90,000 Miles to Me

13,737 Miles • Crystal Bridges

In the northwest corner of Arkansas, a region known for its hillbillies and moonshine whiskey, lies one of the finest museums of American art in the nation. It is no coincidence that the little town of Bentonville is also the world headquarters of Walmart. Sam Walton’s only daughter, Alice, is passionate about art and wanted to share that with her home state, so she helped found the museum called Crystal Bridges, which opened on 11/11/2011. Walmart sponsors free general admission for all, though some special exhibits and guided tours have fees. My NARM membership got me into those for free.

Crystal Bridges, named after a nearby spring and the bridge construction incorporated in the building, aims to combine art, nature, and architecture into a seamless whole, and does a pretty good job at that. 

The galleries roughly form a triangle, such that you can see each of them from another side.

The day I arrived was opening day for a new exhibit featuring the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe, called “The Beyond.” I inwardly groaned. 

Okay, you have to understand that I’m from the land of O’Keeffe. I’ve spent close to two decades in New Mexico, being beaten over the head with how wonderful O’Keeffe is and I’ve been to the O’Keeffe Museum (intentionally), to her home in Abiqu (accidentally), visited places where she painted (coincidentally), and am sick of the fawning admiration. Sure, some of her flower paintings are gorgeous, and she clearly has technical skills as a painter, but a lot of her work is abstract and I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. 

And then I went to Arkansas and learned more about O’Keeffe in two days than in close to twenty years. 

Because they explained it. See, here’s the problem with art snobs. They tend to think that you should just “get it” and if you don’t there’s no point in explaining. I tend to think that they are often not explaining because they don’t get it either and are covering up for their own lack of understanding.

One of my physics teachers once told the class that if you can’t explain the core concept behind something to a fourth grader, you don’t understand it well enough. This wasn’t fourth grade physics he was teaching, it was very complicated math. But the core concept—not the details and complexities—is something you should be able to explain in simple language to anyone if you truly understand a topic. 

And for once, someone took the effort to explain to me, and thousands of other museum visitors, what Georgia O’Keeffe was trying to accomplish with her abstract art. Thank you!

The O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe has a large collection of her artwork, but they just hung up the art, on a white wall, with a little plaque next to each with the artist’s name, the year it was painted, and a note that said it was oil on canvas, or oil on hardwood, and maybe who bought or donated the piece. Thanks. That’s helpful.

There was no context. No “this is what she was trying to get at” or “here’s what she had to say about this one” or “see the influence that her photographer husband had on her choice of framing the scene” or whatever. 

Crystal Bridges did all of that, and did it well, not just for this exhibit, but throughout the museum. Major kudos to them! Here are a few of my favorites from the exhibit:

O’Keeffe once explained, in regards to why her flowers are so large, often two or three feet to a side, and closely focused on the individual flowers: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time.”

Petunias, 1925

From the accompanying plaque: “Georgia O’Keeffe began painting flowers in 1924, the same year she married the photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. She loved to sketch the shape and surface of petunias, which were among the first flowers she depicted; they appear repeatedly in her drawings and paintings of the 1920s. The extreme close-up view and cropped composition reflect the influence of photography on O’Keeffe’s vision. Filling the canvas with the commanding shape focused attention on the color and form of the blooms.”

Yellow Jonquils #3, 1936

From the accompanying plaque: “This picture focuses on a bunch of yellow jonquils magnified against a white background. Georgia O’Keeffe based this painting on her direct observation of nature, but the focus of the painting resides in shape, color, and the emotional reaction it evokes. O’Keeffe believed that exact realism could not hope to elicit the same awestruck reaction: ‘I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.’  

O’Keeffe’s flowers are monumental [in size], which may seem unlikely for something so delicate and fragile. One early critic observed that confronting an O’Keeffe flower painting made the viewer feel small, “as if we humans were butterflies.’”

I can understand O’Keeffe’s frustration with trying to capture in painting the feeling of what she saw in these flowers and later in New Mexican landscapes. I’ve often struggled on this blog, especially describing my recent time in the Kansas prairie, to put into words what I see and feel and experience. The realism of traditional painting, or the exact description of an encounter on the prairie, somehow comes much too short of picturing or describing what I want, what she wanted, and artists for ages have wanted, to get across.

O’Keeffe said: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”

Like this one:

Back Patio Door, 1955

From the accompanying plaque: “Three elements occupy this composition: a section of white, a broad swath of sand-colored paint, and a black void adrift within the field of beige. The sections do not at first appear to represent anything. However, in view of the title, the subject reveals itself as a wall receding into space with a black door and a touch of sky. 

The simple composition takes as its focus the patio of O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico. Notably, the field of adobe wall, made from the desert itself, becomes a kind of landscape, sprawling across the composition.”

I have seen this door. Many times. I have seen this outdoor wall and door and sky beyond many times, in many houses, throughout New Mexico. It is a familiar scene, but here stripped down to its essence, and it does indeed feel to me like the scene I would have wanted to capture if I could have put it to words or paint myself. This, I think, then, is the value of abstract when done well. It evokes the feeling in another that the artist is experiencing. 

One more.

Black Place II, 1944

From the accompanying plaque: “The Black Place is the name O’Keeffe gave to a series of black and gray hills in New Mexico to which she returned many times throughout her career. In various painted and drawn images of this site, she continued to find new ways to record and reinterpret the location. 

