Westmoreland County Museum of Art: A Diamond in the Rough, Promising to get Sharper

The Mellon Family’s impact on the Art world is enormous: Andrew Mellon established the core of the National Gallery of Art. His son Paul established the Yale Center for British Art (1977) in addition to huge donations to Yale’s main gallery. Andrew’s cousin Sarah Scaife is responsible for much of the world class art in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Her son, Richard Mellon Scaife, was a not insignificant collector in his own right. Better known for his funding of conservative political causes, his will threw at least a small loop at the art world when he died in July 2014. It specified that the recipients of his art would be two small Pennsylvania Museums, the Westmoreland County Museum of Art in Greensburg and the Brandywine River Conservancy in Chadds Ford. Works by the Pittsburgh-born John Kane would go to the Museum 90 minutes from Pittsburgh. The remaining 500 pieces were to be allocated in the ultimate art keeper league fantasy draft for these two institutions. That process began last year.

I got a chance two weekends ago to visit the Westmoreland Museum.

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Westmoreland County Museum of Art

Opened in 1957 as a specialist in colonial-to-mid-20th century Western Pennsylvania art, the Museum’s $38 million dollar renovation opened to the public in October 2015. The range of the museum was enhanced in 2010 from a modernist collection from a Pittsburgh neurosurgeon, Peter Janretta. Hipsters or artists looking for a cheap, authentic place to live, with access to good art? You could do much worse…

The outside facade reflects some of the inner tension of the collection. Can a good modernist collection hang with the colonial furniture and industrial revolution landscapes? Or will it stand out like a DSLR telephoto lens hanging off a mid-century Leicia?

The interiors are more cohesive and well proportioned than the exterior. A spacious white lobby is where one both likely begins and ends the trip. The visitor experience gets off to a self-conscious false start by asking visitors to go through a hall gallery…about the art museum’s renovation. This isn’t meta, it’s just promotional before its due. A forgivable flub from being the pride of the town.

Beyond that however, the museum is a gem. A stairwell takes visitors to the temporary exhibition space whose opening act for of Fall 2016 is “Opposites Attract: Kathleen Mulcahy & Slyvester Damianos”. They are local artists who work respectively in glass and wood.

The City Beyond by Syl Damianos

The City Beyond by Syl Damianos

This work, like a number of the other works presented there, is unfinished American Black Walnut. Does complexity ever feel warm? It does with Damianos’ arrangement of the wood. The photograph may not capture it well but the reflection off the wood feels like what one would see in an oil painting of a skyline by day. The best of his works are reminiscent to me of late Braque works:

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Contrasting the woodwork is the Mulcahy blown glass pieces. How does she in this medium treat light differently? Do they feel cold to the wood’s warmth? Compare her “The Alchemist’s Dream II”:

Alchemist's Dream II seen from front

Alchemist’s Dream II seen from front

Alchemist's Dream II seen from side

Alchemist’s Dream II seen from side

The work is pretty enough on its own but more intriguing in a gallery space beside the wood. The Mulcahy pieces at least in this exhibition don’t deviate very far from the glass-dripping norms but I found them compelling. The exhibit’s elemental contrast sounds like a dud but delivers.

The permanent (but apparently frequently rotating?) collection makes some good calls. Perhaps as a smaller, less frequented museum they can take a risk like…why not touch sculpture?

Reclining Cat by William Zorach

You can appreciate a work of sculpture better by touching it: the reality of the different medium becomes more immediate. It’s been a long time for most of us since sculpting clay pots in art class, and I like most never made it to working with bronze.

And of course, in this bronze’s case, it’s a cat. This reclining-but-alert cat has a disposition that lets you know you might need to pet it to win it over. At the Westmoreland, you can. Brilliant!

