Monday, February 24, 2014

People Watching at the Dallas Museum of Art

[Note to Readers:  Something happened when I connected my photos to Google Photos and all my photos in the blogs were stripped out.  I will begin replacing as time allows.  If anyone understands why this happened and knows of an easy fix, I would love to hear from you.]

How have I failed, Thee, Dear Reader, Fellow Traveler?  Let me count the ways.  Well, let me count just one, here, right now.  One of the great pleasures I have had on this journey across our United States is visiting art museums.  Yet I have not written about those visits.  I did include a brief discussion of Diego Rivera’s Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Art.  But of other museums, silence.   Strange.  I don’t know why that is.  But I will make up for it here, and perhaps periodically I will venture back in memory to recall a painting or artist.
Lunch in Dallas
Oh, heck, let me count another failure, while I am at it, this one being related.  I have missed visiting several museums that were on my original must-see list.  The one I am most sorrowful for is the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Two others are the Hopper house in Nyack and the Brandywine Wyeth Museum near Philadelphia.  The most important failure, I believe, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Not only did I hope to see Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” there, but I wanted the Captain to film me running up the stairs and hopping triumphantly like Rocky.  While in Cleveland, Knightsmama and the boys had the opportunity to take in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse),” while I relived my life at the Rock and Roll Museum.  Same in New York City, Knightsmama and Dr. J. made it to the Guggenheim, while Captain Crunch and I tracked down the bones of William Carlos Williams and Herman Melville.  Too much, too much, always too much to do.
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas
What museums have we visited?  In this order:  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; City Sculpture Park in St. Louis; The Detroit Institute of Art;  The Portland (Maine) Museum of Art; The Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts; Boston Museum of Art; Storm King Art Center; The Museum of Modern Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Guggenheim in New York; and The National Gallery in Washington, D. C.  In addition, we have enjoyed murals in Padukah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio.  And, of course, we have pondered many instances of public art and architecture across the entire eastern half of the US.
When I write it out like this, it doesn’t seem like much.  Geez, what have we been doing with our time?  And the answer to that is a whole series of other similar lists of things we have done:  historical sites, monuments, graves, writer’s houses, presidential museums and houses, popular road side attractions, sporting events, so on and so forth. And I have to admit that although visiting museums is an activity that Knightsmama and I greatly enjoy, the boys have grown a bit weary.
"Miss Dorothy Quincey Roosevelt"
           by John Alexander White
A couple of weeks ago, after fretting over the stasis, and accompanying anxiety, brought on by our unexpected lock down outside Will’s Point, Texas, I began venturing away from Hundred Acre Woods.  Two weeks ago, I headed to DeKalb, Clarkville, and Paris, for a couple of self-induced memory days, thinking about Rick Nelson, Dan Blocker, and writers John E. Williams, William Humphrey, and William A. Owens.  Last week, we reloaded the Caravan, headed to Austin for Valentine’s Day Weekend, and the opportunity to see if we remembered how to move the monster down the road.  We did.  And this week, since we were hosting a visitor, a girl and a friend of Dr. J’s from Austin, a young lady who says she enjoys learning about culture and such good things, I grabbed the opportunity to sneak a visit the Dallas Museum of Art.  If nothing else, Dr. J. could complain to her, and not to me, as he wandered among the masterpieces.
Since time, the accompanying complaining by two boys, and the cost of keeping them distracted in cafes and gift shops are always factors, I have devised a method for tackling museums.  First, I head to the wing or rooms featuring American art.  Learning about my native land and culture is, after all, the theme and purpose of this grand adventure.  One accomplished, I can wander out, usually to contemporary and modern art; then, I back down the chronological ladder in Europe.   The boys have a different method.  They first explore arms and weaponry, if the museum includes any. Detroit Institute of Art is amazing in this category.  Dr. J. won’t admit it, but he is getting a sense of what moves him; like many beginning art lover, he finds himself among the Monet and Van Gogh.  We had a very nice, brief talk among the Cezannes at the Met. If the museum has an interactive component, the captain is occupied for an hour or more.  Knightsmama, who has different cultural objectives than I, often heads to either to the European classics or to special exhibits featuring non-American and non-European cultures.  Ask her sometime about Yin Yu Tang, the Chinese ancestral home, now located in Salem, Massachusetts at the Peabody Essex, or about her reaction to the exhibit of women photographers from Iran and the Arab World at the Boston Museum of Art.
"Sharecropper" by Jerry Bywaters
On the afternoon of February 20, the boys and I retrieved The Girlfriend from the bus station and headed directly over to the DMA.  There we discovered, first, The Klyde Warren Park, which is one of those lovely little surprises designed and organized by folks who remember what civic life is supposed to be about.  The park is a mere five acres plopped on top of the Woodhall Rogers Freeway as it dips, more or less underground, for a few blocks.  On top, grass, trees, open space for kids of all ages to run and cavort, concerts, movies, book clubs meetings, a playscape for young ones, and food trucks.  It is winter, so the grass is still brittle and trees still bare, but the food trucks were lined up on this beauty hint-of-spring day.  So we indulged in suchi, dumplings, hot dogs, and snow cones for the kids, and a spicy pork Bahn Mi for the older gentleman.  For me, it wasn’t quite as much fun as Greeley Square Park in New York City, but I recommend a visit to Klyde Warren Park.
