alumni to secure a partnership, Vanderbilt became the last educational institution to participate in the Kramarsky collection donation program, which provided an expansive donation of drawings. The Kornfeld gift provides a balance of preparatory drawings that provide insight into the process work of artists such as Seymour Lipton.

The significance of the two sets of gifts is invaluable: “It became a huge step forward for us in how we can represent contemporary drawing,” remarks Gallery Director Joseph Mella. In addition, funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art allowed Vanderbilt to extend the scope of the exhibition and seek a new way to engage their considerable collection of American abstract art. The intent was always to look beyond the traditional approaches to exhibitions, and the expanded diversity allowed a fuller conversation about the context and impact of the work.

Kristin Capp, Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2003, Archival pigment print

Kristin Capp, Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2003, Archival pigment print

“Our greatest successes have been when we’ve partnered across campus with other departments, centers, and individuals, to help provide many inroads into a common subject,” states Mella. Over seventy invitations, sent to every department across campus, set aside a strict curator’s perspective in favor of lending authority to the individual voice and expertise of their faculty and students. The resulting “close readings”—a series of written and audio responses that focus the act of observation through the lens of each particular field—provide a varied and rich contextual experience within the gallery and online.

Kristin Capp’s Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is viewed not only through the historical context of an anthropologist’s understanding of the landscape art, but through the poetic and deeply personal reflections of a pathologist. Ross Bleckner’s Untitled (from the America: Now + Here portfolio) is deconstructed not only from the perspective of Op Art and perceptual theory, but shifted through a dialogue of pattern-making and associative memory and expanded into a social discussion of branding and dystopian decay.

In a special performance with the Blair School of Music, composers created singular responses to works such as William Wylie’s Carrara Blocks, a series of pigment prints serving as monuments not only to the historical significance of the quarry that provided marble to Michelangelo, but to the temporal weight of labor itself.

The resulting effect opens the exhibition to the audience, providing new approaches and raising questions within the viewer to stop and examine further. “There is an instructive value in slowing down to investigate something fully and deeply,” Mella explains. “Close Readings encourages a habit of opening and removing assumptions: of investigating and asking that serves throughout life.” 

Close Readings: American Abstract Art from the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery is on view through May 26 at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, located at 1220 21st Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203. For more information and viewing hours, visit online at

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