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Crystal Bridges Gazing: Curator Kevin Murphy on a Mysterious Civil War Acquisition

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The Crystal Bridges curatorial team, outside the museum’s library
Left to right: David Houston, curatorial director, Matt Dawson, deputy director for art and education, Kevin Murphy, American art curator…

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…and Chris Crosman, founding curator (poised to peruse a Sotheby’s American art catalogue over lunch in the museum’s restaurant)

Before we go careening around Crystal Bridges Museum in my upcoming Part II of our CultureGrrl Video tour inside Alice Walton‘s new museum of American art, let’s focus for a moment on a single painting—George Pettit‘s “The Union Refugees,” 1865. It epitomizes what Crystal Bridges does best, by calling deserved attention to a work by an unfamiliar, compelling artist.

The Pettit (seen on the left, below, and in the CultureGrrl Video at the end of this post) is part of an ensemble of three works related to the Civil War and its aftermath. Together they constitute one of the most intriguing juxtapositions in this sprawling inaugural installation. (You also see Eakins‘ “Benjamin Rand,” 1874, through the doorway to the next gallery.)

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On the right is a George Inness landscape—”An Old Roadway,” c. 1880, depicting a chance encounter between an itinerant African American woman and a seated white child. Curator Kevin Murphy believes the underlying narrative probably refers to the freed slaves’ migration from the South “after the failure of Reconstruction”:

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Here’s a closer (blurrier) look at that meeting:

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The middle object in this ensemble is a powerful statue, carved in basswood, which was an early purchase by Alice Walton (acquired before she had a museum in mind):

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The accompanying label is somewhat misleading:

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The title makes it appear that the subject is a freed slave. But as Murphy points out, the sculpture looks “pre-Civil War. He looks like he is on the [auction] block.” If he is indeed “free,” he is still downtrodden, perhaps suggesting the ongoing struggles of African Americans to achieve true freedom—”the beginning of Jim Crow,” in Murphy’s words.

There’s another misleading aspect to the label—the attribution. During the installation process, Murphy discovered an obvious inscription on the base of the sculpture that indicated it was carved by a different hand:

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If you peer very closely in the lower left corner of the base (in my very inadequate photograph), you can make out the name “Otto Braun”—the name of the person who carved the wood sculpture. Cadwalader-Guild’s original sculpture, Murphy said, was bronze, not wood. We don’t know whether she had anything to do with this reproduction of her work in another medium.

This is perhaps the most obvious instance of the general inadequacy of the object labels throughout the museum. Relatively few provide information other than artist, title, date. That’s because the curators had little time to study and interpret what they were installing: The art was stored in faraway locations until just a short time before the Nov. 11 opening. The focus had to be on getting the collection up (a story in itself), not on interpretive analysis.

Which brings us to the third work in the ensemble, the George Pettit, which curator Murphy recently purchased for the museum from a New York gallery:

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George Pettit. “The Union Refugees,” 1865

The painting’s tantalizing ambiguities and multiple layers of meaning fascinated Kevin, who has a lot to say on the subject—none of it on the barebones label. So let’s gather ’round now (and turn the sound up a bit) to hear him expound on the subtexts of “The Union Refugees” (if that’s indeed who they are) and on why opportunities such as this to undertake groundbreaking research on unfamiliar works attracted him from his associate curatorship at the Huntington LIbrary, San Marino, CA, to Crystal Bridges:

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