There are a lot of things that make the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art different. Inseparable from the museum is it’s location in Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters to one of the world’s most controversial companies: Wal-Mart. In a town built on ruthless discounts and relentless efficiencies, Crystal Bridges is an elegant surprise. Most surprising is the collection itself.
At Crystal Bridges the exclusively American collection fosters a special kinship with art. That the art is all American, makes it seem a little closer and more familiar — almost like experiencing the history of the United States first-hand.
The Crystal Bridges facade
Looking down from the observation platform three stories up, the twin tortellini-shaped roofs of Crystal Bridges are a memorable façade. The concave rooftops of the other two wings continue the slope of the surrounding hills, ending as abruptly as a ski jump. The rooftop façade of these four buildings extends the ebb and flow of the Ozark hills that surround the museum on all sides.
The waters of the eponymous Crystal Springs have been diverted into a man-made lake resting at the bottom of the ravine. The two wings with the hill-shaped roofs are elevated so they form bridges over the lake. These four wings connect to form a square with a reflective watery courtyard in the middle.
Deliciously syrupy Arkansas accents and the Midwestern hospitality of the museum staff are as distinctly a part of the experience as is the rugged landscape. A greeter welcomes you into the gallery by explaining a few points of museum etiquette: 18 inches away from the paintings at all times, please. Museum guards also have a more informal, customer service disposition. There are wandering docents who may sidle up to provide context for the various paintings in the gallery. It all combines to form an oddly retail experience that is reminiscent of… well, I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Director of Education, Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, explains that the presence of the docents, the free admission, everything about the museum is engineered to tear away barriers to the museum for a region that has never had a major art museum before.
The Main Galleries
Visible from the entrance hall, the collection starts with a staple of American history books: George Wilson Peale’s portrait of George Washington at Yorktown. The first paintings are unsurprisingly formal portraits, the earliest of which (from the 17th century) demonstrates an almost medieval flatness. Neo-classical style portraits of Native American and early American leaders are displayed together; the highlight of the group being the familiar face of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825-1855). War News from Mexico, 1848. Oil on canvas. 27 x 25 in. (68.6 x 63.5 cm). Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Of the early part of the collection, Curator Kevin Murphy points out, “Artists in this era are helping to shape what it means to be a colonist, and what it means to be far away from their mother lands.” This break begins almost imperceptibly with a distinctly American squirrel on a golden leash in a portrait by John Singleton Copely and continues with portrayals of raucous tavern-style Jacksonian Democracy. In the painting, “War News from Mexico”, by Richard Caton Woodville, Kevin points out that if you look closely, you can see “Tavern” was painted over and replaced with Post Office. Women and slaves are portrayed poignantly as onlookers in this national conversation, but in which they don’t have a voice. “War News from Mexico” was painted in 1848; on the other side of the gallery is museum-favorite, Asher B. Durand’s painting “Kindred Spirits” from 1849. In organizing the galleries, the curators have tried to pull out common themes in favor of chronology as demonstrated by the separation of these two works painted just a year apart.
Kindred Spirits exemplifies the Hudson River School of mid 19th century landscape paintings. A collaborative partnership was recently announced between several museums, including the Louvre and Crystal Bridges, beginning with traveling exhibition starting at the Louvre to explore the Hudson River School and the origins of American Landscape painting.
The Late 19th Century gallery highlights different themes through its division into three sections: landscape paintings, portrayals of women and a pleasantly man-cave mélange of tromp d’oeil and genre paintings. The stiffness of the more formal European style portraits takes a sharply more casual turn with genre paintings (portraying everyday life). The progression from how women are portrayed as nearly an extension of serene landscape to a more individual subjects is brought out interestingly by artists such as Alfred Maurer and Sargent.
If there is a show stopper in the museum, it is The Early 20th Century gallery. The cacophony of styles, artists, and subjects is wonderfully overwhelming. The mixture of movements with European roots such as Abstraction, and Cubism, are combined with distinctly American styles of the Ash Can School, and Regionalism.
In the final gallery of the permanent collection, 20th Century Art, oversized paintings that anchor so many post war collections here are a bit thin. Although the gallery has a different feel, well-suited to oversized constructions and canvasses, it doesn’t have the expected brand names of the period. The most formidable part of this section is the more intimate corridor-style side galleries. Unlike traditional museum spaces where the galleries are stacked on top of each other, Crystal Bridges has a richness of transition spaces, side galleries and think spaces that allow for contemplation and a deeper exploration of themes.
