Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

by Stephen May

So much attention has been paid to the spectacular structure, designed by Moshe Safdie, at the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, that the world-class collection it houses has tended to be overlooked. Marking a significant development on the United States cultural scene, Crystal Bridges, the brainchild of Alice B. Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, opened to the public on November 11, 2011. It is the first major museum devoted to American art established in almost a half century.

The eye-popping museum, designed by global architectural star Safdie, is located amidst a 120-acre forest that was formerly the backyard of the Walton family home. Born in Haifa, Israel, Safdie came to international attention in the 1960s for his design of Habitat ’67 in Montreal, a residential building of connected boxes. Now headquartered in Boston, he has since carried out a remarkable number of high-profile public projects around the world. Consistent with his design philosophy, Safdie’s latest extravaganza is configured to carry out its mission and sited to take advantage of its natural surroundings. Safdie nestled the 200,000-square-foot museum within a ravine, encircled by heavily wooded hillsides and surmounting two spring-fed ponds. The complex houses galleries, meeting and classroom spaces, a library, administrative offices, a restaurant and museum store. “We aimed to design a museum in which art and nature are experienced simultaneously and harmoniously,” said Safdie at a press preview in October.1

You enter the museum from the foot of a hill that offers dramatic overviews of the entire campus. Visitors circulate through a series of long, connected galleries, crossing the ponds with open vistas of the forested landscape. Massive windows throughout the complex allow warm light to suffuse the galleries and enhance views of mature dogwoods, oaks and pines. Walking trails and outdoor sculpture link the museum to nearby downtown Bentonville. The beautifully sited building and its trove of masterpieces are the culmination of a decade-long dream of Alice Walton, who breeds and trains cutting horses on a ranch inTexas, but whose heart remains in northwest Arkansas.

Interested in art from childhood, but with no art history background, Walton started out collecting regional art, with the idea of housing it in a museum in the area where few such institutions exist. By the mid-1990s, she had elevated her sights and began acquiring national American art, envisioning its display in a museum in her native Bentonville. 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,” Walton has said.2 With the advice of such authorities as distinguished art historian John Wilmerding and Christopher B. Crosman, the museum’s founding Curator of Collections, Walton has acquired an impressive trove of important paintings, works on paper and sculpture by our greatest artists. They respond to Walton’s interests in the relation of art to American history, and the interrelationship of art and nature. In so doing, they carry out the museum’s stated mission to “explore the unfolding story of America by actively collecting, exhibiting, interpreting, and preserving outstanding works that illuminate our heritage and artistic possibilities.”3

John Singleton Copley, Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth), 1795

The inaugural exhibition, “Celebrating the American Spirit,” features 450 works by American masters, arranged chronologically to guide visitors 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 Levy-Frank family of colonial New York. Likely painted by Gerardus Duyckinck around 1735, they depict fashionably dressed family members in traditional English portraiture style. Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Metropolitan Museum of Art says this is “the only large set of early colonial family portraits to survive intact….”4 Even more elegant is Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth), 1765, painted by the leading portraitist of elite Bostonians, John Singleton Copley. His likeness captures his sitter’s beauty, grace and lofty social standing. Not far away, Benjamin West’s Romantic Cupid and Psyche (1808) is complemented by Hiram Powers’s neoclassical marble bust Proserpine (c. 1840), from the museum’s small but growing sculpture collection.

Other highlights from this era include 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), a widely admired genre work, white folks gather to read newspaper reports from the Mexican-American War, while a black man and girl listen, seated subserviently at their feet.

The standout 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, conferring on a ledge in a wooded Catskills ravine. After noting the “dismay” among New Yorkers when, in 2005, 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….”5 Nearby, capacious 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 Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, document the splendors of the American West, while Eastman Johnson spins narratives of rural New England, and George Inness’s paean to the serenity of the Catskills reflects the artist’s Swedenborgian spirituality. A strong oil by Winslow Homer of a peasant girl, The Return of the Gleaner, arguably the best work he painted during his visit to France in 1867, and two watercolors demonstrate his skills in these mediums. Alas, there is no epic seascape in sight—yet.

