Highlights from the Collection: Don’t Go Out If You Don’t Have To: Sam Messer

Exhibition Website

Oct 7 2016 - Mar 26 2017

In January 2016, at the inspiration of Executive Director John Ravenal, we inaugurated a new program in the second floor window gallery to bring focus to exceptional rarely seen artworks from deCordova’s permanent collection. Works will be rotated periodically to allow members and visitors to experience the breadth of artwork owned by the Museum. The second painting selected for this program is Sam Messer’s

Don’t Go Out If You Don’t Have To

, which came into the Collection as a gift from Stephen L. Singer in 1993.

During the 1980s, Sam Messer emerged as a significant painter in the Neo-Expressionist movement, which first began in the 1970s as a reaction against conceptual and minimalist art. Drawing inspiration from surrealists such as Max Ernst, Andre Masson, and Yves Tanguy, Messer’s bold paintings presented hallucinatory, theatrical scenes which seemed to slither straight from the subconscious.

Resembling a fever-addled dream,

Don’t Go Out If You Don’t Have To

has a striking composition of vivid color featuring several spectral figures. The enormous scale of the painting elevates this ambiguous yet macabre narrative of fear to epic proportions. In the center, a disembodied floating head screams over its grounded body—a self-portrait of the artist. Swirling, abstracted beings tower over him on either side, looking down at the chaotic scene. While the left panel is rendered with a smooth, calligraphic style, the right side employs gestural marks with a thick layering of paint and wiping or scraping to leave a stain. The title of the painting suggests that one’s subconscious should be as well protected as one’s physical being. Messer made the painting after, and thinking about, the artist Christopher Wilmarth’s untimely and sad death.

Sam Messer graduated from the Cooper Union in New York and the Yale School of Art. He is currently the Associate Dean at the Yale School of Art.

In addition to enabling the presentation of unseen works from the collection, this Highlights initiative also provides an opportunity to experiment with interpretative material in the galleries. In keeping with this idea, we invited Nina Nielsen and John Baker, Sam Messer’s former gallerists in Boston, to reflect on their relationship with the artist. Their insights are presented alongside our standard interpretative text to add the enrichment of a voice from outside the Museum to our visitor’s experience.
“We met Sam Messer in 1983 after enthusiastic recommendations from artists Jake Berthot and Harvey Quaytman. It led to a strong friendship and association with us at Nielsen Gallery, which included seventeen solo exhibitions and countless group shows. 

From the beginning Sam reminded us of Jack Kerouac, who wanted to write fast and purely to outstrip his rational awareness; Sam was reaching for that release. The death of his father had been jolting; he was searching for love and questioning what life was. The naked complications and disturbing confrontations of those questions are central to this 1988 painting. A hot sun overflows Messer’s mouth while his dismembered head floats above a waif-like body. Ghostly creatures lurk about the space as if the memory of tragic loss or bad dreams. Rational intelligence is useless before such abrupt intensities and freaks. Sam wants you to feel his questions.

Sam lived like his paintings. His studios were a mess with piles of drawings underfoot everywhere along with the strange creatures he collected piled here and there. He would dash around oblivious to everything except what we were talking about—his paintings. On one early visit a collector was fascinated by a complicated work that included a cow’s scull. “Sam, what does that cow mean to you,” he asked. “Oh, it’s just the cow I used to milk,” he answered. We laughed. The painting’s title was Two Heads Are Better Than One.”

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.

  • Painting
  • American
  • 20th Century
  • Sam Messer

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