In this painting, O’Keeffe skews toward the abstract, cropping in close to fill the entire canvas and pushing the limits of easy recognition. Focusing on the point of convergence of two hills, she creates a dynamic moment of collision, emphasized by the jagged yellow line between them. Black Place II shows that O’Keeffe recognized the drama and danger inherent to the desert, even as she emphasized its spiritual expansiveness in other pictures.”

O’Keeffe often straddled the line between realism and abstraction, and this juxtaposition has often left me confused, while the “experts” insistence on its brilliance gradually turned my confusion to frustration at my inability to see what was so obvious to them, and their inability to explain what they said they understood so well. Now I finally understand a little better what O’Keeffe was trying to accomplish, that she was trying to reproduce a feeling, an experience, rather than a photorealistic representation. 

Elsewhere in Crystal Bridges, I took a tour of some of the collection highlights, which included several contemporary artists. 

One I liked was an all black painted wooden “sculpture” thing – a collection of found wood pieces assembled in wooden boxes, with the boxes put together in a jigsaw formation. Individual elements were disparate but the collection harmonious. This feels to me how a society should ideally be, with individuals allowed to be their individual selves, and yet all fitting together to form a harmonious whole.

Night Zag Wall, by Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), made 1969-1974
Night Zag Wall, closeup of upper right corner

From the accompanying plaque: “This work questions traditional definitions: it hangs on the wall like a painting, but it also creates three-dimensional space like a sculpture. Louise Nevelson started using wood out of necessity. She had worked in metal, but when steel became scarce during World War II, she began scavenging wood scraps.

While each piece of wood in Night Zag Wall has its own history, Nevelson united them through the application of black paint. For her, the use of black unifies these disparate objects. As she explained: ‘When I fell in love with black, it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all.’” 

The great equalizer. She is right though, that black doesn’t negate the other colors, it contains them all. Holds them, lets them be who they are and find acceptance, yet they all get along. Maybe I’m reading too much personal stuff into this, yet isn’t that exactly what art is supposed to let you do? 

While there, I practiced my Slow Art skills. Here is one last painting, that at first I was a bit unnerved by, but appreciated more after having taken the time to reflect on it, and have continued thinking about it since. Sorry, I didn’t take a picture, and haven’t been able to find it online either. My search has been somewhat hampered by not remembering the artist’s name or much identifying information at all.

Without the benefit of a picture, I’ll try to describe it. Imagine a classical landscape painting in soft tones, often pastels, of a grassy field in the foreground, a single prominent mountain in the background, a small mountain range going off in either direction from that one tall peak. The sky is a pale blue, with a few cotton puff clouds in the sky. The perfect day for a picnic. Got that picture in your mind?

Now, amidst the knee-high grass, right in the middle of the foreground, insert a group of fifteen to twenty adolescent boys in faded jeans, white t-shirts, and blue neckerchiefs. The blonde teenagers are running, standing, joking around, chatting, playing and just having a good time. Right in the middle of this classical landscape. They are painted in the same muted tones as the rest of the scene, but feel oddly apart, other. 

As I stood there reading the plaque, a couple came by and glanced at it, the lady complaining, “That would be beautiful if there weren’t all those people in it.” That was the point, as the plaque had just explained to me. 

The artist was trying to make the point that we are a part of nature, and yet think of ourselves as apart. Classical landscapes aren’t supposed to have people in them, because we aren’t part of nature. But all that we are, even manmade objects and synthetic materials, are made from natural elements. 

Most of the pictures on this blog are nature scenes, and I try hard to minimize any manmade objects in the frame because I feel that it “ruins” the picture. This very clever artist has made me take a hard look at my own values, because if we set ourselves up as apart, we can never be fully a part. If I curate my own photo collection and memory to include only the natural scenes, I am propagating my own false beliefs. The more “other” something feels, the easier it is to devalue it and use it for shortsighted, selfish ends.

Moving on. That afternoon I took the guided tour of the “Usonian” house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Wilson family in the early 1950s. He designed a series of middle class residential homes out of a need he saw in the Great Depression for affordable housing. The house was transplanted here and faithfully rebuilt, mostly out of original materials, after it was flooded too many times at its original location in New Jersey. 

There were several elements of the house that I really liked. There was a solid privacy wall along one side and a wall of windows along the opposite side, facing the trees and creek. The smooth concrete floor of the interior extended seamlessly to the patio all along the window side, with the radiant heating in the floor also extending out in the patio so that snow and ice would melt quickly. The intentionally cramped entryway opened into a large open floorpan, feeling like a dramatic reveal, with the wall of windows on one long side enhancing the open feeling. Some good ideas for my eventual tiny house.

The next day I went back to look around a little more and use their free Wi-Fi while in a beautiful setting.

I was feeling a bit attractioned-out, so I spent a couple days in the Bentonville and Rogers area. Bentonville is the headquarters of Walmart but their Walmart does not allow overnight parking, so I stayed at the Walmart in Rogers, just down the street.

Apropos my earlier discussion of showering tactics, I may have found a reasonably priced solution. Bentonville has a city pool with only $3 admission! Pools always have showers. And city pools are often fairly cheap, especially in small towns. The locker rooms are no worse than a Planet Fitness—trading the smell of sweat for chlorine—much cheaper, and the shower comes with a free pool if I choose to avail myself. This might largely solve my shower problem.

And here’s my tip #13 for happy van living: Moving food, especially condiments, into smaller bottles as you use up the contents is a great way to save space in a small fridge, but don’t confuse your bottle of lemon juice with your bottle of similarly colored oil vinaigrette and pour large amounts of the wrong one on your salad. Pure lemon juice is a bit too tangy as a dressing.