Crystal Bridges: Getting clearer | Rock Candy

Monday, October 24, 2011

Crystal Bridges: Getting clearer

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 3:04 PM

Baldessaris Beethovens Trumpet (With Ear)
  • Baldessari's "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)"

Great tour through Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art this morning. I'm traveling separately from the photographer so I can't post photos (except the one above, which is from the Tate Gallery and not CBMAA). Will rectify later. UPDATE: Slideshow below.

Some quick thoughts: The 18th and 19th century portraits look grand. If you thought you would find paintings of George Washington (there are two) less than inspiring, think again.

But first, George Rickey: One of the artist's kinetic sculptures — thin arms of steel hinged to move in the wind — will greet visitors in the courtyard entrance to the museum. (The entrance to the museum is sort of like entering a cave: You get on an elevator and go down to an outdoor courtyard and enter from there.)

The museum is arranged chronologically, and David Houston, director of curatorial, talked about the evolution of 19th century American landscape from transcendental (Durand's "Kindred Spirits") to pictures of actual places in which people play a role (Eastman Johnson's "Cranberry Pickers, Nantucket"). He spent some time in front of a recent acquisition of a painting of a family of Civil War refugees, including a young African American man whose backpack includes a Union blue blanket rolled up; the work, Houston said, is emblematic of the museum's attempt to show history not just as heroic but personal.

Work from the first half of the 20th century, in box galleries built in the center of the first glass bridge — wasn't on view while a mesh ceiling was being installed — but moving to the late 20th we got a peek at an installation by Jenny Holzer, an outdoor room with engraved floor and benches originally in the Venice Biennale. Houston said he believed the installation would be a surprise to some viewers, which I interpreted to mean some viewers who thought the CBMAA collection would be stuffy. En route to the Holzer: A terrific Calder, a terrific lit Noguchi wall piece, a great little pre-splatter Pollock and an odd surrealistic Rothko. The works by the latter two aren't representative of their greatest works (for the large part already collected by other museums) but are fine works with historical value.

That piece of Crystal Bridges — what it can offer in the way of supplementary information, through its acquisition of important collections of prints and books (it has 50,000 volumes) and ephemera — is something that founder Alice Walton is clearly proud of. She told reporters after the tour that she began to see paintings as more than images when she acquired a painting in New Orleans purporting to be that of a mare and foal. "That was no foal, that was a stable buddy," the horsewoman said, and she began to study up on the picture. She and director Don Bacigalupi spoke about rewriting American art history with new scholarship.

Walton herself hasn't quit studying up, as evidenced by her museum's expansion from a place to see American heroes and 19th century landscape to a museum that includes Dan Flavin's tubes of flourescent light (which Houston said referred to the transcendentalist atmosphere of the 19th century), Devorah Sperber's upside down Last Supper made out of spools of thread and John Baldessari's enormous and descriptively titled "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)," in which you can hear Beethoven quartets.

Oh — about the name of the museum. Houston says it was architect Moshe Safdie's idea to name the museum after he settled on his bridge design for the project. Houston declined to say what the cost of construction was.

There's much more to say. Stay tuned.

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