By Katie Adkins, Assistant Curator
Certain events make up the quintessential Duke Experience. Tenting in K-ville for the Duke-Carolina game. Cramming onto East-West Campus buses like previous generations crammed into telephone booths. Attending LDOC concerts on the main quad. Accidentally taking the Robertson Scholar bus all the way to Chapel Hill. Sunbathing in the Gardens at the first hint of spring. Reading the Chronicle religiously (and in place of any assigned reading), finishing the crossword, and insisting the “Monday, Monday” column isn’t funny.
In October 2005, another item was added to the Duke Experience: partying in style at the Nasher Museum.
In the fall of 2005, I was a senior at Duke. I shared an un-air-conditioned dorm room in Crowell quad on West Campus with my best friend, where, every Thursday, we ate noodles from the newly-opened Chai’s on Erwin Road while watching “The O.C.” or “Sex and the City” before heading to pub quiz at (the now closed) Armadillo Grill in the Bryan Center. My life had reached a point where things seemed unchanging. I had already met the people who were going to remain in my life after graduation, I was taking classes exclusively in my major and two minors (history, art history and Russian literature, respectively), and I had a routine in place so I could finish my course work and still have time for the fun you want to have when you’re a senior.
At the same time, I was on the precipice of great change. The previous spring, I had realized—a little belatedly perhaps—that while history was my major, art history was my real passion. I began working at an art gallery in Chapel Hill, added a minor and started considering graduate school. By the fall, I was taking the GRE and applying to graduate programs, soliciting recommendations from professors and imagining where I would be the following fall.
On October 2, 2005, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University opened with much fanfare (provided by DUMB, the Duke University Marching Band, of course). While this marked a big change on campus, it also marked a big change in my life. My father had always made it a priority when we went on family vacations to visit art museums, so it would be untrue to say that this was my first art museum experience, and I had already decided that art would play a major role in my future. It was, however, the first time that an art museum felt like it was mine. As a part of the Duke campus, the Nasher Museum provided students like me a chance to see in person the works of art that were being discussed in the classroom, to explore them in a way not possible with textbook images or slides. Art was alive at Duke.
Although a previous art museum had existed on campus—the Duke University Museum of Art (DUMA)—the Nasher Museum was a fundamentally different institution, from its architecture (DUMA was located in a repurposed science building on East Campus; the Nasher Museum was designed by architect Rafael Viñoly), to its exhibition and collection scope. When it opened, one of the exhibitions on view was The Evolution of the Nasher Collection. The works included in this show were not part of the Nasher Museum’s collection. Rather, they were loans from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the private collection of Raymond D. and Patsy Nasher. Raymond Nasher, a graduate of Duke University, provided the vision and significant financial investment that made the new museum—named in his honor—possible.
I remember the excitement building on campus prior to the Nasher Museum’s opening, and, during opening week, I attended the official opening, an evening lecture given by Ray Nasher at the Carolina Theater, and the inaugural student party. I was enrolled in two art history courses that semester: History of the Art Museum, and Modern and Postmodern Sculpture, the latter taught by Kristine Stiles. Professor Stiles assigned one work of sculpture from The Evolution of the Nasher Collection to each member of the class and required that we visit the museum and write a short essay on our sculpture without looking up any information on the artist or the work. Essentially she was asking us to look at the work, think about the artist’s intention and draw comparisons and conclusions based on what we already knew. This is much harder than it sounds, and apparently my fellow classmates (not me, of course) had a tough time sticking to these instructions. Professor Stiles instructed us to return to the Nasher Museum a second time, pick out a different sculpture and try the exercise again. My first essay was on Isamu Noguchi’s Gregory (Effigy) from 1945, and my second was on Claes Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser (1976).
Looking back, I can see why I was drawn to Oldenburg’s enlarged, animated version of what was once an everyday object. With its bright colors and simple form, Typewriter Eraser functions as Pop Art sculpture, but at a size 30 times larger than an actual typewriter eraser. Oldenburg’s larger-than-life monuments to the commonplace contain an element of humor, something I relish in art. During Professor Stiles’s class, I was also introduced to the work of Marcel Duchamp, specifically his readymades, which were mass-produced objects—such as a urinal, a comb, a snow shovel—to which the artist signed his name. In my mind, there was a link between Duchamp’s readymades and Oldenburg’s sculptures, a similar desire to poke fun at the art world while exploring questions rooted in the philosophy of art.
Only seven months after the museum opened, I split my senior gift to the alumni fund between the two institutions that had most significantly affected my time at Duke: the library and the Nasher Museum. The next fall I started graduate school in art history at the University of Texas at Austin to study with Linda Henderson, one of the premier scholars on Duchamp. Austin is only about three hours from Dallas (a brief trip if you live in Texas), so I of course made the pilgrimage to the Nasher Sculpture Center, picking up a postcard of the Oldenburg sculpture I had written about and lived with during my Duke days.
Six years after receiving my master’s in art history, that same postcard hangs on the tackboard above my desk at…you guessed it, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. I joined the Nasher Museum in July 2010 as a curatorial assistant. In some ways, I’ve come full circle, working for the museum that I always considered the Duke museum, living in Durham, attending keggers (just kidding about the last one). In other ways, I’ve grown and changed in ways that I never expected, and the Nasher Museum has grown and changed in ways that were perhaps unpredicted. In its first 10 years, the museum will have acquired almost 1,000 works of art and organized major traveling exhibitions such as Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool (2008), El Greco to Velázquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III (2008), The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (2010), The Vorticists: Rebel Artists in London and New York, 1914-1918 (2010), Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (2012), and Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist (2014). Currently I’m assisting guest curator Kristine Stiles (my former professor) on the upcoming exhibition Rauschenberg: Collecting and Connecting (on view August 28, 2014 – January 11, 2015).
In 2012, the Nasher Museum once again hosted my beloved Typewriter Eraser, its jauntily tilted body swerving across a black square, blue bristles branching out above it. Our meeting under the same glass paneled ceiling seemed to be a college reunion in a way, an opportunity to reunite, check in with each other and find out what’s new. That’s the special thing about art. Each time you look at it, you see something new–and that in turn leads you to realize something new within yourself. The special thing about museums is that they make this possible. So much about college shapes who we become afterward. Often it’s the people you meet, the classes you take or the 15 pounds you gain. But sometimes it’s a fleeting experience: a conversation, a book or poem or a chance encounter with a typewriter eraser.