Originally published Nov. 6, 2011
BENTONVILLE, Ark. — The nation’s newest art museum is nestled into a ravine in the woods here, which on a recent sunny day showed off brilliant autumn colors.
And from a distance, the rounded and glass-striped copper roofs of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art look rather organic, like some gigantic tree-dwelling insects or fat wormlike creatures sunning for a spell.
Perhaps it’s a happy accident, but the image turns out to be fitting.
“We’re a bunch of nature lovers, “ Alice L. Walton, the billionaire art collector and museum founder, says of her family. “You can’t help but be if you grow up in the Ozarks.”
The Ozarks setting, a mere three-hour drive from Kansas City, has prompted a bit of artificial debate about where art belongs, particularly because in the six years since she announced her plan to build Crystal Bridges, Walton has prominently raided some big-city, East Coast walls for treasures.
There’s no denying that money can make almost anything happen. And here, in the northwest Arkansas birthplace of Wal-Mart, her family’s global business, money - hundreds of millions of dollars - has helped create a formidable and alluring temple to art.
From Benjamin West’s monumental and mythic canvas “Cupid and Psyche” (1808) to a couple of Nick Cave’s up-to-the-minute “Soundsuit” sculptures, Walton’s Crystal Bridges is meant to capture and celebrate all that can be stuffed under the ever-widening umbrella of the “American spirit.”
During a recent media preview, Walton and the museum’s executive director, Don Bacigalupi, sat still for a brief round of softball questions.
Walton, 62, told of her long-standing love of art - she started painting watercolors with her mother when she was 4 or 5 years old and got serious about studying and collecting art two decades ago.
“I started collecting regional art, potters, basket-makers, charcoals, landscapes and works with an environmental bent, “ she said.
Bacigalupi emphasized the museum’s mission of presenting art that tells stories of American culture and history.
And, he said, “Some of the great images of American art history are here.”
As Walton and Bacigalupi spoke in their light-filled boardroom, earth-movers and workmen in safety-green vests were busy on the grounds below. Two rock-lined ponds had yet to be filled in, and the creek that feeds them was temporarily diverted as site work continued.
Inside the museum, a couple of galleries that will feature mid-century modernist masters were also not quite ready. So some of Walton’s finest 20th-century holdings - paintings by Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe and George Bellows - were unavailable for preview. An installation by contemporary sky-and-earth sculptor James Turrell, built along a walking trail in the woods, was also still being “tweaked, “ said Kevin Murphy, a curator who led a tour of the galleries.
But what we did encounter on this preview tour was impressive, surprising and occasionally breathtaking.
The experience begins with the ground-hugging series of connected pavilions and dramatically curved spaces imagined by architect Moshe Safdie, he of the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the failed West Edge office complex in Kansas City.
Safdie’s segmented complex is made of wood, glass and concrete. Totaling more than 200,000 square feet, it features finely wrought details - angled and curved surfaces and proudly exposed structural elements. Over time, it’s expected that the complex will appear as if it sprouted from this patch of Walton family earth.
Two of the largest pavilions are indeed bridges over the planned Crystal Springs pools, their roofs shaped and suspended by thick cables. In those two buildings, enormous curved and canted concrete trusses do their brawny work in harmonious contrast with the wood and glass surfaces they help support.
Alice Walton and her colleagues point with pride to the Arkansas sourcing of much of the wood in the project - Southern pine, oak and Western red cedar - including the huge curved glulam ceiling beams. Yet when I asked about the origin of the subtly patterned stone-block floor in the dining pavilion, the answer came back: it’s a spa-green quartzite from China. The American story apparently has its limits.
But there are soaring spaces and a lovely interplay of light, art and nature.
Visitors who enter through the main lobby will start touring the collection in the colonial period. From there they will make their way through a snaking series of galleries in seven pavilions, periodically interrupted by rest-stop niches and expansive views of the grounds, the ponds, the woods and outdoor sculptures by the likes of Mark di Suvero.
The building can also be accessed by way of a hiking/biking trail, a 10- or 15-minute stroll from Bentonville’s town square. Arriving at that south entrance will take visitors through cultural exhibits of local interest before they reach the main lobby.
