Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Kansas City, with population of under a half million, has the cultural resources of a much larger city. I was especially impressed by its world-class museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. William Rockhill Nelson, the publisher of the Kansas City Star newspaper, directed that after his death (which occurred in 1915), his fortune should be used to establish an art museum. Mary Atkins, a schoolteacher and widow of a real estate developer, had already bequeathed $300,000 in 1911 to establish an art museum. Trustees of the two estates decided to combine the money, along with a few other small bequests, to make one major museum.

The Neoclassical/Beaux Arts main building was completed in 1933 at a cost of $2.75 million. It was the peak of the Great Depression, and great pieces of art flooded a market devoid of buyers. However, money from the bequests for the museum was still plentiful, even after paying for the building. Lots of available money and lots of available art was a fortuitous combination. The Nelson-Atkins grew quickly into a major art museum with one of the largest collections in the United States.
Acres of grass provide a park-like setting in front of the museum. In the distance, we noticed what looked like a giant badminton birdie. In fact, that's exactly what it is. In 1991, American artist Claes Oldenberg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen were asked to create an outdoor artwork for the museum. According to the duo's website:

While visiting the galleries [of the Nelson-Atkins Museum], Coosje was attracted to the headdresses worn by Native Americans in a painting by Frederic Remington, which led to our initial concept of large feathers scattered over the lawn as if dropped from the wing of a huge passing bird. As we proceeded to research the site, we came across an aerial photograph of the museum grounds that reminded us of the layout of a tennis court. We imagined the building as a net, with balls distributed over the grounds, but soon determined that the ball shape would be too repetitive. What if, as Cossje suggested, feathers were combined with the ball form to become a shuttlecock, a lyrical object, with the ability to float, spin, fly, and land in many different ways? We proposed three 17-foot-high shuttlecock sculptures for the lawn, each in a different position. Although their placement appeared to be random, the shuttlecocks were actually located at strategic points that would bring the far reaches of the site together. A fourth shuttlecock, in an inverted position reminiscent of a tepee, "landed" on the other side of the museum.
I wouldn't have made any of those connections on just seeing this lone birdie (two of the other birdies being in temporary storage and the other one being on the other side of the building), but my visceral response to the birdie was one of pure enjoyment. I loved the familiarity of the ordinary object, the exaggerated size, and its whimsical placement in an impossible upright position.

Whimsy is a good word to describe another outdoor art installation, The Four Seasons by Philip Haas, based on the paintings by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, which we had seen three years before in Vienna. 

Here are spring and summer:
 . . . fall and winter:
Unfortunately, this is a traveling, not a permanent, exhibit, and it was scheduled to leave in October 2015. However, it has been so popular that the Nelson-Atkins people extended the sculptures' visit until mid-April 2016. 

The Museum has made a time-lapsed video of the installation process that is fun to watch. The background music is, of course, Vivaldi's Four Seasons:

The interior of the art museum is what you would expect based on the exterior: grandiose columns, polished floors, and lots of light:
The museum has an extensive European collection with lots of familiar names. I'm including just a few of my favorites here.

This brooding young man rather uncharacteristically robed in red fabric rather than animal skins is Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604-1605) by Caravaggio:
There are only a few original works by Caravaggio in an American collection, so this is one of the museum's greatest treasures.

Unlike Caravaggio, there are more than enough paintings by Rembrandt van Rijn to go around. This is Portrait of a Young Man (1666):

I'm not usually overwhelmed by furniture, but the intricate layers of inlaid wood on this secretary bookcase made in Germany in 1749-1750 are incredible:

Gotta love a good Thomas Gainsborough, painter of all things peaceful and genteel. This idyllic scene is entitled Repose (1777-1778):

Frenchman William-Adolphe Bouguereau, master of realistic portraiture, is one of my favorites. This is Italian Woman at the Fountain (1869):

Olive Orchard (1889) was painted by Vincent Van Gogh during one of his most tumultuous periods--when he was a patient at St. Remy Asylum in Provence:

Georges Seurat was one of the originators of the Pointillist style, a form I think of as prefiguring pixilation. This is a study for one of his most famous works, Bathers at Asnieres (1883):

In the 20th century, art continued to move further away from realism, as seen in this painting by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for "Composition II" (1909-1910):

I like the wild colors and shapes Kandinsky uses. Here is another of his paintings, Rose with Gray (1924):

The view of the Nelson-Atkins Museum from the back reminded me of a US government building. The reflecting pool is nice, but I missed the greenery in the front:

A major addition to the museum was completed in 2007. The glass top, or "lenses" as the architect calls the seven units, are on top of the 165,000-square-foot underground Bloch Building, named for H&R Block co-founder Henry Bloch. Not surprisingly, the museum's modern and contemporary collections are displayed here:
Photo from The New York Times

In between the Nelson-Atkins and Bloch buildings stand five anonymous bronze figures by American sculptor George Segal. Rush Hour (1983) represents the isolation that can occur even in the midst of a crowd:
We tried to make them feel a little less lonely:

As I have visited more art museums, especially when I have gone with my artist son, I have come to appreciate contemporary art a little bit more. Here are some of my favorites, or ate least a few that made me stop and look/think, from the Bloch Building exhibits.

Is this a giant bronze steer holding a toothbrush? Nope. Capricorn (1948) is a selfie of the French Surrealist sculptor Max Ernst, his wife Dorothea Tanning, and their dog:

Can you see a woman sitting at a dressing table? This is Boudoir (1951) by Dutch-American artist and leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement Willem de Kooning

Here is another de Kooning, Woman IV (1952-1953), which is a little less abstract but a little more disturbing:

The Chariot (1950) was made by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti:
I felt like this piece was pretty straightforward and totally comprehensible . . . until I read the information on the exhibit label, which told me it is a reminder of the fragility of life and also reflects the artist's memories of "a pharmacy wagon being wheeled around the room" in the hospital where he was a patient during World War II. Somehow it also ties in to Sartre's Existentialist philosophy, which "emphasizes the isolation of the individual in an indifferent universe where existence is defined by an individual's choices." Oh yeah, that's exactly what went through my mind when I first looked at it.

When I think of Jackson Pollock, the king of Abstract Expressionism, I think of splatter painting. This oil painting, creatively entitled No. 6, 1952 (1952), actually has some identifiable figures in it:

American Mark Rothko is famous for canvases that make people exclaim, "That's art? I could paint that!" Ah, but you didn't and he did. This is Untitled No. 11, 1963 (1963).
Part of the explanation for this painting reads, "These atmospheric paintings serve as reference points for psychological states and suggest a meditative way of being." This one came from a series of paintings called "The Dark Paintings." (No surprise there.)

A somewhat similar painting from the same decade is this one by Ed Ruscha entitled Bouncing Marbles, Bouncing Apple, Bouncing Olive (1969):
What does it mean? One idea is that the marbles refer to childhood, the apple to the Fall of Adam and Eve, and the olive to hors d'oeuvres and martinis. Is this about a loss of innocence? Who knows. Another interpretation is that it is simply an exploration of round forms.

American Andrew Wyeth is another of my favorites. I really like this one, entitled Thin as Vanity (1981). Note that this is a reflection in a mirror, not the woman herself:

Wayne Thiebaud, who grew up in Long Beach, California, is sometimes linked to Pop Art because he focuses on ordinary objects presented in bursts of color, but he sees himself as a realist. Here is one of his most iconic paintings, Jawbreaker Machine (1963):
. . . and two paintings I would never have identified as his, Bikini (1964) and Apartment Hill (1980):
One more Thiebaud, Starboat (Tug Boat and River Boat) (1966) looks more like the style I associate with him:

Andy Warhol said, "I used to drink Campbell's Soup. I used to have the same lunch every day for twenty years." No wonder he painted Little Campbell's Soup Can (Consomme) (1962):

Another Warhol, Portrait of Marian Bloch (1975), shows the woman for whom, along with her husband, the building in which the painting hangs is named:

Roy Lichtenstein, Still Life in Yellow and Black (1972):

Robert Rauschenberg is known for his collage-style paintings. This one, entitled Tracer (1963), includes images of the Vietnam War and a reproduction of a Rubens painting:

There was a small exhibit of African art that had a couple of nice pieces. I've never heard of the Nigerian artist named Ebim Abassi Ekpenyong who created this Water Diety Headdress (early 1900s), but I love the mask itself and the shadows it casts on the wall behind it and surface below it:

There is so much to love about Throne (late 1800s) from Cameroon: the leopard holding up the throne, the gloved hands, the feet that appear to have claws, the painted "skin" and fabric loincloth, the steady, hypnotic gaze:

Two special exhibits were in the Bloch Building when I was there. The first was called Notes on Creativity and contained drawings by Ferran Adria, the head chef of Spain's elBulli Restaurant. He is considered one of the best chefs in the world. The exhibit shows that cooking is art. Creative Pyramid (2013) applies the principles of creativity to cooking, with following a recipe the first basic step, then making a version of a known recipe, then inventing a recipe, and finally ending with the creation of new techniques and concepts at the top of the pyramid. The puff pastry section on the left starts with the basics on top and gets more complex as the variations emerge below, ending with puff pastry filled with custard and 400 fruits from the Amazon that have never been used:

A companion piece, the Map of Culinary Process (2001) attempts to describe "what it is to cook."

This was the second special show going on while we were there:
The art on display came from the collection of Barbara L. Gordon, a New York collector from the Washington, D.C., area who has been gathering these pieces for over 25 years.
My friend Chris is really into folk art (she has a house full of really beautiful antiques), and she was pretty excited about the exhibit. Here she is with A Girl of the Period (1870-1885), a woodcarving made in New York City:
The carving was an advertisement for a milliner, a tobacco shop, and a dressmaker.

It was fun to see another version of The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. I had seen one at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, and another version in the Dallas Museum of Art. Hicks painted more than 100 versions of this scene. Talk about an obsession. This one is called The Peaceable Kingdom with the Leopard of Serenity (1835-1840):
In the background on the left William Penn is making a treaty with the Lenni-Lenape Indian tribe. Hmmm. I'm not sure that ultimately led to a peaceable kingdom.

These carousel figures were carved by the Brooklyn workshop of Danish-American Charles I. D. Looff, the elephant in 1882 and the rabbit in 1910:

The exhibit even had a photo of the workshop:

These two intricate carvings, Snowflake Table (1907-1916) and The Wedding of the Turtle Doves (1907-1915), were my favorite pieces in the folk art show. They are attributed to a German-American farmer and house carpenter named John Scholl, who didn't start making sculptures until he was 80. I'd take his work over the paintings by Grandma Moses any day:
I especially like the lacy shadow thrown on the wall behind the first piece. It looks like one of Grandma's doilies.

We spent a couple of hours in this museum, and it definitely wasn't enough time. Part of the problem was that we started with the special exhibits that I've included last in this post, and we spent too much time there. Had we known the vastness of the regular collection, we may have gone through these exhibits a little faster.


  1. I love a good art museum! Lots of interesting, spectacular, and beautiful works of art. I love the story of how this museum came to be.

  2. Modern art is interesting to me but I have a hard time identifying with it.

  3. I visited this at a later time, alone, and actually enjoyed it quite a bit. That is saying something. One of the better art museums I've been in.

  4. Having just spent the day yesterday in four different museums, I know too well the feeling about not being able to get to the entirety of a collection--a nice reason to have to come back another day!