|IF YOU GO
The Allen Memorial Art Museum87 North Main St., Oberlin, OhioFor more information, call (440) 775-8665 or visit www.oberlin.edu/allenart .
The Detroit Institute of Arts5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Mich. For more information, call (313) 833-7900 or visit www.dia.org.
The Toledo Museum of Art 2445 Monroe St., Toledo, OhioFor more information, call (419) 255-8000 or visit www.toledomuseum.org.
The Butler Institute of American Art524 Wick Ave., Youngstown, Ohio For more information, call (330) 743-1711 or visit www.butlerart.com.
Small Museum, Big Names: Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum
My name is Ian, and I have a problem. I’m addicted ... to the Cleveland Museum of Art. I moved to town almost eight years ago, and I can still count on one hand the number of months that I’ve been able to resist the museum’s allure.
Remember the Schreckengost exhibition of 2001? I do. Real well. I saw it four times. And though I have not missed a major exhibition since 1997, it’s the permanent collection that really draws me in. I cannot go for more than a few months without a hit of my personal favorites, such as John Rogers Cox’s “Grey and Gold,” or George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey’s.”
Imagine my shock, then, when I learned that the better part of the CMA would be closed for the better part of six years. And for six months of that, the lights will be completely dark. I’d have to go cold turkey.
Or would I? There’s no denying the rush I got from the sheer magnificence of the Cleveland Museum. But could I have misdiagnosed my addiction? Perhaps it’s just the art I crave. Maybe other venues can assuage my needs. I have to find out.
I’ve heard some encouraging reports about Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and, at only an hour away from Cleveland Heights (much quicker from the West Side), it is the closest comprehensive art museum around. (The redesigned Akron Art Museum does not open until next summer.)
First impressions are important, and the Allen does not disappoint. The Italian Renaissance-style building is a resplendent work of art. The giant Claes Oldenburg three-pronged plug on the front lawn, while not quite his “Free Stamp,” evokes the comfortable familiarity of home. This just might work.
Inside, I peruse the two special exhibits before tackling the permanent collection. The first features classical architectural ruins in French landscape painting from the 17th and 18th centuries. Though it sounds like a niche field to me, it turns out to be a large niche. The 30 or so paintings are intricate and beautiful and come from many of the country’s great museums. The Allen had even curated the show itself.
Next up, a collection of drawings from modern artist extraordinaire and Ohio native Jim Dine in a large room befitting his works, many of which are life-sized human drawings. As I am familiar with the headless “Venus,” Dine’s classic sculpture that graces the new federal courthouse, it’s eye-opening to compare the stylistic and media diversity in his work.
With expectations now so high, I’m disappointed, though not necessarily surprised, that the permanent collection cannot match the standard set by the special exhibits. Yes, many of the 20th century’s big names are here: Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Miro and Rothko, but none of the works strikes me as truly extraordinary. Still, I can’t argue with the pedigree.
Upon closer inspection, though, I do find some hidden gems. Displayed in a back-room case is a beautiful collection of Art Nouveau cameo glass. Next to that are some fetching (is there any other kind?) Tiffany glass pieces, and finally some Rookwood pottery. I might overlook goods this good in Cleveland, but they shine here.
Were this — extraordinary exhibits, big-name artists and hidden gems — the extent of the Allen’s offerings, I’d have already concluded that it was easily worth my trip. But wait, there’s more. Less than two miles from the museum, and nestled in an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood, I find a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house-cum-architectural showcase. Owned by Oberlin College and operated by the Allen, the small Usonian dwelling on a huge lawn is only open to the public on the first and third Sundays of the month.
Wright was never an architect to favor substance over style. The friendly guide explains all of the problems the house has presented its occupants — including, last semester, an Oberlin art history professor. For me though, the house offers a solution. Between it and the Allen, I now know where I’ll go to get the quick art fix I’ll need for years to come. — Ian Hoffman
Almost Like Family: The Detroit Institute of Arts
If you really start to miss the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection, miss it so much you want to visit a museum as much like Cleveland’s as you can, take a three-hour drive to Michigan. The Detroit Institute of Arts and Cleveland’s museum are like siblings: They grew up around the same time, with growth spurts in the 1910s and 1920s, when their parent cities were wildly successful in business. They have their own personalities, but you’ll keep noticing the family resemblance.
How can you miss it, when the main buildings have similar neo-classical influences? When both museums show off a casting of Rodin’s “The Thinker” outside their main entrances? Or when the first grand room you walk into, up the stairs from the lobby, is full of armor?
