I knew he’d be there, waiting. I’d seen his photo and heard a story or two, so I wasn’t fearful of missing him. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Still, when I turned and saw him at the end of the gallery, I was taken aback, both by his air of patient weariness and by his obvious disregard for the people who’d clustered around him. Edging closer, I listened to their conversation.
“What’s his name?”
“Don’t think he’s got a name.”
“He sure enough looks real. I was about ready to ask him the time.”
“Yeh, and if he’d answered, you’d have been right surprised.”
At Crystal Bridges, it doesn’t take long to become comfortable enough to join in.
“He reminds me of my dad,” I said. “That’s how he’d look when Mom made him go shopping with her.”
After the laughter subsided, one of the women looked at a man I took to be her husband and said,
“That’s right. I’ve seen that look. But the artist ought to have put a woman on that bench, too – for all the times we’ve been dragged off to hardware stores and farm sales.”
“My favorite work of art changes regularly, but today… it’s a Duane Hanson sculpture titled “Man on a Bench”. It’s literally a depiction of an older gentleman sitting on a bench. I like it because of the way our visitors interact with the sculpture – they’re surprised by it, intrigued, sometimes taken aback in that they think it’s real. It elicits great response, from all ages.”
There’s a lot to interact with at Crystal Bridges, beginning with WalMart heiress Alice Walton. Once she put her energies – and her considerable money – behind her vision of accessible, quality art for the people of Arkansas and surrounding states, the reactions were swift and often predictable.
The thought of American artistic treasures disappearing into the great void of northwestern Arkansas clearly was more than parts of the art world could bear. Some questioned her methods, while others doubted her taste. Often bidding anonymously, she began influencing the art market, and the so-called “Walton Effect“ was born.
Ms. Walton acknowledges that dealing with members of the East Coast art establishment hasn’t always been easy. “A lot of people there don’t really know this part of the world, really don’t know the people here and the desire and the need for art. But once they come and see what’s here and what we have, their attitudes will change.”
After my own visit to Crystal Bridges, I have little doubt the attitudes are changing.
Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, Crystal Bridges has been constructed in such a way that a careful balance of art, landscape and structure is maintained. Set down into a ravine fed by Town Branch Creek and Crystal Spring (from which it takes its name), the museum and its natural environment seem perfectly paired.
During construction, a six-foot easement between the actual work site and the surrounding forest helped to preserve the natural environment, and the use of natural materials – copper, pine beams, red cedar trim – link the buildings even more closely to their setting.
Curves are everywhere – in the walls, the roofs, the walkways. The Tallgrass Express may sing of the prairie as a “clean curve of hill against sky”, but the curves of Crystal Bridges are no less clean, no less delightful.
That’s not to say the curves didn’t present a few challenges. “I was concerned that the building might conflict with the art at first — there’s not a straight line in the space,”said curator Kevin Murphy.
But when Murphy and his colleagues began placing a series of landscapes on the long wall of the early 19th century gallery, they found the curve gave a dynamic quality to the linear presentation. “It really helped tell the story [of the landscapes during that period],” Murphy said. “I could have never hung that series on a flat wall.”
Outside the walls of the museum, over three miles of trails curve through the 120 acre site. Some, like the Dogwood and Rock Ledge trails, are meant for hiking. Others are hard surfaced and accomodate wheel chairs and bikers as well as walkers.
More than 250,000 native plants or cultivars have been placed into the landscape, like this fading but still lovely native hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens).
At Crystal Bridges, education isn’t limited to classrooms and lectures. Interpretive signs along the paths point out interesting aspects of nature’s art, and invite participation in assorted projects.
The day I visited, groups of schoolchildren were everywhere, enjoying the fruits of Scott Eccleston’s labors. Director of Grounds and Facilities, Eccleston has adopted a landscape design philosophy he calls “Leave no child inside”. In a Crystal Bridges publication, his work is described this way.
“At locations throughout the grounds, he has designed and built creative play areas to encourage children to explore and enjoy the outdoors. Kids can climb on the massive bouders of Robert Tannen’s ‘Grains of Sand’, explore the waters at Cindy Spring, or hop from stump to stump along one of the “stump walks” built along the Dogwood Trail.”
Along the Art Trail, the natural pleasures of Crystal Bridges are joined by whimsical, mysterious and unusual artistic expressions. There’s Stella, André Harvey’s smiling sow…
…one of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures, made famous through the U.S. Postal Service…
…a fiberglass vaquero who seemed to validate my choice of traveling music…
…and a wonderful bronze bear, aptly titled, Shore Lunch.
I could have spent an entire day outdoors, exploring the grounds and sculptures. But there were paintings to be seen, and I was especially eager to find Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits.
I became aware of the painting after Alice Walton purchased it from the New York Public Library in 2005. The private sale, for an estimated $35 million dollars, gave Walton her centerpiece for the Crystal Bridges collection and raised such a furor in New York it reverberated all the way down to Texas.
The painting may have hung in obscurity for years and been consigned in 1986 to life in a room filled with other obscure paintings, but once it was gone, writers vied with one another to describe the horror of its loss. As Francis Morrone put it in the New York Sun, “The library’s sale of Kindred Spirits is, quite frankly, New York’s most egregious act of self-desecration since the demolition of Pennsylvania Station.”
