Museums could not exist without donors. The most prominent evidence of their largesse is in a museum’s physical manifestation, in which everything from stone benches and fountains to galleries and whole wings are named for the patrons who made their existence possible. On a more intimate and possibly more important level are the works of art donors either contribute wholly or aid in the purchase of or, in rarer cases, bestow in the form of a collection.
Some contributions to museums generate a great deal of media hubbub. Other donors give quietly and consistently, and one of those is Howard Foote, who between 2002 and 2012 gave to Memphis Brooks Museum of Art 33 paintings, watercolors, drawings and a photograph. Nineteen of those works are on display in “A Decade of Gifts from Howard Foote,” an exhibition assembled by Brooks chief curator Marina Pacini for display through Aug. 11.
Foote was born in Memphis, where his mother’s family lived, and was reared in Alabama. He was in Memphis working as a lawyer for Plough Inc. from 1968 to 1972. In that year, Foote moved to Chicago, where he began collecting art, concentrating on representational work from the early 20th century. During his collecting, Foote’s tastes broadened and he began collecting art from the 21st century as well. He now lives in New York, in the Chelsea neighborhood that over the past 20 years had become Manhattan’s chief art district.
While a few pieces in the collection — that is, in his personal collection and what he donated to the Brooks — are abstract, Foote largely focused on representational and figurative work, albeit frequently of an expressionistic nature. No abstraction is included in the current selection “for a sense of continuity,” said Pacini. She emphasized the eclectic quality of the Foote donations, in terms of chronology and style.
“While the artists represented in the gift are primarily American-born,” she said, “his collecting included immigrants such as Alfred Eisenstadt, George Grosz, Elizabeth O’Reilly and Raphael Soyer.”
Most of the work in “A Decade of Gifts” is figurative in some sense, whether occurring in the lush, sensual form of John Sloan’s “Sleeping Nude on Lavender”; Moses Soyer’s “Seated Woman” and “Pregnant Woman,” both radiant with the artist’s confidence and freedom with paint and with his models’ resonant presence — Moses and Raphael Soyer were twins; or the bizarre surrealism of Fred Stonehouse’s “Rose.” There is landscape work and still-life — Luigi Lucioni’s simple and beautiful “Interlude in Green” — and a selection of highly expressionistic pieces culminating in Grace Hartigan’s wild and colorful oil on canvas “Little Junk Shop” and her exuberant watercolor collage “The Artisans.”
In the way that all collections do, this selection from works of art donated to the Brooks by Foote indicates something about the mind of the person who over the years purchased them for his own pleasure, lived with them, and then decided to pass them along for the pleasure of people who live in the city where he was born and worked. That mind seems to be curious, restless, esthetically various and — for our benefit — generous.
A Decade of Gifts from Howard Foote
At Memphis Brooks Museum of Art through Aug. 11. 1934 Poplar in Overton Park. Call 901-544-6200 or visit brooksmuseum.org