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Fleming Moves Quickly to Secure Work by Two Artists

By Thomas Weaver Article published May 14, 2003

Glenn Ligon’s contemporary text appropriations and Charles Heyde’s pastoral Vermont landscapes, wildly different on the surface, have at least one thing in common: The Fleming Museum's recent acquisition of paintings by the two artists was made possible only by swift rallying of the UVM community.

Tom Pierce, a local Heyde enthusiast who co-curated the 2001 Heyde exhibit at the Fleming, knew that speed mattered when, on the Web, he spotted two small Heyde paintings belonging to a woman in California. They were “calling card” paintings, small works created as something between a business card and an advertisement to drum up some commissions. Pierce’s attention was sparked particularly by the fact that ownership of the two works could be traced directly to Heyde and his wife Hannah Whitman Heyde, sister of American poet Walt Whitman.

Pierce says that he views the Fleming as the home base of Heyde’s work and adds, “these paintings were too important not to be in the collection.” Within a day, Pierce got to work making sure that was exactly where they’d be. He contacted the paintings’ owner; arranged appraisals; and put in calls to a circle of potential donors who he hoped would support purchasing the paintings then giving them to the Fleming Museum. With a batting average that would be the envy of any fundraiser, Pierce placed five calls and yielded five gifts. The Heydes were coming home. Those who answered the call to make the swift purchase and subsequent gift to the Fleming possible were Theodore Church, Judy and James Pizzagalli, Gunnel and Grier Clarke, Carolyn and Harry Thurgate, J. Brooks Buxton, and Pierce himself.

Scheduled to go on display this spring in the European and American Gallery, the two Heyde works feature the view out UVM’s front door — Lake Champlain’s Burlington Bay — and its back — Mount Mansfield.

When Fleming Director Janie Cohen found Glenn Ligon works on paper for sale through a New York art dealer, she saw another rare opportunity to expand the museum collection in an important direction. Cohen says the Fleming has lacked text-based work, an important contemporary movement. Acquiring the Ligon paintings would also build the museum’s collection of works by African-American artists.

Richard Meyer described Ligon’s approach in the October 1997 edition of the publication Art/Text: “In his best-known series of work, Ligon stencils black text across the surface of white, door-sized canvases. The words presented are not the artist’s own but have been appropriated from writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Typically, Ligon will repeat an especially charged sentence (Hurston’s “How it feels to be colored me”) until it verges, through the force of excess paint, on illegibility. The tension these works set up — between visibility and erasure, between the linguistic naming of “color” and its painterly absence on the canvas — suggest the subtle contradictions and perpetual slippages of racial identity and embodied desire.”

The Fleming’s new portfolio of four Ligon prints includes works featuring the Hurston text described above, and a quote from Ellison’s Invisible Man.

Cohen rallied support across university departments to make the Ligon acquisition possible. In addition to the Fleming’s Way Endowment Fund, financial support for the acquisition came from the Provost’s Central Diversity Fund, the H. Lawrence McCrorey Gallery of Multicultural Art, and alumnus Stephen D. Kelly ’85.