The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Monday, December 26, 2011

By just about any measure, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened last month in this small town in northwest Arkansas (Bentonville), is off to a running start. The dream-come-true of Alice Walton, an heir to the Walmart fortune, it is characterized by people both inside and outside the museum as a work in progress, with plenty of room for improvement. But there it stands, a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums.
Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family’s name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.
It came into being in record time: it was only in May 2005 that Ms. Walton announced the selection of the Israeli-born Boston architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum and ruffled feathers along the Eastern Seaboard by buying a landmark of Hudson River School landscape painting, “Kindred Spirits,” by Asher B. Durand, from the New York Public Library for around $35 million. The purchase came early in an extended shopping spree that rattled nerves, aroused skepticism and stimulated the art market.
Today Crystal Bridges has a spacious and comfortable, if rather coarsely detailed, home set into a beautiful ravine carved by the Crystal Spring, from whence comes the name. (The land was once part of the Walton family property in Bentonville, where Ms. Walton’s father, Sam Walton, opened his first five-and-dime in 1951.) And it has a collection, spanning colonial times to the present, substantial enough to merit the use of the word “masterworks” in the title of its opening exhibition. This display of more than 400 paintings, sculptures and works on paper includes efforts by revered artists like Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Cole and Thomas Eakins and is especially outstanding in its holdings in early-20th-century Modernism, with wonderful clusters of paintings by Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis and two fabulous canvases by Arthur Dove.
It also has the beginning of a distinctive mission, which is to tie together American art and history and the immediate experience of nature in a compelling and accessible way, one that still keeps the art very much in the foreground.
This mission seems built into Mr. Safdie’s design, which consists of eight linked pavilions that border or span two large pools that are fed by the spring (and that unfortunately were empty and still being worked on when I visited this month). In a way that seems slightly confused, the arrangement evokes aspects of the Getty’s hilltop campus in Los Angeles, of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania and a fancy theme park, albeit one minus the rides.
But there is an undeniable brilliance to this physical dispersal; you are never far from the outdoors, never cocooned by a maze of galleries. Moving through the building becomes something of a tour of its remarkable setting.
Meanwhile, the art on view define the museum as foremost an exceptional if idiosyncratic picture gallery assembled by someone with a discerning and independent eye for paintings. The collection has an appealing aesthetic populism, which is to say that different paintings provide points of entry for different levels of sophistication, and their groupings offer the immediate means to sharpen that sophistication as you move from work to work.
In the first two pavilions, which take art up to about 1900, there are sentimental genre paintings, and splendid ones (Richard Caton Woodville’s 1848 “War News From Mexico”); facile Impressionist landscapes; and earlier works whose robust paint handling almost seem to presage Impressionism (John La Farge’s “Hollyhocks” from around 1864-65). And there are plenty of things that will stop just about anyone in his tracks: John Singleton Copley’s shimmering portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr.; a fiery autumn landscape by Thomas Moran; Francis Guy’s panoramic “Winter Scene in Brooklyn”; George Inness’s great and stormy “Sunset on the River”; an impressively large and varied group of works by the Luminist Martin Johnson Heade; John Singer Sargent’s enigmatic portrait of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife; and a glowing depiction of an Indian encampment, set in a semitropical forest bathed in yellow light, by George Catlin.
There is one huge blind spot in the collection up to 1900, and it is a very serious one in my book: the almost complete lack of paintings by largely self-taught or folk artists. This country’s folk art is as great and as original as any other art it has produced; its uncanny fusion of abstraction and representation, and of primitive and modern makes it the American equivalent of Sienese painting in the early Italian Renaissance. Leaving it out is like looking at the story of American art with only one eye.
This absence results in a certain unopposed homogeneity dominated by a fairly academic quest for realism. I kept wishing for a quirky, flattened landscape or marine view by the great Thomas Chambers to disrupt the fussy verisimilitude and endless vistas of the Hudson River school paintings.
In contrast, the galleries of early 20th-century art are enlivened by a healthy opposition of conflicting sensibilities and approaches, which is part of what makes them the museum’s most successful. Here the Ash Can School, American Scene painting and various degrees of Modernism, both abstract and representational, are constantly sparring. There are unfamiliar works, like George Bellows’ antiwar painting “The Return of the Useless” from 1918, a harrowing scene of German soldiers and Belgian forced laborers rendered in shades of red; and emblematic masterworks like Dove’s glimmering semi-abstraction “Moon and Sea II” from 1923; and Hartley’s tender painting of a blocky Acadian boxer from 1940.
The galleries dominated by postwar American art are the most confused and arbitrary, but they also roil with different sensibilities. Major artists like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock are mostly represented by works that are either small or perfunctory. The energy in this area comes largely from unexpectedly strong works by lesser artists, both realist and abstract, among them Grace Hartigan, Will Barnet, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Mitchell, Gene Davis and Hale Woodruff and the eminently weird Janet Sobel, the self-taught artist who painted peasant-art motifs but also made dripped-paint abstractions before Pollock, who was aware of her work. Here she is represented by a large painting in which she does both at once.
The works in this half of the museum can jump back and forth in time — in some cases almost to the beginning of the century. In a narrow side gallery devoted mostly to artists’ self-portraits and including striking works by Davis (1912), Oscar Bluemner (1933) and John Steuart Curry (1935), you’ll find a 1939 painting in which Ben Shahn portrays himself wearing spectator shoes and taking photographs near a group of black-clad churchgoers. Next to it hangs a small gray-on-gray study, from 2006, for one of the morose Photo Realist self-portraits that the Italian-born New York painter Rudolf Stingel has been making over the last decade. The juxtaposition doesn’t exactly make sense, but the very incongruity seems to announce, “Anything can happen here.”
Crystal Bridges can boast of one piece of brand-new art that perfectly embodies its larger mission: James Turrell’s latest free-standing “Skyspace,” a circular stone structure with a domed roof open at the center for viewing the sky at dawn or sunset. Subtle shifts in the artificial lighting inside the dome conspire with the changing natural light to create a dazzling chromatic show. It may sound cheesy, but it works.
(It also accentuates a major failure of the museum’s design, though, to exploit the site’s abundant natural light inside the galleries. This is an amazing shortcoming in an institution so clearly devoted to both painting and the natural world.)
Crystal Bridges is user friendly in ways big and small. Admission is free, and it has an ambitious education program that will, among other things, reach out to more than 80,000 elementary school students in the area. And in some of the interstices between its pavilions — where one might have been grimly prepared to see museum gift shops — it has areas outfitted with comfortable chairs and couches and stocked with stacks of art books for browsing.
These elements, like the museum they are part of, convey the belief that art, like music and literature, is not a recreational luxury or the purview of the rich. Rather, it is an essential tool for living to which everyone must have access, because it helps awaken and direct the individual talent whose development is essential to society, especially a democratic one. Art, after all, is one of the places where the pursuit of happiness gains focus and purpose and starts expanding outward, to aid and abet that thing called the greater good.

By Roberta Smith in the New York Times.