Phoenix Art Museum: A Mixture of New and Old
Spanning across centuries and continents with its variety of artworks
By Shannon Broderick
I painted the Indian real, not red.
Artist Fritz Scholder’s words stand on the wall of the Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation gallery in both English and Spanish, next to one of his paintings, and provide a simple explanation for his work.
Despite the warm, sunny weather outside, there are still a handful of visitors milling around the exhibition, pausing to glance at each piece intently—and with good reason.
Titled Super Indian, the exhibition at the Phoenix Art Museum is an explosion of color. The pieces, which line the walls of the airy, large gallery, are full of pinks, oranges, blues and green. There is no sign of the stereotypes often cast upon Native Americans usually seen in Western American art—no long tired faces, intricate headdresses or warm earth tones.
Instead, Scholder’s pop-art infused pieces are vague, sometimes blurred shapes, outlined in bright colors but filled in haphazardly, with mottled tones. The effect is playful but thought-provoking and provides a fresh twist on a theme that runs throughout the museum.
An Oasis in the Sonoran Desert
The Phoenix Art Museum, established in 1959, is housed in a large modern building close to Downtown Phoenix. Behind the thick concrete walls of the museum resides the largest collection of art in the American Southwest—over 18,000 works of art spanning across centuries and continents.
The museum has nine permanent collections—American, Asian, Contemporary, European, Fashion, Latin American, Modern, Photography, and Western American—which are spread across three floors and two wings.
Spread throughout the year are festivals, performances, art films and educational programs put on by the museum. There is also an interactive gallery for children and an outdoor sculpture garden to enjoy.
Art from all corners of the world
When I visited the museum in March, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of collections or a range of pieces—would it be largely contemporary, or focus on a geographic point of interest? However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the museum’s collection was very diverse in terms of time periods and geographic point of origin.
I started my visit in the Upper Level of the North Wing. Here, Italian Renaissance pieces ushered me into the wing. As I wandered through the rooms, I took a whirlwind tour through the centuries and countries. There were Dutch genre paintings of daily life, austere portraits of 18th-century nobles, and larger-than-life works dating back to the Spanish Colonial days in Mexico.
The impressionist and post-impressionist work by artists like Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro form a bridge from Europe to the Americas, and from the 19th century to contemporary works.
The American art collection has a particular emphasis on Western American art, with pieces inspired by the Southwest. On one wall hang Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract flowers and landscapes; on another, Lew Davis’s grim works featuring copper camps. Native Americans and red rock landscapes are common.
Over in the South Gallery, above the Super Indian exhibition, is the museum’s contemporary collection—a variety of pieces made with a variety of media. A massive, hyper-realistic painting features two young Brazilian men in an embrace, in the same pose made iconic by a sculpture, against a floral background.
Close to the staircase, the charred remains of a Texas church hang broken and suspended in the air, swaying lazily with the occasional gust of air. And Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation invites visitors to take a piece of candy from a heap on the floor, reducing the pile to nothingness.
One of the largest pieces in the contemporary collection is an installation is Yayoi Kusama’s You Who are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies. I walked through a doorway to find myself in a dark room, filled with thousands of LED lights hanging down from the ceiling.
Mirrors in front of me made it seem like the room went on forever, and I stumbled at first, disoriented and unable to adapt to my surroundings—but once my eyes adjusted to the dark, a great feeling of peace washed over me. For as far as I could see, glittering blue and green lights bobbed up and down in front of my eyes in a soothing manner. It was as if I had been transported out of Phoenix, out of the United States, and out of this world.
Planning your visit
The museum is located at 1625 N.Central Ave. in Phoenix, AZ. For hours, ticket prices and directions to the museum, visit their website
Shannon Broderick is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and aspiring photojournalist. She likes exploring back alleys, learning new languages, and spending hours at art museums. She now works as a newspaper photographer in Wyoming.
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