Realizing I had to report back to work in less than three weeks, I vamoosed to Kansas City to visit my favorite museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I’ve been to Kansas City a number of times over the years and in the past greatly enjoyed its Steamboat Arabia Museum and Union Station as well as shopping and strolling at Crown Center and the Country Club Plaza. On this overnight trip I’d visit the Nelson-Atkins, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Liberty Memorial and the National World War I Museum, the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio, and shop and dine at the Country Club Plaza and in the downtown Power and Light District.
It takes about four hours to get there from Bartlesville via the rural highways of southeastern Kansas, so my first stop was for lunch at the beautiful Country Club Plaza. Established in 1923 by J.C. Nichols, this shopping district was the first in the country designed for shoppers arriving by automobile and is modeled after Seville, Spain. There are parking garages hidden about the district, so there are no huge parking lots to detract from the beautiful buildings and fountains. It has many upscale shops and restaurants, including a branch of the McCormick and Schmick’s seafood restaurant chain. I’d enjoyed dining at their branches in Seattle and Portland, so I dropped in for a delicious plate of fish and chips. The maître d’ seated me at a high table near the bar in the impressive domed room. Above the bar is a stained glass representation of the Mighty Mo, the USS Missouri battleship of World War II which is now a museum ship at Pearl Harbor. Near me a table of young business people were discussing earnings reports while I happily spent my own meager earnings.
It was humid and in the high 90s, so I did not walk the mile to the Nelson-Atkins, but drove over and parked in its underground garage. The garage has its own artistic touch. It is buried beneath the north lawn with rippling beams of light brought in through skylights set in the bottom of a reflecting pool up top. You enter the new $200 million Bloch Building of the museum, a stark building by Steven Holl which has a white exterior and interior and opened in 2007. It makes a long linear descent down the southeastern slope of the grounds. Although it seems well suited to the ungainly works typical of modern art, I greatly prefer the gorgeous Beaux Arts interior of the 1933 building designed by Wight and Wight, although its monolithic neoclassical exterior gives little hint of its beautiful interior finishes and layout.
Take My Tour of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
If I were a docent, here are the places and works I would share with you. In keeping with the museum’s surprising free admission, I won’t charge you for this tour. Along with my photos I have often included a “closer look” which links to the museum’s own online image viewer, which has controls at the bottom of each image to zoom in on any part of a figure, overcoming the limited resolution of the computer screen.
First, we enter the old building through a clever linkage by Bloch Building architect Steven Holl, having you climb to a landing on the Atkins Stairs. The beautiful marble of the stairs complements the murals of human progress along the walls, and the female statue provides a nice focus, with me positioning you to see the halo of light about her face one of the chandeliers can create. I point out the wall medallion of Mary McAfee Atkins, the former schoolteacher who, upon her death in 1911, bequeathed $300,000 for an art museum in Kansas City. No, they did not pay schoolteachers better back then: Mary was the widow of a wealthy real estate developer. I know, now you’re wondering about Nelson. William Rockhill Nelson published The Kansas City Star newspaper and died in 1915 with a will donating his Oak Hill mansion, upon the death of his wife and his daughter, so it could be torn down and its site could become a great art museum, funded by a portion of his six million dollar estate.
Adelaide Cobb Ward Sculpture Hall
We pass Ile-de-France by Maillol, drawn ahead by the intense gaze of the bizarre Lion in the next room. Its Greek sculptor of 325 BCE had never seen a lion, so he gave his statue the hips of a cow, the vertebrae of a goat, the ribs of a horse, human eyes, and the pose of a dog. The pose and off-putting anatomy are quite striking, and I invite you to take a closer look as I tell you about its recent reconstruction. We examine Atalanta and Meleager with the Calydonian Boar by Francesco Mosca (again I urge you to take a closer look), yet I ignore the nearby overmuscled bronze statue of Adam by Rodin.
Then I conduct you into my favorite room in the building, Kirkwood Hall. Its twelve massive columns of black and white marble, supporting decorative plaster coves and skylights, are crowned with Corinthian capitals, each one subtly different to show the evolution of the style. The walls are limestone and the floor is travertine, and the space is glorious. Oddly, I never tell you a thing about the tapestries on the walls, since I don’t care for tapestries.
