When a city has a new art museum open, it’s a big deal. Since 1993, St. Louis has had four open. On our recent road trip, we visited all four of them in one day. It helped, of course, that they are all in the same neighborhood.
Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Opened in 2001, The Pulitzer Foundation doesn’t consider itself a museum, Rather, it is “a museum-like facility with galleries that are open to the public two days a week.” It focuses on 20th century and modern art, including many pieces on loan from the collection of Emily and the late Joseph Pulitzer. Yes, that Joseph Pulitzer. The work on display was a who’s who of the periods covered. It was also kind of a name-that-artist pop quiz: There are no labels on the walls, the idea being one should concentrate on the work itself rather than names and labels. Or as their site puts it, “The Pulitzer encourages a direct and contemplative viewing experience with the artworks, both as individual objects and in the context of the exhibition and the architecture. Labels and text can aesthetically interfere with this immediate visual experience.” They do make brochures available.
The building itself, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is an amazing visual experience, austere and clean, perfectly designed to put the art it houses front and center. It also makes extensive use of natural light.
But for me, the star of this museum [okay, sort of museum] is Joe, a giant torqued spiral of weathering Cor-ten steel by Richard Serra. Commissioned by Emily to commemorate her late husband, its canted, curving walls are disorienting as you move to the center of the sculpture. Once inside, though, you feel as if you’ve entered a monumental, serene sanctuary. I had already wanted to see the huge Serra retrospective currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Having visited this piece, I really, really, really want to see it.
Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Opened just two years later and right next door to the Pulitzer, this museum grew out of St. Louis’s Forum for Contemporary Art, which itself had evolved over several years, locations and iterations. The Contemporary is a non-collecting museum. It displays only temporary exhibitions. This allows it to present not just contemporary work, but work that is absolutely current. If their two current exhibitions, Katie Holten: Paths of Desire and Shoot The Family [unflinching but still loving photographic family portraits] are any indication, this is an excellent model for a museum. The building, by Brad Cloepfil, principal architect of Allied Works of Portland, Oregon, is an exciting environment designed—as the architect put it—as “an intentional vacancy that achieves meaning through the art itself.” It is a museum I look forward to visiting again and again.
The other two museums we visited are both on the campus of St. Louis University, a few blocks from the Pulitzer and the Contemporary, in the blossoming midtown arts and theater district.
Museum of Contemporary Religious Art. Even though this museum opened in 1993, before we left St. Louis for Chicago, I’d never visited it before. The word ‘religious’ was the deal breaker for me, especially since it is part of a Jesuit school. I pictured lots of crucifixes [crucifi?] and pietas, only not even Renaissance or Baroque, so not exactly my cup of jasmine. Turns out I was wrong. They’ve had shows by Keith Haring. By the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. They’ve had the largest ever U.S. installation of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, filling the entire former chapel that is now home to this small museum with silver mylar rectangular balloons and using powerful fans to move them around in the space [we saw a smaller installation at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—it was so involving, so much fun]. And the museum clearly embraces all religions. They once had an inflatable reclining Buddha sculpture, lifesized [if such a term applies to sculptures of sculptures]. The staff would occasionally deflate and reinflate it. The museum director said that watching it deflate was as close to watching someone die as he had ever come.
The exhibit we saw, mostly smallish paintings by pioneering German abstract painter Oskar Fischinger, didn’t exactly rock my world. But their complete lack of overtly religious imagery opened my eyes to another little gem of a museum in St. Louis.
St. Louis University Museum of Art. The impressive Beaux Arts home of this museum was originally built in 1900 as the home of the St. Louis Club. As impressive as the building’s grandeur from another age was the current exhibit—Elusive Light: Michael Eastman Retrospective. The St. Louis photographer’s super-sized, voluptuous photographs of Cuba, Europe, America, horses and landscapes sing with color and light. The architectural shots celebrate elegance and decay.
Oh, and the cost of this museum mini-orgy? Zip. Even at the Contemporary, where we loitered at the entry desk expecting to pay the five bucks the website said we’d be charged, the staffers chatted amiably with us for several minutes before finally sending us off with a cheerful, “Enjoy the museum!” Of course, free is big in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum, whose building and splendid collection began with the 1904 World’s Fair, lives up to its slogan, “Dedicated to Art and Free to All.” And the St. Louis Zoo, one of the finest in the world, is also one of only maybe four free zoos in the nation.
Art Bonus. In addition to seeing four new [to us] museums, we also managed to catch a fun gallery opening at Mad Art, a gallery that has opened in a former 1930s Art Deco police station [again, thanks, Claire!]. Graffiti artist Peat Wollaeger works mainly with stencils and spray paint to create his images. Mountain Dew became interested in him after seeing viral videos on his website. They commissioned him to create artwork for more than 70,000 16-ounce aluminum bottles. For more information, visit Peat’s website.