Published: November 8, 2011
If you are a fan of adventurous museum buildings and great American art, you are going to love the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and its world-class collection. Marking a significant development on the US cultural scene, the institution, the brainchild of Alice B. Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, opened to the public on November 11. It is the first major museum devoted to American art established in almost a half century.
Housed in an innovative building designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the museum is located in a 120-acre forest that used to form the backyard of the Walton family home. Crystal Bridges draws its name from a nearby natural spring, which flows beneath the graceful pavilions.
In keeping with his commitment to attune his buildings to their internal purposes and natural surroundings, Safdie nestled the 200,000-square-foot museum within a ravine, flanked by two wooded hillsides, surrounding two spring-fed ponds. “We aimed to design a museum in which art and nature are experienced simultaneously and harmoniously,” says Safdie.
After entering from the crest of a hill that offers dramatic overviews of the entire campus, visitors circulate through 12 galleries in four separate buildings, crossing the ponds with open vistas of the forested landscape. Liberal use of glass throughout the museum encourages warm light suffusing the galleries and enhances views of mature oaks, dogwoods and pines.
In keeping with the architect’s aim “to create a building in the spirit of the Ozarks,” regional materials †such as Arkansas white pine, fieldstone and limestone aggregate †help the structure “resonate with the surrounding hillsides,” says Safdie. Walking trails and sculpture link the museum to downtown Bentonville.
The beautifully sited museum and its trove of masterpieces are the culmination of a ten-year dream of Alice Walton, who breeds and trains cutting horses on a ranch in Texas, but whose heart remains in northwest Arkansas.
Interested in art from childhood but with no art history training, Walton began collecting regional art and then in the mid-1990s started acquiring national American art. By the end of the 1990s, she envisioned an art museum †lacking in this part of the country. Her plans evolved from “what I perceived of as a gift to the community to what I now think of as a gift to the nation.”
And what a gift it is. Aided by such trusted advisors as distinguished art historian John Wilmerding and Christopher B. Crosman, the museum’s founding curator of collections, Walton has acquired top-flight paintings, works on paper and sculpture by America’s greatest artists. They respond both to Walton’s interest in the relation of art “to our history as a nation” and the interrelationship of art and nature. In so doing, they carry out the museum’s mission to “explore the unfolding story of America by actively collecting, exhibiting, interpreting and preserving outstanding works that illuminate our heritage and artistic possibilities.”
The inaugural exhibition, “Celebrating the American Spirit,” showcases 400 works by American masters, arranged chronologically to take visitors on a journey through the evolution of American art and history.
The works on view are stunning from the outset, beginning with a series of six portraits of the prestigious and prosperous Jewish colonial Levy-Frank family of New York. Likely painted by Gerardus Duyckinck around 1735, they depict fashionably dressed family members in a traditional English portraiture style. According to catalog essayist Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this is “the only large set of early colonial family portraits to survive intact.”
Even more elegant is John Singleton Copley’s rendering of “Mrs Theodore Atkinson Jr (Frances Deering Wentworth),” 1765. The leading portraitist of elite Bostonians, his portrait captures his sitter’s beauty, grace and elevated social standing. Not far away, Benjamin West’s romantic “Cupid and Psyche,” 1808, is complemented by Hiram Powers’ neoclassical marble bust “Proserpine,” circa 1840, from the museum’s growing sculpture collection.
Not to be missed are iconic portraits of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart and a powerful oil study of a resolute “Marquis de Lafayette,” 1825, by Samuel F.B. Morse. In Richard Caton Woodville’s “War News from Mexico,” 1848, white folks avidly read newspaper reports from the Mexican-American War, while a black man and girl listen, seated subserviently at their feet.
The showstopper in this gallery, Asher B. Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” 1849, depicts Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, and its literary champion, William Cullen Bryant, standing on a ledge in a wooded Catskills ravine. After noting the dismay among some when Crystal Bridges purchased the canvas from the New York Public Library, Crosman points out that it is “an icon of the American landscape tradition †not just that of New York.” Nearby, landscapes by Cole and Hudson River colleagues Frederic Church, Jasper Cropsey and John F. Kensett celebrate nature’s bounties in the new nation.
Other notable works by Thomas Moran immortalize the splendors of the American West, while Eastman Johnson spins narratives of New England, and George Inness’s paean to the serenity of pastoral upstate New York reflects the artist’s spiritual underpinnings. A figurative oil and two watercolors by Winslow Homer demonstrate his skills in these mediums.
