The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has been on my vacation wish-list from the moment I first read about its opening in 2011. Far more than just an important collection of American Art, the Moshe Safdie-designed building and 120-acre woodland park surrounding the site are almost as spectacular as the museum’s contents.
The Crystal Bridges organization was founded (and funded) by philanthropist, arts patron, and Walmart heir Alice Walton, who – prior to a Sotheby’s auction in 2004 – had managed to fly under the art world’s radar. Walton’s vision, her gift to the residents of Bentonville and to art lovers everywhere, is astounding.
Our April visit prompted this list of Seven reasons to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House
One of the museum acquisitions we were most excited to see was the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Bachman-Wilson House.
Wright had a vision to create affordable homes within the financial reach of middle-class families, and called those homes Usonian. The Bachman-Wilson house is one of Wright’s Usonian homes*.
The day before our visit, through the Crystal Bridges website we scheduled a tour appointment. We opted for a free self-tour of the interior of the house due to time constraints, however one-hour long guided tours are also available for a $10 admission.
Visitors may tour the first floor of the house only, and interior photography is not permitted. Architectural Digest’s 2017 article about the Bachman-Wilson House includes some beautiful photographs of the interior.
The Bachman-Wilson House was built in 1956 along the Millstone River in New Jersey. The home’s second owners (an architect/designer team) meticulously restored the home in the late 80’s, however the house was threatened by repeated flooding. They determined that in order to protect the home it should be moved, and sold to an institution that would preserve it. The Crystal Bridges Museum acquired the house in 2013, dismantled it, and moved the components to the museum grounds, where it was reconstructed in 2015.
*The podcast 99% Invisible dedicated two episodes to Wright’s Usonian vision. Part I (Episode 246) delves into Wright’s career and its evolution toward the birth of the first Usonia home. The focus of Part 2 (Episode 247) is Usonia, New York – an entire neighborhood of Usonian homes. You can read the transcripts or listen to the podcasts by clicking the links.
2. The Museum’s Permanent Collection
The Crystal Bridges Museum’s permanent collection spans five centuries, and includes some of the most important works by American artists.
Just a sampling of the painters and sculptors whose works comprise the permanent collection are: George Bellows, Norman Rockwell, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Cole, Thomas Eakins, Francis Guy, Maxfield Parrish, Georgia O’Keeffe, Benjamin West, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale, Asher Brown Durand, John Singer Sargent, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dennis Miller Bunker, Paul Manship, Roxy Paine, Mark di Suvero and James Turrell.
The collection also includes some notable, if not well-known, paintings. For instance, the museum displays an early Andy Warhol painting, perhaps the first piece he ever sold (to a classmate in 1948 for $50). The early Warhol style is unrecognizable. The painting’s subject is a couple in bed, and includes his “Warhola” signature, Warhol’s given name.
Crystal Bridges paid $44 million for O’Keefe’s painting Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1, the highest price ever paid for a female artist’s work. We were disappointed to learn that during our visit all of the museum’s Georgia O’Keefe paintings and all but two of Andy Warhol’s paintings were on loan for a traveling exhibition.
Inside the Crystal Bridges Museum
We entered Crystal Bridges through the south entrance, where we laid our eyes on one of my favorite paintings in the museum, shown below. I was still on a high from touring the Bachman-Wilson house and forgot to make note of the artist’s name.
The exquisite architecture and lighting in the museum – along with the unique way that the works are displayed – encourages the visitor to look at the works differently and create conversation. The Washington Post called Crystal Bridges “the most woke museum in America” for its unusual curation choices, bold social statements, and inclusion of many female and minority artists.
In the image below – that painting that you see in the upper corner of the left wall with the bright white background? That’s Warhol’s Dolly Parton, surrounded by mostly more traditional, earlier paintings.
One of my favorite paintings in the permanent collection at the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga is a Martin Johnson Heade painting of a hummingbird. So my jaw dropped when I came upon this display of sixteen Heade paintings. The subtle luminescence in Heade’s work cannot easily be captured in a digital image, but must be seen in person. Each of these small paintings is exquisite, and to see them displayed all together is quite special.
Unsurprisingly, I love this Marsden Hartley painting titled New Mexico No. 2. It reminds me of a small cemetery I happened upon in Gallisteo, NM while wandering some blue highways. This painting is one of a number of paintings from the collection of famed photographer and modern-art promoter Alfred Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keefe’s husband), and is co-owned by Fisk University in Nashville and Crystal Bridges.
George Segal’s Depression Bread Line sculpture is a moving piece, with an interesting story behind it.
Artist Evan Penny’s Old Self: Portrait of the Artist as He Will (Not) Be #2 is the artist’s creation of his projected self in twenty years. A friendly security guard (who had the knowledge of a docent) told us that the artist used hair from his own head, and had the eyeglass manufacturer recreate a larger version of the exact glasses that he wears, down to the prescription. Future “Evan” is incredibly realistic, if a little unnerving.
