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The Power of Words: New on View at Crystal Bridges

Sandow Birk, b. Monument to the Constitution of the United States, 2012 Direct gravure in black ink on paper Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

Three works recently installed or soon to be installed in the museum’s permanent collection use the written word to examine the ideas of nation-building, the evolution of an ideal, and the perspective of history. All three artists will be participating in Crystal Bridges’ upcoming symposium, Art in Conversation: Environment, Identity, and Memory, taking place on April 7 and 8. Interpretation Manager Samantha Sigmon briefly introduces each of these.


Monument to the Constitution

Monument to the Constitution of the United States, by Sandow Birk, is a recent acquisition and has not previously been viewed at Crystal Bridges.

Los-Angeles-based artist Sandow Birk often looks at sacred and historical texts in his work to comment on large-scale societal issues today. Inspired by a residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, in Monument to the Constitution of the United States, Birk reexamines the understanding of the nation’s founding text as a living document that affects the everyday lives of Americans. In doing so, he provides the complete text and all amendments of the Constitution, and embellishes the Bill of Rights with images depicting their effects on people’s routine activities.


The artist presents the words of the Constitution as part of an enormous monument, which is itself a work in progress, with cranes and machinery visible over the wing of the structure where the constitutional amendments are inscribed. His representation underscores the document as one that provides a foundation for our nation, but is constantly being built upon and adapted as the needs and circumstances of those it governs change over time.


Decline and Fall

Michael Waugh, b. 1967
Decline and Fall (Selected Readings from Volumes 1, 2, and 3)
Ink on Mylar, triptych
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas


Words are also the chosen medium of Michael Waugh’s Decline and Fall (Selected Readings from Volumes 1, 2, and 3), a triptych that was on view in 2011 as part of Crystal Bridges’ inaugural exhibition of the permanent collection, but has not been in the galleries since then, due to its sensitivity to light. (You can read more about how light can be damaging to sensitive works of art here.)


At first glance, this triptych seems to simply depict three animals in a charred landscape. However, the artist is directly disagreeing with statements made in Edward Gibbon’s book, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which claimed that the adoption of Christianity “feminized” and weakened Romans, and was to blame for the empire’s demise. Make sure to look at this work closely when you see it in the gallery; the images are created entirely out of scribbled words from Gibbon’s book.


Together, the three images in this triptych tell the story of the Roman Empire’s fall. The left scene, featuring a bear with a mauled deer, includes text describing the Empire’s military might. The second panel, depicting a bear hugging himself under a smoldering cross, describes the capture of Rome and religious disputes. In the final panel, a lone wolf symbolizes a late-era violent leader of the Empire.


Here, as in Birk’s work above, the power of words to create worlds is taken quite literally, as the written words form the images. Waugh also explores the power words have to shape and influence the way future readers may interpret historical events.


We the People

Nari Ward
We the People (black version), 2015
8 ft. × 27ft.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas,
Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music,
1965 to Now, MCA Chicago, July 11—November 22, 2015

The words of the Constitution of the United States feature prominently in another new acquisition for the museum, which will be installed over a multi-day period later this month in our 1940s to Now Gallery: We the People (black version), by Nari Ward.


Nari Ward is known for his sculptures made from found materials discovered in and around New York City. In We the People, he used colorful shoelaces to write out the three most recognizable words of the United States Constitution. The artist is interested in the idea that we all know these words, but we don’t always think about what they mean.


By using shoelaces, Ward is able to give “we the people” a new meaning: these words no longer only represent grand ideals written by the founding fathers of the United States hundreds of years ago. Created using a common, everyday object, the words are treated as being woven into our daily lives.



Symposium, April 7 and 8

Don’t miss this opportunity to meet the artists and join in on discussions about the power of art to document, memorialize, and offer commentary on our collective and individual world views.  Click here for more information or to register.


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