It’s the middle of July and the melons on the fruit stands are sweet. I see a woman in a cotton dress, its translucence making visible the form of her body under the skirt. She is lovely. She isn’t stuffed into jeans; she’s wearing a dress of diaphanous cotton, compared to which denim is about as interesting, erotically, as sackcloth or sandpaper. The dress dances in the breeze. It dances around her, with her, because of her, and the extreme feminine grace of this gets to me in the pit of my stomach. Short of carrying her off on my bike, the only thing for it is to go cool out somewhere, so I do—I go to the Minnesota Museum of American Art to look at some art.
The museum’s summer show is Crate 1 of 2, a selection of works from its permanent collection. The gallery walls have been painted a deep and luscious aubergine (that’s “eggplant” to you, pal) a color that for me evokes the vanished era of drawing rooms. I myself have never been in a drawing room, but from novels I know that they were peopled with brilliant conversationalists and beauties listening with heaving bosoms to pianists tossing off Chopin Etudes by heart. The aubergine of the MMAA’s galleries is tinged with nostalgia for that moment just before the crumbling of our civilization started picking up speed, say, a hundred years ago–before people took to saying “awesome,” and using the expression “closure” when talking about the death of their hamsters.
Crate 1 of 2 is not a consistently great show, but it is a moving exposition of what it meant, not so long ago, to be a human making art in America. A good many of these painters and sculptors are no longer alive, and most of the works, exhumed from obscurity by the tender solicitude of the curators, are fated to return to oblivion at the close of the show. When the dead were alive, however—and this is easy to forget– they were as alive as you and I are right now, as driven by desire, as whipsawed by love and by hatred, hope and despair, innocent wonder and dreary ennui. The paint on their canvases has dried, but it was laid on wet by people not so different from us.
Visitors to the museum sense this, I think, making their way from one work to the next like mourners slowly moving down a line to offer condolences; except that here it’s with unhurried pleasure, the way they lean in to look at a work, enfolding it into themselves, to sleep on it later. They take it in. Something is transacted across spans of time between them and the artists.
Periods of art come as a succession of breaking waves. If you’re a full-immersion total hipster, each new wave obliterates all traces of the last. But as your own history lengthens, you see not only the next new thing and the next, you also see further back in time. One day, idly flipping through a magazine, you find yourself awestruck by pictures showing the images on the walls of the caves at Altamira and Lascaux. The past that you blew off as dead turns out to be not only not dead but more vitally alive than all the crap that’s on TV tonight. “The past is never dead,” wrote Faulkner. “It’s not even past,” a line often quoted when the present feels shaky. It keeps coming at you, each wave different but all essentially and eternally the same.
One of the earliest and most beautiful paintings uncrated for Crate 1 of 2 is a seascape. Its focal point is a cresting wave, backlit and transcendentally translucent. The artist, Frederick J. Waugh, was so obsessed with capturing the form and movement of the ocean’s heaving swells and waves that in his long life he did something like 2500 seascapes. A photograph can nail the sea down with a click, but I don’t think Waugh painted to pull off quick raids on phenomena. I think he kept painting the ocean’s massive, surging volumes not to make the restless sea stand still but because, like his mind, it never would.
Another early 20th century painting with the feeling of nature closely studied and absorbed before it is expressed is a farmstead scene by Bertram G. Bruestle. The light, somewhat like Edward Hopper’s, uncannily evokes an acutely particular moment of the day, not five minutes before or five minutes after. The painting is meticulous but not strangulated. Its fleeting light inflicts you with the ache of the ephemeral, the knowledge that an evanescent moment is dying even as it lives.
A few mid-20th century abstractions are included in the exhibition, but the most interesting paintings in the show are more representational than not. William Meritt Chase’s society Portrait of a Lady,1914, might easily be mistaken for a work by his friend and contemporary John Singer Sargent. Right nearby, from 1906 and not quite so lofty, is a full-length portrait, conceivably the lady’s dressmaker, Modiste of Madrid, by one of the Ashcan school, Robert Henri.
From about the same time, but grittier, is a vivid aerial nightscape of Brooklyn by Earnest Lawson, another of the painters of the Ashcan group.
Thomas Hart Benton is represented with a work done in his characteristically torqued perspective, 1945’s Shocking Corn, the cornstalks writhing in a way that strangely foretells the work, hardly more than ten years later, of his student Jackson Pollock.
Closer to the present and about as far from ab-ex as you can get is a large, satisfyingly bleak 1988 canvas by Minneapolis’ great master of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, Mike Lynch. The title is Elevator – 29th and Harriet. Features of this site still exist, but the scene as Lynch depicted it has since been transformed—it’s now a stretch of the Greenway. Stand on the same spot Lynch did on some cold, grey-blue day in February and, despite all that’s changed, you’ll appreciate the ethical and emotional precision of Lynch’s account of things as they are.