Adjacent to Kirkwood Hall is the Rozelle Court, the museum’s restaurant space. Originally designed as an open-air courtyard to relieve “museum fatigue”, its double arcade of columns surround an area of trees with a huge central fountain with a 2nd century basin of chipolina marble surrounded by bronze floor medallions of the zodiac. Children love to scamper around the fountain and play with its jets.
We then venture over to the ancient art hall to see several of my favorite pieces in the museum. First is the wonderfully human countenance of Metjetji, a 4350-year-old wood stauette with eyes of alabaster and obsidian. In Egypt’s Old Kingdom these figures were part of the burial and served as a dwelling place for the life force, the ka, should the mummy decay. We take a closer look to see the joins, for like many wooden statues from Egypt, this one reflects the scarcity of large pieces of wood and was carved from multiple pieces they pegged together.
The back wall of the ancient art hall is dominated by the wonderfully sad Portrait of a Roman Youth from the 2nd century. I point out the haunting pinched expression on the young man’s face and again tell you to take a closer look at him, and then pull away to notice how the beautiful black marble background highlights the piece. This is the kind of highlighted presentation that is so lacking in many museums, including, I delicately whisper, this one’s own Bloch Building. Too often modernists want the building to fade away and become a blank white canvas for the artwork. The striking setting for this portrait and a similar one for a Renaissance statue show the poverty of the modernist presentation style.
We stop again at the Roman Muse Sarcophagus from the 2nd century. Look at those faces! We take a closer look to examine each face in turn. We then stroll through the European painting galleries with their many fine works, including The Eruption of Vesuvius by Sebastian Pether with its luminescent river of magma. A favorite sculpture is the playful Crouching Flora by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux, with me urging you to view her from various angles, admiring the delicacy of her features.
A huge Buddha announces we are entering the Asian galleries, where we compare the Chinese Guardian Lion to the Greek one out in the Sculpture Hall. A lovely Shiva Nataraja is delicately balanced in the center of one room, and we take a closer look at it. Across the hall is a huge room with a temple-like structure across the back, housing a massive ancient decorative wall painting, Paradise of Tejraprabha Buddha, with the splendid 1000-year-old polychrome wooden figure of the Guanyin Bodhisattva of the Southern Sea poised in front of it. Compare that presentation to that of a neutral background in the closer look. We admire its relaxed seated pose, representative of compassion.
I then take you over to meet Nick and Frances. Nick’s full title is Nikkanochee, Prince of Econchatti, a Young Seminole Indian, Sone of Econchattimico, King of Red Hills and he was painted by Frank W. Wilkin back in 1841. And Frances Frew Wade is immortalized as Mrs. Cecil Wade in a stunning 1886 portrait by John Singer Sargent; we take a closer look at her beautiful but cold face and dress.
We admire the colors of Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon as we take a closer look at it and then contrast that to the luminous glow of the snow in George Copeland Ault’s dark and brooding January Full Moon, which invites a closer look.
Behind a sculpture across the hall you spot Thomas Hart Benton’s Persephone and are startled to find a leering old man in the painting taking in the view. I explain that in Greek myth Persephone was abducted by Hades and imprisoned in the underworld. Here Benton has shown her as a sunbathing farm girl and Hades as a lustful old farmer with a rickety cart for a chariot. As we take our closer look, we wonder why Hades’ features resemble those of Benton himself and I say the painting reminds me of Old Master female nudes, and you interject that it looks like a modern pin-up.
Kansas City Sculpture Park
Now we’re both overdue for a change of pace, so we venture to the museum’s south entrance and its beautiful marble surrounds for murals by Daniel MacMorris. We stroll outside to the Kansas City Sculpture Park, where your eye is immediately drawn to one of the massive sculptures of Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen. These playful works are 18 feet tall, 16 feet in diameter, and each weighs 5500 pounds. Four of them are spread about the green lawns of the museum grounds as a playful counterpoint to the stern building facade. A closer look reveals the detailing on the feathers, and if it weren’t so blazing hot we might be tempted to set up a game of badminton.
We turn for an examination of the bas-reliefs on the building and the massive bronze vases. You tell me you have no patience for Henry Moore sculptures, which eliminates about half of those in the park.
