Kansas City, part II; revisiting the Nelson Atkins

 
I
wanted to follow up on the heels of my KC visit with my impressions of the new
addition to the Nelson
Atkins Museum of Art
.  As I mentioned earlier, going to college across
the street had me in the museum weekly, if not daily. I even worked stints in
the restaurant, and briefly as a preparator. If I had to name a single favorite
painting on earth, in might be The Nelson’s Caravaggio, a brooding adolescent
“John the Baptist”, which I remember being one of only three of his works in
the US (“Card Sharps” is at the Kimbell), and I’d say it’s the best of them. As
a brooding adolescent myself I used to feel compelled to go and commune with
him, sometimes for an hour or more (and sometimes with my best friend at the
time, fellow student David Quadrini, who dug it equally). Something, maybe a
kind of healing or initiation, was transmitted.

caravaggio.jpg

Many
of my other major touchstones were in the Asian galleries, some of the finest
and most comprehensive outside of Asia. I even
for awhile fantasized of becoming a Chinese art scholar, so fond was I with
parsing out the stylistic nuances from one dynastic period to the next. Unlike
the rigidly formulaic yantras and mandalas developed in neighboring cultures, I
still love how the Chinese created more subtley obscure and organic tools for
meditation – landscape scrolls and nests of fighting dragons and rigorously
stylized depictions of symbolic plant life and rock formations, each imparting
lessons (right to the marrow) in how to live more gracefully “between Heaven
and Earth.” My choice after graduating in the end came down to: Yale for the
“terminal” art degree, or Naropa University
for a Masters in Buddhist Studies. Disappointment I didn’t choose the latter
maybe led in part to those years in monasteries later. Anyway…

 
nelsonatkinsboddhisatva.jpg

I
revisited these galleries and many other old favorites, and I was amazed at how
moving it was to see these old teachers – the giant Kwan Yin (seen everywhere
now in posters and on book covers); woman_4.jpgthe de Kooning ‘Woman’ I color-averaged
inch by inch for a color theory class; an El Greco-esque baroque crucifix that I copied for a sculpture elective, leading me to switch departments; and forgotten faves, like obscure Dirck Van Baburen’s
“Crowning with Thorns.” But first I visited the new Bloch building, designed by
Steven Holl.

From
the outside, it’s a total triumph. A series of white boxes, it runs alongside
the old museum, down a sloping hill adjacent to the expansive park-like green
in front of the 1933 original’s massive sandstone, art-deco-meets-Byzantium-in-the-heartland
façade. Many of these rectangles are half buried in berms of earth heaped up
around them. At night, the boxes themselves illuminate from within the walls,
glowing white amidst the trees and hills. Stunning.

nelson-atkins_nite.jpg

Walking
inside, you experience the same cathedral-like vaulted spaces that are the
standard now in new museums, once again reinforcing the case that they’re
supplanting some role once occupied by religious structures (alluding to an
ongoing conundrum I contemplate daily – can art fulfill that kind of need? I
have serious doubts.) I can’t think of an exception in a recent museum, though
I’m sure there must be some somewhere. So the overall impression was grand; but
the friend I was with, who lives there, pointed out that a lot of the details
looked shirked – giant windows covered with greasy smudges, metal rail joints
that didn’t meet, cheap-looking moldings at the floor, that kind of thing.

time_nelson.jpg

You
descend through the galleries, those boxes seen from the exterior, a series of
essentially wall-less high-ceilinged giant rooms. I was familiar with most of
the art from its previous locations, and I can honestly say on the whole most
of it looks worse for the move. First, why was the art hung at, like, a 72”
center? As many are probably aware, the standard is usually between 56” and
60”. Everything was noticeably higher. In many cases it ruined the body’s
relationship to the art; like, for instance, with a dark, medium-sized late
Rothko. He was an artist who had very specific ideas on how his art should be
displayed (those in Houston, and who saw Declaring
Space
recently at the Modern, have witnessed it done right.) Not only was
this one overly lit, but it felt totally unhinged from the floor, floating lost
up the wall like a trophy, some mule deer or cheetah head. This felt true for
many familiar old friends, periodically breaking my heart.

Much
like the new Denver Art
Museum
building (my experience described here), the
art seemed really crowded. Combined with the strange heights, and the fact that
you come upon each room from above seeing all the pieces at once, as in so many
new museums the individual pieces are immediately reduced to a series of
goo-gaws and do-dads. Everything cancels everything else out. No one stops to
look at art anyway – making things worse, this building feels like an airport
concourse to just be run on a people-mover right through. Again, the spaces on
their own are great, full of natural light, airy, and sculpturally grand, like
walking around inside a giant Judd. Many new museums have this kind of spatial
novelty going for them. But the art often just looks like shit.

bloch_int.jpg

As
in the building itself, that mixed light that on its own is so pleasant, on the
art is confusing and unforgiving. The objects are given no space of their own,
and just seem like decorative accents. I always bring up the Fort Worth Modern,
because it seems increasingly to be literally exceptional, in that it makes
nearly everything housed in it look better, even than it maybe should (I still
wonder if my conversion on Sean Scully isn’t largely due to Ando’s building).

