Unexpected Art

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North America » United States » Texas » Fort Worth
November 17th 2011
Published: February 8th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Modern sculpture in Fort Worth
Texas does not have a high reputation for art museums.

Even for western art, the best known public collections are elsewhere.

That probably accounts for how few people know that the state has a group of great museums in an unexpected place, Fort Worth.

The city holds something called the Cultural District, with has five museums within ten blocks of each other.

Three of them are art museums.

Remarkably, each one focuses on different subjects, so they have no overlap.

Equally remarkably, each one has a building from a notable architect.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

I saw the Modern Art Museum first.

It’s contained in a steel and concrete masterpiece from Tadao Ando, surrounded by a reflecting pool.

Interior rooms have the white wall look de rigueur for newer art museums.

Branching off from these are an endless array of glass lined nooks and crannies, all of which overlook the reflecting pool.

Every single one holds a delight, usually a piece of sculpture.

It all works surprisingly well, with the water reflecting the building from all sorts of angles.

The first floor holds a
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The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
survey of art from 1945 to the present.

By this point in the trip, all of it looked familiar, even the layout.

Every famous name from the period appears, although usually with one work each.

This became a little frustrating, although I loved the variety.

The museum has one of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, pop art from Roy Lichtenstein, and Whistle Stop by Robert Rauschenberg, which combines silkscreened canvases with screen doors.

One nook holds a sculpture of a book with wings made out of lead from Anslem Kiefer.

Best of all was Untitled by Robert Irwin, a translucent disk on the wall surrounded by four lights.

The lights create a pattern of interlocking shadows on the wall that creates the overall sculpture.


The second floor holds more specialized galleries.

One holds the oldest paintings in the museum, from the Fort Worth School.

They were a relatively unknown group of American Scene painters that trained together in Fort Worth in the 1920s.

As expected, most of their paintings are genre scenes of American life.

After all the modernism downstairs, they look really out of place.

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The amazing reflections of the museum, designed by Tadao Ando

Another gallery held a temporary show called the ‘focus gallery’, a deep survey of a single artist’s work.

For my visit, that artist was Sean Scully.

He paints rectangular wooden boards in single colors, and then assembles them in a form of collage.

From a distance, the works look like abstract paintings; close up they become assemblages.

For the past decade he has created one at the end of each year that he feels sums up his artistic ideas at the time.

The show has them all.

Most of his evolution consists of changing colors and arrangements, and some experiments with the shape.

Oddly, the curator chose to hang the paintings out of order, so I had to keep crossing the room to see the progression properly.

Most of the floor held a temporary show on California painter Richard Diebenkorn.

He has switched between figuration and abstraction for his entire career; this show covers the most famous part of his abstraction phase in the 1970s, the Ocean Park Series.

In 1968 he moved to Venice Beach and noticed the bright colors and patterns of the houses and ocean.

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Another look at the reflection pool surrounding the Modern Art Museum
afterward, he started painting canvases covered in overlapping pastel colored lines to evoke how he felt at the sight.

He also discovered a technique of painting black lines on the canvas and then putting lighter paint over them, so the lines shine through as a sort of distant mirage.

I loved the show because it featured dozens and dozens of paintings, all looking similar yet every one different.

This many canvases allows the viewer to explore Diebenkorn’s ideas and evolution in depth.

People who hate abstraction, on the other hand, would probably find the whole thing tedious and pointless.

Many paintings show similar elements in different combinations, exploring the effect of color combinations and patterns upon the viewer.

Others look like some distant vague architecture or landscape, hinted at but never revealed.

Kimball Art Museum

Next door sits the Kimball Art Museum, which focuses on antiquities and European Art from before 1945.

The building was one of the last designed by Louis Kahn.

Its most notable feature is a large roof of curved concrete, looking like frozen ocean waves.

Inside, curved light fixtures run along the wave troughs, reflecting light off the
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Outside the Kimball Museum, designed by Louis Kahn
ceiling into the galleries.

The design is unlike any other art museum I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, the Kimball is a small museum for what it tries to show.

Each section of art sits in part of a single room or even gets crammed in a corridor, really limiting what is on view.

I suspect the effect was even more pronounced when I was there because the museum was hosting a major retrospective on Italian Old Master Caravaggio, which took up several galleries.

It cost extra above museum admission, so I skipped it.

The European art section contained a comprehensive but frustratingly brief chronological survey, starting with the Renaissance.

Most of the work was middling paintings and sculptures by really famous names.

They have The Torment of Saint Anthony, the first painting Michelangelo ever created, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Maidens by Peter Paul Rubens, and Bust of a Young Jew by Rembrandt.