Wandering in exile in its own city, occupying spaces like a hermit crab, the MMAA has had three homes since the nineties, first in the Art Deco Jemne Building, followed by a stay on the top floors of the Landmark Center, and, in the past few years, a provisional space in the old West Publishing Co. building on Kellogg Blvd, where with a shrinking staff they are valiantly continuing to produce exhibitions under tighter and tighter budgets. Too much of the museum’s collection sits in storage. No one can see it in the dark. Descending into the crypts, the curators have hauled out sculptures I never knew existed. Two of these (by Paul Manship) have the power to strike me mute, and among the rest are some that, though not great, nourish a hunger for something that’s lacking in so much recent art, something elementally human, something that doesn’t trade in irony and neurasthenic exhaustion and mistake that for cool.
One piece in Crate 1 of 2 that has this vitality is Jacques Lipchitz’s 1941 bronze, Arrival, a boisterous cluster of lumpy, exuberantly exaggerated human forms that pays homage to the groupings of figures in classical sculpture. At the same time, the sculptor throws off classicism’s tightassed restraint; the figures are unrepressed id, their hands meathooks, primal, like paws.
In a similar spirit are two figure carvings in wood by John Rood, a self-taught artist, poet and
musician who was a professor of sculpture at the University of Minnesota in the forties and fifties. One, carved from a single block, portrays a stolid and compact hardworking couple (1943) seated hunched and close together in a way that says they’re in it for the long haul. The other (1965) is a standing figure of a strongman, his muscles worn like slabs of armor. In both works, the direct, faceted carving makes you feel the force and conviction behind each stroke of the sculptor’s chisel.
But what draws me back to this show again and again are two sculptures by Paul Manship. One of these is Briseis (1950), a work of the most naked and unaffected grace–a marble, of a whiteness and finish so soft that it is difficult to focus a lens on it. Briseis is a figure from the first book of the The Iliad, the widow of a slain Trojan. The introverted quality of her face speaks of her resignation to her fate, which is to be buffeted by the fierce contending wills of angry men. At the opening of The Iliad, Achilles is found brooding in his tent, refusing to return to battle. His king, Agamemnon, has claimed Briseis for himself. Achilles’ rage at having been made to relinquish her is the lit fuse that sets off the action. He is prevented from killing Agamemnon only by the intervention of the goddess Athena, who grabs him by the hair just as he’s about to draw his sword. Briseis is eventually restored to him. Run your eyes over this sculpture and you can see why Achilles, having been denied her, is driven nearly to murder. She is a lot to lose.
Paul Manship was a son of St. Paul. He went on to bigger things elsewhere—the colossal, oddly awkward Prometheus that overlooks the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, for one–but he bequeathed a good number of his works to his hometown. Fourteen of them, including Briseis, are exhibited in this show. The other sculpture that gets to me at the core is his bronze, Europa and the Bull, dated 1924-1935.
Artists have painted and sculpted the story of Europa for thousands of years: Zeus, seeing Europa gathering flowers, is smitten. Deciding to ravish her, he assumes the form of a tame white bull, seduces her to get on his back, jumps with her into the sea and abducts her to Crete. Classically, painters like Titian and Rubens have staged the incident as a kind of water sport with a lot of accessory maidens and putti splashing about, but Manship took a different tack. He didn’t depict the scene by the shore of the sea, but the aftermath, the calm erotic satiety of the two as they rest against each other spent, pacified, content. Their quietly stylized faces, like Briseis’, are in keeping with a taste that developed in the Art Deco twenties for the symbolic devices of archaic sculpture: People are not sharply individuated, but given simplified, regular features, parallel waves of hair, the fabric of their garments draped in folds more neatly congruent than reality’s wrinkles allow. In a call-and-response of forms, the two figures in this sculpture encircle each other in love. Europa cradles the bull’s massive head—you can almost feel the gentleness of her hands on his forehead and jaw. His tongue lolls. His magnificent horns, in turn, all but embrace the gesture of her arms and protect her bared, open pose. He is on his knees, making himself smaller for her; she is splayed out, having given him all that she has. Throughout the sculpture are correspondences, the loop of his tail/the drape of her skirt; her arms/the curves of his horns; the parallel trunks of his neck and her torso, and so on, the more that you look. People go on about The Pieta, but the tenderness sculpted into the relation of the two beings in this sculpture–across species, no less—makes this the more compelling expression of love. For one thing, one figure’s not dead—they are both rudely alive. Driven by lust before lust got a bad name, I can see why Zeus carried her off. I can see why she let him.
All photos by the author, shot with the kind permission of the MMAA.