“My children.” That’s what Dr. Jonathan Abrams calls the the gangster crouching in a silver gelatin print, the frail lilacs rendered with watercolor, the photo of a caped gray dog emerging from the water. Abrams is an art collector and emeritus professor of medicine at UNM Hospital, and he thinks of the all the artworks he has acquired over the years as his babies.
It’s a prestigious family. The collection, which Dr. Abrams co-owns with his former wife Fay Pfaelzer Abrams, includes pieces by defining contemporary masters including Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Bruce Nauman, as well as fine artists from our region, such as Patrick Nagatani, Luis Jimenez and Jaune Quick-To-See Smith. These pieces are now on view at the gallery space on the fifth floor of UNM Hospital. The show, Contemporary Art: Good for Your Heart!, runs through the end of June.
For an exhibition featuring work by so many internationally renowned artists, the show is deeply intimate.
“I have had relationships with all these people,” Abrams says, referring to the work of the artists which now lines the hospital corridor. He gestures down the hall with a sweep of his arm. “There’s not anyone here who is not a friend.”
The show is personal, too, in that it captures Abrams’ long-standing dedication to both contemporary art and UNM Hospital. An avid art collector since the late ’60s, Abrams has been working at UNMH for more than 40 years. He taught at the hospital when the medical program was in its infancy and eventually served as UNMH’s chief of cardiology.
In 1991 he co-founded the UNM Health Sciences Center Art Program, which is responsible for managing what is now in excess of 2,000 artworks displayed throughout UNM Health Science buildings. UNMH’s fifth-floor gallery space, which is named for Abrams, has hosted more than a hundred shows since it first opened, but this is the first time Abrams has displayed his own collection.
“It gives [people] something to look at while they’re pacing the hallways, a visual experience, something to think about.”
Christina Fenton, director of the UNM HSC Art Program
Though the gallery is in a busy hospital corridor, with patients constantly passing by, Abrams did not curate the kind of exhibition typically found hanging in clinics. These are not cheering, analgesic images. The lithograph “Anatomy” by Basquiat features a diagram of a human skull scraped into negative space. A print by Fritz Scholder shows a trio of Western figures with faces grimly obscured. Abrams describes the print as “mysterious, even a little bit scary.”
Abrams says offering folks the chance to see challenging contemporary art “helps people feel respected.” This is especially true at a hospital, where patients and their families are so surrounded with uncertainty.
Christina Fenton, director of the UNM HSC Art Program, describes the role of art in a hospital setting. “It gives [people] something to look at while they’re pacing the hallways,” she says, “a visual experience, something to think about.”
That experience is never more clear than when Rebecca Mayo, a certified nurse practitioner in the cardiology department, stops to talk to Abrams. She has purchased three pieces from past exhibitions in the hospital gallery. “I have had more patients stop and look at this display” than previous shows, she tells him. “It’s wonderful because it’s stimulating.”
Minutes later, a woman relying heavily on a cane is doing her best to hurry down the hall. As she proceeds, she’s hasty but takes second and third glances at the artwork along the way. When she arrives at the end of the corridor, she cranes her neck to see the last painting on the wall as the rest of her body advances, and finally stops outright to take a long look. The painting is “Study for a Geometric Dream” by Harry Nadler, former chair of UNM’s art department who passed away from cancer in 1990, a fury of pinks and oranges sliced into complex intersections.
Always looking to engage with people and art, Abrams calls out to her. “What do you think?” he asks.
The woman stares at the painting for a few moments. “Huh.”
Then she says, “I think it’s great.”