When renowned art collector Peggy Guggenheim commissioned a young Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for her New York townhome in 1943, she was confident that she had discovered the next great American artist. The product of that commission, Mural, has been recognized as one of the most significant American artworks of the 20th century and launched Pollock to international stardom.
Similarly, when Guggenheim donated Mural to the University of Iowa in 1951, it signified a kind of arrival for the public university’s already prestigious art department. Mural and the University of Iowa have since become interchangeable symbols of artistic excellence; yet for the past 14 years, Pollock’s magnum opus has been only tenuously tethered to its Midwestern homestead since a devastating flood struck the university’s art museum in 2008 and displaced its collection. While all the works were recovered, they were left without a permanent home, and many of the university’s linchpin holdings—including Mural—were forced to take up temporary residence in galleries and storage units around the world.
But on July 14, 2022, after years of restoration work and tours throughout the United States and Europe, Mural returned to the University of Iowa, kicking off a celebration a decade and a half in the making.
The University of Iowa’s reputation as a world-class enclave for fine art dates back more than a century. The university began offering formal curricula in fine arts in the late 19th century, but planted its stake as a pioneering institution for arts education in the 1920s with the introduction of the “Iowa Idea,” the then-novel concept that artists and art scholars ought to practice alongside one another within an academic context, allowing each to study and be challenged by the other’s work. The university’s School of Art and Art History was founded in 1938 with the Iowa Idea as its guiding principle, and defined a graduate-level art theory and practice program that became the blueprint for the modern master of fine arts degree.
The decades that followed were marked by key acquisitions for the university’s fine art holdings through strategic purchases and gifts, including major works by Joan Miró and Max Beckmann, as well as the first entries to its now-legendary collection of African art. By the time the art museum at the University of Iowa opened in 1969, the foundation had long since been laid for the modern-day Stanley Museum of Art to hold one of the premier university art collections in the United States.
The Stanley’s grand reopening this year has provided an opportunity for the University of Iowa to reassert its excellence and reexamine its values, starting with the building itself. Designed by architecture firm BNIM Iowa, the striking, brick-clad Stanley Museum of Art building integrates gallery and event space with multipurpose education suites. Students learn just steps away from artistic masterpieces, ensuring that the Iowa Idea is built into the museum’s design.
“The architects also understood that, as a teaching museum, the new Stanley would serve as both a library of global visual culture and a laboratory for experiential learning,” said Lauren Lessing, the museum’s director since 2018. Like a library, the museum is intended as an inclusive space. Gallery texts throughout the Stanley are presented in English and Spanish, and museum admission is always free.
Upon entering the Stanley’s first-floor lobby, visitors are greeted by Surrounding (2022), a luminous mural by Nigerian-born painter Odili Donald Odita, who spent part of his childhood in Iowa, in close proximity to the university. Odita’s work, which is the first in a series of temporary installations by Iowa-affiliated artists entitled “Thresholds,” was composed as a response to Pollock’s Mural.
That juxtaposition is a fitting introduction to the Stanley’s inaugural exhibition, “Homecoming,” which opened concurrently with the museum’s dedication on August 26. Supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, “Homecoming” illuminates conversations between artistic traditions across eras and continents through a series of installations that feature more than 600 artworks from the museum’s permanent collection. “This exhibitionoffers fresh views of familiar artworks and recent acquisitions,” Lessing explained. “Our goal is to challenge past interpretations, inspire new questions, and point toward the future growth of the collection.”
Many such familiar artworks are on display in the installation “Generations.” Comprised of six thematic galleries, “Generations” places longtime touchstones of the university’s collection alongside rarely shown and recently acquired works. It also celebrates the university’s venerable history as an American art stronghold with works by notable alumni and faculty, including Grant Wood, Elizabeth Catlett, Oliver Lee Jackson, Hans Breder, Ana Mendieta, and Chunghi Choo.
Another installation, “Expansive Visions,” highlights artists as rulebreakers who have broadened the scope of human expression. Mural is show together with Sam Gilliam’s Red April, as well as works by Hawaiian artists Toshiko Takaezu and Tadashi Sato, Leon Polk Smith, and Philip Guston, underscoring the reciprocity of global cultural influences on abstraction.
“Points of Departure” reconsiders pathways into creation and celebrates undervalued interpretive perspectives. This installation includes Miró’s 1939 A Drop of Dew Falling from the Wing of a Bird Awakens Rosalie Asleep in the Shade of a Cobweb and Beckmann’s 1943 Karneval,as well as works by Lee Krasner, Stuart Davis, and Miriam Schapiro.
The installation “Reencounters” spans two galleries and highlights works of art that stage new encounters, technically and pictorially, by reinventing genres or traditions. Here ceramics from the American Southwest illustrate the cross-generational transfer of knowledge while communing with Ad Reinhardt’s monochrome Abstract Painting. Grant Wood’s Plaid Sweater is flanked by Simone Leigh’s 103 (Face Jug Series) and a poignant 1956 photo by Gordon Parks, illustrating the nuance and complexity of portraiture.
Works in the installation “Human/Nature” consider our relationships to our surroundings and to one another, while those in “Action and Reaction” show the continuing evolution of Contemporary artistic expression.
Homecoming also nods to the university’s reputation as a preeminent site for African art in “Fragments of the Canon: African Art from the Saunders and Stanley Collections.” The installation centers on the contributions of Black Iowan Dr. Meredith Saunders, whose breathtaking personal collection of art purchased during his travels in West Africa now forms a vital segment of the museum’s holdings. While it plays to one of the museum’s strengths, “Fragments” doesn’t shy away from reckoning with the Stanley’s complex legacy by probing questions of narrative agency, value, and authenticity in the field of African art.
Beyond “Fragments” are two additional installations. “Centering on Cloth: The Art of African Textiles” explores the theme of global exchange through textiles that incorporate materials, motifs, and techniques from around the world. And “About Face: African Masks in Iowa” emphasizes historical, material, and artistic relationships in West and Central African masks from the permanent collection, and features new work by contemporary artist Hervé Youmbi.
Just as pieces in the Stanley’s collections have traveled far and wide since the disruptive event that scattered them in 2008, “Homecoming” similarly explores cultural exchange and movement across time and geography. The crux of this is the installation “History Is Always Now,” which expands its focus from African and Asian art objects to include Indigenous art from Oceania in the Americas and positions them alongside contemporary works. Framed in this way, the installation erases divisions perceived through the context of era and cultural origin and invites viewers to view these as relationships of influence—particularly the influence of Black and Indigenous artists.
That this perspective is a core tenet of the reinvigorated Stanley Museum of Art marks an evolutionary turning point for the Iowa Idea—one that expands upon the University of Iowa’s multidisciplinary approach with an additional dimension of intercultural and intertemporal dialogue, offering a wider, kaleidoscopic lens to view the canon even as it unfolds in generations of artists to come.
Visit Stanley Museum of Art to learn more.