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Gardner Museum exhibit examines use of gold as artistic medium

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Gardner Museum exhibit examines use of gold as artistic medium
(left) Simone Martini, Italian (Sienese), about 1284–1344. Saint Andrew (?), early 1320s Tempera on panel. 18.4 x 19.7 cm (7 1/4 x 7 3/4 in.). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Charles Potter Kling Fund. 51.2397. (right) Titus Kaphar, Jerome I, 2014. Oil, tar, and gold leaf on panel. 25.4 x 17.8 x 2.5 cm (10 x 7 x 1 in). Collection of Noel E. D. Kirnon

Isabella Stewart Gardner’s legacy is one of innovation in her time. “Metal of Honor,” running at the Gardner Museum through Jan. 16, 2023, illustrates an eye for artistic importance both in her longstanding collection and in works she might collect if she were alive today.

The exhibition focuses on the use of gold, first in the works of famed icon painter Simone Martini and then in the works of three contemporary artists of color who utilize the metal in new and innovative ways to honor groups of people often left out of the Western art historical narrative.

Simone Martini (c. 1284-1344, Italy), Virgin and Child with Saints, about 1320. Gold and tempera on panel, 131 x 274.3 cm (51 9/16 x 108 in). Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.

“We are delighted to bring together this unprecedented gathering of Simone Martini’s work with the more recent accomplishments of three important artists of our time,” says Peggy Fogelman, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Norma Jean Calderwood director. “Together, these exquisite paintings, which shimmer with precious metal, inspire us to ask profound questions about who and what we honor, then and now.”

Martini’s 14th-century works were heralded for their technical innovation and beauty. Gardner was the first art collector to bring his work from Italy to the United States, and the museum still owns the only Martini altarpiece outside Italy. In his time, Martini was on the forefront of the use of gold as a medium. The artist mastered ways to manipulate the gold to illustrate shading, texture and symbolism around the saints he portrayed. The current exhibition provides viewers an opportunity to see several Martini works, two from the Gardner collection, up close and in new light.

Kehinde Wiley, The Archangel Gabriel, 2014. ©Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York.

Curator Nathaniel Silver says gold works, particularly icon painting featuring religious figures, are often lumped together in one mass and perhaps even considered old and outdated. He hopes the opportunity to examine the Martini pieces will illustrate just how dynamic the medium was in the hands of a master craftsman, and how that artistic thread leads to the contemporary works we revel in now.

In the main gallery of “Metal of Honor,” a large altarpiece by Martini is surrounded by works by three contemporary artists: Titus Kaphar, Stacy Lynn Waddell and Kehinde Wiley. All three of these artists use gold to elevate Black figures to the level of deity and icon.

Wiley utilizes a very similar frame structure to that of the altarpiece but paints inside the frames with his famous portrait manner, stylizing ordinary Black men as saints.

Stacy Lynn Waddell (b. 1966, US), Young Woman Holding A Flower (for M. S.), 2022. 22 karat gold leaf on linen, 121.9 x 91.4 cm (48 x 36 in.).© Stacy Lynn Waddell. Courtesy of Candice Madey, New York and the artist. PHOTO: KUNNING HUANG

Waddell, who has been an artist-in-residence at the Gardner Museum, innovates the medium of gold with tools, as Martini did, but to very different uses. Her portraits, made entirely in gold, reflect light in a beautiful and intentional way that requires viewers to come close to absorb all the delicate details. The portraits celebrate Black women, from fighters in African revolutions to the author Octavia E. Butler. A photographic portrait by Waddell of her grandmother adorns the façade of the museum, honoring a Black woman in a different way.

Two large-scale works by Kaphar play off his series “The Jerome Project.” The project began when Kaphar was searching for his father, who had been in the prison system for a number of years. He found 97 other men in the system with his father’s exact name, and he began creating portraits from their mug shots. The intimate portraits are painted on gold backgrounds, honoring each subject. Then Kaphar coats the bottom half of the piece in tar, which both illustrates the length of each man’s sentence and references the violent use of tar in the history of enslaved people.

Kaphar’s work can be further examined in the Fenway Gallery within the Gardner Museum, where 15 works from “The Jerome Project” can be examined in close proximity.

A series of programs will accompany “Metal of Honor,” including a discussion on Nov. 17 of mass incarceration, creativity and healing, featuring award-winning poet, lawyer and author Reginald Dwayne Betts (who is depicted in one of Kaphar’s large-scale portraits); Stacey Borden of New Beginnings Reentry Services; Erika Rumbley of the New Garden Society; and André de Quadros of the Prison Arts Project at Boston University.

“This exhibition offers a unique opportunity, bringing together dazzling paintings by the legendary Renaissance artist Simone Martini with artistic legends of our time Titus Kaphar, Kehinde Wiley, and Stacy Lynn Waddell,” says Silver. “Masterworks past and present illuminate the allure of gold across centuries, exploring artists of unparalleled technical accomplishment who pushed the boundaries of painting to fashion new languages of honor and indices of virtue.” 

In “Metal of Honor,” works from the Gardner collection are reexamined and celebrated while brought into a new context by their contemporary counterparts. Martini was an innovator in his time and region. Now, space is made for our current innovators bringing Black bodies into spaces both sacred and artistic.