Seeking tomorrow's masterpieces

The Carnegie Museum of Art has been staging the Carnegie International for 123 years and building its collection by acquiring work from the show. Here is what the museum bought this year and why.
April 1, 2019
"Hot Chocolate, 2017," Beverly Semmes (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)

Seeking tomorrow's masterpieces

The Carnegie Museum of Art has been staging the Carnegie International for 123 years and building its collection by acquiring work from the show. Here is what the museum bought this year and why.
By Marylynne Pitz | Post-Gazette
April 1, 2019

Buying art is a gamble because artists’ work goes in and out of fashion as their reputations wax and wane.

Nearly every time the Carnegie Museum of Art stages its premier exhibition of contemporary art — the Carnegie International — the museum buys works from the show for its permanent collection. Staged every four or five years, the international is the oldest showcase of contemporary art in North America.

Starting in 1896, the museum began buying paintings by artists whose names are now familiar, including Winslow Homer, Mary Cassatt and Edward Hopper.  

Which artwork was NOT acquired after display at a Carnegie International show?

"Kandor 20, 2007" Mike Kelly (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)
"The Bath," Gaston La Touche, 1907 (Post-Gazette Archives)
"Do I Have to Draw You a Picture?" Mel Bochner, 2017 (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)



Gaston La Touche won the first price medal at the 1907 Carnegie Internationl for his paining "The Bath." But the museum did not buy it not only because of its nudity, but also because the model for the nude was rumored to have been the artist's wife. And, one critic found it in poor taste that the painting was displayed in the same gallery as a depiction of the Last Supper.

So far, the museum has acquired 40 artworks from the 57th Carnegie International, which closed March 25 after a six-month run. Through September, trustees will continue approving purchases. Among the new additions is a vivid portrait of two African-American men, colorful ceramics and an eight-hour film about workers employed in a bowling pin factory in Virginia. 

The painting “No Need of Speech” shows two young African-American men eyeing each other intently. It’s the work of  British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, who paints people she conjures from her imagination rather than hiring models. Ms. Yiadom-Boakye won the Carnegie Prize, which honors the work of an established artist exhibiting in the Carnegie International.

"The Wreck" was the first artwork the museum acquired from a Carnegie International exhibit

"The Wreck," Winslow Homer, 1896 (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)

"Hand Held, 2018," Beverly Semmes

The museum also bought 11 artworks by Beverly Semmes, a conceptual artist who has exhibited in the Netherlands, Ireland and Greece. Early in her career, Ms. Semmes attracted notice with her large-scale dresses that are like sculptures, including 12-foot-tall purple velvet bathrobes. Later, she began making glass sculptures and colorful ceramic pots. Her work in the museum’s Heinz Architecture Galleries included a 2-minute fashion video.  

Nearly 20 years ago, Ms. Semmes found inspiration in some discarded Penthouse magazines. The artist retrieved them from the trash and began using paint and a Sharpie to cover up pictures of naked women. Ms. Semmes calls her obsession the Feminist Responsibility Project.

“I’m a prude,” Ms. Semmes told an audience in March at Carnegie Mellon University. Her father was an FBI agent and she grew up in the South. She said the Feminist Responsibility Project is a way of channeling her Southern grandmother.

David Werner chairs the art museum’s collections committee, which reviews proposed acquisitions. He outlined the reasons for acquiring 11 artworks by Ms. Semmes.

“Women in general have been underrepresented as artists in museums for a long time. Not only is she a woman artist but she also has some feminist perspectives.

“She’s a sculptor who incorporates painting, drawing, film, photography and performance. All of these complementary elements can be found in her work. The pieces speak to each other. They can also speak to other items that we have in our collection,” Mr. Werner added.

The art museum acquired 11 works this year by Beverly Semmes

The only other artist from whom the museum acquired more than one work was Jessi Reaves, with two.

Click to see high-resolution version.

