Evan Harris

Alex Katz’s “Vincent with Open Mouth” has been in storage for 10-12 years, according to Finkel. The piece was deemed too valuable to display in public.

Treasures stored away

April 12, 2023

Just under three miles away from campus, pieces from some of the university’s nine art collections sit in storage. Some are there to rest in a climate-controlled space and take a break from light exposure and other harms presented by the outside world. Others are there because they are too valuable to be in public. 

One such piece is Alex Katz’s “Vincent with Open Mouth” — an eight-foot-tall oil painting on canvas purchased on the 1973 buying trip. Finkel said it has been in storage for 10 or 12 years. 

While it was displayed on campus, it received dents from chairs bumping into it, and then in the ’80s, someone drew a penis on the canvas. It was restored, and it eventually became too valuable to be vulnerable to either accidental or intentional damage.

One of the most important contemporary artist’s works is in storage.

— Dr. Jennifer Finkel, University Art Curator

Another piece that was vandalized was Robert Colescott’s “Famous Last Words: The Death of a Poet” — one of the Reece Collection’s most valuable works, bought on the 1989 buying trip. The painting was vandalized in April 1992 when it hung in Benson. The painting is a montage of a poet’s life, depicting his vices like gambling and alcoholism but also his romances: the Black poet is shown in bed with a white woman. Someone took a black marker to the woman’s body, making her skin darker to match the poet’s. Fortunately, the painting was restored and hung back up, this time in Reynolda. 

Then, in the spring of 2020, another one of Colescott’s paintings sold at Sotheby’s for $15 million. The very next day, Wake Forest’s Colescott was taken down. 

“One of the most important contemporary artist’s works is in storage,” Finkel said. No art museums in North Carolina have a Colescott painting.

Both the Katz and the Colescott have an insurance value of $1 million. If it was safe, Finkel says the two paintings would “1000%” be on display.

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