Nineteenth century work featured three paintings by Paul Cezanne and two by Vincent Van Gogh, among others.

The section closed with paintings from the early twentieth, including L’Asie by Henri Matisse and Composition by Piet Mondrian.

I wish they had shown
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The unique interior of the Kimball Museum by Louis Kahn. Note the curved roof

Amon Carter Museum

The last of the three museums, the Amon Carter Museum, focuses on American Art, and western art in particular.

It’s named for a Fort Worth newspaper publisher who donated the nucleus of the collection.

Phillip Johnson designed the building.

The entrance leads into a three story lobby the width of the building.

The front is a wall of glass, the remaining walls are wood.

Precisely aligned tiles cover the ceiling.

The back wall contains multiple corridors.

Each side wall contains a single painting; A Dash for the Timber, one of Frederick Remington’s most important western paintings, on one and Blips and Ifs by Stewart Davis on the other.

All but the central corridor lead to small rooms containing multiple art works.

They are arranged topically.

One room has landscapes ranging from Hudson River School by Alfred Bierstadt to modernism by John Marin.

Another room has portraits, ranging from colonial work to a deliberate quotation of such work by Grant Wood , Parson Weem’s Fable.

The central corridor leads through a room holding traditional western paintings.

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Amon Carter Museum exterior, designed by Phillip Johnson
shows a Lakota tribe on the move , another pictures cowboys racing through open range, and a third shows a group of adventurers capturing a bear with lassoes.

It also has a copy of a famous sculpture of galloping horses by Frederick Remington, which pushed bronze casting technology to its limits.

That leads to an atrium under a skylight.

The rest of the art is upstairs, which looks more like a traditional museum.

A third of the floor holds western art.

As expected, much of it dates to the middle 1800s.

All of it features cowboys, Native Americans, wild animals, and vast landscapes, done in a realistic to romantic style.

Pride of place goes to the two artists who first made Western subjects popular, Frederick Remington and Charles Russell.

Seen together like this, their differences become apparent; Remington painted a romanticized frontier while Russell emphasized the grittier reality.

Russell painted works like The Buffalo Hunt, a highly realistic picture of Native Americans surrounding their prey; Remington by contrast painted The Fall of the Cowboy, two men mending the barb wire fence that will ultimately put them out of a
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Modern sculpture on the plaza in front of the Amon Carter Museum

Another third of the floor contains a survey of American art, arranged chronologically by movement.

It starts with a few colonial portraits, then Hudson River School landscapes, followed by realism.

Crossing the Pasture by Winslow Homer appears here along with a lesser known John Singer Sargent portrait, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard.

The section has Swimming by Thomas Eakins, a picture of men at a pond, which caused considerable controversy at one time for its frank nudity.

That leads to a nice section on American Impressionism, including In the Greenhouse by Dennis Miller Bunker and Flags on the Waldorf by Childe Hassam.

Those paintings lead into a big section on the 1920s, a time of much experimentation in American Art

Ashcan School artists like George Bellows painted gritty urban realism.

Arthur Dove began an investigation of biomorphic based abstraction, including Team of Horses in the museum.

Marsden Hartley created a series of pictures based on German Expressionism ideas, including American Indian Symbols on display here.

Georgia O’Keefe started painting the highly simplified flowers and landscapes that made her famous.

A few paintings from after 1945 appear at the end, highlighted by one of many Homage to the Square by
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Downtown Fort Worth seen from the Amon Carter Museum plaza
Joseph Albers.

Like the Kimball, it’s a good art survey but all too brief.

The museum had a temporary show on John Marin.

An early modernist famous for his pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, he also painted hundreds of pictures of the Maine coast.

The show focused on these pictures and how they evolved over time.

Ironically, it was organized by the Portland Museum of Art, which is less than two hours from my home town.

Marin started out painting rather realistic pictures of rocky sea shores.

His paintings then became increasingly abstract, emphasizing the geometry of waves and rocks, and the effect of color.

The wall text compares this to the process Vassily Kandinsky went through to create a purely abstract art, slowly creating less and less recognizable features in his pictures.

Marin emphasized heavy black lines and blotches of blue and grey over realistic depiction.

The difference between Marin and Kandinsky is that Marin always stopped short; the viewer can always identify his pictures as a real place, however distorted.

I consider this an important limitation.

I left for Oklahoma City after the
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Remarkable lobby designed by Phillip Johnson
art museums.

The drive was straight, flat, and, outside the Metroplex sprawl, all empty plains.


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