Collectors play an important role in the art world, most creatively at times when tastes are changing and living artists benefit from their support. “Persistence of Vision: The Peterson Collection of Contemporary Realist Art,” recently on view at the New York Academy of Art (April 22–May 8, 2011) in New York City, showcased one collector’s immersion in what he calls “the thriving universe of realist art.” Today’s realists came as a surprise to Peterson, who remarks: “I had developed the false impression that traditional figurative painting and drawing no longer flourishes in modern times, no more than great ocean liners or grand opera.” Anyone who visited the show or browses through the catalogue quickly realizes that—while his commitment to representationalism is clear—Peterson’s taste is hardly retardataire, despite the hint of nostalgia in this statement.
Peterson’s collection has an edge, and it’s eclectic. He acknowledges the classicist school of contemporary realists. A detail from Sabin Howard’s bronze The Human Condition (2000) graces the catalogue cover. The exhibition includes a handsome oil portrait head of the collector in raking light, Untitled (2000), by the California artist David Ligare, a self-proclaimed follower of Poussin. Peterson often develops close personal relationships with artists. The portrait was a gift to the collector, who has posed for several pictures by Ligare. (The notes at the back of the catalogue chronicle the collector’s encounters with many of the artists.) Steven Assael’s drawing Tara (1992, ballpoint pen on paper) is in the great tradition of classical academic drawing, but the attitude of the attractive, defiant nude model is thoroughly contemporary.
Peterson’s choices of cityscapes shows considerably stylistic range, from the photorealism of Richard Estes’s West 34th Street Parking Lot (2009), with its reflection of the Empire State Building in the hard metallic gleam of a car hood, to Ben Aronson’s blurry, painterly, monochromatic Rain, Fifth Avenue (1998), to Sonya Sklaroff’s thickly impastoed rooftop silhouettes, such as Fire Escape on Broadway (1996). The artist’s hand is barely visibly, in contrast, in the painstakingly detailed views of chateaux and palaces by John A. Parks. Chantilly Pond (1990) and Windsor Park (1991), both seen in the snow, look like nineteenth-century topographical/architectural panoramas, yet they have an eeriness that feels modern.
Although he obviously values traditional rendering skills, Peterson has also collected a good deal of photography. Some of it is straightforward and elegant: Timothy Greenfield-Sander’s black-and-white portrait of the collector, Gregory (1982); Richard Misrach’s color print in the style of Constable, Cloud #22 (1991–92). Other photographic works, notably John Goto’s satirical composites Society and Brigands (both 2000), have a postmodern sensibility. The most intriguing photograph may be Paul Hodgson’s Masquerade (2001), in which the artist has dressed and posed his models in a kind of tableau vivante that mimics Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting The Duel after the Masquerade. It’s a clever riff on the stage-aesthetic of much nineteenth-century art. Peterson owns a number of works that venture into the mythic subject matter that, for centuries, was a mainstay of the figurative tradition. But the collector does not favor the cool, classical approach to these subjects. Ansel Krut’s Leda and the Swan and The Mother of Pentheus Wrenches Off His Head (both 1998) are dark, raw, powerful, even ugly—in the expressionist manner. Two sketchy yet opulent oils by Damon Lehrer, Salome Presented with the Head of John the Baptist and Samson and Deliliah (both 1999), are more Romantic in style. Lehrer deploys space effectively and creates drama from the play of light and shadow. These two paintings, commissioned by Peterson, are also reminiscent of Delacroix in paint-handling. The curator of the exhibition, Peter Drake, Dean of the New York Academy of Art, notes in his catalogue essay that “collecting is a field of inquiry, a collaboration with artists and the larger art world.” This point is supported by the eighty-five works shown and by the backstories of their acquisition. Peterson owns a number of paintings by the very imaginative trompe l’oeil artist Scott Fraser, including the haunting Life Cycle 2 (2000), donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the lovely Brahms and Hercules (2000), which juxtaposes a vibrant blue butterfly and a butterfly-shaped bit of sheet music. Fraser, in turn, alerted Peterson to the work of Duane Keiser, who paints a postcard-size picture each day and sells his work on the Internet. Keiser’s principal subject is food. Strawberry P.B. & J. (2005) and Egg No. 28 (2007) are close-up views, inventively cropped and angled. His paint-handling is sensuous and dynamic. There is real pleasure in the way he captures the gleam on a silver knife, the stickiness of jam, the airy texture of bread, the unctuous richness of an egg yolk.
Most of the works Peterson collects are by Americans, although France, Cubaand CzechRepublicare also represented. The Russian Alexi Fyodorov’s brushy landscapes, such as Road (1973) and Dusk, Lake (1986), have a mystical feel. The Kenyan-born, Houston-based Gabriela Trzebinski paints bold folk-art-style images of modern African life. Her work seems far removed from the contemporary realism revival. But Peterson does not subscribe to any particular school of figurative art. An attorney who attended New York’s High School of Music and Art before Columbia Law School, he takes a very personal and active approach to art collecting, lending to museum exhibitions, writing occasional articles and serving as a trustee of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. There may be strong reactions to the eclectic mix of the collection, but it illustrates the complexity of representational art now. New York Academy of Art, 111 Franklin Street, New York, New York 10012. Telephone (212) 966-0300. On the web at www.nyaa.edu