The Permanent Collection: The Des Moines Art Center Revisited

Interrupting Infinity Exclusive Commentary. © 2012 by David St.-Lascaux


“Man and Pegasus,” by Carl Milles, at the Des Moines Art Center. Photo by David St.-Lascaux, © 2010.

I NEVER MET FLORENCE CALL COWLES, Dwight Kirsch or Rose Frankel Rosenfield, but they, Eliel Saarinen, Richard Hamilton, Mark Rothko, and the artist / instructor who taught me collage and pastels at the Des Moines Art Center (her name now lost) when I was in elementary school made me who I am today.

Cowles, Kirsch and Rosenfield were forces behind of the Center’s 1950’s collection of modern American and European art. The significance of growing up with the recent, then-current Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze (Ballantine Ale) and Claes Oldenburg’s London Knees was something the teenage I didn’t fully grasp in the 60s, but it reflected the Center’s impeccable taste, timing, and active exhibition and collection of contemporary work.

The environment itself was magic. Built in 1948, the Center was designed by Saarinen fils in the Cranbrook lowrise modern / Frank Lloyd Wright Mission style with flat clay-yellow Lannon stone brick, floor-to-ceiling towering Mission / Deco / Mondrian pre-picture window paneled panes, polished travertine floors and Scandinavian-style rift-grain oakwood paneled walls that made the space a looming secular temple and brought the artwork down to size. Saarinen’s masterpiece was shortly thereafter complemented by the addition of the brand-new Man and Pegasus by sculptor Carl Milles, installed in the courtyard defined by the Center’s U-shaped structure, and which swept daringly up from a shallow reflecting pool. The Center itself looked down on a pyloned promenade to a snapping turtle based horologue-on-pedestal centered rose garden in adjacent Greenwood Park, where budding artists (as I would know) sat under long-needle pines and pondered spring flowers in charcoal and pastel.

The best in art and architecture from postwar America, later accreted.

Every time I visit the Center, I discover something new. It took me until 2012 to realize that the work collected at the Center’s inception was new at the time – the latest in modern art at the dawning of the postwar era. Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Amazing Juggler (1952) presents improbable, dissonant secondaries (purple, orange and green) to create unexpected beauty; the bronze in Alberto Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man) was, no doubt, still hot in 1949 (MoMA’s garden version isn’t better; of course, it’s probable that some of these works were acquired later, but they are still contemporary with the Center’s early period).

And the work as one floats on! Robert Henri’s Ballet Girl, Joseph Cornell’s Habitat for a Shooting Gallery, Henri Matisse’s Woman in White…. Francisco Goya, John Sloan, Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Jean Dubuffet, Paul Klee, Arthur Dove, Francis Bacon and Romare Bearden. And when you think there can’t possible be any more, a blank square Robert Ryman, a subtle Agnes Martin, a quintessential Ellsworth Kelly and a Frank Stellan Sol LeWitt knock your mind back some more.

A virgin visitor will find the Center an agglomerative architectural puzzlement, desecrated as it is by an anti-æsthetic bunker attached by I.M. Pei (under Thomas Tibbs), which cemented off and thus destroyed the view through the courtyard, eliminated the Center’s thematic auditorium, and violated Pei’s premise that architecture is “about the sun”; and a second predictable white tile convenience store car wash one-note tightrope latticework by Richard Meier (under James Demetrion). The optimist can dream that both of these abominations will eventually be torn down to restore the original building to its transcendent glory. Until then, they can both be essentially ignored to varying degrees when inside. Likewise the Center’s more recently collected works, which unfortunately include those of the toxic Takashi Murakami, are no longer dependably above reproach. Perhaps it never was so: the history of the Center, recounted in the spectacular book, An uncommon vision: the Des Moines Art Center, by Louise Rosenfield Noun, Franz Schulze, Amy N. Worthen and Christopher D. Roy, chronicles a backstory of anti-modern politics from the get-go, and conflicting contributions by a long succession of directors.

That the Center didn’t bill itself as a museum is key to understanding its founding intentions: as a center for artistic education and exploration, and as, analogously to Andrew Carnegie’s libraries, a resource “free to the people.” Today, as it probably did in 1949, that means corporate funding and patronage. Whether these fictional entities fear death as must do the listed doorway donors, I don’t know. A second park and pool, Ashworth, abuts the Center’s Greenwood, whereon in stone the story of the Ashworth family’s settlement in Iowa in 1851 is rosily presented, and that in 1924 two Ashworths gave Des Moines this park. A bas-relief covered wagon goes level west among idyllic, rolling hills, that easy.

It isn’t 1924 – or 1948 – anymore, and the art of 1952 is more than a half-century old. No matter. Time, as Martin and W.S. Merwin suggest, is artificial anyway. Perhaps that’s what makes the work in the Des Moines Art Center so timeless – and mythic. Seeing the college students massed in the foyer, their cortices about to be reshaped, makes one nostalgic for one’s own earlier discoveries. Bad news, I tell the Center’s staff, it won’t be as good as this after you die. Maybe hoping for heaven, they’re slightly shocked and disappointed, but they know I’m right.

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