Every picture has a story in museum’s new handbook

A monk’s face peers out from a frame of leaves on a corbel that once adorned a 13th century French cathedral and now resides on campus.

A 13th-century corbel acquired in France by A.D. White in 1886 is installed on the Johnson Museum’s second floor.

Acquired in 1886 for an architectural study collection at Cornell by then-newly retired university president A.D. White, the corbel was housed in White Hall, then not seen after 1905. It remained missing for several years until Cornell Library staff found it using an original photograph of White’s purchase.

It is now on display at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art and is included, along with more than 300 other artworks, in a new handbook covering the breadth of the museum’s holdings such as its extensive Asian and contemporary art collections. The full-color, 352-page softcover volume offers descriptive essays by curators who know these works well, highlighting new research and the unique stories and histories behind individual objects.

The handbook presents featured works in nearly chronological order. Several of the entries note the artworks’ value to teaching and research at Cornell.

The work of famous artists represented in the collection – such as Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso and Rembrandt van Rijn – share space in the handbook with ancient and contemporary art from around the world. Notable alumni artists include Margaret Bourke-White ’27, Richard Artschwager ’48, Hermine Freed ’61, Alan Saret ’66, Gordon Matta-Clark ’68 and James Siena ’79. 

The handbook is the third in the museum’s 46-year history, during which the collections have grown to include almost 40,000 works of art. The second iteration came out in 1998, when the Johnson turned 25.

Since then, “the collections have been carefully built across cultures and time to reflect changes in the university curriculum and the world around us,” Stephanie Wiles, the museum’s Richard J. Schwartz Director from 2011-18, and Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art, wrote in the handbook’s introductory essay, “Setting a New Path.” Since 2011, they note, many more works in the permanent collection have been newly interpreted and made accessible online.

“Typically, most museum handbooks organize objects by culture,” Avril said. “Instead, by choosing to take a more-or-less chronological approach with our collection, we hope that readers will make some fascinating and unexpected discoveries about what artists globally were achieving at the same time. We are especially pleased with the thought-provoking ways that artworks which are shown together dialogue with other.”

Also new to this edition: an article documenting Andy Goldsworthy’s 1999 residency and environmental art projects at Cornell; and a photograph of the museum’s architect, I.M. Pei, in the lobby before the building’s opening in 1973.

Contributors include Avril and other longstanding curators Nancy E. Green, Andrea Inselmann and Andrew C. Weislogel, as well as other museum staff and Cornell faculty.

The new volume was made possible with a gift from Evalyn E. Milman ’60 and Stephen E. Milman ’58, MBA ’59.

“A Handbook of the Collections” ($45, $40 for Johnson Museum members) is available at the museum, open Tuesday-Saturday; by calling 607-255-6464; or at museum.cornell.edu/publications.

Media Contact

Gillian Smith