In an excellent article written for the Ozark Echo, Justin Gage provides a context for the painting itself. In his introduction, he says,
“Asher B. Durand finished ‘Kindred Spirits’ in March 1849. It was a memorial to his friend and mentor Thomas Cole, who stands in the landscape with writer and poet William Cullen Bryant.
The painting was commissioned following the death of Cole (aged 47) by dry-goods merchant and longtime art patron Jonathan Sturges. Sturges gave the painting to Bryant, a close friend of Cole (his ‘kindred spirit’) and Durand. Durand’s work remained in the Bryant family until 1904 when it was donated to the New York Public Library.”
Reflecting on the uproar over this painting – and others – the day before Crystal Bridges’ formal opening, Arkansas resident and Museum member Penny Springmann had this to say.
“Some say Arkansas doesn’t deserve to house such national treasures – the works should be in New York or LA. But America is more than its coastlines. Middle America is filled with millions of people like me who want to celebrate the arts, who want to share masterpieces with their family, and who treasure the opportunity to have a museum like Crystal Bridges.”
Moving through the Crystal Bridges galleries, it seems there are masterpieces and treasures at every turn.
I had no idea Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter was part of the museum’s holdings. I smiled at the “rivets” incorporated into the frame, and wished I’d had the opportunity to bring my mother, one of the original “Rosies”, to see the painting she loved.
Of course one of my own favorite artists, Thomas Hart Benton, is well represented. In a bit of wonderful coincidence, Bentonville, the home of Crystal Bridges, is named for the artist’s uncle. The elder Thomas Hart Benton became one of the first United States Senators elected from the state of Missouri.
It was a bit of a surprise to find Louise Nevelson’s Night Zag Wall. I’ve admired Nevelson since first experiencing her work at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, and always am pleased to see her represented in a collection.
In her essay on Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Didion quotes the artist’s reflections on her time in Texas.
“That evening star fascinated me. It was in some way very exciting to me. My sister had a gun, and as we walked she would throw bottles into the air and shoot as many as she could before they hit the ground. I had nothing but to walk into nowhere and the wide sunset space with the star. Ten watercolors were made from that star.”
I find it curious that Crystal Bridges has in its holdings an O’Keeffe watercolor titled Evening Star No. 11. It’s possible the paintings weren’t numbered sequentially, or that one was added to the series later. In any event, I found this quite earth-bound O’Keeffe painting equally appealing.
Even a relatively smaller museum like Crystal Bridges can tire the feet and overwhelm the senses. In a gesture of generosity, Reflection Rooms outfitted with comfortable sofas and chairs, an abundance of books and lovely views of the museum grounds have been placed among the galleries. Anyone can make themselves at home to read, jot notes or simply relax before moving on.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell nature from art. This isn’t an impressionist painting, but a view from one of the Reflection Room windows.
And this isn’t the delightful slipper-wearing lady who settled in next to me with her book, but Mary Cassatt’s lovely painting, The Reader.
One fear expressed during the development of Crystal Bridges was that it would turn out to be “all white bread” – mediocre, bland and tasteless. It seems the fears were ill-founded.
Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus # 132 Reverse is a large-scale work pointing to the paradoxical nature of communication. A sculptural sound piece about a deaf composer, the work is silent until the viewer speaks into the trumpet. At that point, a selection of Beethoven’s work is heard.
I still was pondering the appearance of the piece when a gallery guide came scooting over. “Where are you from?” she asked. I told her, and she dragged me over to the ear trumpet’s opening. “This nice lady came here from Houston,” she intoned into Beethoven’s ear. Obligingly, the strains of his music began, and we both laughed.
Earlier, two women standing with a museum guide in front of Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s Au Café (Synchromy) were doing some laughing of their own. “I don’t see a thing except colors,” said one. “Good!” said the guide. “This artist loved color, and he loved to arrange blocks of color. Can you see the woman’s green hair?”
Silence. And then, “Yes! And I see her ear! And she’s wearing a hat!”
While they delved further into Au Café, I pondered its resemblance to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2), part of the 1913 Armory Show in New York. That painting caused its own kind of stir, and Au Café, painted in 1918, clearly was influenced by the same modernist forces shaping Duchamp’s work.
As for Nick Cave, whose vibrant Sound Suit was chosen to adorn billboards promoting Crystal Bridges’ opening, I found his work funny, stimulating, unbelievably appealing and strangely familiar. After watching this video, I knew where I’d seen such things in the past. Liberian bush devils and Nick Cave’s Sound Suits have a good bit in common.
My own current favorite at Crystal Bridges is this nearly-fifty-foot stainless steel sculpture by Roxy Paine.
Because the work was commissioned especially for Crystal Bridges, I can’t help pondering its title – Yield. Perhaps it’s a sly commentary on Alice Walton’s determination to wrest away what she can of great American art for the people of the Heartland. Perhaps it expresses a hope that the people of Arkansas and those who join them at their museum will yield to the power of art.
In any event, like the museum for which it was created, Yield is a satisfying combination of art, nature and structure, a reminder that yielding to the pleasures and power of art often brings a rich yield of benefits.
As I was leaving the museum grounds, a pair of young boys on bicycles wheeled in and stowed them in a nearby rack. They were moving pretty quickly, and I couldn’t help saying, “Late for class?” They grinned, and then one of them, freckle-faced and flushed, said, “Oh, no ma’am. We’ve just come over to visit our museum before supper, and we’ve only got an hour.”
“Our museum”? Alice Walton should be proud.