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What are your favorite pieces? — Visiting the Des Moines Art Center (#1159)

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, Art

Yesterday, I took my research students to the Des Moines Art Center. I try to take my research students to the Art Center every year. We often do work related to image making, and I think it’s helpful to look at the variety of images and approaches represented at the Art Center. I also think experience with culture (cultures?) is appropriate. And it’s an excuse to go out to lunch together to build community [1].

While at the Art Center, I saw two colleagues from the Humanities whose last names differ by only the first letter. They made an all-too-common comment, It’s nice that we have science faculty who value the arts. And then they asked the question that folks usually ask other people when they meet at a museum,

What’s your favorite piece?

I’ve been visiting the Art Center for long enough that it’s hard to pick just one. And so I gave multiple answers.

There are lots of pieces of love here, not all of which are on display right now. One of my favorites involves carefully traced and cut lines on paper. It’s fragile, so I don’t think it can be displayed for very long. I haven’t seen it in a few years [3].

I also love the Donald Judd steel boxes that are normally in the big sculpture room [4].

And of course, I enjoy the Maya Lin glass globes and the terrifying plaster-cast bodies that remind me of the holocaust [5].

Can you tell that I’m a materials person? That isn’t to say that I don’t love, say Hoppers’ Automat or Francis Bacon’s Study After Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X [6], but there’s something I particularly appreciate about materials. Of course, I also find myself drawn to works with patterns or algorithms, such as the Judd boxes or many of LeWitt’s wall drawings [7].

In any case, I moved on to current things.

There were two still lives by Grant Wood [8] that I don’t remember seeing before and I found compelling. I’m not always a fan of Wood’s landscapes or portraits, but there was something special about these.

I always enjoy pieces by El Anatsui, and the one that’s up now is no exception [9,10].

I like the Elias Sime, but I must admit that I prefer the ones with circuit boards.

I didn’t mention that I still like his use of cinderblock-sized boards to build his pieces. I also didn’t mention the joy I got from seeing the Sime show at Hamilton. I could have spent days there. If I recall correctly, I was able to fit in three hour-long visits. But I did say something else about the Sime.

I’m trying to decide how I feel about placing the El Anatsui and the Sime across from each other. It feels a bit wrong, like an imperialist comment on how African artists work with reused materials.

But maybe I’m overly sensitive these days. I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with putting LeWitt and Lichtenstein in dialog across from each other. Perhaps one of my readers has a thought on the prior issue.

Somewhere in all that commentary, I added one more comment.

I especially enjoyed a new piece in that gallery; a ceramic piece about the artist struggling with his mortality [11].

I appreciated the part where there seem to be traces of him kneeling in worship to the central figure. And I liked the statement that,

Ceramics is the world’s most fascinating hobby.

The detail from a sculpture, showing a marble, a variety of kinds o findentations, and the text 'Ceramics is the world's most fascinating hobby' in all caps.

But that’s a sculpture that will take a few hours to investigate. And I know that’s how I should be spending my time at the museum [12]; focusing on the details of a few pieces rather than quick overviews of many pieces. Nonetheless, I was able to choose a few pieces to observe for ten minutes or so each, including the famous John Singer Sargent [14].

Did I mention the Goldsworthys to them? That falls in the pieces I normally love to see, not least because of its connection to Grinnell. I did tell my students about the wonderful picture of the CERA cairn amidst a prairie burn.

Did my colleagues think that I was too enthusiastic about too much? I hope not. I don’t think so.

And I haven’t covered all that I love about the Art Center. My other favorite part of visiting the Art Center is seeing relations to Grinnell on the acquisition information. The pieces donated by or funded by, say, Louise R. Noun ’29. Names like Cowles and Younker, which may be that they were leading Des Moines figures who donated to both the Art Center and Grinnell rather than Grinnell alums [15]. This visit was the first time I noticed that Gregg Narber ’68 had donated a large sculpture in the central courtyard.

What else? I should mention that we also got a quick sneak peek at the preparations for the Justin Favela show. It looks like it will be amazing. I’m sad to hear that most of the work will be ephemeral.

A photo taken through a door of colored paper being attached to a wall Another photo taken through a door of colored paper being attached to a wall

As always, I look forward to returning!

Postscript: I assume one of my colleagues will suggest that I also expose my students to experimental theatre. I’m open to suggestions.

Postscript: Yes, I also asked my colleagues what works they appreciated. One didn’t answer. The other chose a stunning Rodin, Nude Study for The Burghers of Calais: Pierre de Wiessant. We spent a bit of time dissecting the expression and arm gesture.

Postscript: I remember visiting the Art Center with mom. I wish we could have visited more. I wish we could still. I’m glad that I’ve started to develop some of her habit of assuming that others know the same artists I do.

Postscript: I don’t love everything at the Art Center. I’ve already mentioned that the LeWitt wall drawing is not among my favorite LeWitts. I still have trouble appreciating or understanding Lewis de Soto’s Shadow [18]. I understand much of the theory behind Jeff Koons’ New Shelton Wet/Dry Triple Decker, but it’s not a piece I need to visit with and I don’t find it as groundbreaking as earlier readymades. However, I do appreciate the IP issues that Koons’ work raises, intentionally or unintentionally.

Postscript: What are your favorite pieces at the Art Center?

[1] We had hoped to go to A Dong, but it was only doing take-out. We settled on Zombie Burger. I think A Dong would have been healthier for me [2].

[2] I got a mushroom sandwich, which is better than most things. And I avoided the shakes.

[3] I wish I could remember the artist’s name.

[4] I couldn’t remember Donald Judd’s name.

[5] The Flock II by Magdalena Abakanowicz.

[6] A student and I spent some time with that piece this time.

[7] However, I find the Art Center’s LeWitt wall painting less compelling than many of his other works. I like the Modular Piece sculpture, but that’s not currently where I’m used to seeing it in the Pappajohn Scuplture Garden. I see that it moved inside for a bit, but it’s not now on display.

[8] Vegetables and Basket of Fruit.

[9] See! More materials.

[10] In this visit, I learned that the El Atansui pieces drape differently each time they are hung. I would have expected that they had more of a fixed form. But I guess they are a kind of fabric, and fabric does not always drape in the same way.

[11] Robert Arneson’s Impression of the Artist as an Incorporeal Witness to the Center of the Universe.

[12] Thanks, Chen!

[14] I may be a materials person, but I also appreciate painting.

[15] Noun was a Grinnell alum. She also funded our women’s studies program, or at least created a named professorship [16].

[16] Well, I guess that was really her brother, Joe Rosenfield ’25 [17].

[17] In four years, are we going to rename the JRC to The Joe Rosenfield 1925 Center? If we do, I’ll no longer be able to make John Stone’s Joe’s Quarter joke.

[18] Even after listening to the audio tour.

Version 1.0 of 2021-07-15.