''Red Sun at Night, 2017,'' Beverly Semmes
"Hot Chocolate, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Fishnet, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Red Bird on Yellow, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Black Ball on Green Pitcher, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Yellow Lift, 2018," Beverly Semmes
"Cherry Cup / Nest Basket, 2017-2018," Beverly Semmes
"Nikie, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Blue Pitcher, 2017," Beverly Semmes
"Tall Silver, 2018," Beverly Semmes
"Hand Held, 2018," Beverly Semmes
All images courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

The museum bought work from 70 percent of the artists who exhibited in the Carnegie International. Of that group, 80 percent are artists who are new to the collection.

Ingrid Schaffner chose the artworks for the 57th Carnegie International with associate curator Liz Park and curatorial assistant Ashley McNelis. From the start, Ms. Schaffner said she wanted to include the work of Lucy Skaer, a contemporary artist who studied in Glasgow, Scotland. The museum purchased Ms. Skaer’s work “My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room I.” 

“It’s an index of all print technology, woodblock to digital,” Ms. Schaffner said.

"My Terracotta Army, my Red Studio, my Amber Room I, 2013," Lucy Skaer

Which artist won the Carnegie Prize -- the best in show -- award at a Carnegie International exhibition?

"No Need of Speech, 2018," Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)
"She, 1997," Chris Ofili (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)
"Opening in Violet and Green, 2018," Sarah Crowner (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)



Ms. Yiadom-Boakye, a British painter of Ghanaian descent, paints imaginary people in contemplation or interacting with one another.

"Black Cloud Chamber, 2014," Josiah McElheny (Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)

Before a museum buys art, curators answer board members’ questions about the artist, the work and its exhibition history. Curators explain how a new painting, sculpture or video fits into the museum’s collection or takes it in a new direction, said Eric Crosby, co-director of Carnegie Museum of Art and curator of its contemporary art department.

“Black Cloud Chamber,” a large piece by Josiah McElheny, was purchased before the exhibition opened, giving the artist funds to create new work.

“It’s a process of committing to an artist,” Ms. Schaffner said, noting that the museum already owned another sculpture by Mr. McElheny.     

These are other works the CMOA acquired from the 2018-19 International.

Click to see high-resolution version.

"Untitled, 2017," Huma Bhabha
"Rug (con zapatos), 2018," Ulrike Müller

Mr. Crosby championed two sculptures by Jessi Reaves — “Body with Electric Skin, Horizontal Shelf” and “Sconce with Biotails.”  Ms. Reaves began her career as an upholsterer, then branched out into sculpture. 

“She’s on our list, our watch list,” Mr. Crosby said.

"Body with Electric Skin, Horizontal Shelf, 2018," Jessi Reaves
"Sconce with Biotails, 2018," Jessi Reaves
The curator for the 2018-2019 Carnegie International, Ingrid Schaffner. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archives)

Curators consider the size of an artwork. Rather than purchasing Sarah Crowner’s “Sliced Tropics,” which stretched to the ceiling of one gallery, the museum bought one of her smaller paintings, “Opening Violet and Green,” Ms. Schaffner said. 

Money is always a consideration. The art museum has five departments -— architecture, decorative arts, fine arts, photography and contemporary art. Each department has a five-year plan it presents to the museum board.

“They give us an idea of the direction they want to go, what they feel is important to expand their particular niche in the museum,” Mr. Werner said.

Next, curators winnow the list of artworks they wish to buy. Mr. Werner said the 17 members of the museum’s collections committee take a vote on whether to acquire artwork costing more than $50,000.

If the work costs less than that, committee members can ask questions, but the museum’s director makes the decision.

If an artwork costs more than $100,000, trustees of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh also must vote on its acquisition. 

Vicky A. Clark, an art historian and independent curator, worked at the art museum during five Carnegie Internationals. 

What people value today in contemporary art, Ms. Clark said, “is the ability to react to our times, whatever form that takes. That could mean an artwork about Antwon Rose, [the teenager shot to death last year] or an abstract painting of horizontal hail falling on a cold, damp day in Pittsburgh.”

