Sunday, February 15, 2009

A serious art museum in Austin? Blanton's permanent collection improving with Latin American additions

Kathy and I went to UT-Austin's Blanton Museum of Art yesterday afternoon, and they've improved their collection a lot since I'd been there last.

A commissioned work covering the walls and stairs at the main entrance - tiles resembling stacked water in rolling waves of blue - really improved the visitors' first impression. And at the top of the stairs leading to the main galleries, they've installed a gorgeous African piece made of metal strips from Nigerian liquor bottles sewn together with copper wire to look (from a distance) like a woven blanket with tribal patterns. Very cool, and a step forward from the European dominated pieces that formed the base of their initial collection.

They're developing a significant Latin American base for their permanent collection - a decision which, as a lover of Mexican art, I can only applaud. Among the new pieces acquired since I last visited was a small painting by David Siquieros, the Mexican painter who once tried to assassinate Leon Trotsky. I didn't know previously that Siquieros was a mentor of Jackson Pollock. You could see from the painting they'd chosen how Pollock's "controlled accidents" may have evolved in part from Siquieros' stylings, though I'm not sure I'd have otherwise made the connection.

An acquisition fund left to the museum by writer James Michener has been used to purchase a number of excellent new pieces from Latin America and elsewhere, including the piece pictured above by Jerry Bywaters, a former Dallas Morning News art critic and co-founder of the Dallas Nine, a group of artists who became known when they (unsuccessfully) tried to get permission to decorate the interior of the Hall of State on the state fair grounds during Texas' centennial celebrations.

I think that's exactly the direction they should take the museum's collection, fulfilling a niche that to my knowledge nobody else has taken. I'm not aware of a serious, permanent collection of Latin American art on US soil, certainly not in Texas, and there's a lot of wonderful historical and artistic ground to cover. Let somebody else do ancient Greece and the European masters.

That said, the European art in the Blanton is certainly impressive, just not in any way unique. I've got a fascination with religious history so I especially appreciate the Christian art from the 15th and 16th century they've compiled, which includes some beautiful pieces. A series of drawings featured in a collection of art from the era of Pope Clement included sketches for larger murals and elaborate drawings of action scenes commissioned for an international Jubilee in 1600. The most vivid of these (and there were several) depicted attacks on soldiers by wild lions. They were beautiful to look at, but quite classical not particularly interesting, as art exhibits go. If you visit big museums with any frequency, you've seen much like it before.

When the Blanton first opened, I was particularly unimpressed with their collection. But by my third visit yesterday, their team of curators had bolstered that initial batch of art with numerous quality additions, giving me hope that, before long, Austin may actually have a serious, quality museum with exhibitions rivaling those in Houston and Fort Worth.

As an aside, by comparison to the ever-improving Blanton, the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum across the street, by all accounts, remains a complete mess - if they didn't have an IMAX theater, I can't imagine why anyone would go there.

That's a source of embarrassment to me because I care a lot about Texas history and think there's much of significance besides nostalgia and schlock for them to present, but that would require more serious and creative curation. Perhaps as the Blanton's collection improves, with a serious museum across the street the Texas History Museum will ultimately be shamed into presenting a more serious collection.

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