Tucked in a corner of Crystal Bridges Museum of Art are three unusual works: Children's faces are painted onto artist's palettes, the hole for the thumb incorporated into their faces as mouths. Joseph Decker's paintings are weird and funny and, founder Alice Walton said in a small press gathering Monday, an example of a purchase for the museum that was more "intuitive" than calculated. She smiled broadly when asked about them. "Humor is important in a museum," she said.
Walton said she was "thrilled beyond belief" that the museum, which she first announced to a room full of journalists and Bentonvillians in 2005, was about to open, and it showed. She was beaming.
The press got a quick tour of the galleries — an hour and a half is not enough time by any stretch to see what the museum has to offer — with the exception of the early 20th century galleries, where light protection is being installed to protect the paintings from the light of the glass bridge they are positioned on. The collection — about half is on view, director Don Bacigalupi said — is arranged chronologically, starting with colonial and revolutionary period works and moving into the landscapes of the 19th century and beyond. The portraits — monumental pieces of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton — are grand. The landscapes are luminous. Walton's prized Asher Durand, "Kindred Spirits," is detailed and romantic; Eastman Johnson's "Cranberry Pickers, Nantucket" an impressionist beauty. The selection illustrates, curator David Houston told the reporters on tour, the evolving nature of attitudes toward nation and art, from the heroic to the personal, including a recently acquired portrait of a family of Civil War refugees leaving their home.
An outdoor installation by contemporary artist Jenny Holzer, a room with engraved floor and benches that she exhibited first in the Venice Biennale, ought to surprise some visitors, Houston noted, an apparent reference to those who believe this museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, which wasn't initially planned to include works later than mid-20th century, would be stuffy. En route to the Holzer: A terrific Calder mobile, a modernistic Noguchi wall piece, a little pre-splatter Pollock and an odd Rothko from his myth-referencing period. The works by the latter two aren't representative of their greatest works (for the large part already collected by other museums) but are fine works with historical value.
That piece of Crystal Bridges — what it can offer in the way of supplementary information, through its acquisition of important collections of prints and books (it has 50,000 volumes) and ephemera — is something that Walton is clearly proud of. She told reporters after the tour that she began to see the paintings as more than images in the 1990s, when she acquired a painting in New Orleans purporting to be that of a mare and foal. "That was no foal, that was a stable buddy," Walton, a horsewoman, told the group, and so she began to look more closely into the work. She and director Don Bacigalupi spoke about rewriting American art history with new scholarship.
Walton herself hasn't quit studying up, as evidenced by her museum's expansion from portrait and landscape gallery to a museum that includes Dan Flavin's tubes of flourescent light (which Houston said referred to the transcendentalist atmosphere of the 19th century), Devorah Sperber's upside down Last Supper made out of spools of thread and John Baldessari's enormous and descriptively titled "Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear)," which plays Beethoven quartets.
Also revealed on Monday's tour was the purchase of a George Rickey sculpture for the courtyard entrance to the museum. The kinetic piece will have thin arms of steel that are hinged to move in the wind.