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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, April 20, 2024

Despite sentimentality, there are still 'things to love' at MFA's latest exhibit

There are two decidedly different ways to look at the "Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch" exhibit now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. The first, more obvious and probably "wrong" way to look at it would be to simply see the three-room show as a bunch of pretty things some middle-America, rich WASP bought for fun. The second, more intuitive way, would be to try and see the assembled works as Koch did when he bought and curated them.

This is the way Koch and the MFA want the show to be seen, and this approach allows for an experience that is ultimately more satisfying - one often has to work hard to imagine what Koch was thinking (though some lucky museum-goers may happen upon a tour given by the collector himself).

The MFA is currently besieged with a number of Koch's collectables. In fact, immediately upon entering from Huntington Avenue, one is confronted by yachts from the America's Cup which he managed to install on the verdant front lawn. At the west wing entrance one can behold a number of Koch's sculptures, including works by Fernando Botero, which Koch loves "because they're big and fat and friendly." The show begins in the antechamber which highlights Koch's visceral approach to collecting. He chose the theme of inebriation to open the exhibit, and to highlight this theme he pairs bottles of expensive wine, a 470 B.C. ceramic "Attic Red Figure Drinking Cup" and a Picasso tile painting depicting drunken sailors.

Koch is the founder of the Oxbow Group, whose name connoisseurs of American art will recognize as an allusion to the classic nineteenth-century painting by Thomas Cole.

"I don't collect art because I want to be challenged," Koch said recently to a group at the museum. "All day long I'm challenged at work by lawyers... when I get home I want to enjoy what I see; I want to enjoy the art." As a result, his collection can be described as varied, eccentric and idiosyncratic.

Koch's collection of art has a strong showing of big names. The first room features a sentimental hodgepodge from a variety twentieth century artists. John Koch's photorealistic painting resides next to an eighteenth-century Dutch masterpiece by Jan van Os.

The Impressionist masterpiece, "Field of Oats and Poppies" by Monet, is a favorite of Koch's because the painting reminds him of the Midwestern fields from his childhood - even though the poppy field it depicts hails from France. Across from the Monet one can find nautical works by American artist Winslow Homer. Koch, who has a deep interest in boating, likes their fantastical nature. Koch admits that when he sees the work, he wishes he could sail away with the men depicted.

The witty, Belgian nineteenth-century painter Alfred Stevens is also represented with "The Coquette," a Degas-like, beautifully rendered study of a young woman's enthrallment with her own reflection in a mirror. This charming comment on vanity reminds Koch of his daughter, and to him the young woman appears older and wiser in her reflected image than in her actual depiction, something he imagines all girls see when they look in the mirror. The painting is beautifully executed - the girl's hair is silky and auburn, she sits on a plush green chair, and her skin is pale and flawless.

The next room is dedicated to themes of Americana, with a particular emphasis on the Wild West. Koch decided to collect these works because they reminded him of the time he spent on his father's ranches throughout the American West. Works by Frederic Remington include "The Cheyenne," a well-detailed bronze figure study of equine motion. A Native American sits atop a horse in mid-stride, dust rising up in the back, showing the great force of the horse's gallop.

The famous Cyrus Edward Dallin bronze piece "Appeal to the Great Spirit," also depicting a Native American majestically riding a horse, is set amongst display cases filled with a variety of historic firearms and traditional Native American objects. This portion of the exhibit also includes a wedding dress which Koch tried to convince one of his wives to wear, but she "wouldn't because it had BO."

The final room is more figural, and contains a variety of nude studies with tastes ranging from a unique 1929 Matisse entitled "Young Woman Made up in Oriental Style" which is a light, simple nude, to Koch's most valuable piece, Picasso's 1901 "Night Club Singer," the back of which contains a surprise for astute observers. The exhibition's cover girl, Modigliani's "Reclining Nude" from 1917, is also featured in this room. Although it seems odd that Koch would be interested in the history of figure depiction unless that history appealed to some aspect of his own life, he includes a controposto ancient Roman marble sculpture that harkens back to the more modern paintings' roots.

Koch's collections shown at the MFA have been controversial to say the least, primarily because Koch himself is one of the principle sources of its funding. The assemblage of work is interesting and deeply personal even if it may not have much rhyme or reason outside of Koch's own life. Although the exhibit may not be a great one, it is an interesting compilation of one man's tastes.