Since money troubles forced the Minnesota Museum of American Art to close its St. Paul galleries in January 2009, it has been something of a zombie museum. With its 3,800-piece collection mostly in storage, its staff has been seeking space, patrons and funds to revive the institution. Meanwhile, it has sent small shows from the collection to galleries and museums around Minnesota in a savvy publicity move that reinforced the museum’s name while setting Minnesota talent in the larger history of American art.
Now two of its collection shows are on view in the Twin Cities, both eloquently supporting the museum’s aspiration to have a home in downtown St. Paul once again. (It recently opened temporary galleries there, but without space to house its collection, offices or educational programs.)
“Our Treasures,” at the University of Minnesota’s Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis through May 12, offers an overview. Organized by MMAA director Kristin Makholm, it features about 30 paintings, drawings, sculpture and fine crafts spanning 150 years of American art with special emphasis on Minnesota talents.
The art has never looked better than it does in the Weisman’s spacious skylit gallery, and the Minnesotans make an especially splendid showing thanks to Makholm’s keen eye and adroit pairings. The show opens with a life-sized 1906 portrait of a vivacious Madrid seamstress that painter Robert Henri dashed off with aristocratic brio. She is cleverly matched with Frances C. Greenman’s similarly sized portrait of Dewey Albinson, a wan 1920s Minnesota painter whose willowy stoop, unruly hair and detached gaze certify him as an oversensitive aesthete.
Hanging amid works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Jasper Cropsey and other famous names, Patrick DesJarlait’s 1946 watercolor “Red Lake Fishermen” stands out for its crisp, cubistic design and the meticulous brush strokes employed by the Ojibwe painter. Nearby, sculptor Paul Manship gives sleek Art Deco styling to his bronze “Indian Boy and Dog”of 1926 and a maquette for his 1938 “Time and Fates Sundial.” Meanwhile, Cameron Booth’s cubistic image of Czech-American farmers tilling a plot of land in Hopkins for raspberries melds the monumentality of a Cezanne landscape with the tender pathos of an evening prayer.
Around the corner hangs Mike Lynch’s beautiful “Elevator — 29th and Harriet,” a moody lilac nocturne in which one of the state’s premier painters memorializes the apparently abandoned grain elevators and railroad tracks that once certified Minneapolis as an international milling capital. Across the way a huge collage-drawing for Christo’s “Running Fence” project carries the vastness of the western landscape into the Pacific Ocean, while Minnesota’s own George Morrison turns a driftwood mosaic into a landscape and renders a vast Lake Superior vista as a dappled abstraction in sunset hues.
From the 1950s through the 1970s, the MMAA’s predecessor institutions staged biennials that brought national artists to Minnesota and laid the foundation for its collection, including stellar drawings by Ed Ruscha, Gaston Lachaise and Mark Tobey; ceramics by Peter Voulkos and Warren and Alix MacKenzie, and textiles including a spectacular slashed-silk kimono by Minnesota superstar Tim Harding.
A revelatory photo show
“Framing the Field,” at St. Catherine University in St. Paul through March 28, is a sample of the photography collection organized by guest curator George Slade. While the works at the Weisman were frequently exhibited during the museum’s St. Paul heyday, the photographs were rarely shown, even though they represent 40 years of collecting. This exhibit is a revelation.
Again, Minnesota’s national stars dominate, among them Tom Arndt, Frank Gohlke, Chris Faust, Gloria DeFilipps Brush, Stuart Klipper, Gary Hallman, Lynn Geesaman, Paul Shambroom and Jim Brandenburg. There’s a wonderful mix of emotions and incongruity livened with simple human gestures throughout. Nancy Johnson’s picture of a boy merrily balancing on the tip of his skateboard in Virginia, Minn., is delightfully fresh next to the sorrow latent in James Crnkovich’s image of middle-aged couples dancing in nearby Aurora, Minn.
It takes a bit of mulling to see the formal and thematic links between pictures of a collapsed elephant, an iceberg, a dinosaur road monument and a warehouse full of bombs, but they do hang together as monsters of the imagination. Look closely and you’ll notice that a lava-scarred ridge on Mount St. Helens has the same sinuous profile as the lovely young woman in the adjacent photo dreamily reading a book on an island in Spain.
Filled with wonders for the eye and mind, the photos offer a meditative ramble through the museum’s collection. With a mere 75 pieces, the two shows are too small to prove that the MMAA’s collection merits its own building and the staff, budget and programs to support it. But they should make more Minnesotans sit up, take notice and start debating the proposition.