For all its worthy attention to centuries-old paintings, the Gibbes is a lot more fun when it cuts loose and devotes its main gallery to modern work. The museum becomes brighter, more welcoming, and more relevant when it lets modern art through its doors.
This summer, it’s giving the 20th century some love with the cooperation of Charleston art collectors Esther and James Ferguson. Their incredible collection includes pieces by Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Gauguin, and Auguste Rodin.
This exhibition’s biggest draw is Pablo Picasso, represented by two works. One is a 1956 oil on canvas portrait of his then-wife Jacqueline Roque, called “Femme dans un Fauteuil” (“Woman in an Armchair”). The colors are icy, and the subject has her mask-like face turned to one side, but Picasso softens her with broad, curving lines of paint.
Fact: Picasso was also a prolific ceramic artist, creating almost 3,500 pieces. His “Pitcher” is marked with typically childlike blue and yellow designs.
Sculptor Henry Moore is represented by two color lithographs, “Female Torso and Sculptural Ideas 1” and “Male Figure in Landscape,” ominous-looking pieces with figures that wade, curl, or crawl across stretches of dirty-looking ground. All the figures reflect Moore’s distinctive brand of modernism. His pal Barbara Hepworth has a dimpled marble object in the show, the dented sides hinting at her mastery of weight and space.
Robert Rauschenberg’s “Untitled, 1985” shows another form of modern art, combining everyday street images with pink and orange patches of paint. These bombard the senses with different angles on the same scene — a statue, store signs, artificial light.
“Untitled” is juxtaposed with even more garish pop art by James Rosenquist. “After Berlin 4” from 1998 looks like an explosion in a toothpaste factory, a cacophony of pink, red, yellow, and white swirls. “Feng Shui” is just as wild, a cough-up of candy-flossed guts on a rock ’n’ roller coaster. These two exhibits are best viewed from the opposite side of the gallery, where the paint waves don’t hit you at such great velocity.
There’s more abstract mayhem in de Kooning’s 1977 “Untitled (Landscape).” The expressionist uses oil and masking tape to convey heavy emotion, with two energetic matchstick figures joined by a gush of flesh-colored lines.
There’s plenty of tamer, more palatable work for the faint of heart. Louise Nevelson uses paper and cardboard collages in pleasing compositions. The three pieces in Modern Masters are lesser examples of her work, although the all-black “Untitled Jewelry,” 1975-80, has the brooding quality of a dissected beetle. Gauguin’s “Tete de Femme” is bronze with a black patina, a straightforward sculpture from the pioneering post-impressionist.
Charleston-based William Hagerty blends Oriental narrative with Henri Rousseau-type symbolism in “The Woman and the Chalice” from 1991. It’s dominated by a griffon with colorful landscapes on its legs. There’s a lot going on in the painting, but the effect is never overwhelming.
There are also exquisite works from Robert Vickrey, Christo and Jean-Claude, and Rodin. The French sculptor’s “Bust of Victor Hugo, 1883” perfectly conveys the character of his curmudgeonly subject; the knots in Hugo’s forehead indicate the wild thoughts within.
Apart from some recurring Cubism and Expressionism, this show is as eclectic as the Fergusons’ taste. For the collectors and the public, it’s a chance to see the art in a large space on neutral backgrounds. The inclusion of local artists like Hagerty and Camden’s Claude Buckley are entirely appropriate. Like the Fergusons, these painters are a living link between modern fine art and South Carolinian heritage, doing their bit to beef up our status as a place for serious artmakers.