Novelty
is a precious commodity these days, and I’d say greatly overrated quality in
new signature buildings like this, as cities are driven to dot their skylines
and art districts with a brand name mind-blower that is hoped will single-handedly
reinvent the city’s image and make for stunning fodder on postcards, calendars,
and tourist brochures. Maybe it even works sometimes. But more often than not
it’s the art that suffers. I don’t understand what happens in the architect’s
studio – where are the curators, artists, and historians saying, ‘Look, I’m
sorry, but these spaces are limited to a few specific types of art, and will
make most others suffer cruelly?’ Why doesn’t this seem to be happening?

 bloch_hill.jpg

The
better examples leave the spectacle in the lobbies and certain galleries, and
let most of the museum be a more or less traditional series of human-scaled
rooms; examples that come to mind include the Modern, the Kimbell, the MoMA renovation, SFMoMA, MCA
Chicago, and others. The Bloch addition is so stunning, everyone is so bowled
over, that I’ve not read anyone mention that the art happens to look terrible.
There are exceptions. The Nelson has some wonderful Noguchi’s, and when I went
looking, I found them given an entire glass walled atrium to themselves, very
much the Zen garden heart of the new building. It almost redeemed the whole
mess. I also really enjoyed a selection of contemporary art from Africa, by some artists using exotic (to our eyes) lenses through which to filter trends (modern and post-) that otherwise might seem tired or rote, but struck me here as surprisingly fresh. And in Kansas City,
of all places. 

Maybe
in time, I’ll forget how things used to look, and just roll with the new
building. It’s much sexier than the old one. And what’s more important anyway,
some dated old easel paintings or a new traffic-stopping museum building? I’m
sure most would say the sexy building, glowing on the hill.

 

 

 

also by Titus OBrien

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19 responses to “Kansas City, part II; revisiting the Nelson Atkins”

  1. “My choice after graduating in the end came down to: Yale for the “terminal” art degree, or Naropa University for a Masters in Buddhist Studies. Disappointment I didn’t choose the latter maybe led in part to those years in monasteries later. Anyway…” = PHD dangling

  2. I could go on to say “Yale sucked ass. I applied and got in, like winning a lottery ticket to hell. I watched my friends die of AIDS, and battled pretentious Foucault-spouting asses from RISD and SVA for two years. Ron Jones tried to kill my soul. I stopped making art for years. I lived in a Zen center, partly trying to find ways to cope. Later, I became a monk to try to figure out why the hell we are here. I only learned some better questions. Maybe. Enlightenment is easy. Art is hard.”

  3. totally wired

  4. roto-rooter………..

    that isn’t the way
    the tale
    the shtick of yale
    and monkhood are usually thrown around by yours truly

    you just don’t have the initials after your name
    or the sought after position

    ruff, ruff

  5. For the record, the big gulp posts aren’t from me. I am just lurking, and chuckling with the rest of them.

  6. ~~~What are you afraid of Theremin?~~~
    There is no difference here…
    in these measly comments than in the entire diatribe blog
    that Titus wrote against Charissa Terranova Phd.

  7. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAA
    someone in Dallas is doing something NEW
    OH NOES!
    THE INTERNETS WILL FAIL!
    TITUS HAS HAD A HARD LIFE UNLIKE THE REST OF US!
    That’s it, I’m going to go cry and read LULZ cats until I feel better.

  8. Hey, crazydayz,
    You seriously want me to give a guy who would write “Ron Jones tried to kill my soul” a hard time? I’d almost be afraid to do so. Given that statement, and his famous temper we could all be in peril. But, since later, he became a monk just to figure out why the hell we are here, we can all feel somewhat relieved. Let’s just file all of that under too much information, shall we?

  9. I’ve become a dedicated alcoholic to cope with my daily life. I’ve learned that the better questions are almost always asked by someone else. Enlightenment is never easy and I’m fairly sure once you get it you are only more miserable. Art is as good as it gets for me, second only to some other things. I just don’t have enough good ideas to keep me busy. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Rainey hasn’t blocked me yet. Blame her. I do. Wish me dead all you want theremin, get in line. Where is Clark? How goes the Chicago thing, Titus? I’m like your Reverend Wright, right? Wish I’d just shut the fuck up. I know, I know. I feel the same way.

  10. The really sexy buildings are at MIT, half a mile from Harvard.

  11. Remember that John’s head ended up on a platter.

  12. can one blog from a platter?

    does that make Terranova Jesus?