The long, high galleries provide opportunities to showcase large numbers of works in rough chronological order, with some attention to recurrent themes: encounters with nature, American art in an international context, women as artists and subjects, and the role of artists in American society. Here and there, siderooms offer more intimate spaces for displays such as self-portraits by Will Barnet, Paul Cadmus, John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Ben Shahn and Grant Wood, among others.

Landscapes by such titans as Alfred Pinkham Ryder and, later, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, John H. Twachtman, Theodore Robinson, Maurice Prendergast, William Merritt Chase and James McNeill Whistler reflect the influence of European Impressionism and Post-Impressionism on late nineteenth-century American artists. The selection of portraits is particularly outstanding: Sargent’s enigmatic Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife; Dennis Miller Bunker’s Anne Page, adjacent to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s bust of the same Boston beauty; Gari Melchers’s affectionate likeness of his colleague George Hitchcock’s first wife, and William Merritt Chase’s Worthington Whittredge, a grand portrayal of a white-bearded sage. Best of all is Thomas Eakins’s Professor Benjamin Howard Rand (1874), which the museum acquired after Philadelphians raised money to keep Eakins’s iconic The Gross Clinic in the City of Brotherly Love. Rand offers a dark and sensitive glimpse of the distinguished faculty member in his study at Jefferson Medical College.

Displayed nearby these academically sound compositions of genteel scenes and people are contrasting, even jarring works by James Henry Beard and his brother William Holbrook Beard. Their humorous depictions show animals acting like humans, the former’s chimpanzee pondering Darwin’s theory of human evolution and the latter’s ape schoolmaster, dressed in contemporary clothing, eyeing a row of fashionably dressed students—a squirrel, pig, frog, dog and cat. The Beards, who were successful satirists toward the end of the nineteenth century, are little noted by modern art historians, making their choice for this elite collection interesting. Their inclusion is consistent with Crystal Bridges’s mission to display quirky, offbeat works that have played a part in the evolution of our art. The importance of American Folk Art is signaled by Portrait of a Girl and Her Dog in a Grape Arbor (c. 1855–60), attributed to thee self-taught painter Susan Catherine Waters (1823–1900). It’s a fine example of the genre’s shrewd mix of anecdotal charm and strong formal qualities.

Two galleries feature works 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 paintings are John Sloan’s Bleecker Street, Saturday Night, George Bellows’s Excavation at Night, depicting the huge crater created to build Pennsylvania Station, and an Everett Shinn theater image.

Two portraits stand out from this era: Ashcan School leader Robert Henri’s painting of a red-haired Ziegfield Follies beauty, in which a dark palette and spare composition focus attention on the model’s brightly illuminated face, and Alfred Maurer’s Jeanne (c. 1904), a stunning, full-length (74 3/4-by-39 3/8 inch) view of a liberated woman, resplendent in a shimmering white gown, with a feather boa and hat topped by a stuffed white bird, holding a cigarette near her bright red lips. Fluently and expressively painted, she is a reminder of the ample talents of an under-recognized star among our early avant-garde.

Among the early modernists, a highlight is Georgia O’Keeffe’s compelling, bright watercolor Evening Star No. 2 (1917), in which the embryonic superstar conveyed, with a few broad brushstrokes, the brilliant radiance of a sunset over the arid Texas landscape. There are fine examples of work by such leading members of the avant-garde as John Marin, Oscar Bluemner, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Kuniyoshi and Stuart Davis. But the best paintings are by Marsden Hartley: a tapestry-like evocation of western Maine mountains, a still life of decisively brushed red flowers set against a blue seascape, a heartfelt homage to the chiseled body of a young boxer from northern Maine.

