This month Crystal Bridges welcomed Mindy Besaw to our curatorial staff. Mindy comes to us from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Whitney Western Art Museum. (You can read more about her background, as well as about two other Crystal Bridges curators, here.) I did a little Q&A with our new curator to introduce you to her interests and background. We look forward to offering more posts from our curators in the year ahead! –LD
What are your particular areas of interest or expertise? My education has covered American Art History in its entirety from Colonial to World War II. And to fully round out my base knowledge, I minored in “Art Since 1945.” My training, therefore, is similar in scope to the Crystal Bridges collection—American art from Colonial times to the present (which is also something that attracted me to Crystal Bridges).
My curatorial experience has focused primarily on art of the American West from the 1830s to today – both at the Denver Art Museum and most recently as the curator of the Whitney Western Art Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. I am also currently the co-curator for an upcoming exhibition, Painted Journeys: The Art of John Mix Stanley, organized by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. For me, art of the American West, however, is simply part of a larger story…
In your previous positions, your work has focused on art of the American West. Will you continue that focus at Crystal Bridges?Yes, and no. I will not have to abandon art of the American West, as we have many excellent representations in our collection—paintings by Charles Bird King, John Mix Stanley, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and Georgia O’Keeffe (especially Small Purple Hills, which was painted in New Mexico). But it’s important to remember that the distinction of a “western American artist” is somewhat arbitrary, and these are all American artists. For example, Thomas Moran is often associated with landscape subjects located in the West, such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but he also painted eastern scenes (like Valley of the Catawissa in Autumn in northeastern Pennsylvania). Frederic Remington is another artist associated primarily with cowboys, cavalry, and American Indians, yet he lived most of his life in New York and his artwork is insightful not just for the perception of the West, but for the ways in which it reflects cultural attitudes of America at the turn of the twentieth century. The American West plays an important part in our national identity, and I am particularly excited to see these “western” artists considered as part of the American story. I also look forward to expanding my focus beyond the American West.
What drew you to Crystal Bridges? I’ve already mentioned the collection, and the scope of the collection. I was also drawn by the wealth of opportunities to interpret the collection, develop exhibitions, and contribute in a meaningful way to the national and international conversations and developing scholarship related to American art. Crystal Bridges is perfectly positioned to both facilitate and lead those discussions.
What’s the first project you will begin working on here? After State of the Art closes, we will re-install the Twentieth-Century Art Gallery with our permanent collection. This is a great opportunity to rethink our presentation and interpretive plan, and I’m excited to be part of that team. I am also the coordinating curator for the upcoming exhibition, Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic: Landscape Painting in the Americas, which will open at Crystal Bridges in November 2015. The exhibition is organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art; Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo, Brazil; and the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada. The exhibition is the first to examine landscape painting in an inclusive pan American context, during a period in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when conceptions of land were instrumental in forming cultural identity.
Do you have a favorite work or artist in our collection?That’s a little like asking “who is your favorite child?”! For me, it depends on the day. My favorites range from Robert Henri’s dark and beautiful Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes, to John Singer Sargent’s mysterious Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, to Martin Johnson Heade’s stunning Gems of Brazil series. I have always been drawn to the way James Turrell’s work unfolds over time and embraces the viewer with light and The Way of Color is a brilliant example. The art historian in me is captured by the stories and meanings in The War News from Mexico by Richard Caton Woodville; and the depth in the number of paintings by Marsden Hartley, representing a wide range of his stylistic periods.
A few favorites in the State of the Art exhibition are Cobi Moules’s paintings of landscapes, especially Untitled (Avalanche Lake); John Douglas Powers’s Lalu; Vanessa German’s power figures; and Susie J. Lee’s mesmerizing portraits of North Dakota fracking workers. I could go on…Florine Stettheimer’s Alfred Stieglitz, John Mix Stanley’s The Buffalo Hunt, Thomas Hart Benton’s Tobacco Sorters, Thomas Eakins’s Professor Benjamin Howard Rand…and I know my list will grow as I get to know the collection more intimately.