Where Art and Science Meet

As the Nasher marks its first decade, we let loose an unusual art-discussion duo in its new galleries.
Images: 
December 11, 2015
Allegorical Portrait of a Lady (after Caspar Netscher), 17th century. Gift in honor of Marily M. Segal by her children. Nasher Museum of Art Collection.

Here’s a question somewhere on the spectrum between the prosaic and the profound: Is medicine an art or a science? And how many times has Gene Washington, Duke’s chancellor for health affairs since this past spring, heard a version of that question? A lot, no doubt. His answer: “It’s both. It’s definitely both.”

Putting that statement to the test, Washington is touring the Nasher’s new galleries with Sarah Schroth, the museum’s director. A counterintuitive pairing, but only on the surface—different expertise, but a shared interest in finding meaning, sustenance, and joy in art. Close observation is something to be learned, says Schroth, as they start out. “It’s a skill,” Washington agrees.

Since the Nasher opened ten years ago, more than 70 percent of the space had been devoted to temporary shows, mostly around contemporary art. With these re-installed galleries, Schroth flipped the ratio. The rethinking allows the museum to show more of its 13,000 objects. It also provides better spaces for faculty members who use the collections for their classes.

Washington’s job encompasses Duke’s medical school, nursing school, and ever-burgeoning programs for patient care, biomedical research, and community service. Before coming to Duke, he was vice chancellor for health sciences at UCLA, where he was also dean of the medical school and chief executive officer of the health system. Since arriving in Durham, he hasn’t slowed down. But slowing down is just what art demands, and Washington couldn’t be happier for an experience that’s at once absorbing and diverting.

Schroth’s earliest museum memory was at the National Gallery of Art; she grew up in nearby Northern Virginia. The parents of her best friend took them to see the King Tut exhibition, “the first museum blockbuster,” she recalls, and that set her on her life’s course. She joined the Duke University Museum of Art—as it was then known—in 1995, and became the Nasher’s Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director in 2013. An expert on Spanish art of the seventeenth century, she curated shows ranging from Old Masters to contemporary art. Among them was “El Greco to Velazquez: Art During the Reign of Philip III,” for which she earned another title: She was named knight-commander in the Order of Isabel la Catolica by King Juan Carlos I of Spain.

In the galleries’ “Incubator Space,” Washington and Schroth find a display of Ansel Adams photographs, curated by two undergraduates. Washington tells Schroth that at one point, he lived on West Clay Street in San Francisco, just down the block from the boyhood home where Adams endured the 1906 earthquake; the historic house (along with his own) was later threatened by a mudslide. Schroth is struck by that tie-in to Adams, for whom, she notes, nature was in essence a human being—capable of sublime effects and earthquake-like violence alike. He would try to capture character-rich landscapes and then fine-tune light-and-dark tones back in the darkroom.

The initial attraction is Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, a gelatin silverprint from 1941, with distant mountains, low-slung houses, a cemetery, and desert vegetation, all illuminated by a glowing moon. From there it’s Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, from around 1927, a Glacier National Park scene. The shadows of the cliff’s ridges contrast with the white highlight of snow. Schroth observes that a horizontal composition— New Mexico—is thought to be soothing; vertical shapes, like Half Dome, aggressive. Washington jokes that patients wouldn’t like to picture themselves as still, horizontal forms. And as an occasional Yosemite hiker, he knows something about confronting nature.

Schroth asks him whether he ever attempted a direct ascent of Half Dome. That, he says, would be a bit too confrontational.

Line, movement, balance—Washington presses Schroth on principles of design as they make their way through the galleries. Artists, she says, often offset a perfect balance, maybe through colors or shapes, to add more interest to the composition; they may not be aiming for perfect symmetry. That works for Washington, who says a slightly off-kilter composition can produce a strong emotional connection. It’s interesting, and it’s authentically human. “The big word in our profession is empathy. We have a problem in medicine if we don’t feel something from our human interactions.”

A student guard is nearby, and Washington sparks an unexpected interaction: What’s her major? What artists does she like? What does she like about this museum? She laments that her student schedule allows her little time for Nasher wanderings. “I know that feeling,” Washington tells her. She turns out to be interested in engineering management. “You’re going to be running things. Nothing wrong with that,” he says.

“I can see that approaching art is a lot like approaching patients,” Washington tells Schroth as they move on to “Medieval Europe.” “Here’s my philosophy about treating patients: When you’ve seen one, you’ve seen one. We’re all unique. When you see that patient, you have to check your biases and preconceived notions at the door. The other thing you have to do is to tune out everything else, to shift all your attention to the patient.”

Schroth and Washington shift their attention to four reliefs depicting apostles, from a twelfth-century church in southwestern France. Once colorfully painted, the four apostles are reanimated through digital projections, effects created by a faculty-student team in art history and electrical engineering. On a basic keyboard that shoots out beams of colored light, museum-goers essentially paint the limestone—turning, say, an apostle’s flowing cloak blue and his striated beard red.

Some years ago, a similar project was applied to works by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. The Rothkos were once filled with shimmering reds and purples, but they were allowed to fade through years of being exposed to sunlight.

