MUSEUM ROAD TRIP
SACRAMENTO — I’ve always loved the Crocker Art Museum. Even the act of getting there. After I exit the confusing downtown tangle of freeways leading to the museum — yep, I’m still a little mystified by Sacramento traffic after all these years — I’m able to slip into the relaxed ambiance of the parklike setting. Seven years ago, the Crocker embarked on an ambitious expansion campaign, connecting a sleek modern building to the original 1871 mansion, and the result is a sophisticated blend of old and new that tripled the size of the museum.
On a recent drive through I reconnected with the museum, which I hadn’t visited in several years. I highly recommend dropping in the next time you’re in Sacramento. Give yourself a few hours to experience this high-caliber institution.
Here are five tips:
1. Don’t miss the strong special exhibitions. You’ll have to visit soon to catch “Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose,” which runs through Sept. 17. This exhibition highlights works by artists who have been prominently featured in the contemporary art magazine Hi-Fructose. There are 51 works in the show by such artists as Beth Cavener, Mark Ryden, Olek and Tara McPherson.
On my visit I got the chance to watch Mark Dean Veca, a Brooklyn-based artist, as he put the finishing touches on “Maddest Hatter,” his interactive, immersive installation that greets viewers when the elevator door opens. You step into a fluorescent pink world of vivid color, fantastical shapes and psychedelic landscapes from floor to ceiling. No worries here about touching the art: You get to stand on it. There are even plush white beanbag chairs provided on which you can sit and contemplate the view.
The artists in “Turn the Page” have come to prominence not through traditional channels such as museums and galleries but through social media platforms and exposure in such “venues” as Hi-Fructose magazine. Christie Hajela, the museum’s assistant curator, notes in a press release:
Bringing these works to a museum setting reinforces the artists’ contributions, and the contributions of Hi-Fructose magazine, to the broader dialogue of contemporary art. The exhibition presents these artists not just as products of an “alternative” or “underground” scene, but as considerably underrepresented yet equally relevant.
The next big special exhibition is “Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings 1942-1955,” which offers “a look at the artist’s early work and evolution to maturity through 100 paintings and drawings that precede his shift to figuration.” It runs Oct. 8-Jan. 7.
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2. Check out a newly acquired portrait by Don Bachardy of the author Christopher Isherwood. This portrait of Isherwood, the famed writer of the novellas “The Berlin Stories” (upon which the film “Cabaret” was based) and the novel “A Single Man,” is one of the very few painted on canvas and thus extremely rare. It has never been exhibited publicly prior to this year. Bachardy, one of the great portrait artists of our time, provided the 1983 portrait on a long- term loan and as an eventual bequest. The writer Armistead Maupin described Bachardy and Isherwood as the “First Couple of Gay America.”
Bachardy’s depiction of Isherwood with thick, angular brushstrokes and a resting frown might at first suggest brusqueness, but the intensity of the eyes, warmth of the orangeish-red color palette and craggy contours of the face also hint at a tremendous depth and intimacy between subject and painter. It’s quite stunning.
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3. Track down the paintings given to the museum by George and LaVona Blair. One of Fresno’s most illustrious art collectors, George Blair years ago gave to the Crocker some of the significant works he acquired of what was called the “Second Wave” of the Bay Area abstract expressionism movement.
Here’s a description by the museum of one of those works, Sonya Rapoport’s 1963 “Embers”:
This painting began with a cigar box that the artist kept in the early 1960s, which held visually appealing odds and ends. It became a personal reliquary of things unexpressed. Using the thickest of possible paint applications, Rapoport translated the colors and shapes within the box into a canvas of surprising compositional complexity.
Once you know of the Blairs’ generosity, it’s fun to wander through the museum’s impressive permanent collection of abstract expressionism and find their donated works.
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4. Celebrate life and mourn death with Stephen J. Kaltenbach’s mesmerizing “Portrait of My Father, 1972-79.” It took seven years for Kaltenbach, who studied at UC Davis before going on to a significant New York career as a conceptual artist, to paint this portrait in a California barn. From the museum:
That his pursuit was spiritual is evident in the manner by which light and color permeates each intertwining arabesque and intersection with whisker, brow, and pore … While a photograph provided its basis, this portrait is far removed from the cool detachment of the Photorealists due to Kaltenbach’s prolonged engagement. Kaltenbach’s sole aim was to celebrate the human bond and make a memorial to his father that only he could create.
It’s the kind of work that you can sit in front of for a while and contemplate. Happily, the museum has provided a strategic bench so you can do just that.
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5. Indulge in the Crocker’s sense of history. Whatever you do, don’t spend all your time with the contemporary and 20th century works in the new Teel Family Pavilion wing of the museum.
An easy passageway connects you to the original Victorian-Italianate building that was once the home of Judge E.B. Crocker. (He was the brother of Charles Crocker, one of the “Big Four” railroad barons.) The mansion today houses education spaces and collections of ceramics and Asian art. Give yourself time to wander the grand balcony and the ornate rooms below. No visit to the Crocker is complete without this museum’s hallowed offering of California’s gritty and glamorous Westward-expansion past.
Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street, Sacramento. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays. $10, $8 seniors and students, $5 youth.
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