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Soul of the South

The Ogden experience excels in its ability to showcase the often unnoticed and under-recognized world of Southern art.

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By now, we have heard the story, the near-mythic tale of how the purchase of a single modest art work by a college kid who would later become a real estate developer evolved over time into an important art collection -- a collection that outgrew his residence and eventually morphed into a museum that would dominate one of this city's most prominent blocks. And now, after many detours and adjustments along the way, Roger Ogden's dream, the result of his lifelong obsession with Southern art, is about to become a public reality with the opening of the new museum that bears his name.

But what does it really mean, and what should we expect? What is Southern art, anyway? According to Ogden director Rick Gruber, it is art created by Southerners or by important artists working in the South. We've gotten a taste of that approach over the past few years at the temporary Ogden Museum Gallery on Julia Street, but that was a mere speck compared to the five-story granite and glass Goldring Hall that opens Aug. 23 on Camp Street. Together with its hulking, H.H. Richardson-designed, 19th century former library building facing Lee Circle (scheduled to open next year), the Ogden occupies a substantial 67,000 square feet and stretches from Camp Street to St. Charles Avenue. None of this is obvious from its Camp Street entrance, so entering that sparkling new space with its imposing atrium can be a little startling, especially considering that the exterior of the building blends in, if anything, all too well with its Warehouse District surroundings.

That was what architects Errol Baron, Michael Toups and Concordia APC intended -- "to create a space that's all about the art and not just the architecture," as Ogden curator David Houston put it. Still, nothing in that proper yet muted facade prepares one for the soaring canyon of light that its lobby becomes on a sunny day. Bounded on two sides by banks of "floating" stairways -- minimalist steel treads flanked in clear glass that read like serrated traceries levitating upward without benefit of visible supports -- the atrium's rough-cut granite walls also seem to float in sheaths of ambient light. Standing in sharp contrast to the more earthbound facade, the lobby is striking not only for its presence, but also for its subtlety, its softly glowing luminosity.

Much can be said about the architecture of Goldring Hall, but that quality of surprise is an apt metaphor for its mostly 20th century contents, for the Ogden excels in its ability to illuminate artistic legacies that have existed all around us, often unnoticed or under-recognized. Its unusual light and spatial qualities also subtly shape the exhibitions themselves, as we shall see. Of course, all that daylight is not necessarily a good thing for delicate paintings and photographs, so the atrium perimeter is used to exhibit glass sculpture. Here works by artists such as Richard Jolley and Gene Koss bask in rays filtered through the hundreds of glass bricks that make up vast swatches of the facade. And it is probably those glass bricks that create the atrium's surprisingly soft glow by day and turn it into something like a postmodern Japanese lantern by night.

Once inside the main gallery spaces, a kind of understatedly elegant maze, we are faced with not just Southern art, but also, in some sense, new ways of looking at Southern art. Compared with the expansive atrium, the exhibition areas can seem somewhat intimate, galleries within galleries that provide a more cohesive setting for individual artworks than is usually found in most museums. Just to be sure you get the picture, there are recorded audio commentaries by artists and museum officials, as well as interpretive wall texts and video displays. "In most museums, only traveling blockbuster exhibits get that kind of treatment," says Houston. "But here we wanted the entire collection to be treated as a blockbuster." Each gallery has a focus or theme, and if some are more compelling than others, all fit neatly into a mosaic of life in the South, what Ogden director Gruber calls "its unique spirit, vitality and sense of place."

Much of that sense of place is defined by nature and the land, topics explored in the Landscape gallery with its Realist, Tonalist and Impressionist canvases by early 20th century artists such as Charles Wellington Boyle and Ellsworth Woodward. It's a distinctive assortment, yet it is really a continuation of the 19th century legacy of master landscape painters such as Joseph Meeker, Martin Johnson Heade and our own Richard Clague and William Buck among others who revitalized New Orleans' art community after the Civil War, setting a cohesive tone that lingers to this day. (Those works, regarded by some as the crown jewels of the Ogden Collection, will be on view next year when the 18th and 19th Century wing in the old library building on Lee Circle opens.)

The Southern Regionalist galleries are, by contrast, more self contained. A 20th century phenomenon, the Southern Regionalists are an overlooked phenomenon of American art. Many New Orleanians have heard of John McCrady, the Mississippi-born painter who studied with, and was befriended by, Thomas Hart Benton in New York and who later became this city's most prominent art teacher. Some may know that he was considered an important American Scene painter along with Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry, but what is missing from most museums, Southern or otherwise, is any attempt to showcase American Scene painters working in the South or to put them in context. A glance around the gallery reveals that McCrady, represented here with several emblematic paintings, was not an isolated phenomenon but a leader in a much broader movement. And while not every name will seem quite so familiar, the works in the Southern Regionalist galleries are among the museum's most vivid from the first half of the 20th century.