Landscapes by such titans as Alfred Pinkham Ryder and later Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Dennis Miller Bunker, John H. Twachtman, Theodore Robinson, Maurice Prendergast, William Merritt Chase and James McNeil Whistler reflect the influence of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on late Nineteenth Century American artists. Portraits by their contemporaries are particularly outstanding, including Sargent’s enigmatic depiction of “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife;” Bunker’s “Anne Page,” adjacent to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bust of the same Boston beauty; Gari Melchers’ affectionate likeness of his colleague George Hitchcock’s first wife and William Merritt Chase’s magnificent evocation of an aging, white-bearded “Worthington Whittredge,” seated before an easel, palette and paint brush in hand.
Best of all is Thomas Eakins’ “Professor Benjamin Howard Rand,” 1874, which the museum acquired after Philadelphians raised money to keep Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” in the City of Brotherly Love. “Rand” is a dark and sensitive view of the distinguished faculty member in his study at Jefferson Medical College.
Two galleries feature paintings ranging from gritty Ashcan School paintings at the dawn of the Twentieth Century to pre-World War II Modernists. Among the standout early urban realist images are an Everett Shinn theater image, John Sloan’s “Bleecker Street, Saturday Night” and George Bellows’ “Excavation at Night” that recalls the huge crater created to build Pennsylvania Station.
Among the early Modernists a highlight is Georgia O’Keeffe’s riveting watercolor “Evening Star No. 2,” 1917, in which the embryonic superstar captured, with a few broad brushstrokes, the brilliant radiance of a sunset over the arid Texas landscape, the pure saturated colors standing out against white paper.
There are fine examples of work by such celebrated members of the avant-garde as John Marin, Oscar Bluemner, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, but the best paintings are those of Marsden Hartley. They range from a tapestrylike evocation of mountains in western Maine to a still life of energetically brushed red flowers set against a glimpse of a blue seascape to a heartfelt homage to the chiseled body and expressive gaze of a young boxer from northern Maine.
Of more recent vintage are characteristic works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Arshile Gorky and Romare Bearden. Jackson Pollock’s “Reclining Woman,” circa 1938-41, painted while under the influence of his teacher, Benton, as well as the radical innovations of Pablo Picasso, offers a fragmented, distorted view of his subject, hinting at the drip paintings that made Pollock the leader of the Abstract Expressionists.
Norman Rockwell’s beloved “Rosie the Riveter,” a 1943 oil that became a famous Saturday Evening Post cover, is a reminder of the vital role women played in winning World War II and of the artist’s accomplishments as storyteller and painter. A remarkable group of paintings dating to 1948 by Milton Avery, Will Barnet and Jacob Lawrence is highlighted by Charles Sheeler’s cool, poetic and precise approximation of an abandoned textile plant in Manchester, N.H.
Colorful canvases by Hans Hofmann, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell usher in the era of Abstract Expressionism that dominated postwar world art, but, alas, there is not yet a Willem de Kooning in the collection. Running counter to the prevailing style, a circle painting by Kenneth Noland and a classic “Homage to the Square” canvas by Josef Albers reflect other aesthetic impulses of the 1950s and 1960s.
Other contrasts from the late Twentieth Century include works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who created challenging new forms of aesthetic composition, while Fairfield Porter offered warm, Impressionistic views of family and landscapes, and Wayne Thiebaud turned out appealing depictions of food and, in the Crystal Bridges collection, “Supine Woman.”
Pop Art, another notable postwar style, is represented by Tom Wesselmann’s enormous, sensual “Smoker #9” and Andy Warhol’s idolizing, silvery “Dolly Parton.” The continuing popularity of Realism is reflected in a snowy landscape by Neil Welliver, two oils by photorealist Richard Estes and a robust lobsterman by Bo Bartlett. Andrew Wyeth’s “Airborne,” 1996, painted when he was 79, demonstrates the delicacy and foreboding tone of his late work, while son Jamie Wyeth’s “Orca Bates,” 1990, shows a vulnerable, naked island lad who is about to leave his way of life for school on the mainland, seated in front of a massive whale jawbone.
African American painter Kerry James Marshall explores issues of race, class and community in the large format (100 by 142 inches) acrylic “Our Town,” 1995. More recently, in “A Warm Summer Evening in 1863,” 2008, artist Kara Walker juxtaposes the silhouette of a lynched woman against a Harper’s engraving of New York City’s draft riots during the Civil War.
By acquiring work ranging from the Duyckinck portraits of 1735 to the Walker vignette of 2008, Alice Walton and her team have already gone a long way toward assembling the top quality, comprehensive collection she envisioned to tell the story of America through its art. Continued acquisitions will undoubtedly fill gaps in the trove and deepen the roster of American masterworks.
With an eye-popping museum in place and a large and growing collection of masterpieces, the future looks bright for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The 352-page catalog edited by Crosman with essays by experts on the museum’s holdings is published by the museum in association with Hudson Hills Press. It sells for $60, hardcover.
The museum is at 600 Museum Way. For information, www.crystalbridges.org or 479-418-5700.
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