Which artwork was described by its artist as "ferocious and vociferous?"

"Low Water, 1969," Joan Mitchell
"Rythm Mastr, 1999," Kerry James Marshall, sixth of eight panels
"Woman VI, 1953," Willem de Kooning



Willem de Kooning painted a series of artworks about women beginning in the 1950s. De Kooning married Elaine Fried after she took his drawing class in 1938. They married in 1943, but ambition, De Kooning's alcohol abuse and infidelity took a toll on the relationship. The couple reunited later in life and shared a studio in Long Island, N.Y.

Some works exhibited in the 57th Carnegie International will disappear; others will be shown at the Venice Biennale, which opens in Italy in May.

“Three Angles,”  the El Anatsui sculpture hung on the art museum’s exterior, will be taken down. The bottle caps will be returned to the artist; the rest will be recycled. In the Hall of Sculpture, the art collective Postcommodity created a work titled “From Smoke and Tangled Waters, We Carried Fire Home.” The scrap steel will be returned to Rivers of Steel and the coal and glass will be recycled.

"Three Angles, 2018," El Anatsui (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
"Rubber, Pencil, Devil," Alex Da Corte. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
"Encyclopaedia of Invisibility, 2018," Tavares Strachan. (Michael M. Santiago/Post-Gazette)

“Encyclopaedia of Invisibility” is a work by Bahamian artist Tavares Strachan that hung on the exterior of the Carnegie complex. It is a list of names of important people who have been left out of history, written in colorful neon script. The piece will be exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

So will Alex Da Corte’s “Rubber, Pencil, Devil,” a fancifully decorated neon house. Inside the house, on a tall screen, 57 videos show people playing  Bugs Bunny, Big Bird, Pink Panther and Charlie Brown. Trained as an animator, Mr. Da Corte plays one of his heroes, Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’’ The Carnegie purchased the video but not the neon house.

Some past artworks the CMOA acquired from the Carnegie International exhibit

Click to see high-resolution version.

"Walking Man I, 1960," Alberto Giacometti
"Fifth Avenue in Winter, circa 1892," Childe Hassam
"Cape Cod Afternoon, 1936," Edward Hopper
"Siegfried, 1958," Franz Kline
"Don't Be Cruel, 1985-1986," Elizabeth Murray
"After the Fall, modeled 1881, cast circa 1913," Auguste Rodin
"Venetian Interior, circa 1880-1882," John Singer Sargent
"View of Saint-Mammés, circa 1881," Alfred Sisley
"Horizon II, 1963," Hedda Sterne
"Night in the Square, 1954," Kumi Sugaï
"Christ in the Home of Mary and Martha, circa 1905," Henry Ossawa Tanner
"Self Portrait, 1986," Andy Warhol
"Untitled, 1991," Christopher Wool
All images courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art

Still images have been purchased, too. Dan Leers, curator of photography, said Mimi Cherono Ng’ok’s photographs are “a really beautiful representation of her life experiences. Through residencies, through her own studies, through inclusion in major exhibitions, she has traveled the world and made work in Cape Town, South Africa, to the Dominican Republic to Berlin, Germany.”

The African photographer’s record of her life and experiences, Mr. Leers said, “speak to a broader experience of travel and creativity and an embrace of a tropical landscape that could really speak to anyone regardless of where they’re from.”

Ms. Ng’ok lives in Nairobi, Kenya. The museum bought nine of her images. Some are in color, others are black and white.  

"Untitled, 2014," on left, and "Untitled, 2018," Mimi Cherono Ng’ok (Bryan Conley/Courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art)

“This is an artist who fits in beautifully with our collecting plan,” Mr. Leers said. “She is addressing longstanding themes within the history of photography, thinking specifically of landscape. She is doing that in new and innovative ways through her use of scale and her use of framing and cropping. She is inspiring us to think about our own relationship to that object or that subject.”

Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter:@mpitzpgp


Writing: Marylynne Pitz

Design and Development: Laura Malt Schneiderman



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