Sunday, October 28, 2012

Day 48/60: Nashville Museums

What a day!

The first time I went outside, it was gray and cold. Every time I went outside after that it was colder; light rain intermittently. This did not stop us from savoring the best of Nashville.

First stop, Fisk University. This institution has been at the center of a big art controversy for about seven years. Through personal connections, Fisk acquired a small collection of first rate paintings and  a number of other works of interest from the estate of Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the great early collectors of modern art. When the university's budget got tight several years ago, it naturally occurred to some bean-counter type that their star painting by O'Keeffe alone would raise enough money to make much needed repairs, so they proposed de-accessing the collection, hoping to keep it intact. This raised a hubbub because donors and potential donors like to think of gifts as being permanently in place. The case was in court several years. Then dear Alice Walton, inheritor of the Walmart fortune, came to the rescue with a compromise: share the art, in exchange for big bucks. Walton's new museum Crystal Bridges will have the art part of the time, and it will be at the Fisk part of the time. Details are still being worked out. We wanted to see the collection before this disruption takes place.

The star of the show is O'Keeffe's 'Radiator Building,' the only one by her. They gave all her other major pieces to major museums around the country. The largest quantity at the Fisk was Marsden Hartley, showing his enormous range from delicate desert-scape to bold abstraction. There was a fabulous portrait of Stieglitz by Florine Stettheimer. A couple of nice pieces by Gino Severini. Of the Europeans, mostly sketches. All in all, quite worthwhile. Not allowed to carry a camera in the gallery.

The next objective was to see some mural decoration by Aaron Douglas, a Black American artist who  taught at Fisk much of his career. He decorated a former card catalog room in their old library. These were uplifting depictions of various aspects of academia, simplified and stylized. They are modest works in moss green and pale yellow, but pretty. We also sought out some decoration in an administrative office that was nice.

Then we went over to their new library. On the third floor is an art gallery, with an eclectic collection of quality work, ranging from a Calder design worked up in jute to an early work by Martin Puryear.

For lunch we went to the student cafeteria. $6.75 all you can eat; wide variety of stuff from fried fish to spaghetti; terrific home-made yellow sheet cake with fudge icing. Fisk is predominently African American. The students seemed very quiet and serious in the cafeteria. They were chatting, but there was no cutting up or loud laughter.

We were pretty conspicuous. Staff and students were cordial. Every place we went on campus, people were very helpful and friendly.

Then we dashed downtown to the Frist Art Center. Notice: Fisk University and Frist Art Center. We had to get this straight. We had researched and planned for the three art venues at the Fisk, but Dan figured this one out on the fly.

The Frist is a new art center, since 2000. It is housed in a huge Post Office built in 1930, in a Federalist/Art Deco style. Beautiful art deco interior. Nashville used to be a major regional hub for mail. I am so happy they re-purposed this fine building.

The big show was German Expressionism from the Detroit Institute of Arts. We've been to the museum in Detroit a couple of times and always appreciated their modern German works, but their collection is much too large to show, except in a traveling exhibition like this. No photography, of course, but Dan had photographed some of the important works in Detroit: a handful of amusing works by Kokoshka, a great one by Kirchner, one by Franz Marc. Very rich.

The most exciting part was that we discovered a major contemporary artist that we had not known about: Carrie Mae Weems. She is a photographer, a black woman, whose conceptual range is very impressive; she is at least as important as Cindy Sherman, and I'm happy to have seen her work in bulk. What fascinated me was the stories she wrote to accompany some of her sequences of photos; she is very poetic, insightful and revealing.

In the thirties, the regional Post Office was right next to the railway, and on the other side was a handsome stone railway station. Just as the PO has been re-purposed as an art museum, the train station has been redone as a magnificent hotel. Really. All the details of the interior decoration were tasteful and grand. Stained glass windows. Relief carvings of the angels of transportation. Decoration with a theme. In the lobby bar, I had a latte and Dan drank a beer. A guitarist was playing in the lobby, lobby-jazz standards. It was very cool. I took lots of pictures.

On the way back to the motel, we stopped at the Cinco de Mayo restaurant. We both ordered grilled tilapia; it was perfect. The place had been quiet and easy-going the previous evening, but Friday night it filled up with fertile and noisy families.

Dan has been trying to follow the Giants through the play-offs and the Series, but he is so tired by the time the game comes on (sometimes not till 9:00), that he doesn't see much before he falls asleep. First question on his mind the next day, How did the Giants do?

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