So I take you over to the massive Three Bowls by Ursula von Rydingsvard. A closer look reveals that they are not three stacks of stone, but instead were hewn of wood which was saturated with black graphite. But you have to take my word for it, since you aren’t supposed to touch the sculptures, although I admit that I never stop kids from playing on the Henry Moore pieces.
We work our way around to George Segal’s Rush Hour. You ask why all of their eyes are shut, and I explain that it was cast from plaster molds of several of his friends. Shaking your head, you say that it is time for the Bloch Building.
The massive new wing slides down the hill, punctuated with large boxy “lenses” which poke up to bring light down into the building and form luminous boxes on the grounds at night. It has various works, but primarily dubious modern art. A group of children has gathered around Horse by Deborah Butterfield, which is made of chicken wire, sticks, mud, paper, dextrine, and dried grass on steel.
You ask about the many guards who patiently stand about the building, and I say that there is one fellow who has been here for years yet never been paid a dime. You ask if he’s one of the museum’s 650 volunteers, and I reply, “No, he’s a work of art.” Museum Guard by Duane Hansen was constructed of polyester, fiberglas, oil, and vinyl back in 1975.
We wrap up the tour with Crow Call (Near the River) by Keith Jacobshagen, who I point out was trained at the nearby Kansas City Art Institute, where there is a Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in case you want to see some more modern works.
Back to the Plaza
Okay, that took long enough. In fact, I spent the rest of the day at the museum, until it closed at 4 pm, and then returned for a couple of hours the next morning to tour the Bloch Building and view the current exhibition, which was not free and consisted of Edward Steichen photographs.
With the museum closing in the afternoon, I drove a few blocks to the Best Western Seville Plaza hotel, where I’d reserved a nice king bed and in-room jacuzzi. That would be most welcome later, since I was headed back to the Country Club Plaza to shop and scrounge up dinner. I bought a balloon launcher at a toy store for use in my physics classes and then had an early dinner in the hilariously decorated Buca di Beppo Italian restaurant. I’d read it was worthwhile to wind my way through its warren of underground rooms to the Pope Room, which I could easily do since there were few diners at 5 pm.
Out in front of the restaurant entrance I was delighted to find the Fountain of Neptune, restored to full operation. I have a pen-and-ink of it on my dining room wall and in recent years when I visited the actual fountain they had shrubbery planted in it. But today water was streaming from the horse’s mouths and nostrils. Hmmm…I think I liked it better when it wasn’t working.
In the distance I saw the half-size Giralda Tower of Seville over by the Cheesecake Factory and turned to stroll by a statue of an organ grinder, later finding the sensual Diane: Sitting by Richard McDermott Miller incongruously gracing the entrance to a parking garage. By far my favorite was the beautiful Pomona by Donatella Gabbrielli, a stunning bronze atop a lovely basin which had a perfect stream of water flowing on all sides. The goddess of vineyards and orchards, she held some grapes but didn’t offer me a single one, refusing to look down as I ogled up at her.
I spent a considerable time browsing the huge multi-level Barnes and Noble bookstore, and when I emerged the light was fading behind the Giralda tower and that of the Seventh Church of Christ Scientist. So I returned to the hotel for an evening of sybaritic luxury, lounging in the jacuzzi instead of editing photos and posting to the blog.
Whimper at the Kemper
In the morning I had a puny continental breakfast and lounged in my room, reading, until it was 10 am and the museums reopened. I began with a brief visit to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, but a quick look around confirmed that I still don’t care for their offerings. An ugly statue outside one of the Kansas City Art Institute buildings captured my mood, with only Architect’s Handkerchief by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, of Shuttlecocks fame, having any appeal for me. But a delicious lunch in Rozelle Court at the Nelson-Atkins restored my spirits and I headed over to Liberty Memorial.
I’d seen the memorial tower from Crown Center and Union Station in the past, but wrongly presumed it was little more than a columnar monument. In 1919 a ten-day funding drive in the city raised a whopping $2.5 million and that allowed them to build an allée, or French promenade, over a mile long, with downtown Kansas City as a backdrop. At the end of the road is a 217 foot tower inscribed with four 40-foot-tall statues representing honor, courage, patriotism, and sacrifice. Seeing those immense stone figures on the tower reminded me of the Argonath from the Lord of the Rings. At night, steam can billow out of the top, illuminated by orange lights to resemble a burning pyre.
