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SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS
by Walter Robinson
 
A recent trip to St. Louis to talk to a group of students about the "alternative art movement" -- I modestly cast myself as an emblematic figure in the transition from the artist-run nonprofit spaces of the 1970s through the ironically commercial East Village storefront gallery scene of the ‘80s to the all-out commercialism of today’s robust art market -- provided a welcome opportunity for a quick survey of the local art scene.

What’s happening in St. Louis? Not a lot -- my whirlwind tour was completed in a day and a half without too much trouble, and meter parking was readily available at every stop -- which makes the place a welcome contrast to traffic-jammed New York.

But this is the U.S.A., and there’s art everywhere. Missouri is, after all, the "Show Me" state, and St. Louis is home to the largest abstract sculpture in the world -- Eero Saarinen’s 630-foot-tall stainless steel Gateway Arch, built in the shape of an inverted catenary curve in 1963-65 for less than $15 million.

And then there’s the St. Louis Art Museum, an impressive Beaux Arts pile built by Cass Gilbert in 1904 in the middle of the sprawling 1,370-acre Forest Park. The museum is famous for its trove of works by Max Beckmann (he taught in town in the 1950s), its gallery full of George Caleb Bingham paintings, and Henri Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle (1908) and Paul Gauguin’s Madame Roulin (1888).

SLAM, as it is called, in rhyming contrast to CAM, the new Contemporary Art Museum (see below), stays current. Its latest "currents" exhibition features several large works by the much-in-demand Julie Mehretu, works whose energetic, diagrammatic compositions suggest vast battlefields, perhaps, or global migrations -- "a maelstrom of images that map a condition of barely controlled chaos," in the words of curator Robin Clark.

The pictures look good, even better now that the artist has won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. Frank Stella’s all-black Marriage of Reason and Squalor (1959) hangs in a nearby gallery, asserting its influence.

Furthermore, SLAM has in its vaulting lobby a huge sculpture of a shelf of lead and glass books by Anselm Kiefer, while out on the grounds is a soaring stainless steel tree by Roxy Paine. Embedded in the asphalt driveway out back is Richard Serra’s To Encircle Base Plate Hexagram Right Angles Inverted, a metal arc sunk flush with the pavement, which was originally set into a Bronx intersection as part of the 1970 Whitney Biennial and later bought by St. Louis dealer Ronald Greenberg and lent to the Laumeier Sculpture Park, where it had been on view since 1978.

St. Louis is very much a Serra town, as it happens. Twain, a triangular enclosure of eight 12-foot-tall steel plates, was installed in a downtown park in 1982, while Joe, a 13-foot-high torqued steel spiral, is in the courtyard of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Serra sculptures frequently figure in exhibitions at the Pulitzer, such as "Brancusi and Serra," on view earlier this year, "Sculpture and Drawings by Richard Serra" in 2004 and the current "Minimalism and Beyond," which was scheduled to open ten days after my visit. 

The Pulitzer, as everyone knows, is an elegantly minimalist new museum designed by Tadao Ando and funded and run by billionaire arts patron Emily Rauh Pulitzer (the Serra sculpture Joe is named after her late husband, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., the art collector and grandson of the original owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). The $17-million, 27,000-square-foot concrete building, shaped as a pair of narrow, long spaces around a central reflecting pool, debuted in 2001. Admission is free, but the building is notoriously open to the public only 11 hours a week, five on Wednesday and six on Saturday.

Curator at the Pulitzer is the German art historian Matthias Waschek, who was lured to the museum from the Louvre, where he was head of academic programs. Though he enjoyed being in Paris, "for me, it was a glorious dead end," he said, as we walked through the foundation, where "Minimalism and Beyond" was being installed. A blue and black painting by Ellsworth Kelly, a kind of vertical mural that was custom-made for the space, plus works by Serra and Donald Judd were already in place. A team of experts was busy positioning a bathtub sculpture by Rachel Whiteread just right, while other works were yet to arrive.

The space for a Roni Horn sculpture was held by a grid of yellow notepaper. "It’s like real, existing socialism," Waschek joked during our brief tour. "I can tell you what it’s going to have in the future." Another work waiting to be installed was Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ pile of hard candies wrapped in silver paper, which visitors are allowed to help themselves to. Ordinarily pineapple-flavored, in this installation the candies are lemony -- a flavor that was thought to be "more stylish."

Next door to the Pulitzer -- on land donated by Emily Pulitzer -- is CAM, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, which in late 2003 unveiled its new $6.25-million, 27,000-square-foot concrete facility designed by Seattle architect Brad Cloepfil. Director of the museum is the irrepressible Paul Ha, a former head of the White Columns alternative space in New York. Cloepfil’s design is working out well, though the staff had to jury-rig some window coverings to cut down on the bright sunlight (not that good for artworks), and devise a special bit of hardware to hang artworks on the steel-mesh-covered concrete walls (CAM’s recently launched museum magazine is titled Mesh).

