Exhibition provides view from 'An Artist's Eye'

Sigmund Abeles, a contemporary artist enlightened by the figure, was invited two years ago to tour the permanent collection at the Columbia Museum of Art. From more than 2,000 pieces, he selected more than 80 for "An Artist's Eye: A Journey through Modern and Contemporary Art with Sigmund Abeles."

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Myrtle Beach, Abeles has a unique relationship with the museum. He enrolled at the University of South Carolina as a pre-med student but graduated with a fine arts degree. While finding his artistic voice - form, rather - Abeles befriended David Van Hook and Catherine Rembert, who were associated with the museum.

"This is truly the only museum I've known from the back door in," Abeles said. "I was curious about what the collection had amounted to since I knew it."

Leaving for New York in the mid-1950s, Abeles resisted the movement toward abstraction and continued to create representational figures that had their own life and movements.

After 50 years of art-making, Abeles remains true to figural art, which is well represented in "An Artist's Eye."

"I don't know if it's going to be other people's things," he said when discussing his selections. "An abstract minimalist would do a show, and it would be day and night but the same collection."

It's true that when museums allow guest curators to enter the vaults of their permanent collections, a new perspective is offered to museum-goers. Exhibitions made of permanent collections also save money on shipping and other costs associated with a show.

(In November, the museum will mount one of its largest shows in "Nature and the Grand American Vision: Masterpieces of the Hudson River School Painters," the New-York Historical Society's traveling exhibition of 45 paintings.)

Abeles said it took six trips to Columbia to make his decisions, running into a snag when he had whittled 2,000 pieces down to around 300 possibilities. The goal was 75.

In press materials, Abeles said Chuck Close's fingerprint portrait of composer Philip Glass, used as the 2007 Spoleto Festival USA poster, is "sheer magic." Abeles also has an eye for the subtle, like "Window," by George Clair Tooker Jr.

The 1994 lithograph on paper shows two people, perhaps parent and child, looking out a window. The white space requires the viewer to fill in the back story.