June 1, 2012
In late April I first visited the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. But that was a hiking trip and I stayed outside, walking the 4.5 miles of trails on the grounds, saving the art treasures of the interior for a later visit. June began with a rainy day, perfect for touring the art museum in which a Wal-Mart heiress has invested $317 million.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Once again I had to park in the outer lot and take the pleasant winding Orchard Trail to the entrance. Most of the wildflowers had lost their blooms by now, but there were still some splashes of color. I passed Roxy Paine’s Yield and took the elevator down to the courtyard and entered the museum. I checked in at a booth and paid $10 for the temporary exhibit, “The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision”. I could not take photographs in it, but am delighted to report that they had Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, a series of paintings I have admired since I first saw a slide of them in my undergraduate art history class at the University of Oklahoma. It was great to see them both in person and displayed properly; I hadn’t realized that the central The Consummation of Empire painting was slightly larger than the others to either side.
I liked several of the paintings in the galleries, which are laid out chronologically, but most of my attention was drawn to the striking sculptures anchoring each area.
Thankfully the rather awful early portraits of the American Colonial period, with their flat amateurish style lacking proper shading and perspective, were accompanied by the gorgeous sculpture Proserpine by Hiram Powers from around 1840. The somber expression of the goddess of flowers, combined with her quite sexy topless emergence from framing acanthus leaves, is alluring. This was the second of five versions of the goddess Powers produced. The first had her emerging from an elaborate basket of spring flowers and later versions had simple beading. Over the years Hiram sculpted almost 200 versions of Proserpine.
The curators had placed a painting of Frances Deering Wentworth by John Singleton Copley nearby, with her décolletage contrasting to that of Proserpine. I also composed my own shot of a silhouetted man, frozen by the beauty before him.
The Choosing of the Arrow
The next section of the first gallery had another wonderful sculpture of the human form, The Choosing of the Arrow by Henry Kirke Brown, from 1849. The musculature of the athletic youth is beautifully portrayed as he bends his arm to retrieve another arrow from his quiver. The handling of the figure echoes ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, but Brown travelled to Mackinac Island in Michigan to observe the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes and his observations led him to include the topknot. He was commissioned by the American Art Union, a New York art lottery organization, to produce twenty casts of this work. Subscribers to the organization had a chance to win gorgeous works such as this.
A later gallery had another striking sculpture, this time a basswood carving from 1876, by Emma Marie Cadwalader-Guild, entitled Free. It depicts a African American slave, now freed, but still feeling the pressure of his bondage as he leans against a tree stump. The carving, her first modeled from life, was perhaps used to help her create a bronze statuette she exhibited in Paris, London, and Munich.
There were some fun paintings by James Henry Beard, including It Is Very Queer, Isn’t It? from 1885, depicting a chimpanzee holding a copy of Darwin’s Descent of Man and ruminating with a chimp skull and human skull nearby.
Harriet Whitney Frishmuth liked to capture motion in her sculptures, so The Bubble bronze from 1928 has a dancer, modeled on Yugoslavian ballet dancer Desha Delteil, manipulating one in her gyrations. I like how the curators illumined the white glass sphere, making it as much of the focus of the piece as the dancer.
Lest you think I ignored all of the paintings, I did take a shot of The Lantern Bearers by Maxfield Parrish in 1908. Those lanterns really seem to glow when you are there standing in front of the work, which he created for Collier’s magazine by using bright layers of oil color separated by varnish, applied alternately over a base rendering. The museum acquired it for $4.3 million.
One set of galleries were rooms enclosed by a glass-sided bridge with an arced roof, helping me to orient to my surroundings even as I was protected from the light rain. Several of us enjoyed watching a groundhog snacking on one flower after another in one of the exterior plantings. I captured the fun on video.
Also fun was the Walking to Borås wood sculpture by Jim Dine, catching Pinocchio in midstride. In the final gallery I was struck by the photorealistic Untitled (After Sam) by Rudolf Stingel in 2006. It is a self-portrait based on a photograph by Sam Samore, showing Stingel in a melancholy state. The photographic appearance of the face and pillow fabric were startling and impressive, requiring that I get very close to the canvas to be able to see it was painted.
A reading area between two galleries had a courtyard window featuring Big Red Lens by Frederick Eversley, a large cast polyester lens he fashioned in 1985. I wish the curators had placed an outdoor sculpture in the courtyard, as that would have been far more interesting to look at through the lens than a set of doors.
One of the more disturbing works in the museum was Rêve (Dream) by Alfonso A. Ossorio. My eye was drawn to the long hairs on the punctured and bound male torso, making me think alternately of snakes, vines, and flames. That part was pinging my gaydar, and Ossorio must have had a feverish dream, what with the unsettling imagery and color scheme.
I liked the architecturally imposing museum restaurant, a near-twin of the other bridge room but open-air instead of being filled by two large gallery rooms. However, the restaurant entrance featured Claes Oldenburg’s Alphabet/Good Humor sculpture, looking like a giant ice cream bar composed of alphabet pasta, which was not particularly appetizing.
A few blocks away from the museum was the downtown square, home to Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store which began the Wal-Mart story. I’d visited there with my friend Jeff Silver decades ago and on this day found the square blocked off for ArtsFest, a gathering of booths, food vendors, and musical entertainment. Despite the drizzle it was fun to walk the tiny festival and see one of John Sewell’s erotic carved female torsos, with strategically placed knots, alongside his humorous walking vessel. The Confederacy is represented by a large statue of 2nd Lt. James H. Berry in the center of the square. I ate a funnel cake and then headed home, having enjoyed my rainy day in May…okay, June.