Reynolda House Museum of American Art

by David McGee


As you approach the Reynolda House along its winding and wooded driveway, with the botanical garden set below the main house and an expansive front yard in the foreground, you can feel the splendor coming from the stonework. Built in 1917 by RJ Reynolds as his summer home, the Reynolda House has been a fixture for fine culture in Winston-Salem since its foundation. As you enter the Babcock gallery towards the back of the home, you‘re engulfed in sleek woods and towering glass windows.

Reynolda House has collaborated with Wake Forest to present works that have been collected by students into an exhibition of contemporary art works entitled Now/Then: A Journey in Collecting Contemporary Art at Wake Forest University. With prominent artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Alex Katz featured, the collection provides a visual timeline of how trends and developments in art have changed over the past 50 years.

Beginning in 1963, every four years a small group of Wake Forest students have been visiting New York art galleries and studios to purchase works of art. Prior to the big trip they have to spend months researching and debating over the significance and qualities that make each piece unique or stand out from the rest with advice, direction and insight coming from advisors.

Reynolda House Managing Curator Allison Slaby and Wake Forest Assistant Professor of Art History John J. Curley have co-curated this event which is on display through Dec. 31 st. They explain how Now/Then showcases the pieces in four groups: collecting names, collecting styles, collecting history and collecting stories. Collecting names highlights the big-name artists in the collection; collecting styles focuses on the abstract and representational art; collecting history is specifically focused on the 1969 buying trip and collecting stories looks at the memorable moments that students and advisors have had on their buying trips.

“An exhibition of this kind presents a significant opportunity to reveal the stories that objects have to tell about art history, about American history and about the ways that younger generations participate in the construction of our culture,” says Slaby.

The exhibition is being shown in the modern Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing, completed in 2005, many of the pieces reflecting the changing tastes and styles that occurred over the decades they were purchased. One thing about art that is timeless is the countless variety of interpretations that can come from the same piece.

A piece by Richard Diebenkorn entitled “Blue Club” features a black background with a blue club superimposed on a white spade that, to me, brought to mind aces and eights and a smoky room where fortunes were made and lost. The black circle cut out of the spade’s corner seems ominous and makes me think that this was a losing hand in a big moment. But these thoughts are coming 28 years after the color aquatint, spit bite and softground etching combined with creativity to produce this work of art. When it was first born from the mind of Diebenkorn it most likely had a different meaning and has been reinvented for each person who has looked at it since.

Now/Then is a reflection of how students from different times perceive the world around them then attempt to preserve it in a painting, sculpture or photo that will last, to be shared and thought about by others later on. Some of the pieces chosen are surprising and look to gain more meaning as time goes on, while others show their true selves immediately. The show is a lot like the gallery its being shown in: old and new at the same time, with generations collaborating to bring something to the table.