It would be easy to spend the better part of a day at Crystal Bridges. Its secondary spaces are terrific places to digest and reflect before getting back to the permanent collection. Despite the inviting furniture to sit on and the trails that are a part of the 120 acres of museum grounds, there is no rest for the eyes, as the gorgeous landscape and architecture are always so immediate.
There is a charming side gallery devoted to local Arkansas themes. The mini-exhibition, The Ballad of the Arkansas Traveler, is on display in conjunction with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The ballad which became popular in the 1850s as a celebration of the earlier frontier days of Arkansas, a few decades later the Arkansas Traveler became something of a state Albatross.
Downstairs there is a drop in play area where children can explore the collection through a series of “high touch, low tech” stations. Mrs. Kathlynn Walton (no relation to the Wal-Mart Waltons) an art teacher from nearby Centerton Gamble Elementary was there with students from her 4th and 5th grade classes to be a focus group for the facilities. One example is a computer program that gives children step-by-step auditory instructions to draw paintings on display; another popular example among Ms. Walton’s class is a magnetic storyboard of paintings that can be arranged into a narrative. There is also a cafeteria style art studio for families to make their own original creations. The drop-in arrangement is meant to create a more casual space that will lower barriers for families to “play with new ideas,” as Education Director Niki Ciccotelli Stewart phrases it.
Either as an art-break or as a destination in and of itself, the museum grounds are also home to six short trails that celebrate the beauty of this corner of the “ Natural State”. In addition to providing a beautifully manicured appreciation for the Ozarks, the trails showcase the architecture of the museum designed by architect Moshe Safdie. There are a variety of sculptures with interpretative material along the way. The less than 2 mile “Crystal Bridges Trail” is a footpath/bike path into downtown Bentonville. The highlight of the trails is The Way of Color, by James Turrell on the 1/3 mile ArtTrail. The “Skyspace” building is illuminated in different colors during the sun rise and sun set. Through an aperture in the roof, the sunlight combined with elements of the circular building, channels the outside conditions producing spectacular light show at dawn and dusk. The museum doesn’t open until 11 but the trials are open starting at sunrise.
Under one of the billowing roofs are the coffee shop and the museum restaurant, “Eleven,” named in honor of the museum’s opening date 11-11-11. The coffee shop has all of the expected sources of caffeine deliciousness and simple, hearty snacks. The menus lean very heavily to the South although sweetened iced tea is incongruously unavailable. The lunch menu is limited; the dinner menu is more robust. Sunday Brunch kicks off “Family Day” at the museum, with family programs throughout the day. There also picnic lunches available for purchase that can be enjoyed on the museum grounds.
In the End, What is Crystal Bridges?
Crystal Bridges staff insists the museum just past the Wal-Mart museum and the Wal-Mart employee store and the Wal-Mart distribution center, whose free admission is funded by Wal-Mart and built by Wal-Mart scion, Alice Walton has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. This insistence on the lack of relationship between Wal-Mart and Crystal Bridges borders on the Orwellian. Be that as it may, writing off the museum as Alice Walton’s Xanadu or as a casualty in the culture war (as some have) would be a mistake, no matter what your politics.
The permanent collection of American art is universally hailed as one of the top 10 in the world. But the strength of the comprehensive collection is more than just bragging rights — it can be disorienting to look at samples from every continent and every time frame jammed together in the local city art museum. But the exclusively American art at Crystal Bridges has a tangible feeling of familiarity. City art museums trying to represent so many constituencies and schools often feel dyspeptically forced. Crystal Bridges explores gender, Native American, and African-American themes in a way that feels like a conversation, not just a conversation piece. Curator Kevin Murphy points out that curators, unlike professors, have the opportunity to teach in 3D.
As the profile of the Ozarks is raised by author Daniel Woodward, the award-winning film “Winter’s Bone” and nearby Branson, Missouri, the Ozarks are already seeing a broader audience. The museum blends into the beautiful Ozark hills that were a treasure of my childhood vacations. At the same time, Crystal Bridges is set to transform the cultural landscape of the region and enrich understanding of American art history in the world.
Its birth in controversy makes it feel insincere not to see Crystal Bridges simultaneously as an oasis and a mirage. The Crystal Bridges Museum has been making waves in the art world long before it opened. A part of the Crystal Bridges controversy is that this first-rate collection of American art is squirreled away in Bentonville, Arkansas. Another lightning rod is billionaire Alice Walton, the creator of the museum and according to Forbes, the third richest woman in the world. But to dismiss Crystal Bridges would be a small-minded sacrifice of something that is even bigger than the world’s largest company.
