Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Day 63: The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

Like St. Louis, on the other side of Missouri, Kansas City treasures a great museum. Like the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art started with a temple-like stone building at the top of a hill, presiding over a long sloping lawn. Like SLAM, it has a new wing in a minimalist style. And like its sister museum, it has an extremely valuable and enjoyable collection. Dan and I have toured here a few times previously.

The original building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The new wing is known as the Bloch Building, after the major benefactor

My first concern was to study the new wing, which was designed by Stephen Holl. We had seen it a few years before when it first opened, but the day was rainy and gray, so I didn't get good photos. Today was bright, with a warm wind keeping the clouds at bay.

Stephen Holl is a minimalist with exceptional flare, and he took advantage of a difficult site to create a structure that is so minimal that it seems to disappear into the environment, but so innovative that it is spectacular to see. The problem with the site is that the old Nelson-Atkins with its traditional styling and lofty setting was much revered. It was important for the new building not to compete with the old building, and it was highly preferred that the hillside be left intact, even though the museum needed a lot of new gallery space. Holl's solution was to create four pavilions that look like streamlined ice bergs, and to place them so they descend down the hillside. To keep the building's profile low, the art galleries are actually located below ground. The pavilions are translucent, so they serve as light wells for the galleries. The design minimizes the wing's above-ground presence, but the way these bright cubes spill down the hill is quite thrilling.

The Bloch wing hides quietly behind rows of trees

Inside all is plain and austere, but there is an abundance of fresh clear light. There is nothing like decoration, but the walls go off at unexpected angles, and the ceiling makes unexpected curves. I just love being there.

Interior of Bloch Building

The lowest gallery on the hill provides the perfect setting for the meditative sculptures of Isamu Noguchi. A window wall brought the park outside into the gallery and enhanced a bed of river stone. There were two soothingly silent fountains and several other fine large sculptures by Noguchi in a garden-like arrangement that embodied the essence of meditation.


Noguchi indoor sculpture garden
Fountain with water barely spilling over stone
by Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, 1904-1988
Avatar, 1947

Nearby I discovered another work arranged like a stone meditation garden, but its intent was socio-political. It consisted of tires embossed with Aztec designs, then rolled across fine white sand to create an imprint. It says something about the exploitation of labor in Mexico, but it also has humorous and aesthetic appeal. It was by a Mexican sculptor, a woman, who was previously unknown to me, Betsabeé Romero.

Betsabeé Romero, b. 1963
Sugar Skin, c. 2013
I wonder if this contemporary sculptor was influenced by one of the master women sculptors, Louise Nevelson.

Louise Nevelson, 1899-1988
End of Day—Nightscape IV, 1973

Comparing these two works, notice that the work of the younger sculptor is much more complex. Romero co-opts some of Nevelson's aesthetics and employs it for a cultural statement. Artists of Nevelson's generation were seeking a kind of purity, trying to make self-contained aesthetic statements. Artists of Romero's generation sought to make more expressive works, expressive both of society and of themselves.

Here's another example by a woman sculptor who is not yet well-known.


Yinka Shonibare, b. 1962
Planets in My Head, Physics, 1010

The new wing also has several galleries of paintings from the 20th century. Here's a sample of my favorites.

Neil Welliver, 1929-2005
Late Squall, 1984
Richard Estes, b. 1932
Bus Window, 1973
Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
Apartment Hill, 1980

The old museum is a very nice example of beaux arts architecture; it is sort of a mediterranean villa with galleries oriented around a beautiful interior courtyard called Roselle Court, which also has a nice cafeteria where Dan and I met for lunch.

One reason this museum is such a draw for us is their large collection of paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, a native of Missouri. In order to indicate this great artist's range, here is a large sample of his work.

Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
Hollywood, 1938
Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
Persephone, 1939
Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
Still Life, 1936
Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
The Sun Treader (Portrait of Carl Ruggles), c. 1934
Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
Open Country, 1952
This is one of the first art museums Dan and I ever visited on tour, back in the days of film cameras. I remember the photos of Benton's work that he took then and how hard it was to get a good exposure. Now I can take better photos with my iPad than he could take with his best film camera.

Another artist from Missouri, Richard E. Miller, moved to Giverny and painted in an Impressionist style, specializing in beautiful women in delicate light and tasteful settings.

Richard E. Miller, 1875-1943
At the Window, c. 1912

When we first started our art travels, Dan and I took an interest in an appealing painter whose work we saw in art magazines, but not in major museums, Birger Sandzén. We happened to be passing near his home in Lindsborg Kansas, so we toured the museum devoted to his work. He was an immigrant from Sweden, who did most of his painting while teaching at Bethany College in Lindsborg. He specialized in landscapes in luscious colors and rhythmic simplification. I was happy to see that his work is getting recognition by the art establishment.

Birger Sandzén, 1871-1954
The Great Peak (Longs Peak), 1938

The museum gives pretty good coverage of American art in the 19th century. Early in the century, sailing ships were as important as jet planes, and quite a lot more attractive. Painters like Fitz Henry Lane specialized in them. This is one of his best. Notice the control of whites, from the bright sails to the hazy clouds.

Fitz Henry Lane, 1804-1865
“Starlight” in Harbor, c. 1855

This painting by George Inness, also one of his best, is in some ways archetypical of 19th century American painting. It shows  a wide, idyllic pastoral landscape with tiny figures of soldiers marching in the distance, only the slightest acknowledgement of reality. And isn't this the way life is? Our personal lives muddle along seemingly unaffected by constant warfare around the world.

George Inness, 1825-1894
Peace and War, 1848

Turning to the museum's European section, they can be very proud to show three works by the group of women painters who achieved fame, and even entrance into the prestigious Academy, in late 18th century France. The foremost of these was Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. She specialized in idealized portraits of aristocratic women wearing Romantic garb, each one more appealing than the last.

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755-1843
Portrait of Marie Gavrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse, 1784
Her nearest competitor was Adelaide Labille-Guiard. This extraordinary portrait is one of her strongest works.

Adelaide Labille-Guiard, 1749-1803
Portrait of Joachim Le Breton, 1795

By its quality and style, this next portrait is obviously by one of the group, but its attribution is uncertain.

Attributed to Rose Adélaïde Ducreux, 1761-1802
Portrait of Diane de la Vaupalière, Comtesse de Langeron, c. 1790

Their European collection has impressive depth. If you're looking for Old Masters, this is a prime example.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1613

Now it is necessary to enter a complaint about this fine museum: its hours are not at all friendly to travelers. It is closed both Monday and Tuesday, plus it closes at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, which left us very few hours to cram in a lot of art. When the guards kicked us out, we felt very disappointed.

We still had some energy and the light was perfect when we emerged from the museum, so we lugged ourselves around the beautiful sculpture garden, even though the afternoon was hot and muggy.


Henry Moore, 1898-1986
Reclining Figure: Hand, 1979
Henry Moore, 1898-1986
Sheep Piece, 1972
Roxy Paine, b. 1966
Ferment, 2011
Ursula von Rydingsvard, b. 1942
Three Bowls, 1990

After an hour of hiking up and down hills and taking photos, we were well-cooked.  I rested and did computer work in our air-conditioned room. Dan had dinner at the Marriott Hotel, across the street, sitting at the bar. He said the crowd was very lively and he had a lot of fun.

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