The Arkansas Traveler
If the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was a classic rock station the programming day would begin with Stairway to Heaven and keep getting better and better as the day rolls on. My goodness, what a heart stopping collection of pictures and forms and yes, it is our astonishingly good luck to have it in our back yard.
The first time visitor will have a hard time warding off sensory overload. Crystal Bridges is a quintessentially greatest hits museum that begins with Gilbert Stuart's Constable-Hamilton portrait of Washington and then saunters past colonial era and 19th century masterpieces that are both familiar--like George Catlin's Indian Encampment--and obscure (to me) like Samuel Morse's breathtaking portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette--which just knocked my socks off and redefined and expanded my appreciation for that great hero of the American revolution.
There are several wonderful topical pictures like Woodville's War News from Mexico that carry the visitor past a cluster of Tocqueville inspired Hudson River School landscapes (at least one river to many in my view) to a series of marvelous late 19th century pictures such as Arthur Tait's A Tight Fix, Eastman Johnson's Cranberry Pickers, and the sublime Professor Benjamin Howard Rand by Thomas Eakins. This chain of pictures--from roughly 1840 to 1880--is the Museum's crowning achievement, at least in terms of its mission to celebrate the American spirit.
The New York Times
In the middle of all of this is Asher Brown Durand's Kindred Spirits , a fine painting--if yet another Hudson River School picture--and deserving mention if only because its acquisition from the New York Public Library for $35 million dollars caused a lot of snippy commentary in the art world about how a jumped up discount store heiress--that would be Alice--was buying her way into the cultural mainline.
Kindred Spirits is a picture of the American poet William Cullen Bryant and a painter named Thomas Cole; they are standing side-by-side, looking at the usual mountains majesty. Bryant was the author of a romantic poem titled Thanatopsis that was a source of great inspiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Theroux, Emily Dickenson and many others who were part of the Transcendental and anti-slavery movements. Later, the poem encouraged and instructed Walt Whitman, that most American of poets. Briefly, Kindred Spirits is a glue that binds the foundation of our distinct national culture and was a bargain at any price. I am very glad to see it included here and congratulate the Museum for acquiring it.
Along those lines, I was aware that people were on pins and needles waiting for Roberta Smith's New York Times Review of the museum. Would Ms Smith acknowledge the artistic and thematic integrity of the collection and say that Crystal Bridges was a new and striking first tier arts institution? Or, would she look down her nose and scoff at a bunch of rubes with too much money?
"We" got a pass. Smith's review lauded the Museum and struck exactly the right note of pleasure and admiration; Smith did indeed see a new star in an already bright assemblage of nationally important arts establishments.
A minor and correct collection omission--noted in the review--was of folk art by such artists as Bernice Sims or Lois Jones et alia but, with such an apparent and aggressive history of acquisition in view, we can surely expect a more comprehensive collection of folk art to appear sooner than later.
The Museum does not overlook contemporary art. It was great to see under-collected painters like George Tooker hanging near the always vibrant but ubiquitous Warhols and Rauschenbergs, and what a treat to finally see Frank Stella's Self-Portrait and Tom Wesselmann's Smoker #9 up close and personal. Hopper, Wyeth, Avery, O'Keefe--all the superstars--were center and present. It was just incredible.
On an entirely local note, the First National Bank of North Arkansas, located in Berryville, has loaned the Museum our iconic state picture The Arkansas Traveler which it has hung in the Lower Gallery. The Traveler is the centerpiece of a special exhibit that illustrates the history and significance of one of the great stories that we tell about ourselves here in the Natural State. We can thank First National Bank for sharing this treasure with us.
We can expect to hear and read a lot about the Museum itself over the next couple of years. Designed by Moshe Safdie, Crystal Bridges is wedded to a small creek and forested hillsides in as natural and nearly perfect way as possible. The Museum grounds are comprised of vernacular and planned gardens and miles of hiking trails that fully realize and accentuate the innate and organic relationship between the building and the grounds. They fit together like old and affectionate lovers.
The building itself is simply stunning, viewed either from a distance, or nose to nose. The decidedly visible construction materials are structural (poured) concrete that supports (and is supported by) a skeleton of wood and steel composites. This sort of raw, public construction was widely employed during the '70s and was admired for both its simplicity and its brute realism, but for whatever reasons, fell out of favor by the 1990s' and has rarely been used since. It is good to see it again, especially because it relates so fundamentally to its setting.
Conversely, the style doesn't work at all for the Museum's restaurant, "Eleven." Diners may initially enjoy looking out the windows at the surrounding natural beauty--as I did--but it won't take long before enjoyment turns to agoraphobia; the joint is as drafty and impersonal as Grand Central Station and not much fun to eat in. Skip lunch, or settle for coffee and a sticky bun at the adjacent coffee bar.
Another observation is that the galleries themselves may not flow as well as one might hope. My companion and I frequently felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of pictures to look at--an entirely expected and common experience when surrounded by such a superlative collection--but it was difficult to back track or circle back to see what we missed. Materially more curious was the use of smaller hallway-like galleries tacked on to main gallery space. These hallways housed magnificent pictures--like the Hoppers and Wyeths --so the intention was obviously not to place lesser works in less auspicious space. The only conclusion I am able to reach is that the sheer number of paintings requires the wall space hallways afford.
Finally, the Museum gift shop was a disappointment. The space is gorgeous and the staff was helpful, friendly, and well-trained. But it was surprising to find what turned out to be a fairly unimaginative and limited inventory. Perhaps some improvements will arrive after what may simply be a shake-down period.
Crystal Bridges is exactly 50 miles distant from the Berryville Town Square. It took 85 minutes to make the drive in moderately heavy traffic. Follow highway 62 to Rogers and drive under the 540 Overpass and continue east to "J" Street SE. Turn right and follow the signs for about a mile and a half. Parking is plentiful and easy. Admission to the Museum is free.