Growing Up, Looking Back

The Contemporary Museum offers a rare peek at its permanent collection.


“Hell on Wheels,” Alexis Smith, mixed media collage, 1985.

Since opening in Makiki Heights nearly 20 years ago, The Contemporary Museum has always felt like a visit to an artsy friend’s fabulous estate—an impression helped along by the possibility of lunch in its civilized cafe and a postprandial stroll in the sculpture and meditation gardens.

TCM’s current exhibit, “19 Going On 20,” puts a point on the first two decades of Hawai‘i’s only contemporary art museum with a 75-piece show selected from recent acquisitions. It’s a chance to peek inside the museum’s rapidly maturing and rarely seen permanent collection, which now includes more than 3,000 pieces.

Works by monolithic names from contemporary’s classic period (Robert Rauschenberg, Ansel Adams, Robert Motherwell, Georgia O’Keefe and Sam Francis) sit alongside well-chosen pieces from artists you may not have heard of unless you’re an art student or a collector. The last room is dedicated to rising stars, who often use what curator Jay Jensen calls “unusual media,” to startling effect. Thought spirulina and chlorophyll were strictly for health nuts? One artist uses them to paint vivid, large-scale canvases. Another chronicled a year of urban living using only a sheet of paper and a pin.

“Propogation Project,” Junko Mori, forged steel, 2006.

Since the exhibit is unified only by date of acquisition, it feels loose and eclectic, but that’s also its strength. In this highly browsable show, something is bound to catch your fancy.

It’s also a hint of things to come. TCM breaks ground early next year for a radical expansion that will annex the neighboring estate and add a building to house shows such as this one. “One of our limitations has been that we haven’t had galleries where we can show selections from our permanent collection, from which this exhibition is drawn,” says Jensen. “The new expansion is going to change that.”

We can’t wait.

“19 Going on 20,” runs through Aug. 12.

It’s not part of the main exhibit, but check out the video installation “Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go),” one of the first and most famous pieces of video art ever made. Using things you might find lying around your messy garage (ladders, garbage bags, sugar cubes, pieces of lumber, buckets, balloons), Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss assembled a chain reaction of events that takes 30 mesmerizing minutes to unwind. This piece alone is worth the trek up the hill.