"Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection," Cornell Fine Art Museum, Rollins College, Through May 3, 1998
It was a dream come true for the Cornell Fine Art Museum when a freshman attending Rollins College named Joe Roby IV dropped by several years ago and asked if they would like to exhibit his grandmother's art collection. Cornell director Arthur Blumenthal discovered that Roby's grandmother was the late Sara Mary Barnes Roby -- the founder of one of the best-known post-World War I art collections in America.
"Modern American Realism: The Sara Roby Foundation Collection" features 60 drawings, paintings, and sculptures from the 174-work collection housed at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Roby established the foundation in 1952 to acquire works by living American artists. She preferred figurative art in a prominently abstract expressionist era and completely sidestepped Pop Art, collecting masterpieces by American greats Edward Hopper, Raphael Soyer, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and Gaston Lachaise.
Hopper explored human isolation for "Cape Cod Morning," in which a woman framed by the bay window of a house is physically separated from the landscape outside, her anxiety contrasting with its serenity. The psychological and emotional impact of the painting is emphasized by the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors.
Isolation also is explored in Cadmus' "Night in Bologna." A soldier standing in the foreground glances back at a prostitute, who in turn is eyeing a tourist studying the soldier. Despite the triangle of interest, the figures remain separated from one another. Cadmus, 94, recently attended the Cornell exhibition and revisited this work -- apparently still his favorite painting.
Included in the exhibition are impressive drawings and sculptures, notably Lachaise's bronze "Head of a Woman." The expressionless face of the artist's wife is softly contoured, indicating that he cared greatly for his model. In contrast, Theodore Roszak's "Thistle in a Dream (to Louis Sullivan)" rejects realistic representation. Its carefully proportioned tangle of cast and welded steel forces the viewer to find meaning in the rough texture and shape.
The strength of the collection is its diversity. While the works embody Roby's criteria of strong composition and technical finesse, she clearly respected each artist's own interpretation -- proving that she was not only a woman of discriminating taste, but also one of foresight.