Friday, 20 July 2012

Crystal Bridges - The Art

While I have some reservations about the initial experience of the architecture of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, I found the experience of looking at art there to be pretty wonderful.  The audience and the variety of looking opportunities reminded me of Soumaya, the Carlos Slim museum  in Mexico City (another museum created by an individual's immense wealth), although the collections are completely different. There were lots of people, at least one wearing overalls, and many of them in small groups. Whatever the fame or "importance" of the objects on view, there are many really engaging images and exploring them is a delight.

The works of art are in relatively intimate spaces and the curved wooden ceilings give the rooms a soaring feel. In most galleries the wall colors are subtle and allow the paintings to glow. It is easy to follow the 'flow' of the museum through each section, and each section has an introductory panel that announces what the gallery intends to include. We were a little disappointed by the simplistic and not completely appropriate way the early 20th century was divided into sections that basically said "These paintings are abstract and forward looking" and "These paintings are representational and baclward," but those are the quibbles of museum people over interpretations of art history.

One of 16 hummingbird paintings
 by Martin Johnson Heade
Not every work at Crystal Bridges is a masterpiece, but one could spend many visits exploring the fascinating objects there, whether they are famous or unusual. I was delighted with "Gems of Brazil," 16 small depictions of hummingbirds by Martin Johnson Heade, who is better known for his haystacks in the Jersey Meadowlands, of which Crystal Bridges also has one.

 Carl Bodmer, Mato-Tope, a Mandan Chief,
1832-34, Hand-colored aquatint, detail
A separate room with low light holds paintings and gorgeously and meticulously hand-colored prints of the early 19th century travels up the Missouri River by George Catlin, Carl Bodmer, and other artist explorers, along with paintings of Indians and maps of their journeys. The Bodmer portraits of Native Americans are amazing for the detail of their regalia and headdresses. A print of Indian utensils and arms by Bodmer, George Winter's Ten Potawatomi Chiefs, and a pair of portraits by Charles Bird King give a sense of the discoveries and diversity of these early adventurers' initiatives.

Carl Bodmer, Indian Arms and Utensils, hand-colored aquatint

George Winter, Ten Potawatomi Chiefs, 1837, oil on canvas maounted on board

Map of the Missouri River and select exploration destinations
Charles Bird King, Ottoe Half Chief, ca. 1822, Oil on panel

Among less-known objects is an 1830 portrait by Edward Dalton Marchant of Samuel Beals Thomas with his wife and daughters. These rather plain people look out at us with a bit of disdain and with as much curiosity as we have for them.

I expect that Richard Caton Woodville has gained some national recognition and interest as a result of his 1848 War News from Mexico being noticed in the Crystal Bridges collection. African Americans look on with concern about the news of the Mexican-American War, since the possibility of the United States annexing all of Mexico had substantial ramifications for the potential expansion of slavery at the time.

Alfred Thompson Bricher, View of Mount Washington
1864, Oil on canvas

Bricher, detail
William Keith, Sentinal Rock, Yosemite, 1872, oil on canvas

Keith, detail

Worthington Whittredge, Twilight on the Plains, Platte River, Colorado
 ca. 1866-67, Oil on canvas

Whittredge, detail
In my memory, when I was working on my Ph.D., I would see Asher B. Durand's Kindred Spirits high on the wall of the vestibule of the main reading room of the New York Public Library. Now it is at eye level among other landscapes of the period and, frankly, seems more ordinary at Crystal Bridges. There are many wonderful landscapes. While my snapshots of them are amateur, some of the details I took remind me of the fun of exploring these paintings by artists like Alfred Thompson Bricher, John Smillie, William Keith, and Worthington Whittredge.

Emma Marie Cadwalader-Guild, who is she? She sculpted an African-American man in basswood around 1876 and titled it Free.
There are paintings by Stanton MacDonald Wright, Stuart Davis, George Bellows and many, many other important artists of the 20th century, but I chose to remember a small image by Agnes Pelton

and the large Norman Rockwell of Rosie the Riveter, modeled with great humor after Michelangelo's Isaiah from the Sistine Ceiling.

The post-World War II art also has both recognized and less famous artists. I noticed a very good Hans Hofmann painting as we rushed to finish this area before the museum closed.