Art collectors approach what hangs on their walls in varying ways. While some buy works with personal meaning, perhaps even made by artist friends, others buy mediums according to a certain aesthetic. For Louis Belden, to become a collector meant less about haphazardly buying whatever he merely liked and more about focusing on the world of printmaking. In 1992, when he truly began honing his art collection, he told himself: “Look, if you are going to do this, you have to do it with a purpose—not just go around buying anything you see but to have boundaries. My boundaries became prints—American and European, which date from the early 1960s on.”
Since, Belden has collected nearly 200 defining original works. “His collection offers an endless range of expression, experimentation and expansion of the terrain of postwar modernism,” Cameron Art Museum (CAM) director Anne Brennan says.
Brennan approached long-time friend Belden—who serves on the board of CAM and Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, in Hanford, CA—to showcase 19 works from his personal collection for a month-long exhibition, which closes Nov. 1. “The Eye Learns: Modernist Prints from the Louis Belden Collection” was curated by printmaker and Cape Fear Community College art faculty member Ben Billingsley. They paired to help celebrate CFCC’s new Fine Arts and Humanities Center, which opened in October.
Though Belden grew up in Indianapolis, he visited his father in Wilmington and spent summers in Wrightsville Beach annually during childhood. “His connections run deep,” Brennan tells. “The home his father was born in is still located on 4th Street, right beside Cottage Lane—an alley that holds enchanting history of the art life of Wilmington from the early 20th century.”
encore spoke with Brennan about the exhibit at CAM.
encore (e): What does CAM hope to accomplish with the exhibit?
Anne Brennan (AB): We are extremely proud to present original artworks from the leading artists, the change-makers, the radicals, the early modernist European expats, seeking asylum in this country, who shaped the course of visual art in the 20th century west (with tremendous influence from the east); the defining experimenters of the New York School and the Bay area; the artists courageous enough to confront and shape the tenets of what is now postmodernism, with a firm embrace on pop culture in their content and process. Their work embodies both freedom and anxiety of the last half century.
Besides being a great collector, Louis is a thoughtful and gifted teacher. The exhibition also features a short documentary that Adam Alphin produced for us, featuring Louis talking about his journey as a collector and the motivations he believes a serious collector should have. So we hope not only to present a truly important exhibition of artwork, but to introduce the advice of an experienced art collector to burgeoning new collectors.
e: Tell me about the artists featured in this collection and why their works are imperative to art history and appreciation?
AB: Belden became interested in collecting art when he lived in New York. The dominant trend at the time was the free-form aesthetic of the New York School. The work of several artists associated with the New York School are represented in his collection, including Helen Frankenthaler. Her large scale, hand-pulled, 93-color screenprint, “Aerie,” was produced only two years before the artist’s death in 2011. It carries the lyricism and effortlessness characteristic of Frankenthaler’s work. Bay area artists Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn have long interested Louis. He just purchased Thiebaud’s “Display Rows” while in Santa Fe last August. Louis has shared this work with us before even hanging it on his own wall, and its painterly touch is quite a feat in this complex printmaking form.
Also the Ellsworth Kelly, “Pears III,” and Diebenkorn’s gorgeous print—one of my favorites—“Ochre” that Louis purchased in 2012. Diebenkorn completed it in 1983, and it is wrought in one of the most ancient printmaking mediums: woodblock. It reveals a palimpsest of translucent layers of ink pulled over relief woodcut. Diebenkorn described he was continually perceiving the work itself while creating it, which led him to develop a highly trained eye, more intelligent visual sensibility and a more sensitively tuned touch.
e: Explain the various mediums showcased in the collection and how they’re incremental to the art world’s progression.
AB: The 1960s and 1970s saw what Riva Castleman referred to as a “renaissance in printmaking,” with artists rediscovering older techniques, like hand lithography and also exploring new methods; for example, for transferring photographic images, like Robert Rauschenberg’s “Gamble,” 1968, Lithograph in colors, 10/41. Concurrent with this sense of revival in one medium, however, was a broader challenge posed by a new generation questioning traditional distinctions between mediums. More artists (painters, sculptors, you name it) began incorporating print processes in their work as part of a larger, highly contemporary practice and dialogue.
For Belden to choose prints was timely for the printmaking mediums of intaglio, lithography, screenprinting, woodblock printing, photo transfer, etc., which were coming into their own. The centuries-old traditional notion that held printmaking as solely “reproductive” and thus secondary to “original” was now, forever, obsolete.