Museum officials note that the collection, currently numbering about 600 pieces, will continue to grow and evolve. (In addition to Alice Walton’s own contributions, the Walton Family Foundation has announced a contribution of $800 million to be used for endowment, construction costs and art buying, and a $20 million gift from Wal-Mart Stores covers free admission.) On display now are many of its recent acquisitions plus numerous pieces Walton has loaned or promised to give to the museum.
Several themes and subtexts run throughout the museum’s galleries.
For one, Walton especially wanted to highlight works by and of women. That impulse begins with a pastel portrait by Henrietta Johnston from 1720 said to be “among the first extant fine art images attributed to an American woman, “ according to a catalog essay by Christopher B. Crosman, Crystal Bridges’ chief curator.
See also a couple of little-known works by the self-taught artist Janet Sobel, a Ukrainian immigrant in New York (1894-1968) whose all-over compositions and drip-paintings influenced Jackson Pollock in the mid-1940s. Other highlights include works by Louise Nevelson, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Jenny Holzer and Karen LaMonte.
Other themes include history, realism, narrative and - more overt than I expected to see in a place with a Confederate memorial in its town square - the dilemmas of race and identity.
All of those qualities are embedded in such diverse and time-separated works as Richard Caton Woodville’s “War News From Mexico” (1848) and Kerry James Marshall’s “Our Town” (1995).
Woodville’s Binghamesque canvas, with its comment on democracy, class, slavery, media and marginalization (of blacks and women), in addition to war, can resonate even today if you want to think about such things as the Twitterverse, Mexico’s drug wars and the Occupy movement.
Marshall’s “Our Town” is an unsparing, sardonic splash on the American dream.
Among the earliest works in the collection are 18th century portraits of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart and an intriguing suite of pictures of the Levy-Franks, a merchant family who happened to be Jewish. (Wondering why they are probably the only painting subjects in the museum identified by their religion would be a conversation starter, though presumably it’s to prompt us to marvel over the unexpected diversity of such prominent early Americans.)
American Indians are subjects of numerous works from the 19th century and before - portraits and scenes by Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, for example - but the absence of works by American Indian artists of any century seems like a gap deserving attention.
One of Walton’s most controversial acquisitions was a mid-19th-century Hudson Valley landscape by Asher B. Durand. Called “Kindred Spirits, “ it used to hang high on a wall at the New York Public Library. When the library decided it ought to raise some funds, Walton landed the painting for a cool $35 million, setting off some outrage in the Big Apple and major art circles.
The painting honors Durand’s fellow landscape painter and friend Thomas Cole, who had recently died, and the poet William Cullen Bryant. The two figures stand on a ledge overlooking waterfalls and a stream in a densely forested Catskill gorge. Mountains and a heavenly horizon loom in the background.
Up close it is a captivating work, and the room in which it hangs contains one major landscape after another by Cole and other contemporaries and followers: John Frederick Kensett, Frederic Church, Thomas Moran and Jasper Francis Cropsey, whose “Backwoods of America” hung for a while in the American galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Most of the major American styles and movements of the 20th century are represented, some more deeply than others. Again, for Walton and Crystal Bridges, that’s money to be spent in the future filling in the holes.
The museum’s contemporary holdings are coming on strong and bound to increase. Just recently came the report that a Luis Jimenez horse sculpture, much-beloved in its spot outside the El Paso Art Museum, had been acquired by and sent off to Crystal Bridges. (Beware the unsecured long-term loan, especially after the lender has died.)
Along with those of Cave and Marshall, other notable pieces already up are a historical lynching painting by Kara Walker, a walk-in marquetry installation by Alison Elizabeth Taylor and a diaphanous, silk-flower curtain by Jim Hodges.
Kansas City is home to a considerable array of American art, new and old, at the Nelson-Atkins, the Kemper, the Nerman and elsewhere. Alice Walton’s museum - like others in Wichita, Omaha and Des Moines - complements and greatly expands the art and artists Kansas Citians can encounter with little effort.
It remains to be seen how many art tourists will travel halfway across the country to experience Walton’s giveback to her hometown. But I’m thinking a fair number of those within shouting distance will make the trek and find it to be well worth their time.