By Richard P. Townsend
The venerable Philbrook Museum of Art—75 years old year this year—has opened a 21st-century museum space in the burgeoning Brady Arts District in downtown Tulsa. It is an exciting step forward not only for the museum but for the city. While this immediate effort took six years gestation, in actuality the project represents more than thirty years of vision, effort and planning. With its downtown satellite, Philbrook has gained prominent top-floor spaces for one its most famous and important collections—Native American—and gleaming new galleries for its newest and fastest growing collection, international Modern and Contemporary art.
The interior spaces were designed by Gluckman Mayner Architects of New York City as a part of an overall $18 million renovation overseen by Tulsa firm Kinslow, Keith and Todd, all part of a general scheme the brainchild of Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser. This anchor project of the Brady Arts District just north of Tulsa’s downtown long struggled to get off the ground. Thanks to the Kaiser Foundation’s stimulus, a row of cultural organizations face a beautifully designed open-air Guthrie Green. Besides Philbrook Downtown, there is the elegant 108 Contemporary that engages the street, the University of Tulsa/Gilcrease Museum Zarrow Center, and the Woody Guthrie Center. Around the corner is AH HA—Tulsa’s Arts and Humanities Council’s new Hardesty Arts Center, designed by Selser Schaefer Architects and surely one of the more exciting new examples of contemporary architecture in the region (currently an architecture exhibition, Sweet Spot, outlines the development of the project, on view until the 5th July). It is in short an amazing outpouring of civic effort. Of course, these sorts of endeavors are decades in the making. Downtown Tulsa’s redevelopment began with the Williams Companies which—as a home for their energy and ultimately telecommunications company—commissioned Minoru Yamasaki to design a business and cultural hub in the center of Tulsa’s downtown. This resulted in One Williams Center (1975; now the BOK Tower) and the Performing Arts Center (1977), the former striking for its similarity to Yamasaki’s 1973 World Trade Center twin towers in New York. Successive efforts to revive portions of downtown continued through the ‘90s and the ‘00s, including the Brady District and adjacent Greenwood (the historic home to a vibrant African-American community). These moves gained some traction, particularly due to a campus of OSU and a jazz festival and hall of fame.
Thanks to the Kaiser Family Foundation, other civic leaders and the inclusion of the major visual arts organizations—Philbrook, Gilcrease Museum and the Arts and Humanities Council, as well as new ones such as the Woody Guthrie Center—decades of effort culminated in the present success. Six years ago the Kaiser Foundation was in the midst of investing in the development of the Brady Arts District while simultaneously both Philbrook and the University of Oklahoma were negotiating the joint management of one of the great collections of Native American and Southwestern art, the Eugene Adkins collection. In October 2011 OU’s Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art opened the architecturally stunning Stuart Wing extension designed by Oklahoma City-based Rand Elliot to house the Adkins collection. In Tulsa Kaiser offered Philbrook a location in the Brady District redevelopment where the museum could build dedicated exhibition space to house their Adkins Collection. Astutely, the museum seized the opportunity to also include proper galleries for Modern and Contemporary art.
The architect for the interior spaces, Gluckman Mayner, has made a speciality of smartly designed updates within historical structures (the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; and the Museo Picasso Malaga spring to mind). They have carried their New York loft aesthetic—grounded in their extensive experience and work in that city—to projects around the world, and now to Tulsa, where the Philbrook’s storied Italianate architecture has now been joined by the New York downtown look.
Of course, Gluckman Mayner had the ideal situation for them to work with, a turn-of-the- 20th-century brick warehouse—the former Whealton and Townsend Company (distributors of pneumatic tools and no relation to the author!). While regrettably the building has little street presence, the inside is enriched with the architects’ familiar loft details used in earlier projects and brought to bear here in a very sophisticated way.
The entrance is a bit attenuated, if however extremely polished in its finishes and graphics, and leads to a large reception room dominated by a dramatic staircase whose narrow-slit balustrade is fashioned out of blackened steel which not only protects the metal but creates a rich feel. Otherwise, this reception area, which I understand is meant for social functions and lectures, calls out for a signature work of art. Doubtless, the space should be functional and flexible, but surely something like a video installation can provide focus and a sense of identity. I particularly liked the dramatic aluminum air duct with circular blowers—reminiscent of Lee Bontecou voids—which complements the exposed duct work throughout and the chrome gallery lighting.
