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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: Columnist visits other museum of Southern art

December 28, 2018

Opening its doors in 1992, the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta is the oldest museum in the country devoted to the art and artists of the South. It is not, however, alone in its mission.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans has the same stated purpose. Inaugurated in 1999 in transitional space in the Warehouse Art District, the museum’s permanent five-floor facility opened in 2003. Part of the architectural fabric of the University of New Orleans, the Ogden claims to possess a bigger collection than that of the Morris. It is certainly true that its current building is much more spacious.

On a recent visit to the Big Easy to attend the National Humanities Conference sponsored by the Federation of State Humanities Councils, I walked from my Canal Street hotel along Camp Street about six blocks to the Ogden, which forms part of a cluster of cultural attractions near Lee Circle, including the National World War II Museum and Confederate Memorial Hall.

Although the Morris is confined essentially to two floors in an office building on Augusta’s Riverwalk, the Ogden’s main structure, the Stephen Goldring Hall, boasts an atrium lobby that rises dramatically three floors above the lobby with exhibition space fanning out from each balcony. The building, designed by New Orleans architects Barron and Toups, is also crowned by a rooftop sculpture garden.

I arrived on a Thursday morning, just a few minutes before opening hours, so I had a minute or two to circle the monumental outdoor sculpture that currently graces the space between the sidewalk and main entrance. Fashioned by Texas-born modernist James Surls, “Me, Knife, Diamond, and Flower” features a cast bronze spoke from which emerges a stainless-steel male profile. Fashioned of artificial materials, the work speaks of how human creativity rivals that of the natural world.

Although parts of the permanent collection were displaced during my visit by a special exhibition on Southern photography, there were still enough fragments on display to give visitors a sense of the scope of the museum’s holdings. As one might expect, the art of Louisiana is a strength; but I was pleased to see artists from South Carolina, past and present, represented.

No collection of Southern art could, for example, ignore the phenomenon known as the Charleston Renaissance, a period between the two world wars when the city experienced a boom in creative expression. The Ogden possesses particularly fine works by two of the leading lights of the South Carolina arts scene during the 1920s and ’30s: Elizabeth O’Neill Verner and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith. Verner’s pastel titled “Summertime in Charleston” features the white steeple of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church towering over the sun-drenched rooftops of the Holy City; Smith’s watercolor “Early Spring” is one of her characteristically impressionist renderings of a Low Country marsh.

Contemporary artists from our state are also represented in the Ogden’s permanent collection. Visitors to New Orleans from our area will be happy to see one of North Augusta-based painter Edward Rice’s meticulous, large-scale, oil-on-canvas architectural studies on display. This one is titled “Gable Window.”

It was also good to see at the Ogden works by Southern artists featured in special exhibitions over the years at the Morris. I remember well a 2003-2004 show titled “Baby Boom Daydreams,” featuring the detailed, often pop-inspired paintings by Louisiana-based artist Douglas Bourgeois. In that show was the artist’s rendering of a young Elvis strutting his stuff in front of a purple curtain decorated by large dice. The tumbling dice make subtle visual reference to how fickle fate can be even to the King of Rock and Roll. Although the Morris boasts several Bourgeois pieces in its holdings, this particular Elvis-focused work from 1981 is part of the Ogden’s collection.

On the top floor of the Ogden, just inside the doors leading to the rooftop sculpture garden, is one of the painted aluminum, pictographic-inspired pieces by Ida Kohlmeyer, who was also the subject of a show at the Morris in 1996. The sculpture in question titled “Fenestrated #6” contains within its windowed frame in vertical arrangement several of the colorful symbols or glyphs that the New Orleans-based artist used in her paintings. In this case, the simple line drawing of a fruit, perhaps an apple, floats above an irradiated television screen. Is this a sly reference to the fact that most people are irresistibly drawn to the moving image where ever it may be encountered?

Anyone interested in the art of the American South will want to add the Ogden to the list of places to visit in New Orleans.

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