Detroit’s knights don’t dominate the room like in the CMA’s Armor Court, but the German and Italian armor in glass cases along the walls show off the same practical artistry. The wing nut on one jouster’s faceplate, to screw the helmet on, is at eye level. So are the little gargoyle-like faces over the ears on another suit, made for a member of the Medici family in Florence around 1550.
Like Cleveland’s museum, Detroit is going through a major renovation. But unlike the CMA, which will gradually start reopening its permanent galleries in 2007, the DIA is still displaying highlights of its collection in several rooms around the main court. The curators call them the “Remix” galleries, and they’ve had fun plotting surprising contrasts, playing the classical off the modern art.
That livened up the first gallery I visited recently with my sister and a friend, both Michiganders. The medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus didn’t excite us much, but they were cleverly placed to overlook a Rodin sculpture of Eve and Kiki Smith’s bronze and silica sculpture of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt.
Nearby, in the “Imagined Worlds” room, my friend thrilled to see Swiss artist Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” (1781), with its famous image of a surly little demon crouched on the stomach of a damsel draped backward over a bed. I liked the other nightmare vision it’s been paired with: Francis Bacon’s 1952 “Study for Crouching Nude,” which shows a human figure, head obscured, crouched on the metal bars of what looks like a bear trap inside a deep pit.
The themed room “Portraits: Mask or Mirror?” shows off the DIA’s strong collection of self-portraits. Andy Warhol’s “Double Self-Portrait” (1967) — identical photos, one screened red and yellow, the other red and a deep green that obscure his face — hangs near Van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait” — no, not the one with his ear cut off, but a warm painting showing the artist in a yellow hat, his beard yellow-brown, catching sunlight.
Our favorite room was the catchall “Everyday Life” room. Hanging from its ceiling is the DIA’s biggest gag gift, “Giant Three-Way Plug” (1970) by Claes Oldenburg, the artist who gave the “Free Stamp” to Cleveland and a similar electrical plug to Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum. We got lost for a long time staring at Jean Dubuffet’s 1961 “Le Filandreux Successeur,” a seemingly abstract jumble of shapes, colors and French words that eventually reveals itself to be a Paris street, with storefronts and people in apartments above them. My sister and I did our best to translate the signs from the crooked businesses, such as “shadowy bank” and “double-talkers.” Meanwhile, my friend got engrossed in his favorite painting at the DIA: William Adolphe Bouguereau’s “The Nut Gatherers” (1882). In it, a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl in a field gazes warmly at her dark-haired companion holding nuts in her hand. “Tell me there’s not a secret between these two,” he said.
We finished off with a tour of the best-ofs from Asia and Africa, where I discovered an ancient treasure I’ve somehow never seen in any of my other DIA visits: one of the brick-tiled dragons from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. Nearby, the Egyptian room once more reminded me of the CMA. I came face-to-face with a friendly stone lion’s head — Detroit’s “Head of Goddess Sakhmet” — just like Cleveland’s.
— Erick Trickey
Steeltown Art: The Butler Institute of American Art
Most of the dominant structures of my 1970s Youngstown childhood had smokestacks. But the one place that made me forget I lived in a steel town was the Butler Institute of American Art. My father used to take me there on winter Saturdays before I was tall enough to reach the bottom of the frames, and the Butler was always on my school’s field-trip schedule.
A few decades and many trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art (my hometown museum since 1999) later, I still feel the warmth of familiarity when I see Alfred Leslie’s 9-foot-tall images just inside the Butler’s entrance. “Americans: Youngstown, Ohio” looks like some of my parents’ old friends, now gone gray or just gone. Leslie’s exacerbated details — the worry lines, the old woman’s swollen knuckles, but mostly just the hugeness of the figures takes me back to a time when all adults really did seem much larger than they were.
The Italian Renaissance Revival building has stood on Wick Avenue since 1919, when industrialist Joseph G. Butler Jr. first filled the building with American works dating back to 1719. Now the Butler has four centuries of American art housed in its recently restored and expanded walls.
It celebrates all stripes of the country’s art, including the one people most expect to see here: socially conscious art spawned by economic despair. A few notable works illustrate the region’s history, including Edward Hopper’s “Pennsylvania Coal Town” and William Gropper’s “Youngstown Strike,” based on the real strike of 1916 when police confronted protesters, including steelworkers’ wives gathered outside the mills, shooting and killing three workers. Gropper imagined the moment after the shootings for this emphatic, almost-cartoonlike 1937 painting with the women weeping over their dead.
