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A journey to the Northwest earlier this year offered assistant curator Chad Alligood and me the opportunity to visit artists in Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and surrounding areas. On one particularly intriguing visit, we meet

Though primarily associated with their large-scale blown glass fruit and vegetable forms, the pair has recently concluded this series. This shift in their work has sparked a productive period of innovation and discovery in their studio across a wide variety of media, including drawing, painting, wood, and glass.

Their current explorations in glass include an innovative method of preserving the structure and appearance of real plants cast into a glass aggregate, creating a sculptural form from living organic material.


According to the duo:

“The large scale still life sculptures confront the viewer and awaken our appreciation of the visual world around us. This makes us look outside ourselves and recognize the celebratory aspects of everyday life, our dependence on nature, its cycles and seasons. Our approach evolved out of our experience using the two dimensional painting tradition.”

Take a look as Flora and Joey show us some of their current work:

Photos courtesy of Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace

We’ve now visited more than 500 artists around the U.S. as we continue building the exhibition State of the Art, which will debut at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art next September. Early on in our travels we visited Texas, meeting with artists across the state and stopping in at several galleries.

In San Antonio, we visited the studio of artist Vincent Valdez. In his cinematic, photorealistic paintings, Valdez mines deeply personal imagery to tell stories with historical gravity and contemporary resonance. His latest series, Strangest Fruit, features contemporary Latino male figures depicted in the poses of lynched figures drawn from historical sources. In these paintings, Valdez underlines the troubled history of race in America and its enduring influence today.


Strangest Fruit (series), 2013 (in progress), oil/canvas

As Vincent says:

“I have dedicated my process of image making to be a declaration of the world around me, where fictitious characters become a testament to the social and political statements that they embody. A cinematic, hyper-realistic technique enables me to blur the line between the real and the non-real, between historical and the present, and between myth and memory.”

John, 2012, oil/canvas

Listen as assistant curator Chad Alligood and I meet Vincent at his studio:

400 artist studios in 40 cities. That’s the current count of where Chad Alligood, Crystal Bridges’ assistant curator for special projects, and I have traveled this summer and fall, crossing thousands of miles of this amazing country. We’re off to a great start toward building an exhibition titled State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now, which will feature current works by 100 or so artists discovered during our travels.

(You can read more about it here, via Randy Kennedy and The New York Times).

In curating the exhibition, Chad and I will travel to every region of the country, ultimately meeting with artists in hundreds of cities and towns across America. It all began as a series of conversations with curators, gallerists and thought leaders in each region, who helped identify some 10,000 promising artists. From that group, we developed a priority list of more than a thousand artists to visit, and we’re logging hundreds of hours of studio conversations before establishing the final checklist.

(Crystal Bridges assistant curator Chad Alligood, left, and president Don Bacigalupi visiting studios in St. Louis)

On our nationwide journey, our goal is to discover artists whose practices are informed by history and tradition, but are decidedly of our time. We’ve been most impressed with works that marry technical virtuosity with visual splendor and intellectual engagement. These artists have something powerful to say, and have devised truly effective means of communicating with the public.


By highlighting the voice of the artist, we hope to offer you unprecedented insight into the practices of artists from across the U.S. We’ll be sharing these artists here, on the blog, as we lead up to the exhibition debut next year. Stay tuned — videos, images and more to follow soon.


Learn more about State of the Art at Crystal Bridges here.

More than 28,000 schoolchildren from all around the region have toured Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, since it opened less than two years ago. Schoolchildren are able to take a field trip to the museum at no cost, thanks to a generous endowment from the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable Foundation, which reimburses schools for out-of-pocket expenses such as buses and substitute teachers, and even provides a healthy lunch for all participants.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; photo by Stephen Ironside.

No one would dispute the cultural enrichment that such a visit affords these children, but until recently, the educational benefits of a school visit to an art museum were often unquantifiable. There was plenty of anecdotal evidence of benefit, but no empirical data to prove what those of us in cultural institutions believed was true. Recently, however, a groundbreaking study has changed all that.

Located in an area of the country where students had not previously had access to an art museum, Crystal Bridges provided an unprecedented opportunity for a controlled study on the effects of a one-time visit to an art museum on K-12 students. As schools throughout the region were clamoring to schedule visits, there were far more groups wanting to attend the museum than the museum staff could accommodate in the first year, making for a natural control group.

Recognizing this opportunity, the museum and the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions worked together on a massive study. Over the next year, the researchers would survey nearly 11,000 K-12 students & 489 teachers at 123 different schools, making this the largest study of its kind ever conducted.


Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art 20th Century Gallery; photo by Stephen Ironside.

The results were nothing short of game changing. As reported in a current article in the journal

Kerry James Marshall’s “Our Town”, 1995 acrylic and collage on canvas. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

Additionally, the study found that those students who had been to the museum as part of a school field trip were much more likely to return and bring along their families, demonstrating how a one-time museum visit can increase appreciation for art and likelihood of becoming art consumers in the future.

The implications of these findings are far-reaching and of vital importance, both to educators and to museums across the country. In times of economic hardship, cultural field trips are often among the first items cut from school budgets. With the support of such large-scale and powerful evidence, schools may be able to build a much stronger case, not only for out-of-school experiences in art museums, but for a more art-integrated cultural curriculum across all core subjects.


Tom Uttech’s “Enassamishhinjjweian”, 2009 oil on canvas, Nick Cave’s Soundsuit in foreground. Photo by Stephen Ironside.

When Crystal Bridges was first announced back in 2005, there was skepticism among some that the American heartland would be able to produce a significant audience for a major museum of American art. Having surpassed one million visitors in its first 21 months of operation, Crystal Bridges has now proven that, even in Arkansas, there are audiences hungry for and appreciative of great art. With this study, Crystal Bridges has gone a step further to demonstrate that art audiences come in all ages and socio-economic levels — and that art is, without a doubt, good for you.

Spread the word!

Summer this year has provided time for travel — being on the road connecting with colleagues, visiting artists in their studios, and getting current with all that is happening in contemporary American art. It’s been an eye-popping and mind-expanding experience — and there’s more to come about what it all means in future posts. Stay tuned.

See if you can guess where I’ve been, based on some random snapshots from recent travels. (Hint: we’ve traveled mostly west and northwest.)

This week there’s also something monumental happening back at Crystal Bridges, something we couldn’t have imagined happening in the 21 short months since we opened. This week, Crystal Bridges welcomed its one-millionth guest through our doors.

In 2011, with the museum still under construction and planning its debut, many in the art world were questioning the viability of an art museum in small town Arkansas. We now have one million reasons to validate that decision, one million visitors who have experienced the breadth and beauty of American art, extraordinary architecture, and the glorious Ozark setting we call home. We hope we’ve shared an enriching experience with each one of our visitors, and we thank them for making our museum the dynamic place it is.

Because we all enjoy a good celebration, and we’re always up for a little fun, check out this parody created by several creative staff members:


Now on to our second million!


Now that we’re a generation or two into the so-called post-Modern era, it may be difficult to remember or recreate the circumstances in which High Modernist art reigned supreme. We live now in permissive times — art historically speaking — when any and all art-making approaches are potentially viable, especially so if they riff on, reuse, or recycle the past. And so to be confronted with a monumental example of Minimalist art may be jarring.

Donald Judd, “Untitled, 1989 (Bernstein 89 24)”, 1989, copper and red Plexiglas, ten elements, each: 9 x 40 x 31 in.

Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1989 (Bernstein 89-24) made its debut at Crystal Bridges this month, and it will undoubtedly raise some questions. What could have prompted the creation of such a startlingly minimal work of art? At 15 feet tall, the sculpture dominates its space, and yet yields little of its secrets. There is no evidence of the hand of the artist, no reference to anything represented, no expressivity to be perceived.

Judd called these mature works “specific objects” rather than sculptures or works of art, to indicate their distance from traditional ways of making sculptural art. These were “specific” because the artist carefully orchestrated their shape, scale, proportions, and materiality. And they were “objects” because they were fabricated — rather than sculpted — by the artist.

Download Judd’s “Specific Objects” pdf here, courtesy of the Judd Foundation

Ten identical boxy forms are arranged in vertical fashion — one above the other — with the spaces between each equivalent to the height of each box. The alternating of solid and negative space therefore creates a pleasing rhythm, while the enormity of the assembly dwarfs the viewer.

From the series that came to be known as “stacks,” Crystal Bridges Untitled, 1989 (Bernstein 89-24) looms large both literally and figuratively. Its gleaming red Plexiglas facades and highly polished copper tops and bottoms dazzle with their brilliance, and their reflections enliven the space that surrounds them.

While it may be harder to recreate the context in which works such as this first came to prominence, it is still easy to be carried away by their precise and understated beauty. Take a look at this “specific object” being installed in our 20th century gallery and see for yourself.

For more information on Donald Judd, visit the Judd Foundation website. Judd’s 101 Spring Street residence and work space opens to the public on June 18–visit virtually and book tours here.