An Art Less Ephemeral

Choreographer Doug Nielsen puts his art collection on display

Vonn Sumner's painting "TOTEM" is on exhibit at the Tucson Museum of Art right now, but it had its Tucson debut six months ago.

The oil on canvas—picturing a man with a paper bag over his head—had a starring role in "The Parakeet Chronicles," a multimedia dance performed in February at a UA School of Dance concert. Choreographer Doug Nielsen arranged to have the painting soar over the stage on a wire.

"I had to fly it in," he explains in an interview published in the catalog of the TMA show, Thanks for Being With Us.

Now it hangs, more sedately, on the wall of the museum. Thanks for Being With Us exhibits some 75 works by 52 artists, all drawn from the collection of Nielsen, a dancer, choreographer, professor and all-around arts Renaissance man.

Nielsen's adventurous contemporary dance works routinely draw on multiple arts—he's collaborated not only with the expected musicians, but with visual artists, architects and videographers. He mixes movement with spoken word, and at least once since he came to the UA five years ago, he had his dancers perform in an art gallery. He has his dance students improvise movement drawn from paintings and assigns them to write about artists and architects they've never heard of before.

"I'm interested in all the art forms," he says.

It doesn't come as much of a surprise to find that Nielsen is an intelligent and avid collector of contemporary art. And his first-ever exhibition of work he's collected over 40 years demonstrates that his taste in visual art mirrors the inventiveness he prizes in dance.

During a tour he gave of the TMA exhibition on opening night, he explained that "TOTEM," just for instance, came about via a kind of performance art.

Sumner, a painter out of Southern California, first makes his own props and then turns them into costumes. For "TOTEM," he stuck unlit cigarettes into a paper bag; the deadly white cylinders stick out into the air, like a spiky—and deadly—halo.

"He put the bag on his head and photographed himself," Nielsen explains. "Then he made the painting."

Despite its Day-Glo yellows and oranges, there's something sad and sweet about this painting. The guy wears a cheesy ruffled shirt and that cheap mask. Then there's the danger embodied in those cancer sticks.

The painting's elusiveness is typical of the works in Nielsen's collection. They're like his own dances: gripping, arresting, with meanings we can never quite be sure of.

Heavy on photography and works on paper, the works are by turns provocative and intellectual. Words and text take on prominent roles—in Ed Ruscha's title piece, for one, the words are the work—just as they do in the dances.

Many are not entirely what they seem. Donald Judd's "Unitled, No. 15," 1978, pictures a rectangular box. It's a mere outline, an idea of what a box could be. It's an etching that looks like a photo of a wire box. Conversely, Vik Muniz's "Paper Box," 1997 is a photograph, but his paper box is made out of wire.

Muniz is a hot artist who had a major show at Tucson's Center for Creative Photography as a relatively young man. The late Judd was a groundbreaking artist who made non-narrative 3-D pieces.

Other boldface names in the collection include Andy Warhol, represented by an uncharacteristic piece of social commentary, the silkscreen "Electric Chair," 1971; sculptor Claes Oldenburg, with a tactile litho of an imaginary "Colossal Screw in Landscape—Type II," 1976; and Bruce Nauman, a multimedia artist whose five screenprints here apparently record a performance by a man stretching his lips in every possible direction.

As a dancer and choreographer, Nielsen says he's "drawn to photography, the human form, the captured moment." But the images he buys are not strictly of the graceful-body-in-the air variety.

The naked bodies in Laurie Simmons' surrealistic photos are actually dolls, all of them naked females who are jammed into objects—a tiny dollhouse, a perfume bottle, a book—their naked buttocks and legs left dangling. One poked upside-down into a globe is a little like a Hieronymus Bosch. These pictures are edgy, just this side of creepy, with hints of violence and dismemberment.

"USA," 1962, a gelatin silver print by the Magnum photog Elliott Erwitt, is a hilarious formal portrait dissecting familial tensions. An all-American family, all dressed up, sits on a couch, mom with a sky-high hairdo and legs provocatively crossed; teenage son smoldering with rage; dad hostile; and pre-teen boy struggling manfully to summon up a smile. Nielsen relates that Erwitt was working for an insurance company when he made the photo.

"The insurance company was finding families to endorse them—they couldn't afford to pay them so they had Erwitt take their photo." The punch line, Nielsen says, is that Erwitt claimed the family "really liked the photo."

Very occasionally Nielsen zeroes in on a meditative piece. In Nan Goldin's "Self-Portrait on the Train, Boston-New Haven," a soft-edged cibachrome print from 1997, the artist is in profile, gazing out the window at a bank of green trees blurred by the train's speed. She's alone, pensive, framed by the sharp angle of the train's green window.

Likewise, Richard Renaldi's "Faith," from his 2002 Newark series, is quiet and poignant. For once, Newark is pictured not as a scene of urban decay; a plaza glows in the early evening lights; autumnal leaves skitter across the open space. The young black woman at center is dressed in cheap popular fashions, a white faux fur jacket, dark pants, but she's like a Medieval Madonna, a radiant figure with downcast eyes and glowing skin.

A couple of rural landscapes are anomalies in a collection with an urban, arty sensibility. "Truck in the Desert, Yuma, California," 1962, by the great Danny Lyon, is a starkly beautiful black-and-white of the austere dune-scape. At dead center of a classic composition punctuated by telephone poles is a dark truck in the midst of the white sand.

Amy Stein's "Trasheaters," a 2006 color chromogenic print, reproduces another landscape entirely: the deep green forests of northeastern Pennsylvania. A couple of coyotes are outside a tract house devouring the trash, lit by the lamps inside the windows. The piece is part of Stein's series about the interactions between humans and animals, writes curator Julie Sasse, but Nielsen says he picked it for another reason: "It looks just like the house I grew up in."

Once in a while Nielsen goes for abstraction. He has three fine pattern pieces by the late Houston artist Robin Utterback, including "Untitled #436," from 1977 and 1990, an acrylic on paper mounted on canvas. A tall vertical work halfway between painting and drawing, it's all grays, crisscrossed by painted lines and squares. Begun more than 30 years ago, it looks very contemporary, like the cutting-edge abstraction regularly seen at Conrad Wilde.

Andres Serrano, the photog notorious for his "Piss Christ," veers into abstraction here. He uses not urine but blood and milk in two pieces. Part of his series about body fluids, these beautiful abstractions are like Mondrians, pungent in color, simple in shape. "Circle of Blood," 1987, is exactly that: an orb of red set in a background of yellow-lime. "Milk, Blood," 1986, pairs a vertical white panel with red; separated by a brown line, both planes are densely, creamily colored.

Naturally, Nielsen has a number of works that merge his interest in the ephemeral art of dance and the more permanent art of paper and paint and ink. His Robert Rauschenberg, "Untitled (For Merce Cunningham Dance Company)," 1984, is a litho that served as a poster for the company. Cunningham often collaborated with artists in other media, including Rauschenberg and composer John Cage.

And early in his career, Nielsen trained with the great man himself, pictured here in a luminous 1994 black-and-white portrait by Annie Leibovitz, his intelligent eyes gazing out into the distance.

"Dance escapes the eye the second you look at it," Nielsen says in an interview with Sasse, "but art on the wall promises to be there when you look back."

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