Next we moseyed across the street to the DMA.  The staff there is so helpful I damned near bolted out of the place.  Please, just let me walk in and get myself oriented!  At least, however, I didn’t feel lost and ignored.  Yet I should be grateful.  Remembering our entrances into MoMA or The Met, where it all seemed as busy, complicated, and dangerous as entering an airport terminal these days, the transition into DMA was easy.  Quickly, the kids and I made our plans:  they headed to European classics, and I took off toward American.
"The Prodigal Son" by Thomas Hart Benton
Compared to the museums in other major cities, such as Detroit’s and Boston’s, the Dallas museum seems a bit tiny or thin.  But then they had just taken down a major exhibit of Hopper’s works.  Shoot!  And I think a hall devoted to contemporary works was being remodeled.  Admittedly, I did not see it all.  Still I greatly enjoyed what I did see.  Because I was alone and because I was not worrying over the boys—they had The Girlfriend with them keeping their thoughts occupied—I found a couple locations where I simply sat and looked.  I relished the silence, the relief from active impatient children and eager jostling crowds.  I just sat and looked.
At one point, my heart jumped as I found six or eight paintings from the thirties regionalist moment, including Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Prodigal.” I recognized the heart break.  After all, I have been living in the Texas country side for the past six weeks, with its desolate wood frame houses, crumbling mobile homes, and yards decorated with junker trucks and assorted rusted machinery.  But mostly, I feel in it the currency of the steady migration of our citizenry from country to city that has continued for almost one hundred years since the end of World War II.  There we all are, the success hunters, the intellectual yearners, the prodigals, desiring to return to our rural, familial roots, our Jeffersonian heritage, only to find it abandoned, decaying, desolate. It puts an entirely new meaning to the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again,” from Thomas Wolfe’s book.  I think of Wolfe because I have been reading him since our excursion to Asheville.  You can’t go home again, Thomas Hart Benton tells us, because it’s gone.  We abandoned it.
"Emma in a Purple Dress"
            by George Bellows
At another point, I paused on a comfortable bench before George Bellows’  “Emma in a Purple Dress.”  Known for his muscular depictions of boxers in the ring, and for moody post-impressionistic cityscapes that hint at what his friend Edward Hopper would refocus and perfect, Bellows also painted portraits, including many of his wife Emma.  For me, this one painting is filled with contractions.  Compare the opulence of the chair, almost a throne, and the ornate dress in almost royal colors to the informality of the crooked leg, the arms and hands, not quite in repose, the bend at the waist tilting her to right. Is she uncomfortable?  Or merely impatient.  Look at how she stares at you.  No, not you, but at the painter, her husband.  “I am being still.  Get this over with,” she seems to be saying with her eyes.  Maybe she says something different to you.
After sharing a few minutes staring back at Emma, I turned to scan the room.  A young girl in a smock, a woman at the beach, women and a man in a beauty parlor, a tough old fisherman and his catch, Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin in profile, a young woman in pink lost in thought, a mother a child reading together, a street urchin with rosy cheeks and floppy hat, and I remember three others from previous rooms, the black serpentine head of Leadbelly, a sad and forlorn farmer in his dying corn field, and the well-dressed young man with the high forehead and confident stare.  Here we are then, in America, in these works passing through perhaps one hundred and twenty years, from 1820 to 1940.  These faces and the artists who captured them don’t tell the full story, but there is a great amount of narrative. 
"Portrait of a Man"
               by John Wesley Jarvis
For instance, John Wesley Jarvis (1781-1840), a relative of the Methodist Wesleys, made a very nice living in the states making portraits of the famous and well-to-do.  He went where the money was, allotting his professional years between New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans, even traveling into the new states.  So who is the man in this painting at the DMA, “Portrait of a Man” (c 1815-1820), staring at us, his arm jauntily draped over the back of a carved wooden chair.  Today he is still unknown to us.  I think of him, the subject of one of dozens of portraits by Jarvis, looking down from his stool in Heaven, saying, “That’s me!  I paid good money to be commemorated by the best.  You can’t forget me! How could it be that I who could afford one of the most expensive artists in the nation am now forgotten?”
His is such a different kind of obscurity from the Frank Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy” (c. 1870s).  Readers of the blog will know that I have a special affection for these young wandering boys, the heroes of Horatio Alger, Jr., novels, the subjects of several chapters in Joseph Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.  These newsboys and boot blacks and perhaps juvenile delinquents still exhibit their puppy enthusiasm for joy, even in the “Whistling Boy,” as portrayed in dark and muted browns and blacks.  Sure there is a sadness here, but something in the eyes tells me he is one smile, one friend, shy of happiness and renewed enthusiasm.  “Fame,” he says, “who care about fame?  Let’s enjoy the day.”
"Whistling Boy" by Frank Duveneck
In Jerry Bywaters’ painting “Sharecropper” (1937), we have no illusion that his man will ever regain any lightness of spirit.  What green-some emotions he might sprout are already being attacked by the voracious grasshoppers.  His shoulders are slumped, his eyes downcast, his mouth silent and dry.  The dustbowl and the Great Depression are in full fury. Bywaters (1906-1889) was born in Paris, Texas, where I ventured two weeks earlier, and after a few years of youthful travel, returned to Texas, to Dallas, where he joined a group of like minded “regional artists.” Almost like Thomas Hart Benton’s prodigal son, Bywaters kept returning to subjects and the soil he left for the city.   Eventually, he became the director for 21 years of this very museum and during the 1950s protected it from small-minded civic leaders (if we can really call them leaders) who were afraid of the open minds of the artistic.  Bywaters, unlike his sharecropper, was not defeated. 

