|Rosie the Riveter|
Norman Rockwell, 1943
Before I'd even clapped eyes on any piece of art, an attendant pounced on us, asking if we had visited the museum previously. On discovering I had not, I was given a lecture on the rules of the museum: do not to get within eighteen inches of the art; do not point at the art; do not use flash photography. It was an embarrassing and intrusive beginning to our visit, which made me feel unwelcome and intimidated. A few minutes later, when Megan forgot herself and did indeed point at a painting, an attendant was on us in a heartbeat, telling her off.
While I understand there are likely to be many visitors who had never been to a major art gallery and therefore might not know how to act around art, this only makes the intrusive approach more wrong. As a visitor who has been to many large institutions and understands how and why not to fuck with the art on the walls, I felt intimidated by the ever-present attendants for much of my visit. So to I was fearful of getting to close to a painting, as I always want to and have often done in the past, lest I should be further accosted. It is hard to imagine how much more intimidated first-time gallery visitors must feel.
|Mask with Golden Apple|
Georgia O'Keefe, 1923
Art should be an enriching and valuable experience for all and the potential for Crystal Bridges' approach to nip latent interest in the bud is dangerously self-defeating. If their visitors really have so little gallery experience, and the evidence of our eyes and ears on our visit seems to confirm this, then it is even more important that they are not put off on their first visit.
After the initial experiences on entering the museum, it took a while before I could even really begin to look at the art. As it happens, the museum is laid out in chronological order and so this did not prove to be massively problematic. The entrance floor hosts work from the colonial to late nineteenth century period and I found little here to engage me (although this is not an uncommon reaction for me to have with art of this period). This is a subjective opinion and no real judgement on the collection, although even so there are a few stinkers in here, including James Earl's Lady Mary Beauclerk, Daughter of Lord Aubrey and Lady Jane Beauclerk (1793-94).
George Tooker, 1971
First was Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter (1943). It is always strange to encounter such an iconic work, where one often feels a mix of familiarity and wonder, and this was such an experience. It is a big work, that is as defiant and robust as anyone would expect such a patriotic American work to be.
In the same room, I was also drawn to Georgia O'Keefe's Mask with Golden Apple (1923), for its captivating and elegant simplicity, and the glowing twilight world in Maxfield Parrish's The Lantern Bearers (1908), the colours of which seem unlikely to ever be re-produceable, no matter how many thousands of prints are made of it.
Kerry James Marshall, 1995 (with visitor)
Another similarly hard-hitting piece is Kerry James Marshall's Our Town (1995). This massive work dominates one whole wall, positively shouting its disquiet to the viewer. Here a perfectly-rendered suburban American Dream is subverted. Like the elephant in the room, the children at the centre of this picture unexpectedly have neither blond hair, nor blue eyes and with troubled expressions, they ask "what about us?" Elsewhere crude and rough daubings obscure the unrealisable dream. From its scale and the brightness of its colours, this piece at first appears a large and fluffy work, it is only on second glance that its political subtext begin to shout.
Kenneth Noland, 1959
Towards the end of the museum, Wayne Thiebaud's Supine Woman (1963) was also strongly attractive. Thiebaud's best-known work featured products and items of food, painted in a realistic style using artificially bright colours. Here in a lesser-known work, the absolutely motionless figure is rendered in the same manner and through this product-perfection gives rise to questions about woman's place in the a male-dominated society, that sadly seem increasingly relevant in contemporary America.
Crystal Bridges both confounded and reinforced my expectations. As a new museum, there are of course few big name works, while many of the works by big name artists collected here are at best lesser ones. The Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock pieces currently on show would arguably be lost to the mists of time, where it not for their creator's later efforts. Added to this is the restriction to only show work by artists of the United States, which gives the museum something of a provincial air.
Wayne Thiebaud, 1963
The museum, in all its modern architectural glory, sits in a lush green valley, surrounded by a system of trails and it is undoubtedly a beautiful place to look at and be in. However the collection is hit-and-miss, while the atmosphere is somewhat unwelcoming – other than the intrusive attendants, we saw many cleaners noisily at work (during opening hours) and the cafe inexplicably closed at 3pm on our visit, six hours before the museum (there were no hints as to whether or not it would open later).
In its defence, Crystal Bridges is still a young museum and it is only to be expected that the bugs in experience are not quite ironed out. Should these subtle yet many flaws be attended to, Crystal Bridges is sure to become an important destination in the art world.