Sargent is best known for his insightful portraits. His usual studied approach is abandoned here to capture a fleeting voyeuristic moment. It is a painting that pulls you closer and simultaneously keeps you at a distance.
If there was a first class lounge at an art museum, it would look like Muzeion in the Design District. There isn’t anything grandiose or flashy about it, but it feels like a sanctuary separate from our quotidian insta-, multi-, e-, dot com, i-world.
What is immediately noticeable is the juxtaposition of contemporary art with classical pieces of largely non-western art. The founder, Guillermo Cardenas, likens it to a conversation between young children represented by the contemporary pieces and very old people represented by the classical pieces. He points out that there is something universal about art and that there is an eternal conversation to be appreciated by pairing such different art objects. It sounds theoretical, even mystical, but in looking around, there is certain freshness in the classical pieces, and a more grounded feel about the contemporary work. As displayed on the walls, it makes perfect sense.
The gallery has an inevitable flow, as persistent and imperceptible as undertow. At the center of the gallery is a miniature plaza with a giant fountain that reminds me of a Max Ernst painting. This central plaza is separated from the rest of the gallery with translucent crystal panels and a sunken border of grainy sand. Inside the plaza are statues on pedestals. Throughout the gallery there aren’t the empty (negative) spaces of other galleries; as a result sight lines feel compressed and art objects feel more immediate.
There isn’t any one element by itself that makes a statement – they all work together to create “an experience” as Guillermo explains. “The leitmotif of the building and the art is energy.” When he mentions feng shui it all clicks.
Remember those ubiquitous little fountains that were all the rage more than a few years ago? For most of us, Feng Shui was a fad embodied by some exotic Eastern accessories to be replaced by the next fad. For Guillermo, an architect, Feng Shui was the foundation, an ancient foundation. Most of us take for granted where the door should go or how the approach to the building should be designed – is that even a decision? Guillermo didn’t take anything for granted as he overhauled the space with feng shui as his north star.
Muzeion is his brainchild. There is a Latin hospitality that is a part of his demeanor reinforced by a Continental passion for discussing ideas. With silver hair and the consuming intensity of someone who loves his profession, he reminds me of a favorite college professor. He listens intently; the corners of his eyes narrow with concentration when he speaks. He has a million faraway stories and more than a few unconventional ideas. When encountering such a strong weltanschauung, you come to a fork in the road where you have to choose deference or doubt. With his ideas manifested all around us, I go with the flow.
When I ask Guillermo how he selects so many eclectic pieces he again comes back to energy, the energy of the art itself. Everything in the gallery is working together to create that energy. In discussing the space and the benefits of positive energy, Guillermo exclaimed, “If you have a headache, don’t take an aspirin, come here!” And that is the vision for how these pieces in the gallery can make a difference in your life. The ‘energy’ or “Ch’i” as it is called in feng shui are meant to improve the energy of your home – they improve the energy and balance of your life.
Be sure to put Muzeion at the top of your list for the next Design District Gallery Walk on September 22. Sometimes I struggle to connect with pieces as I walk through a gallery — at Muzeion, the Temple of Muses, it felt like the gallery was connecting with me.
A couple of years ago I went to the exhibition of Sergey Andriaka’s works, one of Russia’s famous modern watercolor artists. It was like getting into summer in the middle of winter – his stunning bouquets of lilacs, peonies, chrysanthemums, landscapes and still lifes immediately made you forget about the cold wind and snow outside and carried you away to green meadows and forests full of beautiful flowers. I was really impressed by his works and I still remember how his pictures filled me with joy – it was like enjoying the first sunny day, even though it was indoors.
S. Andriaka, Volga Landscape, 2008
S. Andriaka, A Vase of Orchids, 2005
Olga is a translator in Moscow and a frequent traveler to Italy and the United States.
Here is a story on the opening of the exhibition, and Andriaka’s unique watercolor technique.
Chant (Song), by Rene Leveque is a dominating presence at the Dallas Contemporary. Composed of hundreds of black umbrellas hanging upside-down from the ceiling, the installation is a little larger than a tennis court. The generic black umbrellas were bought in bulk (perhaps that explains the acrid, oily smell of the installation). The umbrella’s canopies were slashed according to the artist’s instructions. The overlapping fabric creates a low black ceiling disrupted by powerful oscillating fans angled up at the umbrellas. The fans, together with a soundtrack, create a tromp d’oreille illusion to emphasize the auditory nature of the trick). It seems that this gentle push of air is responsible for the dramatic, metallic screeching that can reach up to 95 decibels.
