America's art cities

By Chris Leadbeater

Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum is an artwork in itself. Photo / Supplied
Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum is an artwork in itself. Photo / Supplied

Pay a visit to Washington DC's Smithsonian American Art Museum, and you can gaze at the bright splendour of Cape Cod Morning, a watercolour of light and hope crafted in 1950 by the iconic New York painter Edward Hopper.

In some ways, this happy vision where a woman peers through her window at the arrival of a New England day is a neat encapsulation of the USA as a whole: prone to optimism, ever looking for the next dawn.

But it is also a reminder that, though it is rarely the first of its facets to be celebrated, America has long produced great artists and glorious art. True, these titans of the canvas are often lost behind a crowd scene of other US legends - gleam-toothed actors; hoop-holing sportsmen and podium-posing politicians. But they are there all the same: Georgia O'Keeffe with her floral close-ups, Big Apple vistas and New Mexico landscapes; Jackson Pollock with his intense swirls; Andy Warhol and his celebrity-inflected pop art.

And with them comes a whispered secret: should you choose, you can indulge a passion for painting and sculpture for the staunchly traditional or the belligerently modern; for home-spun works or international masterpieces in just about every city in the country.

You can do this in the cultural temples of Washington DC, New York and Chicago - or in less-known galleries from Seattle to Birmingham via Boise and Wichita. You will find high concepts and bluntly provocative daubings, sharp slices of insight and bleak, impenetrable nightmares. But if visual culture is your thing, America has much to offer. The only question, perhaps, is where to start

HIDDEN GEMS

The idea of America as a country infused with art is brought home by the numerous kernels of culture located in cities that do not sit immediately in the holidaymaker's path.

Providence, for example, has the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design. Here the latest exhibition, America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now (work above until 13 January) throws out myriad raw vistas and tree-swathed snapshots.

A few states south along the East Coast, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington pins itself to another fine cache of American art, including Edward Hopper's soft Summertime (1943).

Hopper is present in darker form via his 1921 etching Night Shadows at the excellent Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, as is Georgia O'Keeffe, whose superb 'From The Lake No 1' (1924) has waves rising in layers of paint.

The Boise Art Museum in Idaho's capital, gazes out at the American north-west that surrounds it. Next up is Left Unsaid (24 November-3 March), examining stark creations by local artist Troy Passey.

And America's geographical heartland has its artistic exclamation marks. The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha surveys the fields of Nebraska from a pristine 1931 Art Deco structure, combining Renoir and Monet with Native American painting and sculpture.

Elsewhere, the Wichita Art Museum, the largest gallery in Kansas, has 7000 works, including pieces by "cowboy artist'' Charles Russell - all dusty plains and open horizons.

GRAND EASTERN ESTABLISHMENTS

America's north-east is home to a cluster of what might be deemed some of the planet's finest galleries. New York alone is an art aficionado's dream. The Metropolitan Museum of Art ranks as the largest art museum in the country, home to two million works. It runs the gamut of European masters, but also has space for American moments such as Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) (1950).

Similarly revered, the Museum of Modern Art does outbursts of dashing and daring, covering architecture, design and film as well as art. Warhol's seismic Campbell's Soup Cans (1962) - the canvas equivalent of an arched eyebrow - is one of the venue's main attractions.

You'll find further dabs of the modern at the Guggenheim Museum, which parades the best of the 20th century including Picasso's Landscape At Cret (1911) in a cylindrical Frank Lloyd Wright building that's an artwork in itself.

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has a strong domestic emphasis. Its Art of the Americas Wing focuses on North, South and Central America, which takes in everything from Mayan ceramics to striking works of Native American genius.

A weighty rival to the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago is the second-largest art museum in the USA. Particularly good on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, offerings include Van Gogh's melancholy Self Portrait (1887).

Washington DC also has its say. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery co-exist as two galleries in one building. The former dispenses US brushstrokes such as O'Keeffe's Manhattan (1932) while the latter is noted for presidential portraits. The National Gallery of Art reverts to Europe via Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Matisse.

SPECIAL SUBJECTS

If you want to look at the artist as much as the art, you can also find institutions that are dedicated solely to the name above the door. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum eulogises this female art pioneer in Santa Fe - the dry contours of New Mexico having hugely informed her work. And the blondest art star of the 1960s is remembered at the Andy Warhol Museum in his native Pittsburgh - a treasure trove of photos, film, paintings and sculptures including Self Portrait In Drag (1981).

Tucked away in Nyack, New York State, the Edward Hopper House Art Center treads a rather more traditional line, showing examples of Hopper's oeuvre in his childhood home.

Jackson Pollock is similarly recalled at the Pollock-Krasner House, the property in East Hampton on Long Island, east of New York City, that he shared with his artist wife Lee Krasner.

WEST COAST WONDERS

As a city renowned for glitz and glamour, it should be no great shock that Los Angeles embraces art with relish.

The J Paul Getty Museum proffers two sites, one in Malibu, one in Brentwood with the latter, the Getty Center, splitting its attention between European stalwarts (Turner, Manet, Renoir, Titian) and a outdoor sculpture area that features Henry Moore's 1985 human study Bronze Form.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, meanwhile, serves up three cutting-edge LA locations. At the main Grand Center location, a feast of post-war creativity is on display includes Roy Lichtenstein's Navajo, Seated (1957).

The age-old competition between California's two largest cities ensures fertile art turf in San Francisco.

The de Young Museum delivers a glut of American art from the 17th century onwards, with spotlights directed at Bay Area artists.

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco was formerly part of the de Young Museum. But it has proved so successful that it now operates from its own premises. Across some 17,000 exhibits, the museum takes in inspired and inspiration pieces from Iran, Korea, China and Japan.

A defiantly creative city, Seattle is also a west coast art hotspot. The Seattle Art Museum covers many bases, its main building playing host to early American watercolours, while the attached Olympic Sculpture Park is home to giant al fresco works, including Alexander Calder's metal Eagle (1971).

SOUTHERN SOPHISTICATION

The sheer size of Houston demands an art institution of suitable stature. So it proves with the Museum of Fine Arts, which tempers the urban sprawl of the Texas metropolis with 63,000 exhibits. A wealth of Impressionism includes one of Monet's timeless 1907 Water Lilies.

Smaller of scale, but no less intriguing, the Birmingham Museum of Art fits in with the jazz and civil rights history of this burgeoning Alabama city.

To see one of Norman Rockwell's classics, the wartime heroine Rosie the Riveter (1943), head to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Here, the story of the USA is also told via pieces like Charles Willson Peale's 1780 portrait of George Washington.

Further glimpses of the American soul are available at West Virginia's Huntington Museum of Art, which includes John Singer Sargent's Near June Street, Worcester, Massachusetts (1890).

The Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia sees Rubens and Czanne rub shoulders with Hopper's New York Pavements (1924).

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