Rothko, it turns out, is a favorite of both Washington and Schroth. Washington grew up in Houston, where his father was a minister; the very first images Washington was exposed to were biblical scenes in churches. But in Houston’s Rothko Chapel, an intimate, interdenominational sanctuary that’s at once overwhelming and utterly sublime, he enjoyed hours of contemplation. Schroth grew up with access to the Rothko room of the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C. She “spent a good long time in front of art, meditating on the works themselves and waiting for something to happen. Being surrounded by the Rothkos stirred my emotional state from feelings of joy to sadness, from awe to terror at the sheer power of images. They felt very spiritual to me.”

Such depth of engagement, she adds, “is another reason for displaying more of the Nasher’s collection. I hope it will encourage students and all visitors to slow down, put away their phones and iPads, look, look, look, feel, and listen to the artist and to themselves. In other words, mindful looking.”

It’s on to look mindfully through “European Art,” including Pieter van Slingelandt’s luminous and mysterious Allegorical Portrait of a Lady, from around 1675. Schroth admires the artist as a master of light: How do you make oil paint take on the qualities of silk? Or mimic the texture of pearls? There are some features that can be readily decoded: a lily and a rose standing for purity, a globe as an indicator of knowledge and wisdom, an enclosed garden as a symbol of virginity. But there are other more ambiguous elements, such as a plant being crushed by the foot of the sitter.

Washington picks up on the theme of ambiguity. Reading a patient’s case is never clear-cut, he says; there’s always space for interpretation. “That’s why the power of observation is the first business for a physician. You have to make sure you don’t miss any clues.” In this particular (idealized) portrait, he notes, there are a few concerning signs—a swelling of the arms, for example. But the eyes look bright and, basically, he says, “there’s a healthiness about her. And I’m not looking just at physical attributes; I’m trying to read the emotional state. I don’t see sagging shoulders or a downward expression.”

One emotional benefit Washington sees in art is its healing potential. He and Schroth talk about how Duke Hospital patients and their families might benefit from a Nasher visit. “Why wouldn’t that be happening?” he wonders in front of the Allegorical Portrait. “I love that idea,” says Schroth.

A work in the “American Art” gallery also brings an affirming verdict: John Singer Sargent’s Mrs. John Canfield Tomlinson, née Dora Grant, from 1904. There’s the classical column of the fireplace, the pensive hand-on-chin pose. And the red velvety curtain as a backdrop for the flowing black dress, combining for a classic color palette. The woman is pure verticality, like Glacier’s Half-Dome in the Ansel Adams print: a formidable presence. Washington admires the frame, which seems plucked from the elaborate setting of the painting’s subject. Schroth tells him it’s a Nasher replacement of a plain black frame that, as she puts it, “just killed” the effect of the composition.

In “Arts of Africa,” Schroth paints a verbal portrait of a physician- collector. That was George W. Harley, who graduated from Trinity College (later Duke University) in 1916. He collected hundreds of pieces from his time as a medical missionary in Liberia, where—in addition to being one of the first American collectors to bring works out of Africa— he built a hospital, school, and leper village. The Nasher is the beneficiary.

Schroth and Washington stand in front of a hat made of rattan, plant fibers, feather, and pigment. It’s a work with a cultural context: Young men would compete to clear the fields of trees and underbrush so farmers could plant their crops. The strongest and fastest “cutter of the bush” was honored with the trophy hat. Washington’s wife, Marie, purchased masks in Cape Town, South Africa, when visiting their son, Brooks, in Johannesburg, his first city of residence on the continent. (Brooks now lives in Kenya and works as an entrepreneur. The Washingtons also have two daughters: Caroline, who works for a product-innovation firm in New York, and Erin, who works in healthcare venture capital in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Over time, the Washingtons have built a collection of art from the African diaspora as well as some modern pieces.

Washington tells Schroth he’d “feel cheated” in the Nasher walkabout if they didn’t “fast-forward” to the Picasso on display. Picasso was inspired by African sculpture and its highly stylized treatment of the human figure—an inspiration evident in the black-and-white Head of a Woman. The late-career painting, from 1960, is in the “Modern Affinities” gallery. The artist is endlessly interesting for Schroth as well. “He was an obsessive and highly creative person, driven to make art all the time, with whatever materials interested him at that moment, in whatever place he was living.”

Schroth mentions the new Picasso sculpture exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It now ranks among her favorite exhibitions. “I’ve got to see it,” Washington tells her.

Picasso’s output spanned many decades, while this exercise in observing and conversing is limited to an hour. The two of them make time for one more destination: They look at, and inside, sculptor Ivan Navarro’s Water Tower series, in the Nasher’s atrium. Everything is thrown into the creative mix: neon, wood, painted steel, aluminum, mirrors, electricity.

The hour is up, but they linger on. After all, Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is eternal, life is fleeting. It’s an aphorism attributed to Hippocrates in Periclean Athens, as it happens, a period that the Nasher recognizes, in its “Ancient Lives” gallery, with an array of glazed storage vessels and their red-figure depictions of battles, competitions, and wayward gods. They, too, have a lot to say to us. If, that is, we take the time to join in the conversation.

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.