While the soundtrack is reminiscent of a turning subway amplified by the acoustics of a tunnel, the black umbrellas are the personification of generic. These two ingredients are combined to evoke a crowded, cosmopolitan environment. What remains hidden are the people implied by a subway, and the crowd that should be holding the umbrellas. The absence of this implied crowd makes the other visitors fill the gap, like they are meant to be a part of the exhibit. In fact, Chant creates an unusual stage of museum-goers walking with their heads tilted up, or a crowd of people talking seemingly oblivious to the mob of umbrellas above.
As the canopy of umbrellas ends, there is a drywall fence with holes; it is the next piece by Leveque, La mort du cygnet (The Dying Swan). Behind the fence is a shed made out of plywood painted black. A light bulb hangs down from the ceiling, and a black wedding dress rests on the floor below. The missing masses of Chant are overshadowed by something more disturbing: the absence of an individual connected to the abandoned dress. With the black dress, there is the hint of a narrative. Once again the crowd becomes a part of the installation. Limited by the size of the shed, we all stand in close proximity to the dress and look down as if we were attending a funeral.
Often in a museum our response to art is individual — personal. Viewing Leveque’s works, like attending a sports event, is infinitely more powerful if you go when it is busy. There is an unusually shared response to Chant.
There is an interesting corollary installation at the Grand Palais in Paris that applies what sounds like a more colorful, whimsical approach to similar themes. (Note to editor: see links below) While Daniel Buren’s installation of low, overlapping, colored glass with a soundtrack sounds cute and all, I personally am glad to have Leveque’s very effective, very memorable works here in Dallas. Whether it says something to you about art, or it just inspires you to buy an umbrella with a little more personality, Leveque’s work stays with you.
The very best time to visit Leveque’s installations before they close on August 8th, is this Saturday when the Design District hosts Gallery Night from 6-9. Having been to the Contemporary during its regular hours, I know first-hand that these installations are best appreciated with a crowd. In case food trucks, a DJ, a dozen galleries open late and the ever eclectically dressed Dallas gallery crowd weren’t enough incentive to attend. Put it on your calendar now, and get there before your friends so you can appreciate the absence of the implied masses and the anonymity of the other viewers.
Lucian Freud’s portraits are like being at the DMV – except half of the people are naked, and unfortunately it isn’t necessarily the half you wouldn’t mind seeing naked. Freud (grandson of Sigmund Freud) is widely hailed for creating intensely psychological portraits. After wandering the exhibition, I found myself wondering more about what is revealed about the psychology of the artist.
D/FW rivalry notwithstanding, I think you could get even the Dallas Art glimmeratti to admit that the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has scored the biggest art exhibition of 2012; a claim that has been turbocharged by Lucian Freud’s death less than a year ago. This exhibition is extremely important and not just because the New York Times and the rest of the national media are slobbering about it. According to curator Michael Auping, there is a challenge implicit in the exhibition, “I think the bottom line (for Lucian) is here’s how it works, and can you accept it? Are you OK with that?”
Almost all of the most celebrated art in the world was at one time controversial, hated even. You don’t see that in a van Gogh or Picasso today because their moment is a part of history (and the museum gift shop) – Lucian Freud’s moment is still now. His work will be in museums a hundred years from now, but there is only one moment and one place where this huge collection of portraits is contemporary. To boil it down, these portraits have the power to stir shit up. Someday a museum person will get out of their flying car to go to work and explain why these portraits were controversial when they were painted – but that isn’t the same as actually having been in this moment.
The expressions of Lucian’s models range from blank to sad. All of the figures are idle. The background is always of Lucian’s cramped, dirty studio. In his mature work, Freud uses a painting technique called impasto to create an ugly leprous texture with the thickly applied paint. Even among the models he selected who are attractive find themselves disfigured on the canvass by Freud’s tainted eye. Not even a baby’s sweetness is spared by Freud’s unforgiving “reality.”
Maybe smiling, beautiful people are more likable, but are they also more impenetrable? Does beauty hide? It’s hard to disagree that Freud’s bleak approach is revealing. Each of these painting is like a short story. And for or better or worse, this exhibit of almost 90 portraits is like drinking short stories from a fire hose. There are so many faces and so much detail; it becomes both tiring and energizing. With so much selection, every viewer is bound to find a connection. I was drawn to the distance in “Hotel Bedroom,” and the wilting face of “Man in the Silver Suit.”