Yet, this collection surprises too. There is a wing devoted to the genre paintings of the late 1800s, including Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip,” the spirited 1872 portrait of boys running barefoot across a hillside, and the requisite still lifes of fruit and dead game.
Perhaps the most interesting exhibit is devoted to American Indians. Knowing their culture was becoming extinct, artist Elbridge Ayer Burbank accepted a commission to paint two portraits of members of every tribe in the West. He didn’t complete it, but Butler bought 118 of his unexuberant, photograph-quality paintings. Accompanying the detailed, often profiled, portraits are Burbank’s notes, which lend even more context and illumination. One depicts a squaw with her baby, who died before their portrait was finished. Burbank wrote that members of the tribe blamed him and notes that another squaw sat for him, so he could finish it.
Burbank’s most heralded work, “Snake Dance,” captures the Hopi’s closed, nine-day ritual to bring rain. In 1907, Burbank was permitted to observe and paint the ceremony because of his close relationship with the tribe.
That the Butler houses such important works shouldn’t be the secret it is. Over the last century at least, the Mahoning Valley has been through more change than most American regions, more lows than highs, more bad than good. But its residents have done one thing right decade after decade: They’ve kept this place a treasure.
— Jacqueline Marino
Art of Glass: The Toledo Museum of Art
They say Toledo is the Glass City. And, I confess, my expectations of finding great art in this industrial town are as tempered as the product that put it on the map.
As I navigate the Toledo Museum of Art’s surrounding neighborhood, I find it, well ... sketchy. And while, at first blush, sketchy might sound appropriate for an art museum, trust me, it’s not. This could be worse than I figured. But, lo, when I finally reach my destination, the classical revival-style building sits on a large, leafy green campus — an oasis in the urban blight.
As I peruse the museum’s collection, I quickly realize that my meager expectations have rendered me ill-prepared for the treasures that await.
Perhaps I should have done more research prior to my visit. The museum’s Web site puffs, “Visitors from other cities or countries are often astounded by the art on display in our galleries. ... [They] find world-famous paintings, sculpture and decorative arts in nearly every gallery.” High praise to be sure, but the thing is — and I’ll swear on a stack of Seurats — it’s true.
I begin with art from the ancient world. Most impressive are the Grecian slip-decorated earthenware vessels from 500 to 400 B.C. While they don’t inspire me to verse, they are noteworthy nonetheless. In fact, the large room where the vessels are displayed, along with lifelike Roman statues and deathly Egyptian sarcophagi, feels quite like a condensed version of that famous wing at the British Museum.
Sufficiently impressed, I move to my traditional favorites, works from the 20th century. Surely these cannot maintain the high standard already set. If so, I would be perilously close to concluding this museum in Toledo — Toledo! — is a real rival to my beloved Cleveland museum. That just cannot happen, right?
Well, maybe it can.
The 20th century collection is strong. A few pieces, though, really stand out. I find a Georgia O’Keeffe painting -— the subject of which is neither a feminized flower nor a New Mexico desert — that uncharacteristically and refreshingly depicts a boat’s sail in close-up. Similarly, Thomas Cole’s “The Architect’s Dream” bowls me over by departing from his bucolic Hudson River themes to compile all the major Western architectural styles in one landscape on one canvas.
A work by Anselm Kiefer also catches my eye. Though an oversized mixed-media painting from the contemporary German seems de rigueur for any serious museum today, Toledo’s piece is unusual in that it’s so geometric. It is just not possible to top Cleveland’s “Lot’s Wife,” but still, the piece at hand is altogether impressive.
I am, as the Web site prophesies, “astounded” by the rest of the collection as well. There is a huge room full of mostly 16th and 17th century biblically-themed paintings rendered by Western European artists and hung on sumptuous red walls. I find the room next door even more interesting — it’s been converted into a French cloister, complete with bubbling fountain and chanting monks
And it’s not just the artwork that makes my visit such a pleasure. Many of the rooms have high ceilings and skylights, giving the building an airy, clean feel. The atmosphere is soothing enough to make me, dare I say it, glad that Cleveland’s building will undergo the throes of remodeling. If our final product meets or exceeds Toledo’s environs, it will be time and money well spent.
And one more thing. As impressive as it all is, I don’t even get to see the TMA’s pièce de résistance, its massive glass collection. Next summer an entirely separate annex will open to showcase those gems. Does Toledo’s museum outshine ours in Cleveland? No, but does it really matter? With art this good, this close, this free, the next six years are going to be a lot easier to take.