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Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened 6 months ago in northwestern Arkansas, in Wal-Mart’s hometown, Bentonville.  Bentonville seems quite out of the way. In fact it is literally in middle America; just below the heart of the mid west.  Crystal Bridges was the siren’s call to execute a Missouri “art triangle” - Kansas City, St. Louis, and Bentonville.  It was an easy call to heed since I have the highest regard for the cultural institutions that are between the two coasts.


Moshie Safdie architecturally created this very large museum that is intimately nestled in a creek valley.  The copper clad biomorphic roof-lines appear like giant turtles spanning the creek and the lake created by this architecture.  Inside, the wood trusses soar into the high peaks of the roof and the curve of the building’s outside is reflected in dramatic, full building, curved exhibition walls.  The museum can host a lot of visitors (~30,000 have come in the last 6 months). 



The dining pavilion offers dramatic comfortable views while eating well prepared fresh food.


The view from the central café building looks out onto the long axis of the museum.  It is from this delightful, air-conditioned spot that the relationship of buildings to naturescape is most evident.


There are about 3 miles of hiking trails, mostly fully developed, that allow one to get out into the indigenous Ozark forest.  Of course, there is sculpture placed out and within this “art ecosystem”.


It cost Alice Walton $317 million to build this museum.  Admission is free thanks to a gift from Wal-Mart.  Alice is not “Wal-Mart” in terms of direct management.  I suppose her share of the family’s voting stock makes her a manager of sorts.  But her net worth at $21 billion dollars means she can be any boss she chooses to be.


Alice Walton has been a very active shopper - buying for this museum.  The whirlwind of her acquisitions seems concentrated in the last 8 to 10 years.  There is a dearth of figures regarding what she has spent just for the art - but by 2008 she had already spent $225 million acquiring art.  The museum has a current art acquisition endowment of $325 million. 


Visitor flow through the galleries is pretty chronological starting in the 17th century and then progressing through to very contemporary.  So this is a big collection.  And, it is all American art.
Reading the artists’ names on the labels charts a pretty comprehensive course through the history of American art making.  She has almost all the names.  But she does not have all the masterpieces.  No amount of money can buy something that is not for sale.  And, if one buys when one wants to purchase then one buys what is available.

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Kansas City
Great collections are made by great collectors.  In most cases that means educated people with lots of money.  When they extend their philanthropy to their community, great museums are born.


Nelson-Atkins 
Kansas City has a couple great art museums: The Nelson-Atkins and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.  The Kempers (banking) are hugely responsible for the glory of Kansas City’s art culture.  The Hall family (Hallmark Cards) are another major source of K.C.’s art treasure.

   
The Bloch addition to the original Neo-Classical main building that is the Nelson-Atkins was designed by Steven Holl.  It has expanded the exhibition space by 44%.  75% of the Bloch building is underground and natural light enters the galleries through 5 glass structures above ground that are called “lenses”.  The interior galleries have ceiling heights that range form 8 feet to 34 feet.  There are curved walls and each gallery has its own stunning areas of light and shadow.  It is a interesting and fun building to experience.




Kemper Museum
The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by Gunnar Birketts.  It is a small museum and their permanent collection numbers over 1000 works.  It opened in 1994.  From what I saw - that is 1000 terrific pieces.  The temporary exhibition by New York artist Lois Dodd (b. 1927) was enthralling.  She was a contemporary of Fairfield Porter and her underappreciated body of work demonstrates the difficulties most talented artists have in gaining recognition. 

Lois Dodd 1968
The Kemper and the Nelson-Atkins are within blocks of each other.  They make Kansas City a fine, fine arts destination.


Nerman Museum
The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art is on the campus of the Johnson County Community College in the Kansas City district of Overland Park.  It is the largest contemporary art museum in the four-state region.  With over 1,000 works in their collection - a third of the artists represented are either from the Kansas City area or went to school in this region.  Their collection is very strong and well represents significant artists from both coasts.  I enjoyed seeing work by Salomon Huerta, Allsion Schulnik, Tomory Dodge.  UCLA - MFA 2010 Mattias Merkel- Hess is seen in a temporary exhibition.  He trained with Adrian Saxe and Tony Marsh. 

Mattias Merkel-Hess


St. Louis
The St. Louis Art Museum is undergoing a significant expansion.  This museum’s major benefactor was Morton May of May Co. fame.  He seemed to have been enamored with German artists of the mid 20th century and the museum’s collection of this period is fabulous.  Modern art-wise, one could skip a trip to Germany and just go to this museum.  The collection of Max Beckman (a 1983 bequest of Morton May) is the largest in America.  Beckman taught at Washington University from 1947-1949.  

