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Rutgers' Zimmerli Art Museum Makes an Impressive First Impression

Rutgers' Zimmerli Art Museum Makes an Impressive First Impression

At the end of the year, there are many lists — top songs, worst dressed, best movies, just to name a few — as well as a listing of the words or phrases that most agree should be put to rest. However, I’m hoping that “hidden gem” didn’t place high on your list of most overused expressions because, honestly, that’s the phrase that came immediately to my mind after a recent visit to the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. What initially enticed me to make my maiden trip to the Zimmerli was “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” (through June 30). I’ve been a fan of Ward’s and eager to see his work up-close since the mid-'70s, when a friend presented me with a copy of “Storyteller Without Words” as a Christmas gift. I feel that Ward is best known for his woodcuts, but I discovered from this engaging exhibition that he was also a gifted and prolific illustrator of more than 100 books for children and young adults. The drawings on view, selected from the Zimmerli’s collection, feature original and printed illustrations from six of these books.

Another exhibition I wanted to see was “Mary Cassatt Prints: In the Company of Women,” which will be on display through March 3 and showcases prints Cassatt made while living the artist’s life in Paris and being inspired by the experimental works of Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, her friends. The exhibition is displayed in the Eisenberg Gallery, perched in a balcony-style space above the museum's American Art section, and includes works from the Zimmerli collection as well as five unique color prints lent by a private collector.

On the other end of the style spectrum is the exhibition “Art = Text = Art: Works by Contemporary Artists from the Sally and Wynn Kramarsky Collection.” This expansive show, which closes on Sunday, Jan. 6, examines the ways in which artists since the 1960s have creatively used text, symbols and numbers to explore the connections between form, function and language. The show features more than 100 works by artists such as Jasper Johns, Sol LeWitt, Cy Twombly, filmmaker John Waters, choreographer Trisha Brown and many others.

And in the not-to-be-missed category, the “Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union” is on view until the end of 2014 in the Upper Level Dodge Wing Galleries. Donated to the museum in 1991 and numbering more than 10,000 pieces, this collection of Soviet nonconformist art is the largest in the world. The galleries displaying the works underwent an extensive reinstallation this past spring. The art was rotated into the space and the staff composed more in-depth translations (from Russian to English) of some of the key artists’ texts and interpretations of the works. The results of this project are that visitors are now able to better understand what the artists intended as well as see how individual works fit into a broader cultural context. Simply stated, this is a dynamic exhibition.

Although we stayed at the museum for nearly three hours, we saw only a portion of the special exhibitions and just a little more than half of the works from the Zimmerli’s vast permanent collection. We browsed the American art, en route to and from the Cassatt show, and took in a few of the ancient objects in the Pre-Columbian section on the lower level. And we marveled at the pieces representing the museum’s large and wide-ranging holdings of Russian art from the Imperial era, including paintings, sculpture, decorative arts and works on paper.

We sat for a bit in the lobby, watching the snow fall outside the window, and strolled briefly through the museum’s small but interestingly stocked shop. However, we never made it to the European Galleries, and — as I said — did a fairly perfunctory breeze-through in the American art section. Clearly a return visit is in our future.

The Zimmerli Art Museum is at 71 Hamilton St. and George Street on the College Avenue Campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m., and first Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for visitors age 65 and over. Free for young people under 18 and on first Sundays. Call (732) 932-7237.

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