By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Pittsburgh is, in many ways, a monument to the man-made. From its famous steel mills to the magnates who called it home, Pittsburgh’s history is inextricably linked to industry, a link that can appear in some surprising places.
The University Art Gallery is currently displaying two original exhibitions, The Curious Drawings of Dr. Clapp and Metal From Clay: Pittsburgh’s Aluminum Stories.
Held in the Frick Fine Arts Building on the University of Pittsburgh campus, both exhibits tell stories of Pittsburgh’s history through a specific focus.
The Curious Drawings of Dr. Clapp focuses on a large collection of items donated to the University Art Gallery by George Hubbard Clapp, president of Pitt’s board of trustees in the early 20th century. The focal point of this show is a book of 300 Renaissance drawings. The drawings are displayed in a variety of settings, revealing details like pinpricking, used to create copies, and drawings on the reverse of other drawings.
Curious Drawings is a museum-studies curated exhibit, meaning they were researched and organized by students in Pitt’s museum studies program.
“Last semester, students researched these works, and this semester, they worked with Professor Alex Taylor to curate the show,” says Sylvia Rhor, director and curator of the University Art Gallery. “They looked at each of the objects, wrote wall labels, thought about the exhibition design, and really investigated these drawings from the 15th to 18th centuries.”
Clapp was an extremely wealthy man in his era, and used his vast resources to become something of a Renaissance man, collecting art, coins, animal shells, and more. Much of these collections have been donated to various Pittsburgh institutions, including the University Art Gallery.
Such immense riches came to Clapp because of his key role as treasurer in the early days of ALCOA, the company which brought aluminum production to Pittsburgh on a grand scale. Thus, Clapp also finds himself the starting point of the Gallery’s second exhibition, Metal From Clay, which seeks to tell stories of Pittsburgh’s history through the lens of aluminum.
Metal From Clay is the culminating project of Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh, a collaboration between 11 museums and cultural institutions in the city, including the Carnegie Museums, the Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory, and more. Alex Taylor is the Academic Curator for Collecting Knowledge, and first had the idea to create an exhibition around aluminum.
“[Taylor] started to think about aluminum as something that might tie together all these different collections, but also expand our notion of Pittsburgh being a steel city,” Rhor says.
The exhibition features pieces from all 11 institutions in Collecting Knowledge, pieces which relate in some way to aluminum and its production. Displayed items include sculptures, advertising, and even a dress made of aluminum mesh, designed by Oscar de la Renta. Metal from Clay seeks to expand the discussion of Pittsburgh’s industrial past, and tell stories about how aluminum has impacted the world, for better and worse.
“We think [Pittsburgh] being called the Steel City is far too restrictive,” says Rhor. “We wanted to think about aluminum stories, from raw materials to avant-garde fashion, but also some of the labor issues and exploitation as a result of industrialization.”
Filling the rotunda of the Frick Fine Arts Building is an original installation by contemporary sculptor Atticus Adams. A West Virginia native, Adams is renowned for his use of metal mesh to create large-scale projects with abstract, organic shapes. This installation, titled From the Velveteen Closet, is the centerpiece of Metal from Clay, but also works in conversation with Curious Drawings.
“We commissioned [Adams] to do a work for the Metal From Clay show, because he works in aluminum and metal,” says Rhor. “It ended up being a good cross-section of the two exhibitions because he played on the drawing exhibition for the shape.”
Inspired by memories of searching through his grandmother’s closet as a child, Adams took that inspiration and related it to Helen Clay Frick, who funded the construction of the Frick Fine Arts Building. He said he pictured her as a child playing in a closet full of crinoline skirts. This can be seen in the light and frilly nature of the aluminum mesh, mimicking the ornate nature of clothing from Helen Frick’s time.
Adam’s work distills the idea behind these exhibitions to its essence: that seemingly fragile materials, like aluminum, can become the backbone of things much larger than itself, be it art, airplanes, or cities like Pittsburgh.