September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

The ‘other’ Hirshhorn Collection

There is something for every kind of art lover in A Collector’s Eye: The Olga Hirshhorn Collection. This traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution is taken from the personal treasure trove of 1,000 works owned by Mrs. Joseph H. Hirshhorn, wife of the founding donor of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian in Washington. The 80 works of modern art selected to tour are all small in scale and include paintings, prints and sculpture by 66 artists who range from virtual unknowns to Picasso, Henry Moore and Edward Hopper. They reveal the sensitivity, taste and disarming sense of humor of the collector, who awakened to the world of contemporary art only after she married investor Hirshhorn in 1964. “I had absolutely no appreciation of art before I met my husband,” she confirmed when the show opened this spring at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., the town where she was born in 1920, the daughter of a chauffeur and a laundress. Being Mrs. Hirshhorn helped in other ways, too. A Picasso catalog cover is signed “Pour Olga.” A pencil portrait of her by Larry Rivers is labeled simply OH, 73 Xmas, and Willem de Kooning’s brush-and-ink drawing is signed “To darling Olga.”

Olga’s eclectic taste is indicated by the exhibit’s mixture of media, such as the reclining terracotta figures of Costantino Nivola, a paper-and-polyester White Bag by Olen Orr that looks like a country store candy bag, and a silk screen on three-dimensional plastic by Jean Dubuffet. The sculptures are arresting, particularly John Chamberlain’s work of jagged polychromed metal, which creates an unsettling contrast to the restful oil painting of pastel-toned Flowers by Georgia O’Keeffe and the still life Apples, Pears and Vase by Robert Kulicke. Many viewers are stopped in their tracks by Berthold Schmutzhart’s sculpture, which resembles an oversize sardine can with a foot-long key rolling back its top to uncover a plastic egg staring, like an eye, from a frying pan.

Encased in glass are three almost imperceptibly moving mobiles: George Rickey’s silver-and-stain-less-steel Horizontal Line, which tilts up and down in random rhythms; his aluminum-and-stone Malachite Plant, propellerlike blossoms turning in space balanced by a malachite counterweight; and Alexander Calder’s painted-metal Thirteen Leaves, which gently sway as if in a soft breeze. Another scene-stealer, Fernando Botero’s Little Bird—plump of breast, tiny of beak and feisty of eye—could only be the acquisition of a collector with a piquant sense of humor.

The exhibit will be at the Visual Arts Gallery, Florida International University, Miami, through Oct. 4. Thereafter it will visit Corpus Christi, Texas (Oct. 24-Jan. 10, 1982); Shreveport, La. (Jan. 30-Feb. 28); Northampton, Mass. (March 20-April 18); and Ames, Iowa (May 8-June 6).

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