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 Crystal Bridges Museum

 

 


crystal bridges arkansas

Crystal Bridges Museum Opens

By Roberta Smith, The New York Times 

 

BENTONVILLE, Arkansas — By just about any measure, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened last month in this small town in northwest Arkansas, 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 representation of early-20th-century Modernism, with wonderful clusters of paintings by Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis and two fabulous canvases by Arthur Dove.

The museum 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 of a fancy theme park, 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 defines 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.

Doubletree Guest Suites Bentonville/Rogers

Doubletree Guest Suites Crystal Bridges Museum Bentonville, Arkansas

Doubletree Guest Suites - Bentonville, 301 SE Walton Blvd, Bentonville, AR 72712  


 

 


NO PLACE LIKE HOME 
David Velasco, ArtForum

 

“BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS is a city in Northwest Arkansas, and county seat of Benton County, Arkansas, United States. It is part of the Fayetteville–Springdale–Rogers-Bella VIsta, AR-MO Metropolitan Statistical Area. Bentonville is also home to the Wal-Mart Home Offices, headquarters of Walmart Stores, the largest private employer and retailer in the world.”

The succinct, just-the-facts style of Wikipedia goes a lot further in fixing the surfaces of Bentonville than any lyric acrobatics might. A location scout would have trouble picking the town out of a lineup; put simply, it lacks the texture of the specific. It could be anywhere and everywhere—it is a murmur in the great cacophony of murmurs evoked by the phrase small-town America. And it is precisely Bentonville’s anywhere status that made it the perfect test site for one of the shrewdest, most carnivorous mercantile models on the planet, a big-box commercial strategy that translates everywhere.

It is here that Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the third-richest woman in the world, decided to sow specificity. Suddenly, Bentonville is somewhere; it is a destination.

Crystal Bridges: The name is both quaint and fantastical, in the manner of a Stevie Nicks song. Even within the already ludicrous, shiny, and fanciful history of institutions born from singular visions and deep pockets, there’s something crazily quixotic about Alice Walton’s ludicrous, shiny, and fanciful new museum. It is something Walt Disney might have hallucinated while visiting Isabella Stewart Gardner’s ersatz Renaissance palace in Boston.

At once hubristic and grounded, the two-hundred-thousand-square-foot museum (fifty thousand square feet for gallery space), designed by the Haifa, Israel–born, Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, is a harmonious compound of eight linked concrete pavilions—several striated with bands of inlaid wood and canopied with glass and copper—nestled by Crystal Spring amid 120 acres of forest near Bentonville’s downtown. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is absurdly well positioned in the competition for global museological resources. Endowed by the Walton Family Foundation with eight hundred million dollars (more than New York’s Museum of Modern Art), it opened on November 11 of last year with a party in Bentonville, where Bill Clinton addressed the crowds via video while confetti cannons blitzed the air with paper.

The museum’s “simple but vital purpose,” the inaugural catalogue explains, “is to tell the unfolding story of the United States through the lens of its visual arts.” Lenses beget more lenses. “We’re not here to rewrite the book,” David Houston, the museum’s chief curator, assured me. “But the view of American art will look different from Arkansas than it does from New York or Los Angeles.”

So far it doesn’t look that different, but one gets Houston’s drift, and certainly the installation of these works in the piedmont of the Ozarks stages its own phenomenological environment—a “place-based sensibility,” as the museum’s director, Don Bacigalupi, put it—almost regardless of what’s on view. Walton largely culled the collection of some twelve hundred works herself, in conversation with a few advisers, so it’s no surprise that the assemblage occasionally reads as the harvest of an eclectic but assured connoisseur. It might be a surprise that a lot of the work is very, very good. As has been widely reported, there are “genuine” masterworks in the inaugural exhibition, “Celebrating the American Spirit.” These are some great paintings. But great paintings only tell so much of the story of American art.

The story thus far, in any case, is provisional; this is a “first pass,” a single presentation of more than four hundred works from the nascent collection (evolving is the buzzword). Currently, its strengths are colonial portraiture and paintings of the Hudson River School along with strong groupings of individual artists such as Marsden Hartley, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. The view from Arkansas is not unfamiliar to the gimlet New York eye; the majority of the works here, to speak of place-based sensibility, were created in the environs of the Northeast Corridor.

Every museum is to some extent a moral project, the calcification of a donnée. Here, one constitutive trope is citizenship, the territorial push-pull of regionalism, nationalism, and globalism. But the curators aren’t too fussy about what counts as American. The collection includes European-born artists—Thomas Cole, John Singer Sargent, Hans Hofmann, Arshile Gorky, and Josef Albers, to name a few—and there are landscapes depicting Europe (for instance, an 1896 painting by James McNeill Whistler, that most peripatetic of “American” artists, of the port town of Dieppe, France) and South America (such as Martin Johnson Heade’s The Harbor at Rio de Janeiro, 1864).