Max Beckman 1950 

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis is wonderful.  On the campus of Washington University and now occupying a building designed by Fumihiko Maki, the “Milly” is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi (since 1881).  “Its collection was formed in large part by acquiring significant works by artists of the time, a legacy that continues today. Now one of the finest university collections in the United States, the Museum contains strong holdings of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures, prints, installations, and photographs.” (Wikipedia)   As a resource for students and faculty it is a treasure - a quality viewspace with education built in.


Vito Acconci 1988
In south of central St. Louis is the Laumeier Sculpture Park.  It is a 105 acre open-air sculpture park with about 70 works connected by winding trails.  The St. Louis sculptor, Ernest Trova, was influential in launching this park with a seed donation of work.  The collection on view here is not trivial with works by Jackie Ferrara, Jene Highstein, Mark di Suvero, Vito Acconci, Donald Judd, and Dan Graham - to name but a small sample.

Fletcher Benton 2002
 

Jene Highstein 1990
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Since the story of America and thus the story of its European based art making is under 250 years in duration, American art history is certainly accessible.
In fact, in the earliest days of this country, America’s most celebrated artists lived in Europe and learned from and sought recognition from European audiences.  Portrait painting was the way an artist could sell their talents and make a living.  Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West (and later John Singleton Copley) were American with careers firmly rooted in England.  They helped launch what has evolved into one of Britain’s treasured themes - portrait painting.

John Singleton Copley 1759

By the 19th century American artists were finding favor for their portrayal of the “New World”.  In the Occidental world (Europe and the eastern seaboard of the new United States) there was both pride in and attention to “selling” the virtues of life in the new territories of the New World.  The Hudson River school of artists started in the 1850s.  America’s great landscapists were Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), and Martin Johnson Heade (1879-1904).

 
George Caleb Bingham 1851
George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was a Missouri artist.  In his time, Missouri was the threshold to the new West.  St. Louis was at the frontier gateway (thus the appropriateness of the St. Louis Arch) .  Bingham painted a bucolic landscape populated by local folks who were active in the politics of the land and its labors.   His paintings were advertisements for the new frontier.


Albert Bloch 1913 
Rolling into the 20th century, American artists were still looking to
Europe for training and approval.  Albert Bloch (1882-1961) lived in Munich and was a member of Der Blaue Reiter Group.  On returning to the US he served as the head of the University of Kansas Art Department in Lawrence.


Marsden Hartley 1916 
When he returned to America, Marsden Hartley (1870-1943) applied the European Modernism (Cubism) he learned while living in Europe (for 3 years in the 19teens).


Thomas Hart Benton 1952  
Some early 20th century American painters stayed rooted in American vernacular landscapes.  These Regionalists allowed impressionist tendencies to infiltrate their work but became marginalized by failing to evolve into the future.  Nonetheless work by Thomas Hart Benton, John Stewart Curry, Grant Wood, and Charles Burchfield is parochially beautiful.
The Thomas Hart Benton paintings at the Saint Louis Art Museum are breathtaking.


Ralston Crawford 1938
Precisionism, also early 20th century American, reflects Cubism and Futurism and subsequently evolved in Pop.  Leading Precisionist were Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986), George Ault (1891-1948), and Joseph Stella (1877-1946).  This work is distinctly Modern and embraces the emotive possibilities in abstraction.  It is nice blend of realism and abstraction and is uniquely American.

Charles Sheeler 1948


George Ault 1941

World War II  lead to the great divide in American art.  There were those who favored evolution of American landscape painting and realist work.  And then there was Abstract Expressionism and the desire to purge painting of all figuration.  The push to abstraction was undeniable.  Some New York Modernist flourished by still depicting the recognizable.  Consider Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), Rackstraw Downes (b. 1939), Alex Katz (b. 1927), and Neil Welliver (1929-2005).  But history has amply recorded how America lead the contemporary art world into a new internationalism. 

Fairfield Porter 1960


Neil Welliver 1978

I like pictures that tell a story and the story of the birth of this nation offers great tales.  Visiting America’s heartland always reminds me of this country’s history and offers a counterpoint to the art world’s Conceptual, Deconstructivist, Appropriations.  There are great museums across this world and certainly between the two coasts of the US.


Stuart Davis 1949

Get out, look at and enjoy art.
Doug Simay June 2012

I can be contacted at: doug@simayspace.com