My favorite though is “Flora with the Blue Toenails,” those toenails are a beacon of polish and beauty next to Freud’s seemingly universal dirty fingernails. There is a shadow of a head cast on the bed. I check; it isn’t my shadow. She is ambiguously not alone. Suddenly, I feel uncomfortable. Freud wasn’t about to let me enjoy that one. Thanks, buddy.
Lucian’s models aren’t the only characters in the exhibition; the biggest character is Lucian himself. Lucian Freud is interesting in the way that van Gogh or Caravaggio is interesting: in a larger than life way (he had 17 known children, for starters). There are relatable insights like when Freud switched from using a sable hair brush to paint every detail of a sitter, to a coarser hog’s hair brush. In addition to Freud’s super-sized presence in the exhibition, there are the actual stories of the people he painted. Sitting two days a week, three hours at a time for close to a year, the artist got to know these people – sometimes intimately (oh yeah, that is exactly what I meant). There is a little book that accompanies the exhibition on sale for $5 that includes some of these stories. But the much better bet is to invest the time in going to the museum’s website www.themodern.org to look for one of the regularly scheduled tours.
I was in high school when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I can never explain what I felt or why was an important experience to anyone. But there are people, people I don’t even know, who experienced the same thing. We were all in that moment.
All of us are a part of things like that. Go. Go, and be challenged, because contemporary art is meant to say something about your world and to speak to you. Someday these portraits will be about Lucian Freud and museum people, but this exhibition is really about right now.
The show ends on October 28. Don’t fool yourself if it sounds like that is an entire presidential election away from now. Despite the uncomfortable brutality of Freud’s self-criticism turned against the world, plan on making a connection, several connections even. And go early; so you can go back and see a set of blue toenails, in my case, which I will never forget as long as I live. Admission is $10. The museum is closed on Mondays and open late on Fridays.
My long time friend, Drew Davis, asked that I submit a favorite painting for discussion on his art blog. I am pleased and honored to do so. As a former art teacher, choosing one piece of art was difficult. My comments below are a reaction to seeing this particular painting for the first time in a gallery. There is, by the way, no substitute for seeing the actual art work.
Wheat Field with Crows by Vincent van Gogh
I saw ‘Wheat Field with Crows’ for the first time at the St Louis Art Museum, during a special Vincent van Gogh exhibit. As I entered the room and looked to my left, I saw this breathtakingly beautiful painting, ‘Wheat Field with Crows’ by Vincent van Gogh.
The wheat field glowed with light and warmth. It was lovely and vibrant like a sunny garden after the rain and gave me a sense of joy. The color of the field was so rich and intense that the crows flying directly at the viewer and the hovering storm clouds – were of no consequence to me. The beauty of the picture seemed to overpower the agitation and symbolism in the sky. For me, the crows and clouds seem to frame the picture and punctuate the vibrancy and life of the painting.
‘Wheat Field with Crows’ was painted during the last weeks of van Gogh’s life, a life that ended sadly from suicide. One can only speculate on his frame of mind and the relationship of this picture to his final days and final decision. Had a turbulent storm in his life just passed and raindrops intensified the color or was the storm brewing?
Vincent van Gogh was a brilliant and visionary artist. He saw the world differently. He saw people, things and nature teeming with energy, passion and great beauty. Van Gogh was uniquely gifted in being able to share his vision and its beauty with the world.
Margo McNeil is the Missouri State Representative for District 78. She is an artist, a former Art Teacher and the play group mom for my 1980 playgroup.
American Vanguards at the Amon Carter Museum focuses on an association of artists who dubbed themselves the “Three Musketeers:” John Graham, Arshile Gorky and Stuart Davis. When a fourth member was added (Willem de Kooning), the group doubled down on their lack of originality to become the “Four Musketeers.” The group’s appropriation of their moniker is in some ways fitting for their association, as their styles from the interwar period are more borrowed than original.
That is actually very much the point of the exhibition. Before becoming leaders in the art world, they were followers, borrowing heavily from the trends popular in Paris from truly avant garde groups. Continue reading →
As the St. Louis Art Museum’s prepared to break ground on the David Chipperfield designed expansion, it closed or repurposed the galleries whose stability was impacted by the construction. When that happened, the art on display was reduced to “highlights of the collection.”
But construction on the exterior of the new East Building is drawing to a close; and in the iconic Cass Gilbert building, 275 paintings have recently been reinstalled in 18 galleries. More than a step toward returning to business as usual, these art-works represent what is being called “the new vision.” Continue reading →