Serenity and joy at Butler

Palm Pattern #125, Edith Bergstrom, at Butler Institute of American Art

The Butler Institute of American Art, the nation’s first museum devoted exclusively to American art, is a jewel tucked way in an old, slimmed-down Rust Belt town, which was booming when America’s industrial age was in full swing. Youngstown is probably one of the communities hardest hit by the migration of heavy industry out of the U.S. and has had to rebuild since huge job losses in the 1970s. Once a city of 170,000 people, it shrank to around a third of that in the 70s and 80s. As with most cities once nourished by the Erie Canal (like the one in which I live), it has had to find ways to diversify its economy and attract and grow innovative new technology firms despite the Great Lakes climate. In the past decade, Youngstown began to stir with new economic life and because of its history as an industrial powerhouse, back when it attracted immigrant workers from around the world, it remains one of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in the nation. Flint and Detroit may get all the publicity, but Youngstown has to have been buffeted and betrayed by the global economy about as severely as any town in the world—and yet it has found a path forward to a new sort of identity and pride in itself. The Butler seems to assert a kind of unassailable character, an affirmation that a few quiet human virtues—gratitude, appreciation, taste—won’t just survive but can prevail in our current feverish media culture. It feels a little miraculous to walk into this little oasis of beauty and wisdom hidden in “flyover country,” among the ghosts of steel mills almost exactly halfway between New York City and Chicago, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

I delivered a painting to the Butler this past week for the Midyear exhibition by driving west through Buffalo and Erie. I was startled, when I turned onto Wick Avenue, where the museum is situated on the Youngstown State University campus. It’s a beautiful structure, a little grander in person than in its photographs, with a columned façade that looks as if it were modeled after one of Piero’s early Renaissance piazzas. After I dropped off my still life in its wooden crate, I decided to linger for a look at my destination. It was such a pleasure, I ended up staying far longer than I’d intended. It was like being introduced to someone with whom you feel a deep affinity—both the permanent collection and the current temporary exhibits were evidence of a guiding, deeply affectionate intelligence about great art. That sense of welcoming affinity is how I feel every time I visit the Phillips Collection, and to a slightly lesser degree, smaller museums like the Morgan and the Frick—as if I’m perfectly at home in the space and with the work itself. Many of the museums in cities that once thrived because of the Erie Canal offer art museums whose character is akin to the Butler’s—The Albright-Knox, the Memorial Art Gallery, The Everson and Munson-Williams Proctor. The emphasis on American Art at Butler makes it somehow feel the most companionable of them all. By contrast, this hospitable sense of belonging is what I don’t feel when I tour many galleries and some museums. The Tate Modern in London, for example, had an atmosphere of severity, an almost impersonal sense that the art on display was meant to be a rude awakening, which is fine. That’s certainly a recurrent quality in modernist and post-modern work, and there’s nothing wrong with the occasional swift kick to the head, but here, everything I saw seemed to be imbued with a sense that art can celebrate life as a welcome gift. It was moving to feel this kind of serenity in a community that has endured enormous tribulations as America’s economy reconfigures itself.

It was a pleasure that a few of the paintings I was seeing for the first time had been familiar to me from reproductions for decades–while others were unfamiliar works by some of my favorite artists. It was a delight to finally see, in person, Edward Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town, James Valerio’s Ruth and Cecil Him, and Music by John Koch along the mezzanine in the museum’s central gallery.  Each is an example of the painter’s mastery at its peak. They were on display along with equally powerful work by Janet Fish, Neil Welliver, Alfred Leslie, Will Barnett, Jules Olitski, Paul Jenkins, Motherwell, Avery, Gorky, Ivan Albright and Pollock. Much of the work is exceptionally good, sometimes in ways that aren’t entirely characteristic of the painter’s best-known style. Alfred Leslie isn’t represented with one of his figures lit from below, but with a large grisaille watercolor landscape, a twilight view of a road in Massachusetts. A large abstract by Jenkins, Phenomena Panning Gold, isn’t anything like the intensely colorful swirls of paint most familiar to his admirers, but an almost monotone study of molten lobes that look like a fossil record of an orchid blossom. The work by Chuck Close was a complete surprise, maybe one of the most charming images he’s ever done, a mid-sized portrait of his daughter, Georgia. It’s another grisaille image, hung on the wall opposite the Leslie watercolor, constructed as a mosaic of thick paper pulp chips squeezed through a metal mesh. As always with his more recent work, it’s a marvel how Close creates an impressionistically accurate and convincing glimpse of the human face—this time cheerful and smiling—through such rough deconstructions of its photographic source. His usual grids are here replaced by chunks of pulp organically arranged, like an assembly of thumbprints. Even seeing Arsen Roje’s work for the first time was eye-opening. In reproductions, his depictions of scenes from classic movies look a little too ironic, sharing the slightly jaundiced irony that seems to be essential to Pop Art, yet the dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not is technically masterful. It goes to interesting places with oil paint that seem unique to Roje. It made me grin to see the perfect likeness of Sheldon Leonard—the bartender from It’s a Wonderful Life, and an actor who went on to produce of the Dick Van Dyke show —finding his nook here in an art museum.

And that was just the central gallery. Other smaller gallery spaces at the museum were devoted to different themes and mediums: print-making, pastels, art about sports, art about the American west. Each one was just as interesting, surprising and beautifully curated. Wolf Kahn’s small drawings of old barns looked exactly right in proximity to Mary Sipp-Green’s twilight scenes as well as an Olitski impressionistic drawing of a dusk landscape. In the print room, a lithograph by Bellows, a quick sketch of one of his daughters, showed amazing draftsmanship, as quick and confident as a Rembrandt or a Matisse line drawing, the shine of her hair effortlessly rendered with a few quick strokes of crayon on stone. And the solo show, Edith Bergstrom: Exotic Palms, was equally impressive. Her work uses the distinctive patterns of palms, their fronds, the thorny armor they leave behind as they wither and fall off the trunk, the spikes, all aspects of a palm’s anatomy are sources for her to use in creating images that straddle representation and abstraction, some palms looming up like titans, others just a web of syncopated light and dark blades and stripes. Most exceptional were Bergstrom’s watercolors that simplify a dense thatch of leaves into backlit plumage, plants that look like winged raptors swooping in for the kill, or angels hovering directly in your path, just off the ground. The confidence, precision and simplicity of these paintings, as well as their sense of color, is breathtaking.

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