Time Out Chicago visits the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Alice Walton assembles a flawed but impressive American art collection.
1/5Photograph: Timothy HursleyCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
2/5Photograph: Timothy HursleyAerial view of Crystal Bridges.
3/5Photograph: Timothy HursleyInstallation view of Colonial art at Crystal Bridges.
4/5Photograph: Timothy HursleyInstallation view of 20th-century art at Crystal Bridges.
5/5Photograph: Timothy HursleyEleven, the restaurant at Crystal Bridges.
By Franck Mercurio|
The weekend of the NATO summit, I headed for the hills—the Ozark Mountains, that is—and visited the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, the museum opened in Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Wal-Mart’s headquarters, in November 2011.
According to its mission statement, Crystal Bridges aims “to celebrate the American spirit” through “outstanding works that illuminate our heritage and artistic possibilities.” I feared I would find a PR-fueled fantasy of Wal-Mart as patron of American culture, but the retailer disavows any link to the museum beyond subsidizing its free admission.(The welcoming security guards could be mistaken for greeters, however.)
Designed by Moshe Safdie, the museum occupies a series of curvilinear buildings straddling two pools of water created by dams on the Crystal Spring. (The buildings’ ribbed roofs resemble the backs of armadillos, a species found everywhere in the Ozarks.) Safdie constantly connects visitors to the surrounding landscape. I’ve never seen another museum allow one to move so easily between its interior and exterior spaces.
Unfortunately, this impressive institution misses an opportunity to offer an alternative to the white guy’s narrative of American art. Walking through the galleries, I wondered: Where are everyone else’s stories? Except for Robert S. Duncanson, Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker and a handful of Harlem Renaissance artists, few black artists have works on display. Though representations of American Indians abound, all are rendered by white artists. The museum’s traditional vision emphasizes paintings and prints. There are few works of sculpture, no photography, and no folk or outsider art.
Despite several outstanding examples of American modernism, including Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture Lunar Landscape (1943) and Georgia O’Keeffe’s Mask with Golden Apple (1923), the 20th-century collection has many holes. There is little Abstract Expressionism on view, and whole movements and regions are missing, such as the California Color Field painters and the Chicago Imagists.
Crystal Bridges begs the question: What exactly is American art? Women and a few openly gay artists fare better than artists of color, but the wall text says little about their importance. It seems as though the institution’s abundant resources should be used to bring more of these hidden histories to light, so we would have a truer understanding of “the American spirit.”
Still, it was great to see so many locals enjoying the museum. And an American audience can be trusted to question its narrative.