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Monday, November 14, 2011

Live (more or less) from The Cranbrook Art Museum on Opening Night 11-11-11

They may not realize it but many City of Bloomfield Hills residents drive by the Cranbrook Art Museum  when  they drive down Lone Pine.  Look north at Martell and  it's the big thing with pillars There is a rather picturesque gate (one of many on the Cranbrook campus) and series of fountains rising like steps on a staircase to the big  thing with  pillars which is actually a porch. On the  west end of the porch is  "The Library" and  east end is "Art Museum." It  is one of the most photographed scenes in the greater Detroit metropolitan area. If you are giving out of town relatives a  house tour  Martell  runs right into it and makes for a spectacular conclusion.. There is also a convenient stop sign at the corner of Martell and Lone Pine, ideal for  Aunt Phyllis to get a  picture.

This writer is embarrassed to say, that until last Friday 11 11 11, I was one of the city residents who didn't realize what he was passing by. That evening however I was privileged to attend the museum's "public welcome"  Grand Re-opening. The  event which started at 9pm   was preceded by a "members only or anyone who wishes to become a member) reception. In reading newspapers accounts,which focused exclusively on the first show and comparing it  my own  recollections of the second,
I got the idea that either two separate museums had grand re-openings on the same night or that the Cranbrook Art Museum with a vast array of inventory was switching exhibits on the sly and on the run.
I saw no evidence of the latter. There were too many people for  that to happen. The former seems even more improbable. So I guess the  eye of the beholder saw or chose to see different things, which is my whole problem with art. I never see what I am supposed to see. Maybe in say the late sixties or seventies that became OK. I  don't know. The last time I was in an art museum was 1967 MoMA (Modern Museum of Art NY)  and the  Uffizi Galleries (Florence Italy in the year of the Flood) Then a brick fell on my head and when I came to art wise it was 11 11 11.
Approaching the Museum from the campus side, on 11 11 11 one encountered  search lights, the red lights of backed up traffic, and lines of people. The entire porch was one long line which moved quickly but wasn't diminishing.

I got in line at 9:25  and was admitted at 9:45. Looking backward I noticed the line was even longer than when I joined it. Inside I was amazed at the user friendly, and surprisingly (at least to me) festive atmosphere. Almost everyone brought a camera. Talking and even laughing were permitted. The bugaboo about boring paintings on a wall paintings  daring you to see what you were supposed to see was trumped by amazing sculptures that encouraged viewer interaction.

I must admit I was looking for anything by Thomas Hart Benton. I discovered  one of his paintings   on the cover of the Journal of American Medical  Association   magazine lying around a  doctor's office. I  could look at Boom Town (1928) or Hail Storm (1942) all day. There is no subtlety here. Benton is anything but. What grabs you is his vivid interpretations..You may not recognize  the artist  by name but  you have seen his paintings, and when you see them again you will remember.

Striking out on THB, I looked for the  draw of the art impervious, the Cash Bar. It was not well marked but I found it. There was a stair well to the left side of the Gnu's with faces. which was a most popular exhibit but one I didn't get. I don't know why.They say THB was a realists but his universe was curved as is ours. They say we don't see the curves  because our mind invents straight lines. In Benton's world the straight lines have been removed. Even his murals which beg for the conventional  (some city or state was paying for them) explode with scenes scattered across the canvas wily nily. Maybe that is where his pupil Jackson Pollack got the idea of  what to do with paint splatters.

At the top of the stairs a four or six some of young adults  had gathered chairs,and were having a party of their own. At least that was my impression. They may have been verbal mimes  from the drama school  in yet another interactive exhibit. The Cash Bar featured  premium liquor, wine, and micro brews at rather, considering the real estate, reasonable prices. Coffee and Rolled Gold Tiny Twist pretzels were complimentary. Surprisingly so were desserts served by the circulating wait staff on trays. I stopped at four (pastries) which included  lemon tart, chocolate cake, brownies, and a creme creation with chocolate flakes. One drink  was enough to turn the artistically impaired into an art expert however. I was told no, No one had seen any Thomas Hart Benton but there probably was some somewhere. Besides who was Thomas Hart Benton anyway ? I was happy to enlighten but drew a complete blank about  somebody named "Carl " who's last name was mystery. It seems he designed much of Cranbook and  some things at the University  of Michigan as well. It was not, everyone agreed ,"Lewis" or "Sagan." Ha Ha.

A word of caution for imbibers. Plan your visit to the Cash Bar carefully. The Cranbrook Art Museum, however fun and free spirited  is not  the French Quarter of New Orleans. Quite understandably beverages are restricted  a small area. which means if you sip and talk you will be staying perhaps longer than you intended.

Artist Studios

When I emerged, the verbal mime party at the top of the stairs was starting to break up and the museum was slowly emptying, but  I found what I was looking for and more .By  an abstract I saw a couple. She was explaining to him that if you looked at the painting long enough, things happened .My mother used to say a painting in a museum in San Francisco did the same thing. Look and keep on looking and the fog would dissipate and the harbor would appear.
When they left I tried it and it didn't work for me, I didn't think it would.. Then I went downstairs and found this .....
It is what happens when you take pictures with a dirty lens or in the rain. Only the artist was doing neither. It could also be rain drops on a windshield. The depth is startling and the more you look at the more you see . The painting definitely has mojo.  I do  better looking at this second hand in a photo than I did standing in front of it. Maybe I was standing in the wrong spot. Definitely a street scene on a rainy night. Maybe it was . beginners luck or an easy picture but I was in no position to argue. I got it and it was good.
 And finally a painting  where the painter seems to be aware of the presence of the great  Thomas Hart Benton. A mural ? Yes. Real ? More so than Benton.  Benton's critics used to accuse him of social realism. Benton observed people and depicted them in a unique way. In rural pictures usually  without comment. In the murals about city's the  comments were caricatures. Here there are no people. The curves have been replaced with straight line slashes. What was round in Benton is warped here. A city is sliding into the abyss. It is already begun and apparently will continue. Toppled street signs  can bee seen center bottom. In Benton's world and art, storms and natural disasters were common. There was no blame. Nature is Nature. Here there is blame and anger but it is silent and  not directed. In front of the painting  are series of plastic boxes containing  signs of  people who seem much more optimistic that what the artist depicts.  One sign says "anything helps." In the above nothing helps. People observe it and move on.

You remember the man named "Carl" whose last name nobody could remember ?  It's Carl Milles who among other things designed the fountain below which everyone saw on the way in and out.

In Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited, 
Cordelia asks Charles, "Modern Art is all Bosh isn't it ?"
"Great Bosh." Charles replies.
"Oh I'm so glad", Cordelia says, "I had an argument with one of our nuns and she said we shouldn't try and criticize what we didn't understand. Now I shall tell her I have it straight from a real artist and snubs to her."

My wife asked me if all the stuff at the Cranbrook Art Museum was modern. I said  it was. There might have been some, Cezanne. I didn't see any but I'm  sure they have  some  somewhere. At one time Cezanne was modern and for awhile Thomas Hart Benton was his pupil. In the 1930's Benton was modern enough to make the cover of Time.

All bosh but  great bosh. Amusing, entertaining, and thought  provoking in an interesting and unpredictable sort of way. For $45 a year you can go every day if you desire and get other benefits as well. From many parts of the City you can walk. Not many communities have an art museum as renown as Cranbrook. and as one resident solemnly put it, "For two and a half years, I've waited of this moment."

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