Related in time, yet quite different in tone, are the works of two other area artists who have each been given their own gallery. Walter Anderson, the New Orleans-born eccentric and recluse whose family owns the Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs, Miss., is fairly well known throughout the Gulf South. The stories of his Van Gogh-like brushes with insanity and self-imposed semi-exile on Horn Island, where his mystical visions of nature were painted on untold sheets of typewriter paper, are the stuff of legend, and his collected works at the Ogden make for an inviting mini-environment. Far less known, however, is the work of a saner, yet no less mystical, artist by the name of Will Henry Stevens.

Originally from the Midwest, Stevens came to New Orleans in 1921 and painted landscapes in a realistic style not unlike some of the American Luminists and Transcendentalists -- but he also painted in an abstract style not unlike Kandinsky. Like Anderson, he was influenced by Eastern mysticism. According to Ogden curator Houston, "Stevens was a taoist and a theosophist who followed the teachings of Ouspensky," all of which got mixed in with his fascination with Louisiana swamps and woodlands as subject matter. The results were unique, sometimes powerful, and having his own gallery at the Ogden goes a long way toward moving this important area artist out of the shadows and into his proper place in art history, some 55 years after his death.

Other artists with designated galleries include Benny Andrews, who shares space with his wife, Nene Humphries, and his painter father, George Andrews, among other family members. Benny Andrews is important not just because he is a very accomplished African-American artist from the South, but also because he the son of a Georgia sharecropper who became successful on his own terms in the fiercely competitive New York art world. Coming from a supportive and artistic family didn't hurt, even if they happened to be sharecroppers. It's one of those inspiring, profoundly American stories, and presenting it as the George Andrews Family Gallery gives it more scope and depth than a mere line-up of one artist's art works ever could. But that's life in the South: everything has an organic root system and tends to be interconnected to an extent one rarely sees in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Everything has not just a story, but often a fairly involved story, and what one quickly notices at the Ogden is the extent to which the story is allowed to unfold, either implicitly or explicitly.

Those stories of people and lifestyles are especially evident in the photography galleries. Featuring work from the early 20th century through contemporary times, images by artists such as E. J. Bellocq, Walker Evans, Eudora Welty, Clarence Laughlin and Debbie Fleming Caffery may be striking art works in themselves, but they also function as portraits of the people and places that make this region what it is. And while Bellocq and Laughlin are rightly regarded as the godfathers of Louisiana art photography, others such as Pops Whitesell and Eugene Delacroix, important activists in New Orleans photo circles, receive long overdue recognition as well. As does Fonville Winans, whose classic views of Louisiana in the 1930s and 1940s shine with an incisive lucidity on a par with the legendary images of the great WPA-era photographers. Similar approaches appear in the 1945-1975 gallery, which illustrates the transition from realism to abstraction in the works of artists ranging from Noel Rockmore to Ida Kohlmeyer and their proteges, a progression that leads naturally to the Contemporary gallery on the fifth floor, with its adjacent terrace overlooking the Contemporary Arts Center, Confederate Museum and Warehouse District.

Clearly, one of the Ogden Museum's signature achievements is the thoroughness with which it fills in the gaps and provides so many of the previously missing pieces in the puzzle of this region's art history. And while that might be expected of America's largest and most comprehensive museum of Southern art, it does so with great style and flair. There are, of course, some thin spots, as one might expect in any new institution. Not all artists are represented by their best work, and some Texans and Floridians might feel that their states' respective galleries fall short of being representative of their increasingly substantial art legacies (shortfalls that might readily be remedied by some timely donations from major Houston or Miami collectors), but in the overall scheme of things, the Ogden Museum -- affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and operated by the University of New Orleans -- can only be considered a major boon not just for this city and its artists, but for the entire region as well.

The story of accomplished African-American artist - Benny Andrews, whose works included - Grandmother's Dinner, is allowed to unfold - in the museum's George Andrews Family Gallery. - THE OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART
  • The Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • The story of accomplished African-American artist Benny Andrews, whose works included Grandmother's Dinner, is allowed to unfold in the museum's George Andrews Family Gallery.
The Ogden collection's photography galleries - include the work of Fonville Winans, whose - photographs include this 1938 effort titled - Captain Tony. - THE OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART
  • The Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • The Ogden collection's photography galleries include the work of Fonville Winans, whose photographs include this 1938 effort titled Captain Tony.

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