The cast concrete columns typical to warehouses and lofts—whether in New York City or Tulsa—have four-sided, flared capitals, like Egyptian pillars with their lotus and papyrus capitals. The architects made an asset out of an element that—given the rough columns’ frequency throughout the space—could have been a liability. They become a dominant, elegant motif, with their natural concrete finish retained up to the lotus-like spread , accentuated by painted-out ceiling. The only drawback I found was the heaviness imparted by original I-beams set between pairs of columns (they probably are structural).The concrete columns also cleverly served as surfaces for slick vinyl graphics thoughtfully demarcating themes and conveying information. The Pentagram-designed graphics nicely incorporated the Museum’s branding, consistently deployed throughout.
The most impressive detailing is found in the blackened steel lining the entrances into galleries, which imparts a rich yet very contemporary feel. I was really taken by one passage. On the main level at the juncture of the entrances to the Modern and Contemporary Gallery and the Irene and Sanford Burnstein temporary exhibition gallery the steel-lined doorways form planes that intersect at a corner. It’s dramatic and quite appropriate here, a strong motif that plays like a 1960s
geometric projection by James Turrell (such as his Afrum, 1966).
Philbrook’s development from oil man’s mansion to regional art museum powerhouse is a story unto itself. Briefly, in 1938 oil magnate Waite Phillips gave his newly constructed villa with its overlay of Italian Renaissance architecture (with Art Deco detailing!) and gardens for Tulsa’s use as a civic museum, with some collections (mainly decorative arts). In subsequent years the burgeoning museum attracted major collections of European, American, Asian, and especially Native American art in an increasingly cramped footprint of what was essentially a house. Philbrook expanded with successive wings—mainly for special exhibitions—the 1970s expansion replaced in 1990 by the Kravis Wing. In the 1990s while I served as the curator of European and American art and worked to build on the existing strengths of the Italian and French collections, Director Marcia Manhart led a new emphasis on collecting contemporary art, acquiring notable examples in her area of expertise of contemporary craft and realist painting (such as Charles Simonds and Rackstraw Downes). Perhaps her most significant achievement in that arena was establishing the Contemporary Consortium, a group which generously funds purchases and exhibitions of contemporary art to this day, the fruits of their labor very much on view at Philbrook Downtown.
There were impulses to take contemporary art to the next level at the museum during the tenure of her successor Brian Ferriso, with acquisitions by Josiah McElhenny among others, and who brought with him from Milwaukee Art Museum Cut—a 2006 film-into-video exhibition, a first for Philbrook—which introduced the work of Christian Marclay and Pierre Huyghe to Tulsa audiences. Under current director Rand Suffolk’s efforts it is clear that these efforts accelerated, and the impressive efforts are on view here.
The first floor houses the Nancy E. and Peter C. Meinig Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art—the Meinigs are among Tulsa’s most supportive and significant collectors of that material—as well as two temporary exhibition galleries. The inaugural installation by Lauren Ross, Opening Abstraction, wisely takes a thematic approach, as the collecting of Modern and contemporary art had at Philbrook a rather late start and presents a rather daunting task. Theirs is not a representational collection, but one comprised of select examples from the past fifty years with earlier examples by Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst and Stuart Davis juxtaposed with recent work by Louise Lawler, Leonardo Drew, Rachel Whiteread and Theaster Gates. They are all smart, thoughtful choices. For example, African-American artist Gates’ assemblage of fire hoses—through its very presence in the museum’s collection—acquires additional meaning referencing the burning of the neighboring Greenwood district in the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. It was gratifying to see that recent acquisitions included historical artists as well, a later painting by still-underrated Oklahoma-born, West Coast, Dynaton-associated artist Lee Mullican joining an example from 1950. Given the astronomical prices of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, it was wise that Philbrook acquired a rare 1968 portfolio of prints by the artist she made after earlier drawings.
Philbrook has even been looking towards Latin America—a good move given the exciting developments in that field over the past several decades. On view are two works including a 2009 collage by Arturo Herrera—a Venezuelan who has a local connection having attended the University of Tulsa. This is a refreshing example as his more typical work are wall murals featuring popular cultural references like Disney characters.
Modern masters Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still and Morris Louis also represented in this installation, a late work by de Kooning and a gorgeous red composition by Still both on loan from a private collection are joined by Philbrook’s own great early Morris Louis—produced before his famed color field compositions and painted with aluminum paint—that languished in storage for many years. It is good to see it put to such good use, and a revelation that it was given to Philbrook in 1961 through a fund provided by Gloria Vanderbilt Stokowski, the famed rich girl turned designer who at that time was married to the legendary conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra (although perhaps best known today as the mother of the silver-haired television personality Anderson Cooper). Recently purchased works on paper by key artists Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Serra round out the array.