Attributed to Susan Catherine, Portrait of a Girl and Her Dog in a Grape Arbor, c.1855-60

Of more recent vintage are characteristic works by Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Arshile Gorky and Romare Bearden. Jackson Pollock’s Reclining Woman (c. 1938–41) was painted while still under the influence of his teacher, Benton, as well as the radical innovations of Pablo Picasso. It 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 familiar Rosie the Riveter, a 1943 oil that became a famous Saturday Evening Post cover, reminds viewers of the vital role women played in winning World War II, and of the artist’s accomplishments as storyteller and painter. Among a remarkable group of paintings dating to 1948 by Milton Avery, Will Barnet and Jacob Lawrence, the highlight is Charles Sheeler’s cool and precise approximation of an abandoned textile plant in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Colorful canvases by Hans Hofmann, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell usher in the era of Abstract Expressionism that dominated postwar world art. Unfortunately, there is not yet a Willem de Kooning in the collection. Running counter to the abstractionists, 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 late twentieth-century artists in the collection include Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who created challenging new forms of art. Fairfield Porter offered warm, impressionistic views of family and landscapes, and Wayne Thiebaud turned out appealing depictions of food. Pop Art, another notable postwar style, is represented by Tom Wesselmann’s enormous, red-lipped 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 intriguing Airborne (1996), painted when he was 79, demonstrates the delicate and foreboding tone of his late work, while son Jamie Wyeth’s Orca Bates (1990) shows a vulnerable, naked teenager who is about to leave his way of life on an island for school on the mainland, seated in front of a massive whale jawbone. African American painters Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker explore issues of race, class and community in large-format works that portray today’s suburbs and Civil War scenes, respectively.

Alice Walton and her team have already gone a long way toward assembling the high quality, comprehensive trove she envisioned to tell the story of America through its art. While not yet deep in works by any individual artist, the breadth, quality and national scope of the collection—there is no “regional” art per se—have elevated Crystal Bridges far beyond regional status. Continued acquisitions will undoubtedly fill gaps in the collection and deepen the roster of American masterworks. Americais blessed with a plethora of quality regional art museums, but this newcomer, while filling a regional void, is clearly of nationwide significance. It is, as the museum’s executive director, Don Bacigalupi observes, “Alice Walton and her family’s gift, not only to the region and its people but also to the nation and the world.”6 Crystal Bridges’s officials stress that the collection has been assembled almost entirely through purchases, mostly from private collections. Some works have rarely, if ever, been seen by the general public. “A critical goal of the museum’s collecting program,” Crosman points out, “has been to bring little-seen works into public view and to provide access to art that has national, and often international, resonance and significance.”7

Andrew Wyeth, Airborne, 1996

It is good to report that Walton and the museum plan to continue a generous loan policy, insuring that other areas of the country will have opportunities to enjoy these treasures. Says Walton: “I believe that museums need to exchange and share more, and we’ve tried to make a statement about that. We want to lend and we want to borrow, and I think that’s an important part of our philosophy.”8 With an exciting building in place and a growing collection of masterpieces, the future looks bright for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. For those interested in more detail, the 352-page, lavishly illustrated collection catalogue is highly recommended. Edited by Crosman with essays by experts on the museum’s holdings, it is both attractive and informative. Published by the museum in association with Hudson Hills Press, it costs $60, hardcover.

The museum is located at 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Arkansas 72712. Telephone (479) 418-5700. On the web at www.crystalbridges.org

Notes

1 Comments by Moshe Safdie during press preview at the museum, October 13, 2011, attended by the author.

2 Alice Walton, interview with John Wilmerding, August 2009, quoted in Christopher B. Crosman, general editor, Celebrating the American Spirit: Masterworks from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, Arkansas: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in association with Hudson Hills Press, Manchester and New York, 2011), p. 344. Hereafter referred to as Celebrating.

3 Undated Crystal Bridges Museum news release.

4 Essay in Celebrating, op. cit., p. 24.

5 Crosman in ibid., p. 17. He adds that ”Kindred Spirits is one of Crystal Bridges’ signature works and has played a significant role in defining the overall direction and scope of the collection.”

6 Bacigalupi in ibid., p. 7.

7 Ibid., p. 17.

8 Walton interview with Wilmerding in ibid., p. 344.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2012, Volume 29, Number 2