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Curators often have turgid or no prose describing their paintings. Where does one begin with an unknown piece like this:

Byzantine Isometric

Many museum descriptions will place pieces like this in the grand timeline of art history, call out the already most prominent feature of the work, or perhaps throw in a political statement or two. The Westmoreland lets other artists respond:

byzantine-isometric-explanation

The next logical step would be to have multiple responses, and I hope museums take that leap. Why not have public comment boards, the best comments of which are curated in some more permanent fashion? Audio tours can help (none I know about was available for the Westmoreland) but still often dull rather than enhance the art in question. It’s distracting to hit * 162 and then some forward arrow and then…

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Then I came upon the John Kane works. I’ve stumbled onto some Kane pieces at places as diverse at I believe the Met and at the Yale Art Gallery (given by another Mellon?). Kane was a self-taught artist now with had a growing reputation. Most of the works shown were created just before his death in 1934.

“Along the Lincoln Highway”

Above the Lincoln Highway by John Kane

This was painted in the Great Depression – the “1933” inscription is legible at the bottom right but at least to my eyes evokes an early 18th century with which Albert Gallatin and other great SW Pennsylvania land speculators would be familiar. It might just be Mckeesport. I’d really like to figure out the exact setting and compare to today.

“St. Paul’s Church (St. Paul’s Cathedral)”

St. Paul's Church by John Kane

Some of the Kane works are likely pretty idealized versions of the scene. Pittsburgh in the 30s was a smoky place, and while the East End of Pittsburgh was less industrial, the University of Pittsburgh had a heavy presence. Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning had already been built, slightly to the left of the composition of this scene. He doesn’t include it. Why?

For what its worth, a present day view from Google images’ 3D tool to show this scene 85+ years later:

saint-paul-cathedral-today

“Boulevard of the Allies”

Boulevard of the Allies by John Kane

This Boulevard was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1911 to connect downtown and Oakland (pictured above). The upward slope and hills to the left suggest it is at the ramp which was the “most expensive in the world” when laid out in the 1920s.

“Hills and Rivers, Steamboat at Sleepy Hollow”

Hills and Steamboat, Sleepy Hollow by John Kane

Kane, a railroad employee, was struck by a train at the age of 31. He’d spend time painting the sides of trains for a good portion of the rest of his life. Two are crossing here. Is that picturesque to us? Is that ominous to him?

The Scaife will mentions nine pieces. I did not see “Coleman Hollow”, “Garden Spray”, “Girl with Doll Carriage, “Hills and Rivers” or “Turtle Creek Valley No. 1”. In a world where Google is moving to make the world’s information universally accessible, its still hard to see the works of this artist. The museum’s policies were specific – please take pictures. The docents actively encouraged it too. My clunky photos above don’t do the four pieces on display justice and the museum should digitize these forthwith.

Kane’s work is the highlight, and I suspect in the future will get greater prominence. There is a riddle to solve there.

The remainder of the museum has other nice touches, and missteps. An ambitious gallery contrasts bucolic Western Pennsylvania landscapes on one side with industrial scenes on another. The wall of industrial scenes is one of the better (maybe the best?) collections of the genre. Logistically it is hard even as a 6 foot tall guy to apprehend most of the pictures on the wall which reach very high to the ceilings. When places like the Louvre do this well it is with very large paintings. Ceiling lights often cast a shadow on the top eighth or so of the painting which can be disappointing.

Wall of Westmoreland

There is a decent collection of sculpture, including of founders like Benjamin Franklin, but it doesn’t have the unity of early American art even places on the west coast like the de Young have.

They have a room full of “Fraktur“, a genre whose name I had not known. This is art essentially as I understand it of sacred documents, a tradition of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Most of their art is on trays in a great bureau: the largest known collection. Some in German, some in English.

Sample Fraktur from the Westmoreland Museum of Art

I had walked through the room with a nod to a few samples on the wall and would have missed the abundance if it were not for another talkative docent. They’re clearly accustomed to people breezing through and missing the collection. That suggests an urgent re-ordering. The technological world has brought us innumerable progress, but seeing these family accounts, something has been lost as well.

The Westmoreland Museum of Art is a gem close to Pittsburgh crackles with distinctiveness. It is a gem that is still a work in progress but whose willingness to take risks is promising. There is much debate in the art world about efforts like Alice Walton’s funding of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Shouldn’t all that great art be, well, more accessible, to the majority of the art going crowd? The Westmoreland is a nice supporting point to the argument otherwise. Give unique art some breathing room and space to do new things and a good art going experience can flower.

 

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