Treasure map to the Speed: A guide to the recently reopened art museum

Mar 16, 2016 at 3:46 pm
Treasure map to the Speed: A guide to the recently reopened art museum

‘It’s Your Speed Art Museum’

That’s one of the marketing slogans the Speed Art Museum is using as it reopens after a $60-million dollar renovation and expansion.

So first we asked the Speed curators to talk to us about their favorite must-see art from the museum’s permanent collection, something they want the visitors to see. Their insights made the artwork come alive and, more importantly, become personal.

Now I am going to name my favorites. Yes, the Speed may own, house and dust them, but they are mine. The following list is full of my old friends. I suggest you visit and find your favorites, truly letting it become “your Speed Art Museum.”

Hendrix Sigh Johnson - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Hendrix Sigh Johnson

“Hendrix Sigh Johnson” by Stephen Rolfe Powell, Glass (1992)

Modern and Contemporary Gallery

Art has afforded me many great loves. As a modern and contemporary decorative art historian, I have a type. But I’m fickle; a wonderful painting, sculpture, building or photograph can easily turn my head.

I’ve had a long-term relationship with glass. Upon my return to Louisville, I was introduced to the work of internationally renowned Kentucky glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell. His large sculptural pieces, brightly colored and highly textural, can be spotted across a crowded room. Or, in this case, a museum gallery.

The color and texture come from Italian murrini beads. These irregular shaped circles dot his glass, as much as 2,500 on one piece.

Powell has a tendency to entitle his work nonsensical, vaguely naughty names. The “Teaser” series, which includes this piece, usually have has three-word titles that end in either Smith, Johnson or Jones.   I have my own piece of Powell glass, a two-inch yellow and black murrini bead he gave me. I’m saving up to collect a few more, hopefully attached to a tall bulbous vase. Meanwhile, I’ll visit this one.

Carousel Form II - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Carousel Form II

“Carousel Form II” by Sam Gilliam, Acrylic on canvas (1969)

Modern and Contemporary Gallery

Miranda Lash, the Speed’s curator of contemporary art, named this painting as one of her favorite pieces in the museum. It is one of mine too. Though calling it a painting is almost erroneous; it has a three-dimensional quality, like sculpture, because it’s so large and not on a wooden stretcher.

Gilliam graduated from the University of Louisville in 1961 with a master’s of fine art degree in painting. He soon moved to Washington, D.C., eventually becoming part of the Washington Color School, an offshoot of 1950s Abstract Expressionism.

His “Draped” series of the late 1960s caused a stir in the art world. The voluptuous folds of these hanging abstract paintings, coupled with waves of color, create a space that is quite theatrical.

When I lived in D.C., my co-workers at the Smithsonian American Art Museum knew he was from Louisville and stressed I should visit his studio. Gilliam is notoriously shy and I didn’t want to impose. When I finally did meet him at an exhibition, Louisville was the topic of our short conversation.

The Speed exhibited a retrospective of his art in 2006. Gilliam was present, still shy and unassuming, but happy to be among his life’s work.

Untitled - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery

“Untitled” by Ed Hamilton, Bronze, limestone (2000)

Kentucky Gallery

Ed Hamilton is a local treasure whom we have to share with the world. Who else do you know who has a “Hometown Hero” banner on a local building plus a parking lot for a piece of his artwork (the Lincoln Memorial on the Waterfront)?

He became a nationally known artist when he won the competition to create a monument dedicated to the African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. “The Spirit of Freedom,” in memorial-centric Washington, D.C., features three soldiers and a sailor on an unusual convex front. The bust of a Union soldier in the Speed collection is one of those full-length figures. Above him is the personification of the Spirit that guides all towards liberty.

Hamilton is known for creating art that is emotionally moving, full of humanity and technically complicated. “The Spirit of Freedom” is his most powerful work, largely because it includes on the concave back the sculptural relief representing those families left behind.

This untitled bust reminds me of the spirituality in Hamilton’s art. As I have stated before, he is a historian of body, soul, place and time who just happens to work in metal.

Bird of Paradise - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Bird of Paradise

“Bird of Paradise” by Toots Zynsky, Glass (1987)

Discovery Gallery

It’s fitting that Toots Zynsky is in the Discovery Gallery, because she was an early discovery in my art life. Any history of art I had as a child centered on the masters, such as Vincent van Gogh (a kid favorite), Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. All male, and all fine art.

I was off on a different path, interested in art movements more associated with the decorative arts, such as Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts and Art Deco. My taste soon expanded to include contemporary museum-quality crafts.

At the same time, I was learning what it is to be a feminist. I wanted to find women artists working in my expanded art world. That’s when I discovered Toots Zynsky.

A woman in the man’s world that was the early stages of the studio glass movement, Zynsky embraced her nickname “toots,” a slang word for women, and used it professionally (her real name is Mary Ann). She was part of the original team, led by glass virtuoso Dale Chihuly, which developed the Pilchuck Glass School in the early 1970s. Her signature style, colorful fused glass threads shaped to form an undulating vessel, is awe inspiring beautiful.

Cycle of Life (Armillary Sphere - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Cycle of Life (Armillary Sphere

“Cycle of Life (Armillary Sphere)” by Paul Manship, Gilt bronze (1924)

Discovery Gallery

I remember the first time I saw a large amount of sculpture by Paul Manship. I was in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I’m a fan of Art Deco, and he is one of the most famous early proponents of that style. The museum has a great collection of Manship works, something I didn’t know until I toured its galleries.

My guess is you have seen his work too, either in person or in any movie or TV show set in New York City. His most famous piece (and one of the largest) is the “Prometheus Fountain” in the plaza of Rockefeller Center.

Manship is known for his elegant, stylized Greco-Roman modernism. Usually he brings together the human figure, mythology and action, although he created great animals too. The Speed’s work has three figures, representing a family, nestled inside the base of an armillary sphere (an ancient map of the planets and stars). The family combined with the sphere represents his allegory for the cycle of life.

The Child - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
The Child

“The Child” by Mary Cassatt, Oil on canvas (around 1905)

American and European Gallery

I’ve wanted to pat that baby’s butt for decades.

Ask a person who is unfamiliar with art to name a female artist and they will probably say Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe (they can usually name a male artist if they were fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). It also helps that Cassatt worked in Impressionism, one of the more popular historical styles in America today.

As a woman from a wealthy family, there were familial and societal expectations for her. Being a professional painter was not one of them. Ostracized by her father, she headed to Paris in 1874, then the art capital of the world. She found her niche when she started painting children, women and women with children. The traditional female subject matter eased the transition.

This painting was a study for a competition. After learning of political corruption associated with the new Harrisburg, Pennsylvania statehouse, she removed it from the design contest. It eventually arrived at the Speed, which is certainly a plus for all of us.

Vase - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery

Vase by Sara Sax for Rookwood Pottery

Earthenware (1910)

American and European Gallery

I collect American art pottery, a subcategory of the American Arts and Crafts Movement that began in the late 19th century. The ceramics were either hand-thrown or mold-poured, with solid matte glazes, incised designs or hand-decorated images. It was an art form that welcomed women, as ceramics were a suitable hobby for proper ladies, before and after marriage.

A couple of my pieces are by Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, one of the best potteries of its day. Opened in 1880, it slumped during the Great Depression and finally closed for good in 1967, much later than most art pottery companies.

One of the noted Rookwood decorators was Sara Sax. Her stylized interpretation of the popular peacock feather motif decorates the front of a standard shaped vase. Yet there’s nothing standard about her skill and technique.

Mirror and Vase - Nik Vechery
Nik Vechery
Mirror and Vase

Mirror and vase by Louis Comfort Tiffany

Bronze mirror (around 1905), Glass vase (around 1900)

American and European Gallery

Louis Comfort Tiffany has become a name brand, although most people mistakenly think it’s the Tiffany & Co. store in New York (that’s his father’s company). Most stained-glass lamps are erroneously called Tiffany lamps. He actually worked in multiple media, and the examples at the Speed help viewers to understand the complexity of the artist.

He owned or was part of many companies, including Tiffany Studios and Tiffany Glass and Decorating Co. He wasn’t always the designer or the worker, but we know the name Tiffany largely because of the quality of the art and his showmanship.

Many people fantasize about finding a Picasso painting in the attic. Me? Let it be a signed Tiffany stained-glass window, please.

To plan your trip, go to: