Monday, June 11, 2012

Detroit, home to a top-six art museum

Posted By on Mon, Jun 11, 2012 at 6:28 PM


Over the past weekend, several members of the Indy staff attended the annual Association of Alternative Newsmedia conference in Detroit, Mich.

I expected a lot from this year's host city, and not just because I'm the anti-Detroit Red Wings fan. My grandfather, after all, worked at the Ford River Rouge Complex off and on for 20 years, and his mother lived in the same house she was born in on 1630 McKinstry St. for more than 90 years. So I had my reasons.

But the city was actually great without my logic. Yes, there is some intense decay — enormous old buildings rotting with shattered windows and boarded doors. But there's cultural vibrancy as well, from the inspirational Heidelberg Project to the work Slow's Bar B Q is doing to help reinvent its neighborhood.

This is a lot to be proud of, and so is the Detroit Institute of Arts, which we had to visit. Don't let anyone tell you that the blue-collar identity of the Motor City is devoid of culture and fine art, because it's got a better museum than most of the nation. It's one of the top six museums in the country, people.

According to Wikipedia, DIA's permanent collection is valued at over $1 billion and is one of the largest in the U.S. at that (as of 2003, it was the second-largest municipally owned museum in the U.S.) The building itself is highly regarded among architects.

You'd think I would have been aware of this upon visiting, but instead I was greeted by surprise after surprise in its numerous corridors, one masterpiece after another:

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
  • "The Wedding Dance" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael
  • "The Jewish Cemetery" by Jacob van Ruisdael

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin
  • "The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi
  • "Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes" by Artemisia Gentileschi

Not to mention a helpful serving of van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Caravaggio, Gauguin, Andrew Wyeth and Titian as well as modern works by Donald Judd, Morris Lewis, Helen Frankenthaler, Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet and Barnett Newman.

One of DIA's biggest attractions is the Rivera Court, an atrium painted by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who arrived in Detroit in 1932 for one of his most famous mural series, "Detroit Industry."

(While living there, his wife Frida Kahlo suffered a miscarriage and painted one of her own masterpieces, "Henry Ford Hospital.")

Detail, Detroit Industry

Detail, Detroit Industry

That's just Western art, too. There's plenty in the way of Middle Eastern and Asian we didn't, sadly, have the time to see. Visit the museum's website to browse the collection.

However, it always comes back to the favorites, and hanging inconspicuously in a hall leading to a staircase was this, Diego Velazquez's "A Man:"


Lumpy, jowl-ly and appearing more or less impatient, this anonymous is a classic Velazquez. The colors are his typical beige and black offset by a shock of white (per austere Spanish attire), and the brushwork confident and fluid. It's ironic that such a humble portrait is my takeaway highlight, but as its host city would understand, you don't have to be flashy to work it out.

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