Aaron Henry Gors, “Pittsburgh at Night” (1926) at the Carnegie Museum of Art

On April 29, 1974, the prog rock masters King Crimson played a famously furious gig at the Stanley Warner theatre in Pittsburgh, later immortalized as part of the band’s towering 4-disc live set, The Great Deceiver. In 1974, the steel industry was wheezing its way out of town, and the city was careening toward a difficult decade filled with a shifting economy and populace. The malleability of the Crimson dinosaur was exactly what the city was going to need to recover. And they have, thanks to the medical and tech industries (And ROBOTS!).

In the 70’s, out of the ashes and soot of the crumble came something extraordinary for the art world. In 1977, Barbara Luderowski founded The Mattress Factory, an installation space that is the highlight and anchor of every visit I make to the city. Yet, too many people I know still think of Pittsburgh as it was in the above Aaron Henry Gorson painting. Let’s work on that. Starting with the fact that a visit to the ