Image: Theodore Roszak (1907-1981), United States, Staten Island, 1934, Color Lithograph and color stencil, Museum Purchase with Funds provided by the Carl Jacobs Foundation
Before Facebook, an easy way to learn someone’s tastes was to study their bulletin board or refrigerator door. Vacation snapshots, comic strips, magnets, postcards, ticket stubs and magazine articles would reveal where they had journeyed, physically and intellectually, and where they’d like to go. In that mix you’d likely find something in common to discuss.
The eclectic art collection of the late Carl M. Jacobs III is his bulletin board. With a hint of a self-assured smile in a 1958 portrait by celebrity photographer Carl Van Vechten, Jacobs invites visitors to explore the Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition titled Not Just Pretty Pictures, up through Aug. 28. (Jacobs bequeathed his collection to the museum.) From classic choices such as Eugene Delacroix, Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso to contemporary photographers Nan Goldin and William Wegman, there is something for everyone.
The show is as much about appreciating the Cincinnati-born collector as appreciating the art. Indeed, Not Just Pretty Pictures has pretty pictures — women, mountains, city scenes. But James Crump, the museum’s chief curator, points out that Jacobs collected works not just because they were beautiful or trendy. He took risks that were about personal discovery. There are pieces that are surreal, abstract, fun and forward-looking. Jacobs could see beauty in the mundane. Collecting can sound snooty, but there is nothing stuffy about this collection.
Crump says he and co-curator Kristin Spangenberg wanted “to evoke a domestic setting” when arranging the works. Jacobs lived with the pieces he acquired during a half century, and he “was not fearful of co-mingling art,” Crump says.
Jacobs, son of a Cincinnati attorney, died in 2008 at age 92. After studying drama at Yale and serving in World War II, he settled in New York and did some acting and theater reviewing — at one point appearing in the original Broadway production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He began donating prints to the museum in 1957
Most are small photographs and prints intended for close viewing. They are in simple frames hung in what Crump calls “salon-style clusters” rather than stark rows. Crump says, “We wanted to allow the pictures to talk to each other and arrange them aesthetically, not chronologically,” nor always according to the medium.
The only painting, by American Milton Avery, is not representative of the artist’s use of color, but the gray and white shapes in “Foam on the Rocks” mimic abstract drawings and black-and-white photos in the collection. For instance, compare Avery’s patterns to the shadows created by train tracks in a photo by Berenice Abbott.
Jacobs’ most significant contribution is his passion for photography when it wasn’t fashionable to collect photographs.
“To get to photography as a collector is one thing,” Crump says. “Then to get to collecting color photography is another thing.”
Names return from last year’s Starburst color photography exhibit, which Crump co-curated. Among them is William Eggleston, whose supersaturated dye-transfer prints were criticized at a 1976 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The work “Sumner, Mississippi” was still considered daring when Jacobs acquired it in the 1980s.
A favorite photographer appears to be Goldin, who captures New York’s gay and Post-Punk subcultures. Crump says Jacobs’ purchases, made in the 1990s, reflect the collector’s gut responses.
Many connoisseurs, says Crump, merely “are aping another collector to buy the same things, and not going out and digging.” The Jacobs show “demonstrates a lifelong passion and curiosity,” he says.
Alongside better-known photographers such as Man Ray is emerging British artist Adam Fuss, who is represented with a 1986 photo of classical busts that was taken with a pinhole camera. “He’s not a big name,” says Crump. “Jacobs was interested in discovering artists, too.” Fuss’ slightly distorted image appears to fit with Jacobs’ interests in surrealism and the human form.
Though Jacobs’ collection is eclectic, it feels cohesive and indicative of someone who acquired art with a discerning eye as well as an open mind. Crump attributes the unexpected inclusion of two of Wegman’s popular Weimaraner photos, common on totes and greeting cards, to Jacobs’ apparent love for dogs. Jacobs bought what he liked.
At an auction in 1990, Jacobs purchased both an early, circa 1973 work by Robert Mapplethorpe — a large self-portrait collage on drafting paper — and a small, dreamlike photograph by Imogen Cunningham, circa 1922, titled “The Partridge Boys, Morro Bay,” in which three naked children play on a beach. Crump calls the acquisitions another example of Jacobs’ “broad breath of interests. … And to buy an early, experimental Mapplethorpe collage was prescient; it was not so expensive 20 years ago.”
Looking at the portrait of Jacobs, Crump observes, “He was sophisticated and self-educated about art, with his finger on the pulse of what was happening.” The fact that Jacobs was photographed by Van Vechten, who could work with whomever he chose, was significant. Jacobs had established himself as “an urbane sophisticate in the mix of cultural life in New York,” Crump says.
“I see him as a role model to younger patrons, who may or may not be interested in collecting,” Crump says.
Jacobs was motivated not by the market but by what pleased him.
NOT JUST PRETTY PICTURES is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Aug. 28. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.