So I am sitting on this bench or the other one like it around a corner, awash in people and their faces.  Like the Robert Henri’s “Dutch Girl Laughing” (1907).  Henri was a great teacher and leader of artists, attracting students and followers who have become known, at various times in various groupings, as the “Philadelphia Four,” “The Eight,” and the Ashcan School.  The smile on this young girl’s face, bright in rose and peach hues, lights up the room, but what is really fascinating is the brush work.  It’s fast and thick and hard. There is something tough in this little girl.  She is not all peaches and cream.  Far away, she is boyish; up close a little devilish.
"The Fish and the Man" by Charles Webster Hawthorne
Similarly, Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930), also a well-known and beloved teacher, who settled for summers on Cape Cod, captures something of the violence of life and something of the determination to survive.  His “The Fish and the Man” (1925) demonstrates this quiet fierceness in the man’s stance behind his catch laid out on the table.  Eyes fixed, jaw set and firm, the hands relaxed but still rounded into fists.  His forehead is pale from wearing hats, but his cheeks are ruddy with sun on the open sea.  And look at his fists.  I walked up close the canvass.  The brush work scars the knuckles, dirties them, reveals the cuts and bruises.  Here is a New Englander, an American, and here is Nature, the fish.  It is clear who the winner is, and clear that the winning is not, day-in, day-out, an easy victory.
"The Reading Lesson" by Mary Cassatt
So many paintings here talking to each other, so much to ponder and to appreciate. Shall we talk about John White Alexander’s (1856-1915) quiet and elegant “Miss Dorothy Quincy Roosevelt (1901-1902) or Thomas Eakins’ (1844-1916) “Miss Gertrude Murray” (1895)?  No,  let’s end with a favorite, Mary Cassett (1844-1926),   Cassett was born to an upper-middle class family in Western Pennsylvania, studied a bit in Philadelphia, but spent most of her life in France eventually soaking up what the new approach to painting, called impressionism, could teach her.  Today, as in her later career, she is immensely popular, especially for her depiction of mothers and daughters. The DMA  exhibits “The Reading Lesson” (1901).  I am no expert on Cassett’s work, though I do enjoy it.  What’s not to enjoy?  But this painting puzzles me.  At first glance, we see what we expect to see in a Cassatt painting.  Sitting, almost lounging, in a chair or chaise is a mother, long brown hair pulled into a bun, holding a book with a chubby faced blonde girl dressed in bright orange.  All focus in on mother and daughter, or so we presume them to be.  Floors and walls are mere flat panels.  But look at the mother’s straining arm and tense hand gripping the edge of the chair!  What is this anxiety?  Is this woman barely tolerant of her motherly duties?  Has Cassett captured an independent spirit straining against her natural impulses?  Or maybe we are caught reading the painting incorrectly?  Is it the daughter teaching the mother to read?  Is Cassett teaching us how to read a painting? 
"Leadbelly" by Michael G. Owens, Jr

Well, there’s more. But the kids texted me:  “How much longer?”  I had to get going, but one more stop for a couple of modern classics downstairs.  Rothko and Pollack.  I had been staring at faces for a while now; maybe it was time to cleanse the imagination.  In their own different ways, Rothko and Pollack ask us, require us, to turn off our the narrative making portion of our brains.  Just look, just feel, just relax into the color, the movement, the lack of movement.  Everything is inside the frame.  There is no regionalism, no accents, no nationalism, except of course they are Americans in the mid-century, in a time when we wanted to free ourselves of our serious narratives and our sentimental selves.  It was time, for me, to return to the family.  Time to load us into the truck and head over to see Knightsmama and The Buckaroo at the skill nursing facility.  Then time to head back out to Hundred Acre Woods.  As Leadbelly sang, “Goodnight, Irene.”

Soundtrack.  Huddie Ledbetter, Leadbelly:  "Goodnight, Irene."

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