Exploring the Nelson-Atkins after six months in small spaces

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Writer Emily Cox with Monet’s Water Lilies // Photo by Travis Young

[Editor’s note: This piece was written and submitted on Sept. 15, for publication in the Oct. 1 issue of The Pitch. It was run digitally on Oct. 22, just before the announcement of the lay-offs at the Nelson-Atkins which was covered later that day. We will continue to follow the story and update as new information becomes available.]

I paused in the high-ceilinged atrium of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Along with the rest of Kansas City, I hadn’t been here for at least six months. It was the last Saturday in August, and the museum wasn’t yet open to the public—just to its volunteers, its most elite members, and me.

I wanted to see something big, so I headed towards Monet’s Water Lilies. Passing through the familiar baroque galleries on the way, Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness stopped me in my tracks. I took slow steps closer, looking up at John, moody and imposing, larger than life. The high drama of the painting had my mouth gaping under my mask. I haven’t been in the presence of anything like that, not for months and months.

At once, the museum felt like a playground; I had the urge to giggle, to run around from piece to piece, too many riches to take in.

I toured the museum, returning to paintings I’ve loved for years, like visiting old friends. Or I would stand in the middle of a gallery, swiveling my head at the feast around me, seeing what I hadn’t before. Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square was a pool of rich colors I wanted to soak in. I could feel my muscles relax the more time I spent in the museum. I wanted to speak to the statues. I looked at Guanyin of the Southern Sea; I asked if he’d been lonely there, too, if he looked forward to having visitors once again.

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Photo by Travis Young

Without other museum guests hanging around, I lingered. There was no polite jockeying for position, no rushed viewings when you know someone is waiting nearby. Fascination bubbled through me, clearing away pandemic-era detritus of worry, alarm, fatigue.

I found myself appreciating works that I usually pass by without a glance, like the stained glass peonies by John La Farge. I usually find Kandinsky annoying (sorry Kandinsky fans), but on this day, even Kandinsky could do no wrong.

Deep gratitude welled up as I saw new things after months mostly spent looking at screens in my apartment. Doris Seidler’s Cathedral II was a marvel of textures, but looking at an image online now, it looks forgettable. The textures that jumped out at me in person fall flat on the screen. While I’m typically quick to critique museums for the norms they enforce, here, on this day, I was reminded how the museum offers a sacred space in which to be transformed by art. And all the virtual gallery tours in the world can’t make up for the in-person experience.

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Photo by Travis Young

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Like Anselm Kiefer’s Lichtfalle: At over 18 feet wide and 12 feet tall, it swallowed me whole. The depth of the mixed media, including glass and wire, creates a world unto itself. I am moved by its scale and intricacy, by the attention it demands.

Some artworks make more sense in person. Their occupancy of the space in the museum gives them weight. Look for the dual light bulbs of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (March 5th) #2 next time you’re in the Bloch Building. Reading the placard about this AIDS crisis-era work, then stepping back and looking at the piece, I felt a kick in the chest.

There are changes at the museum, of course. While entrance remains free, they ask you to register for tickets in advance of your visit to monitor occupancy levels. Traveling exhibitions and programming are all on hold at least their next fiscal year, beginning next May. But the Nelson’s collection runs deep, and new exhibitions will be curated from within. Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali, which opened less than a month before the museum closed, will also bless museumgoers for an extended run through April 4, 2021.

Parks’ portraits of Ali notice tender details of the young boxer. I was surprised to find photographs so mesmerizing when I spend so much time every day with photographs scrolling on my phone screen. But the grain of the prints made from film negatives gave me goosebumps. The subjects were there in the room with us. With nothing else but white walls, I was immersed in the composition, the story, the aliveness of Ali.

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Eagle Feather Headdress. // Photo by Travis Young

While standing before Water Lilies, I’d looked at those flinging brush strokes, and I could see Monet’s hand in them. Later, I stood in front of the Eagle Feather Headdress by an unnamed artisan(s) of the Northern Cheyenne. I could see the sweat stains on the fabric lining its interior; I could see the imprint of the man who wore it. Georg Pencz’s miniature engravings, just three inches wide, had me leaning forward, face near the glass, to make out all the tiny lines, all the incredible detail. I could imagine Pencz, too, leaning close, muscles cramping.

Looking at each piece of art felt like forging a connection through space and time with the people who created them. The communion I felt with the artists through their handiwork was healing for the months of pandemic loneliness. I could feel the people present, and time collapsed around me. The museum didn’t feel empty; it felt vibrantly alive.

Loneliness often perpetuates itself. We are wired to need others and raise the internal alarm when we are too alone. That clanging alarm often interferes with actually getting our social needs met; we enter hypervigilance where it’s easy to see rejection or abandonment everywhere we look.

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Cox views Guanyin of the Southern Sea, Chinese, 11th/12th century, Liao (907-1125), or Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). // Photo by Travis Young

Being physically isolated from one another when most of us could desperately use the comfort and care that being around other people provides is the worst irony of this pandemic. We are finding new ways to soothe those alarm bells of loneliness. (I had resisted the Zoom-hangout trend but then discovered that my biweekly virtual book club brings me so much joy from that togetherness.) But I wonder how long we will feel an aversion to being near others physically, for how long we will register others’ physical presence as a potential threat?

Maybe being near the physical creations of others can offer a surrogate social experience. Early in the pandemic, I exchanged snail mail letters with several friends. Handwritten envelopes with folded papers inside, capturing whatever they were feeling and experiencing at the moment they wrote it. Receiving those, I felt as giddy as I did in the museum. This imprint of another human’s effort and creativity—of their existence—felt like a treasure. I felt less alone.

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Photo by Travis Young

Being at The Nelson, seeing the art in person, the full mind-body experience, the visceral reactions, it was something I hadn’t known I needed. Go. Let yourself be pulled down the hall by William Keith’s Sunset Glow. Whisper to the statues, ask what they’ve been up to without us. I smiled as I walked around; my turbulent brain calmed and focused on just what was in front of me. The cacophony of my pandemic anxiety quieted in the face of works of art that brought me fully present. All I needed was the companionship of the artists through their work and the curiosity they evoked.

At the end of my visit, I felt fed. As if, after months of eating dinner alone in front of the television, I shared a meal with dear friends, laughing and telling stories. Satisfied like that. I didn’t know a museum could do that.

Categories: Art