Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Art in Kansas City
I spent a recent week as one of the readers (graders) for the national AP Art History exam, something I’ve done for the past few years. This year the reading was in Kansas City so I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know the Nelson-Atkins Museum, just down the road from where we were working. According to one of the participants, an art historian who works in the museum field, the Nelson Atkins ranks solidly in the “Masterpiece” category among American museums. Among many true masterpieces the collection includes a lushly painted St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio (a rare name in the U.S.) and parts of a mural by Thomas Hart Benton, a native son of Kansas City. The real wealth of the museum for me, however, despite all the Western treasures, was the Chinese and Asian collection on the second floor, featuring the Guanyin Bodhisattva, a 10thth century figure of indescribable majesty and splendor. This particular Bodhisattva (figures in Buddhism who have attained enlightenment but remain on earth to help others – represents, in Chinese Buddhism, the quality of compassion. Clothed in rich draping layers (painted in the 16th century), I came upon him sitting in the ‘royal ease’ pose under an intricate wooden ceiling in front of an ancient clay wall decorated with watercolor. Despite age and a fragile medium, the details of faces and gestures on that wall were breathtakingly tender and fresh. The resonance of the setting and the purity of the figure were stirring – it felt so soothing, as if simply being in his presence would solve all problems - past, present, and future. It was hard to tear myself away.

The Nelson-Atkins also has an excellent selection of modern art, and the Kemper Museum, a separate museum for contemporary art, is next door. The headliner at the moment is Chakaia Booker, an amazing American sculptor who creates powerful pieces out of old truck tires, using the texture and blackness to connect her African heritage with contemporary attitudes and issues at a deeply visceral level. Look for her work - you won't forget it once you see it.

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