Contemporary British Views

By: Steve Starger

Richard Brown Baker (1912–2002), a Providence native who lived in New York for many years, became one of the most canny and prescient collectors of contemporary American and European art of the late twentieth century. His holdings, which include more than 1,600 works, feature a large collection of British art.

Baker’s obsession with contemporary art is the RISD Museum of Art’s gain. Although Baker bequeathed most of his collection to his alma mater, Yale University, he donated more than 300 of his acquisitions to the RISD Museum. Of those works, 136 are by contemporary British artists, many acquired by Baker long before the artists became household names.

With due pride in Baker’s generosity, the RISD Museum is displaying approximately one hundred paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and works in other media by eighty-three artists in the exhibit, Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection.

Baker moved to New York City, in 1952, to establish a career in writing. He lived close to the influential galleries on 57th Street just as the city was evolving into the new epicenter of the art world. As he watched the scene blooming virtually in his backyard, he felt compelled to collect the work of a host of emerging artists. Baker’s professional writing ambitions never panned out, but he became a lifelong habitué of the 57th Street galleries, and there he found his true calling: art collecting.

Baker never severed his ties with his home city. From 1966 to 2000, he served on the RISD Museum’s acquisition committee and was chairman of a subcommittee on contemporary art in 1972, when the committee resolved to spend at least $5,000 a year acquiring works by emerging artists. It was a strategy that Baker applied to his own collecting.

During Baker’s tenure with the RISD Museum’s collecting committee, the institution established the Nancy Sayles Day Collection of Modern Latin American Art and the Albert Pilavin Memorial Collection of Twentieth-Century American Art.

Made in the UK reflects those accomplishments and reveals the dedication that Baker brought to his personal collecting. The sprawling show sparkles with works by now-famous artists who were emerging when Baker made his purchases, among them Tacita Dean, David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, Jim Lambie, Damien Hirst, Bridget Riley, R. B. Kitaj, Patrick Caulfield, Ken Curry, Peter Lanyon, and Yinka Shonibare.
In the midst of all of this abstract expressionism, pop art, geometric abstraction, op art, and photorealism sits, almost shyly, an unexpected lagniappe from the past—a small abstract study by the innovative nineteenth-century artist J. M. W. Turner. The artist’s downscaled watercolor anticipates the grand abstract paintings he would compose later in his career. Those startling explosions of color, displayed at London’s Tate Museum, presaged the abstract expressionism movement by a century. In that respect, the Turner study provides a thematic entry into the exhibit as it sets up Baker’s turn toward contemporary art.

It’s a bit quixotic to focus on a couple of works in this exhibit and call them representative. There are too many styles and media on display to make a summary judgment based on close readings of a Hockney, Kitaj, or Riley. The names and the works have taken their place in contemporary art history. Yet, it’s hard not to comment on at least one piece—Damien Hirst’s Utopia, a mandala of intricately layered colors formed by actual butterflies and ordinary household gloss paint on paper. If one is protective of living butterflies, this may not be the best work to linger over, but the extraordinary design Hirst has created takes the inevitabilities of life and death in nature to otherworldly realms. In their deaths, the butterflies reach another level of life and create an aesthetic experience that is totally human. It’s a philosophical position that can be hotly debated, but there’s no denying Hirst’s artistic achievement. It’s a show that will certainly spark conversations.


Steve Starger is a freelance writer and co-author of Wally’s World: The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Wally Wood, the World’s Second Best Comic-Book Artist.

Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection
RISD Museum of Art
Providence, RI
Through January 8, 2012

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