Discovering American Art in America’s Heartland

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

By Barbara Rizza Mellin

While visiting the mid-west last year, I was delighted to discover a world-class museum in our nation’s heartland. Alice Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune, had a vision. She wanted to establish a museum devoted to American Art and to make that collection available to the public.

Her dream was recognized in the creation of Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Designed by world renowned architect Moshe Safdie, Crystal Bridges sits beautifully in its natural surroundings with 3.5 miles of walking trails. Glass bridges are incorporated into the building’s design and span the Crystal River. Outdoor sculptures situated within the lush tree-filled landscape blend art and nature.

Inside is a wonderfully comprehensive collection of American art. The galleries progress logically, allowing visitors to get a real sense of the history of America and American art and the evolutionary changes in art styles.

One of the first galleries includes works by non-Americans. Here are sensitive portraits of Native American Indians captured by the great photographer Edward Curtis, along with paintings by early visitors to this country.

Colonial era artists such as Copley provide us with a visual sense of the life and times of founding settlers and important early Americans. From there visitors can progress to art by 19th century Americans, who captured the beauty of our vast landscape, artists such as Asher Durand and Albert Bierstadt.

Then we move on to more modern art and works of contemporary artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein, John Biggers and Frederick Lawrence, and a standing mobile by Alexander Calder.

The passage ways are as fascinating as the galleries. An intriguing work by Gabriel Dawe (born 1973) consists of miles of colored threads strung between hooks high on a wall. In one corridor, the sleek walls showcase large colorful works that come into view as we travel along its gently curved bend. In another corridor, visitors encounter a man sitting on a bench. It takes a few minutes to realize he is a polyvinyl, mixed media sculpture by Duane Hanson. Cast from a live model, the sculpture is remarkably realistic.

Two of my favorite works happen to share the same theme: women reading, but they are quite different. Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt is known for her works featuring women in familial settings. The Reader, painted in 1877, shows a young woman leisurely engrossed in her book. Small patches of soft colors that blend together and the light-filled brush strokes of the Impressionist palate contrast dramatically with my second choice, Woman Reading, by Will Barnet. Here sharp edges, well-defined outlines and solid blocks of color dominate the canvas. This work shows a woman reclining in bed with her cat, holding a book above her head. With its limited color palate, Barnet’s painting reminds me of a block print, its simple shapes creating strong patterns of positive and negative areas. While the subjects may be similar, these two paintings are almost opposite in their portrayal of that subject. Yet, I find both immensely appealing.

That’s one of the things I Iove about art. It can show us the many sides of ourselves; it can satisfy, and it can surprise. I was certainly surprised to find this gem of a museum in Arkansas. It is a world-class facility worthy of a visit.

Barbara Rizza Mellin is a writer, artist and art historian. She invites you to view her art currently on exhibit at Capt. White House, Alamance Arts, Graham, N.C. (through March 10), at The Louisa Jones Brown Gallery, Duke University, Durham (March 19- April 2), and at Studio 7, 6th St. Winston-Salem (month of March.)


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