For this fall, CAM has gone to the girls, so to speak, with "Cindy Sherman: Working Girl," a show of the celebrated postmodernist photographer’s earliest work from the mid-1970s, curated by Ha himself, and "Girls Night Out," a touring group show organized by the Orange County Museum of Art of 10 photographers (including Rineke Dijkstra, Katy Grannan and Daniela Rossell) whose work also explores female identity. Both exhibitions are on view Sept. 16-Dec. 31, 2005.

Acting as guide on my tour of St. Louis, by the way, was Susan E. Cahan, former curator for supercollector Peter Norton (1996-2001) and a staffer at the New Museum (1987-96), who was lured to St. Louis to take an endowed professorship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The chair is one of a dozen funded by wire-hangar magnate E. Desmond Lee (b. 1917), who sold his business in 1993 and has been giving his money away all over St. Louis ever since.

It was to speak at one of Cahan’s courses that took me to St. Louis. Called "A History of Alternative Spaces," the seminar uses Julie Ault’s Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985 (Minnesota) as its text, and includes field trips to local shows and studios. Good luck, kids!

Along with Cahan and Ha, a third coastal type who has recently immigrated to St. Louis in the 21st century is David Bonetti, who was art critic for the now-defunct San Francisco Examiner before being hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Bonetti made his impact felt early on, as only a critic can, by wondering in print about a show of new abstraction from Pasadena. "Why import mediocre art," he wrote (in so many words), "when there's so much of it here already."

The gallery scene in St. Louis is anchored, of course, by Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, which recently moved into a new three-story space (a former antique car garage) on Grandel Square, a few blocks away from CAM. "I love St. Louis," said Ronnie Greenberg, who has had a gallery in one form or another in the city since 1972. "I grew up here, and we are in New York," he said, referring to the gallery’s branch at 730 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. On view in St. Louis is a show of photographs by Katy Grannan, both color works and black and white, nudes standing inside modest homes or outside in the bright green of nature, priced between $6,000 and $9,500.

Another St. Louis stalwart is the William Shearburn Gallery, now in a new street-level space on McPherson Avenue in the city’s Central West End, a tree-lined district of furniture stores, boutiques and the only independent bookstore in town. Shearburn, who is a CAM board member, works with artists ranging from Keegan McHargue to Louise Bourgeois. On view at the gallery during my visit were abstract paintings by Cheonae Kim, whose brightly colored, gridded surfaces often wrap around the edges of their supports. The paintings range in price from $950 to $9,500.

The St. Louis print publisher Lococo Fine Art works with New York printer Alexander Heinrici to publish editions by some of the hottest contemporary artists. On view in the showroom recently were prints by Eric Fischl, Joe Andoe and Greg Bogin and a suite of three portraits from 1998 by Julian Schnabel, complete with the artist’s signature swaths of hand-poured resin. They looked pretty for $3,600 each or $9,000 for the set.

During our visit, dealer Robert Lococo was examining some early proofs of a 30-color butterfly print by Donald Sultan, and preparing an exhibition of 16 drawings and six paintings of dogs -- cocker spaniels, dachshunds, Great Danes -- by Andy Warhol. "The drawings are $30,000, I think," Lococo said.

Still another notable local art dealer is Philip Slein, who, after running a gallery for Washington University, opened his eponymous St. Louis space two years ago with a group show of 44 works by 16 local artists, including Michael Byron and Katherine Kuharic. Since then, Slein has organized exhibitions devoted to local hard-edge abstraction, "Outlaw Printmaking" and "The Conceptual View," as well as several solo shows.

More recently, Philip Stein Gallery hosted "Pearls Are a Nuisance: The Work of Art Chantry," Sept. 17-Oct. 15, 2005, curated by Todd Hignite, the editor of Comic Art magazine, and presenting over 300 posters and album and CD covers by the celebrated Seattle graphic designer who appropriates all of his imagery, assembling his compositions cut-and-paste style without computer assistance. The posters are a bargain, selling for $150-$1,000.

St. Louis’ newest gallery -- it hadn’t yet opened when I was there -- is Bruno David Gallery, located in a former warehouse across the street from CAM in space leased from Emily Pulitzer and rehabbed by David himself. The inaugural show features works by approximately 20 artists, while premiering on Nov. 19, 2005, is an exhibition of recent paintings and sculptures by lifelong St. Louis resident Ernest Trova (b. 1927). According to the press release, the new work features "a tough, visceral treatment of hot-rolled steel, oozing white plastic and found objects." Sounds alluring.

Finally, no report on St. Louis would be complete without mention of the City Museum, a sprawling, extravagantly imaginative three-story Outsider Art masterpiece by St. Louis sculptor Bob Cassilly. Since buying the building in 1996, Cassilly has added section after section, largely from handmade, recycled and donated materials, from the cavernous "MonstroCity" of sculpted concrete on the ground floor to the yellow schoolbus on the roof and the stone castle turret in the parking lot.

Cassilly tried running the place as a nonprofit, but, in keeping with a Republican era, found the paperwork too onerous, and switched back to charging admission ($12 a person) to pay the bills. "Free money’s not worth it," Cassilly remarked, as we said good-bye.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.