  13. anonymous, sleepy sheep-lover,
    Surely, you can see the huge chasm that exists between mocking someone, and wishing them dead. I can only hope the “line” you imagine forming is actually the spiders in your mind, taunting you into having another drink.

  14. i retract and apologize for my comments….
    this
    is not the way to support Terranova.
    before your slanderous blog against CT i had no qualms

  15. as for slander, that’s not what’s going on, at least not in my post. That would presuppose that the stories are false, that I know them to be false, and that I relate them with the primary intent to harm. None of these apply.
    Those who related the stories maintain their accuracy; I don’t know otherwise; and I included them as part of a discussion of a complex set of events that doesn’t boil down to anything as base as simply a personal attack, as much as some would like to think it so. As for my own story, it’s a verbatim account. I have a good memory for dialog, and there were witnesses. If she’d just taken me aside to say “F you. Glad you’re getting out of town, loser” we wouldn’t be talking about it. At least I wouldn’t be here. ; )
    I have absolutely nothing personal against CT. I’ve never been a big fan of her writing or aesthetic (with exceptions), but beyond that have never had a problem whatsoever – until the other week. Live and let live, I say. She went literally out of her way to be offensive that night, and not just to me – there’s no way to spin that. There are others who have similar stories. The events around Ted’s performance fit into a pattern. I maintain it was all worth bringing up. She’s a public figure now, a “civic leader” even. There’s a learning curve with that. We’re part of each other’s.
    And theremin, you don’t like me, fine, we all get that. but can you just leave it alone here for a minute? Or at least find a civil tongue and act like a real human being? Don’t do it for me. Do it for your whole Glasstire family…

  16. Well, I would not go so far as to say I don’t like you. I am not always a fan of some of the off the cuff remarks you make. Some of your comments make me question why you would write about someone when it seems you dislike them, or at least have nothing constructive to say about them. Even when you post edit these comments, you have still put them out there. Criticism (or whatever writing on the arts can now be called) is fundamentally different on the internet because it can be edited by the writer, or the site owner, and commented on by the reader in a way that a letters section in a periodical, and retraction editorials couldn’t hope to achieve. This dynamic will continue as long as the editors of glasstire allow the site to remain, for lack of a better term, democratic.

  17. Point taken, I know what you mean. I will say in my defense that I tend to write and send in short order(part what I consider the nature of this blog format), and because the writing is “forever” I continually am finding typos, repetitions, stylistic gaffs, etc, and I try to fix them in the few days after a post goes up. I don’t think its at all fair to change the substance or tone of my remarks, and I simply do not do so. I stress this. There should be a real sense of fair play here, and while I may be frank, I also believe in being balanced. If you truly look at my comments, it’s always love the aesthetic sinner, hate the sin. I do wish people would read more carefully sometimes. I believe in Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” approach, and I trust the initial rush. I removed some small aspects of the Setina performance story upon request to protect the innocent, but the story didn’t change in any substantiative way. I did remove my response to CT’s response, because it seemed utterly extraneous, and too snarky. I think I did a better job saying what I wanted to say here.
    You have taken me to task about Robyn O’Neil. As I said, I like her. Her Stern thing raised questions, and I asked them. I NEVER attacked her personally. Same with your pal Kenny Goss. I even once said the guy seemed awesome, and I liked him. That doesn’t mean I think he knows what he’s been doing half the time. Although I’m hearing some fabulous things about who he’s hiring, buying, and bringing in to help him do it right. Which is all I ever said he needed to do.
    I love everybody. As I said, I simply have more opinions than sense. Gird your loins. I will keep putting them out there.
    Thank you for your comments.

  18. Your criticism of Charissa Terranova’s writings may be premature. You may have noticed that she seems to be finding her “voice” as curator, and writer, and turned to towards her strengths. Her strengths are not to be found in Critical theory. Rather, they are to be found in architecture, and contemporary art practices. While I don’t believe Daniel Rozenberg’s work has anything to offer (to be clear, I consider his project to be one that covers an overdiscussed, and aesthetically trite premise, and I think Burning Man is a playground for untalented novices, and neo-hippy morons), and I personally would have voiced extreme objections to his inclusion if I were on the selection committee. Dallas has more than enough galleries representing the middle (as opposed to “High” and “Low”) schools of art, and Rozenberg’s inclusion offers nothing new to the city, or the program. This being said, the show seems to focus on Terranova’s strengths as a curator, and as an expert in contemporary art.

  19. due to circumstances already discussed at length, I am not able to participate at this time. I encourage people who’ve actually grokked the show to dig in, perhaps in a thread on the MB, or here, whatever.
    As I said before, it looked like a solid show. And as I’ve also said, while I just never seem to agree with what she says, I think CT’s writing has gotten less forced-seeming in the years I’ve been here, though I never read the paper (even when I wrote for one), or much other art writing, so I don’t speak with much authority here either.
    I like TV. Battlestar Galactica, good. Art Forum, bad.

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