At the tower’s base are two great sphinxes, covering their faces with their massive wings. One faces east towards Flanders Fields, representing Memory, shrouding its eyes from the horrors of war. The other faces west, representing the unseeable Future. To either side are two stone pavilions with many old detailed wall maps of World War I and immense paintings.
The memorial had badly deteriorated by the mid 1990s and the site was fenced off. Then, as a friendly docent in one of the pavilions told me, the city did something remarkable, passing a sales tax in 1998 and eventually raising $102 million to restore it and construct a large National World War I Museum beneath it. Over three years they upgraded the mechanical systems of the tower, restructured the pavilions, and cleaned, tuckpointed, and sealed most of the limestone. They excavated under the deck to build the underground museum, which begins with a glass bridge built over a field of poppies. I’m from a late enough generation to recognize poppies as a symbol of Flanders Fields and World War I, but uncertain as to why. It turns out that Canadian military physician John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Field had the image of the red poppies that bloomed in the cemeteries of some of the worst battlefields in Flanders in World War I, becoming a symbol for the bloodshed of the hideous trench warfare.
The museum has interpretative films and displays of weaponry, uniforms, a 20-foot tall model of a bomb shell crater, and immense interactive display tables. The most interesting exhibit for me was a primitive French tank, which looked like a horror to ride in and operate. I rode an elevator up the tower and then climbed 45 steps to the top where an observation platform provided a tremendous view of Union Station in the foreground and downtown Kansas City beyond.
Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio
At the suggestion of a Facebook friend and cultured former coworker, I then drove over to Roanoke Park to tour the Thomas Hart Benton home and studio. Thanks to the terms of his will, the property is completely intact, with the clothing, furniture, and paint brushes still in place, as if you had walked in while the family still lived there. Benton’s wife of 53 years, Rita Piacenza, would hold spaghetti dinners at the large dining room table, with Benton’s paintings displayed on the walls in case someone might wish to purchase one. A particularly kind and helpful docent gave me a personal tour of the property, providing fun insights into his character, working habits, and family life. She pointed out the diminutive furniture, explaining that despite the size and forcefulness of many of his paintings and murals, Benton himself stood only about 5’2”. I was particularly interested in how he used clay models to work out the shadows and perspectives in his paintings and was glad to see a recreation of one, along with the decayed original, in his studio. I wish art museums would have more displays of the mathematical and physical methods great painters have used to achieve their effects.
Power and Light District
It was now mid-afternoon and time for my last stop on this trip, the Power and Light entertainment district that has sprung up downtown between the Convention Center and the Sprint Center arena. This area is known for its night life, so I was here at the wrong time of day. But I stepped into the lobby of the AMC Main Street theater and poked my head into the upscale Lucky Strike bar and bowling alley, surprised that there was no smoke. A band was tuning up at the KC Live venue, where they have free live shows beneath the gaze of urban cowboys and cowgirls. Knowing there were few good restaurants along the highway home, I took the advice of another friend via Facebook and stopped into the Bristol Seafood Grill for a tasty fresh salmon with asparagus and pea risotto, topped off with a lemon tart. I had the place to myself and the food was quite good.
And now for those patient few who have actually read this far, I shall explain the title of this post. While I was dining at the Bristol a catchy song began to pound. I was humming and bouncing to the beat (like I said, I had the place to myself) and wanted that song for the road. In the old days, I would have had to ask a waiter if he happened to know the song and perhaps look for a CD later or, in my high school days, look for a 45 rpm single at the record store which I’d later dub onto a cassette tape for the car. But now there’s an app for that. On this trip my new iPhone 4 was a blessing, as the TomTom GPS app booted quickly and kept running in the background. Now I used the SoundHound app, which listened to the song playing on the overhead speakers and, despite a conversing bartender nearby, identified the song as Vamos Muchachos by the Finnish (!?!) band Pepe Deluxé. I used the restaurant’s WiFi to purchase and download it and happily played it, along with my usual podcasts and audiobooks, on the long drive home. Knowing no Spanish, I loosely translate this post’s title as, “Boys, go to Kansas City!”