Opened to the public in 1973, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is a Cornell treasure as well as one of Central New York’s leading museums. 

On display through July 22, “Highlights from the Collection: 45 at the Johnson” was curated by outgoing museum director Stephanie Wiles. Spanning Europe, the Americas, and Asia—and ranging from the Pre-Columbian to the contemporary—the exhibit provides an excellent, if necessarily limited, introduction to the museum’s encyclopedic ambition. At the same time, visitors versed in the collection will find familiar pieces placed side-by-side with recent acquisitions and rarely shown works. A relatively casual arrangement, which fills the cavernous underground Bartels Gallery, feels refreshing in this era of curatorial heavy-handedness. 

Although loosely organized by chronology, geography, and medium, the overall impression here is one that suggests the unity as well as the diversity of art-making as a human practice. For those of us versed in art history, there’s delight in finding affinities that unexpectedly span time and place. 

One would like to see more work in three dimensions. Two large objects stand out, quite literally, with their rustic aesthetic and body-like forms. Born Haig Heukelekian, the Armenian-American Raoul Hague (1904-1993) devoted most of his career to wood sculptures carved with a chainsaw and elaborated with hand tools. Although characteristically abstract, his untitled 1975 piece here evokes his earlier figurative work. Rendered of his signature walnut, it hints at a face, aimed in profile and an upper torso, contorted. You must walk around it.

A similar scale and feeling characterizes a Japanese stoneware jar, used for storing tea leaves and dating back to the 15th or 16th century. Hailing from the historic pottery town of Shigaraki, the purposefully lopsided jar is of reddish clay unevenly stained with dull greenish-gray ash glaze and pocked with white feldspar. 

Compare the vessel’s rusticity to the supernal refinement of The Waterless Shell (Minasegai), a privately commissioned surimono poetry-print by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) celebrating the New Year of 1821—and set aside any reductive ideas about a “Japanese” aesthetic. 

Works on paper—prints, drawings, paintings, and photographs—are mainstays of this show as they are of the collection. European printmaking is particularly well-represented here with classic intaglios by the likes of Durer, Piranesi, Goya, Degas, and Picasso. Equally notable is a generous selection of pochoir stencil-prints from Matisse’s 1947 artist’s book Jazz: vivid colors marking bold, semi-figurative forms evoking the circus, mythology, music, women, plant-life.

Fewer in number, canvas paintings (mostly in oil) punctuate the show with their weightiness. These range from Still Life with Thistle a 1670 forest floor microcosm by Dutch Golden Age master Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1620-1678), to Color System, 2005, a luridly doodled web by American abstractionist Joanne Greenbaum (born 1953).

Influenced by 17th century Dutch painting as well as his Barbizon School landscape peers, the French Constant Troyon (1810-1865) was best known for his animal portraits. Sitting in an ornate gilded frame, his 1859 oil La Retour à la Ferme faces the viewer as she enters the gallery. Centering on a white bull, with a brown one and two sheep in the background, the piece is stunning with its psychological acuity and subtle painterly heft. 

Recently revived, the Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki (1921-2013) is known for his richly syncretic approach, combining the ink-painting tradition of his homeland with Western modernism—notably the influences of Paul Klee and Abstract Expressionism. Klee’s rich cosmogony echoes in Wou-Ki’s 1953 oil Lune Noire, which was loaned for his recent retrospective at the Asia Society in New York City. Suffused in clouds of bright, saturated turquoise and yellow and scaffolded in rickety black lines, Cubist and pictographic, the artist imagines a vaguely medieval harbor city. Towers and fortifications meet open water filled with boats—who are joined by the titular black moon, which shares their crescent shape.

Eclectic and well-chosen, “Highlights” sparks new ideas and connections with every visit. The show also marks a transition as Wiles, the Johnson’s director since 2011, will be departing next month for a position at the Yale University Art Galleries. 

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