There are two temporary exhibition galleries on the first floor. One features a handsome show, Adolph Gottlieb: Sculptor (until the 25th August), selected and elegantly installed by Director Rand Suffolk. Drawn entirely from the collection of the artist’s foundation, it surveys the painter’s brief one-year foray into sculpture in 1967. The motifs in Gottlieb’s paintings are realized in three dimensions through these sculptures and reveal the influence of Alexander Calder’s playfulness and sense of color, while the balance and formalism speak of Isamu Noguchi. The painted cardboard maquettes for the finished metal pieces are particularly charming.
The other temporary exhibition gallery currently features Chief Curator Catherine Whitney’s thoughtful Sirens of the Southwest (until the 10th November). Largely drawn from the Adkins Collection, it surveys the far too neglected women who were working alongside their more famous male counterparts in chronicling the rich cultures of the Southwest. The two exceptions—Georgia O’Keefe and Rebecca Salsbury James—are anchors of this installation, the former with the luminous Kachina (1932; on loan from the Vilchek Foundation) and two lithographs from the recent acquired suite of prints, Georgia O’Keefe: Drawings (1968). By Salsbury—who having divorced photographer Paul Strand moved to Taos—we see several of her incomparably beautiful works in verre eglomisé (reverse paintings on glass). Dorothy Eugenie Brett, Ila McAfee, and Gene Kloss are among other women artists included in the show. Brett is a fascinating example of an unsung British ex-pat, having studied at the Slade School in London and a part of the Bloomsbury Group, who came to Taos with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. Together they made up a part of the glittering circle of artists, intellectuals and patrons who circulated in Taos and Santa Fe and which included the likes of Stieglitz-associated figures at the forefront of American Modernism: Strand, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin.They joined an accomplished artistic scene already graced by the Taos Society painters such as Ernest Blumenschein and Oscar Berninghaus.
In a seeming meeting of these two different—albeit overlapping—worlds, one may compare Brett’s visceral Blessing of the Mares (1965) to one of Blumenschein’s greatest masterpieces Moon, Morning Star, and Evening Star (1922; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa). Here not only does Brett assay the type of cultural imagery that both artists would have known so well from Taos, but something of the elder artist’s visionary, surreal style. They both conjure up in their own distinct ways Modernism’s response to the ancient indigenous as the Stravinsky/Nijinsky/Roerich production of Le Sacre du Printemps did in dance.
Philbook’s collection of Native American art needs no introduction; its history has been well discussed before. Suffice it to say it is quite simply one of the most important of its kind in the world, often gathered directly from the sources. The museum also has a significant group of Taos School paintings—although not as significant and comprehensive as neighboring Gilcrease Museum’s—it is nevertheless historically important as Waite Phillips was a patron of Berninghaus (the artist’s mural of Phillips’ ranch in New Mexico is still in situ in the former club rooms of the villa). The second floor—the Jack and Ann Graves Gallery—is dedicated to this collection, with the new addition of the voluminous Eugene Adkins material—and marks an enormous improvement on the galleries in the lower level of the main museum, Villa Philbrook’s former basement. The new top floor, top lit galleries at Philbrook Downtown are joined by an incredibly chic and spacious study center which houses Adkins’ personal library and archive, documenting the efforts of one of the great collectors of the Southwest.
The second floor’s inaugural exhibition, curated by Christina Burke, is Identity and Inspiration: 20th-century Native American Art. Here she skillfully weaves together not only Adkins’ material, but masterpieces from Philbrook’s renowned early collections formed by Roberta Campbell Lawson and Clark Field. In addition to this body of work there are the brilliant acquisitions made by the late Lydia Wyckoff, who as curator in the 1990s resumed adding to the museum’s superb collection of mid-20th-century Indian paintings purchased through the Indian Annual exhibitions, updating it with examples by Fritz Scholder, Harry Fonseca and Gray Cohoe, for example.
In addition to the mini-surveys of 20th-century jewelry, paintings, and pottery are masterpieces of earlier Native American artistic expression such as a Lakota Sioux beaded dress (c. 1880); a magnificent Hopi Pueblo (First Mesa) Jar (c. 1900); and arguably Dat-so-lah-lee’s (Louisa Keyser) greatest basket, woven in 1917 or ’18. These objects form a sure foundation for the later artistic innovations on view that draw both on indigenous traditions and outside, mainstream trends. These works stand out in Gluckman’s clean, sleek contemporary interiors top-lit by skylights and grounded by beautiful wide white-oak plank floors.
For those of us who—one way or another—grew up with museum, nothing can be more gratifying than to see how the Philbrook Museum of Art has come of age, not just with the grace of an oil capital dowager at stately Villa Philbrook, but also as a vivacious denizen of a newly bustling, redeveloped downtown. In so doing, they have not only paid at long last their due to one of their most important areas of collecting but also have made an important mark of intention towards the art of our own time.