Like any good student, this American museum has also gone abroad, partnering with the Louvre in Paris, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and the Terra Foundation for American Art to produce shows of American and European art in the US and beyond. (An exhibition on Thomas Cole is currently in Paris and will travel to Bentonville in May.) Closer to home, the nearest museum of note is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, more than two hundred miles north on Route 71, and with this in mind Crystal Bridges has developed strategies for habituating previously uninitiated guests. The museum has an ambitious outreach program that targets some eighty thousand local schoolchildren. Walmart donated twenty million dollars to cover admission for the foreseeable future, so you can walk right in. On a practical level, this is huge. The museum suspires friendliness and accessibility from the get-go.

This congeniality is further institutionalized via dedicated “gallery guides.” “You need to step back to see it,” a volunteer docent, Stacy, told me as I approached Devorah Sperber’s After the Last Supper, 2005. The work is a popular installation involving 20,736 spools of thread and a crystal ball; it appears here in “Wonder World,” an uneven if jubilant show of contemporary art in the museum’s temporary-exhibition pavilion. “She’s a scientist, so each of her pieces is meant to teach us something. This one is about how our eyes and mind work together.” The rest of “Wonder World” also trades on this lighthearted philosophizing on the senses: There’s a Vik Muniz photograph riffing on a Heade nature study (a work by Heade that is similar to the original is also in the collection). There’s a silly, interactive John Baldessari wall sculpture comprising a fiberglass ear and an ear trumpet that plays Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, op. 132, when you speak into it. A large Nam June Paik TV-sculpture/portrait of John Cage is one of the only “video” works in the collection. The show has all the zest and porous appeal of the “contemporary.” People seemed to dig it.

What is perhaps unusual about the view from Arkansas is the museum’s unambiguous embrace of women artists. (The catalogue conflates works by women with those featuring female sitters, emphasizing the “presence of strong women both as maker and as subject.” I kept envisioning a jewel-box survey: “From Abigaill Levy Franks to Jeanne Blazy: Brassy Broads of American Portraiture.”) The highlighted painting in the Abstract Expressionist galleries is an untitled Joan Mitchell from 1952–53, and instead of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, you have an earlier drip made by Janet Sobel that anticipates his allover murals. The “anchor” work in the gallery devoted to twentieth-century modernism is a large black wall piece by Louise Nevelson. Sculptures by Lynda Benglis (saturnine), Jackie Ferrara (scrupulous), and Louise Bourgeois (sybaritic) preside in the final building.

In purely identitarian terms, the collection is remarkably progressive. But it also (quite literally) paints over many of the past century’s great artistic casus belli. The critiques of painting and sculpture occasioned by Conceptual art, Minimalism, Fluxus, the Pictures generation, and, um, Duchamp (and even whole artmaking modes like photography, video, performance, and installation art) are hardly, if ever, considered. The wall text for a smart-looking pastel Dan Flavin, Untitled (to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Inch), 1964—a rare example of Minimalism in the collection—emphasizes a resonance with the use of light in the Hudson River School. Here, Flavin’s industrial objects represent a continuation of painting, not a rupture with it.

This glossing is especially pointed in the final area of the twentieth-century gallery, where a wall text articulates “postmodernism” in relation to five heterogeneous but museum-friendly artists: Susan Rothenberg, Neil Welliver, Jack Levine, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall. Their works, the text argues, “demonstrate the renewed vitality and enduring relevance of perception-based narrative art.” If Crystal Bridges’s inclusion of “postmodernism” is potentially constructive, we may still wonder what gets camouflaged or bowdlerized in this description. Is either a plein air painter like Welliver or a conventional satirist like Levine germane to even the most flexible account of American postmodernism? And if postmodernism stages a resurgence of “image-based” work, as the text also claims, wouldn’t artists from preceding galleries (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Johns) have been more reliable narrators? Postmodernism has never been an intelligible idiom (part of its dangerous charm), but lumping iconoclastic African-American artists like Walker and Marshall in with mild realists like Welliver and Levine and estranged Minimalists like Rothenberg just underscores the absurdity of the term’s macaronic tendencies and works against two of the exhibition’s high points: Walker’s startling tapestry A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, 2008, and Marshall’s lampoon of the white picturesque, Our Town, 1995.

And yet the doubt begs some benefit. I’d like to think that the use of Rothenberg’s Four Color Horse, 1976, as a signpost for postmodernism is also a riff on the fact that the museum was founded by a prizewinning equestrian. (“There is a lot that horses and art share in common,” Walton told the New Yorker last summer.) If so, there’s a playfulness here that rhymes with other “private” jokes and quirks, like Tom Wesselmann’s Smoker #9, 1973 (Walton is reportedly trying to kick the habit), and Warhol’s perfectly apropos Dolly Parton, 1985. The bleached-out, bewigged Dogpatch Diva is a mere souvenir in auction terms, but she’s a better fit for Crystal Bridges than ostensibly swankier antiques like Liz or Marilyn. Dolly Parton exploits the museum’s “place-based sensibility,” functioning as an epistemological switch point for the global and the local, North and South, urban and rural, artifice and nature, connoisseurship and tastelessness. She might be the beginning of something like the view from here, a deterritorialization that takes us from the brink of whatever-space to somewhere and back again.

David Velasco is editor of artforum.com and a regular contributor to Artforum.