Prior to the museum’s purchase in 2012 from a private Swiss collection, Mark Rothko’s No. 210/No. 211 (Orange), painted in 1960, had only been exhibited twice.
Telegram by Tom Sachs is a recreation of an actual telegram from Buckminster Fuller to his lifelong friend Isamu Noguchi. Both artists have works included in the Crystal Bridges’ collection.
3. High South Cuisine at Eleven Restaurant
The “bridge” of the museum shown below houses Eleven Restaurant. Their in-house culinary concept is “High South” cuisine, which elevates Southern home cooking in the Ozarks to a new level. We ordered the Arkansas Rice Perlo and Beans & Cornbread, and enjoyed one of the best meals we have ever eaten. Their lunch menu is very affordable – our tab was only $17 plus tip. And to top if off, the views from inside the restaurant – whose ceiling of curved wood beams resembles the hull of a ship – are gorgeous too! I was so excited about the food that I forgot to take a picture of the restaurant’s interior.
Oh – and the coffee from the coffee bar is very good too!
4. Sculpture in the Gardens and Trailside
Fly’s Eye Dome was created by visionary architect, designer, inventor, theorist, and futurist Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller. Fuller popularized the first geodesic dome homes, in large part through his work with the U.S. military in the 1950’s. About the Fly’s Eye, from the CB website:
“In 1966 Fuller began working with John Warren, a surfboard manufacturer specializing in fiberglass, and architect Norman Foster to develop a new dome. This one would be constructed of lightweight fiberglass and feature circular openings, called “oculi,” in a pattern similar to the lenses of a fly’s eye, which would allow light and air to enter without compromising the integrity of the structure.”
Only three Fly’s Eye prototypes were made: one 12 foot, one 24 foot, and one 50 foot diameter. This is the 50-foot prototype. This dome’s first (and only other) appearance was at the Los Angeles Bicentennial in 1981.
One may access the inside of the Fly’s Eye via a few steps. I was fortunate to have a few solitary minutes inside, watching the shadow play and movement of the clouds.
Maman, and Bourgeouis’ other spider sculptures for which she is most well-known, were an ode to her mother’s strength. The life’s work of Bourgeouis was heavily influenced by her childhood experiences, most notably her parents’ behavior and her relationships with them.
We had seen several of Louise Bourgeouis’ paintings and sculptures inside the museum. They vary enormously in style from one to the next.
5. Crystal Bridges Architecture
The Museum’s design was influenced by the natural surroundings of Arkansas: the land and the water. The singular choice by Alice Walton (**who proclaimed to know nothing about architecture) of Moshe Safdie to design her vision was because his buildings – no matter where they are in the world – are always a part of their environment.
“The moment of architectural discovery is really the moment you see a site and you try and decipher the secrets that are embedded in it”. — Moshe Safdie, reflecting on his first visit to the intended site of the Crystal Bridges museum.
The Museum’s website has posted an interesting series of conversations between Alice Walton and Moshe Safdie about the project. If you are interested in architecture, I highly recommended watching the videos, as they offer a thorough description of the conception and implementation of the museum’s design.
**While Alice Walton proclaimed to know nothing of architecture, the Walton Family home was designed by notable architect E. Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. The home is on land adjacent to the Crystal Bridges grounds. Walton and her family hiked, waded in the creek, and rode horses on the land where Crystal Bridges now stands.
6. The Paths and Trails of Crystal Bridges
In my previous post, I included some pictures of the paved Art trail, which we walked between the parking lot at Compton Gardens and the Crystal Bridges Museum. On our return walk, we looped around the Orchard trail and Tulip Tree trail, enjoying the numerous blooming trees and woodland wildflowers.
We made a side trip to the main parking area to see Leo Villareal’s Buckyball, designed and named after the molecule Buckminsterfullerene (aka “buckyball”), which was named after the aforementioned Buckminster Fuller. Oh those clever Crystal Bridges curators!
The Buckyball sculpture consists of a series of tubes of moving light, very dim in the daytime (though still somehow mesmerizing), and brightly lit at night. We were tired from a long day, and did not drive back downtown to see it after dark. That leaves us something to look forward to on our next trip, along with Skyspace.
The Tulip Tree trail circles the Bachman-Wilson house from above and across the creek.
Early April is a fantastic time of year to walk the trails that surround the museum!
7. Free admission (with the exception of some special exhibitions), and free parking.
To sum up, The Crystal Bridges Museum blew us away. Plan a visit. Seriously. So many wonderful surprises await. There are far more than seven reasons to visit Crystal Bridges, though I’ll let you make those discoveries on your own.
Footnote: Many art lovers will recall that the opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum was not without controversy. No matter what one’s feelings are about the Walmart Corporation and its business/labor practices, what is indisputable is that the Walton family has pumped billions into Bentonville to grow the local economy and create some really special experiences for locals and visitors alike. If it is an effort to create their own personal utopia, I am thankful that they are sharing it with whomever is willing to show up and enjoy it.