New Territories: Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art

Ellen Yoshi Tani
Jul 16, 2014 9:02PM

In a city like Austin, which sets the cultural and creative bar sky-high, a university museum has a lot to live up to. The Blanton Museum of Art, the museum and research center at the University of Texas at Austin, does not disappoint. Hailed by many as an indispensable gem to the life of the city, it is one of the largest university art museums in the nation and houses a vast collection, ranging from Renaissance Europe to contemporary Latin America. With over 17,000 objects—13,500 of which are prints and drawings—it is one of the largest encyclopedic collections in central Texas, serving a massive public while venturing into new institutional territory. Here are some ways that it continues to make its mark in Austin and beyond.

1. Rethinking American Art, Hemispherically

When the museum debuted its new building complex in 2006, it also introduced a groundbreaking inaugural installation of its permanent collection: America/Americas. The permanent exhibition integrated 130 20th-century works from the Latin American and American art collections—something that really turned the heads of art historians by boldly and effectively bridging what were until then considered separate canons. In one trip a visitor might see two very different version of Americana in Argentine artist Kazuya Sakai’s hard-edged, rhythmic homage to Miles Davis, located in the America/Americas installation, and William Robinson Leigh’s cowboy-in-action The Roping (1914) in the museum’s C.R. Smith Collection of Western Art.

2. More than a University Museum

In addition to being a teaching-focused university museum, the Blanton is the only encyclopedic museum in Austin, and thus serves the function of a municipal institution—in other words, it’s like the Met of Austin. Innovative teaching initiatives may, for example, use Lorenzo Lippi’s Saint Agatha (1638), to engage medical students in close looking, using the museum to train better doctors. “SoundSpace: Downtown NYC 1960,” a recent iteration of the museum’s “SoundSpace Series,” animated the experimental sonic atmosphere that influenced the working environment of many minimalist and conceptual artists living in Lower Manhattan, particularly Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt—the subject of a concurrent exhibition

3. Collecting Focus: Latin America and Beyond 

The museum’s collection of European art is vast, including over 300 paintings—including a number of particularly strong Italian Old Master works—as well as 8,500 prints and 1,500 drawings. But the Blanton is most notable for its outstanding collection of modern and contemporary Latin American art, including over 2,000 works by more than 600 artists—one of the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive collections of its kind in the country. Venezuelan op and kinetic artists Jesús Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez are but a few representative artists whose vibratory color investigations engage the kinesthesia that drove an international interest in visual perception, neo-concretism, and color theory.

The collection’s remarkable breadth also extends to some local stars like Texan conceptual artist Dario Robleto, whose obsessively crafted Hippies and a Ouija Board (Everybody needs to Cling to Something) (2003)—a suitcase containing the occult game and various bottles—appears to be a timeworn assemblage but is made of cast and carved ground bone calcium from every bone in the body, including bottles containing homebrewed health tonics and tinctures. Displaying its wares atop a stool on a wooden platform, the piece feels like the forgotten prop of an erstwhile snake oil salesman who has since moved on to other belief systems.

Another Tejano artist, Luis Jimenez (1940-2006), takes a more commercially influenced Baroque approach to collective history in his large-scale, often controversial fiberglass sculptures of Hispanic and Native American dancers, cowboys, and workers. Progress II (1976/1999) is one of the artist’s first monumental works of this kind: a Mexican vaquero in pursuit of a raging longhorn with glowing red eyes, cast in fiberglass and finished in car paint. The two figures are uncannily balanced in a dynamic rearticulation of the predominant mythologies of the West, suggesting the instability of the heroic cowboy stereotype—and moreover, history—as well as the predatory appetite of Manifest Destiny.

Cildo Meireles lodges a more poetic critique of conquest in Missa/Missoes [Mission/Missions] (How to Build Cathedrals) (1987), a permanent installation and a major highlight of the Blanton’s modern and contemporary collections. Appearing as a curtained, glowing box containing thousands of coins and bones, the installation resides in a dramatically lit gallery of its own, an elegiac and critical monument to the spoils held by the New World as revealed by efforts to materially exploit and religiously purify its people. 

Explore the Blanton Museum of Art on Artsy.

Ellen Yoshi Tani