A resident of Baltimore, Caplan has been a keen student and steward of modern and contemporary art for more than 30 years, taking classes in art history and serving on and leading major museum boards—all in the service of art and the public trust. Her choices in 20th-century decorative arts, photography, and, above all, painting and sculpture, make an exquisite whole. Caplan is drawn to works with great presence, as she discusses in a conversation published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue; she is also moved by art that tells us something new about history and our perceptions of the world. Speaking admiringly of postwar European artists such as painter and sculptor Lucio Fontana and abstractionist Blinky Palermo, she confesses, “I just wanted to understand: what were they doing? They were dealing with materials that were on the streets, and I don’t think anybody thinks that what they did then was pretty. It wasn’t pretty. It was what they could find and what they were thinking about in the aftermath of war.”
Caplan herself practiced photography briefly and has collected the work of photographers interested, as she is, in the history of decorative or fine arts: Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Christopher Williams, and others. She has researched and pursued works across a variety of historical periods and art forms, and the works on view in this presentation accordingly range from a Vienna Secession vase made around 1910 to an abstract photograph from 2012 by American artist Liz Deschenes.
Mirroring the spirit of learning that has driven Caplan’s collecting, the exhibition’s descriptive wall texts draw from the catalogue’s essays, many of which were written by students or faculty members of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This educational emphasis, along with an exceptional selection of objects, makes Material Meanings a singularly affecting and enriching encounter with modern and contemporary art.