The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, was founded by Alice Walton in 2005.

Courtesy Photo

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, was founded by Alice Walton in 2005.

Museums and Gardens

Bruce Robertson on the Display of American Art

MUSEUMS 101: The most exciting art show I saw this week was a slide lecture. The UCSB Art, Design & Architecture (AD&A) Museum has been hosting a series of lectures/discussions called Museums 101, in which distinguished scholars reflect on “the history and ever-changing role of museums” in contemporary culture. This spring, Bruce Robertson, director of the AD&A Museum and professor of art history at UCSB, is giving the talks, and his first one, on American art and recent museum installations, was fascinating. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing, the American collection of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas — all of these installations were either created or completely redone in this century, most of them within the last three years. Roberston’s witty, insightful commentary on his slides of these installations revealed the politics at work every step of the way, from conceptualization to execution.

Robertson is a kind of “double rock star” on this particular topic, as he is both an outstanding Americanist and a formidable scholar of the history of museums, and his survey of these new installations did not disappoint. There were usefully illustrative stories about shows that did and didn’t happen, complete with celebrity cameos. There were historical analyses of trends in museum taste and of how these trends involved both cultural and actual politics. And there were real judgments on the relative merits of these museums’ efforts, all uttered with an easy, good humor and well-earned air of authority.

The winners were the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Crystal Bridges. The former was praised for keying on Edward Hopper, and for neglecting the overly familiar pursuit-of-happiness narrative in favor of “speaking in two voices at once,” a tactic that Robertson characterized as “what you want to do” when designing a successful exhibition. Crystal Bridges, with its innovative structure of pavilions suspended over water and its focus on women in art, got points for being a successful marriage of form and function. Boston’s MFA, on the other hand, did not, as it was termed “a prisoner of the architecture” of its new, former courtyard space. The Met’s new American Wing was likewise seen as a prisoner, not of the building, but of “its own history,” an obligation that has rendered it “tedious and deeply academic.”

Lest it sound as though Robertson is some kind of curmudgeon, let it be noted that he also found much to like, even in the installations he deemed less successful. And all the way through, there were great stories, like the one about the conflict between the director of the MFA, Malcolm Rogers, who is British, and his curatorial staff over the proper deployment of the museum’s paintings by John Singleton Copley. You can guess who prevailed when you see the heroic Copley portrait of a mounted George IV that’s on view there. It’s enormous.

Anyone with an interest in art or museums would do well to catch Robertson’s next appearance, which will take place on Wednesday, May 15, at 5:30 p.m. at the AD&A Museum. The topic is High Culture and the Wild West: The Development of Art Museums in the American West, and it is sure to be enlightening.

JARDINIERE: There’s still time to catch the last weekend of Los Jardines de México, Janelle Lynch’s show at wall space gallery (116 E. Yanonali St.). These lush, richly detailed large-format color photographs are deceptively green, as this is not the all-purpose signifier of life but rather something more like Walt Whitman’s leaves of grass, which he called “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Some shots were taken in a communal graveyard, while others, from Chiapas, depict dormant tree stumps coated in lichen and ferns. These stump portraits, called “Akna,” are at once moving and otherworldly, deft expressions of a distinctive sensibility behind the lens.

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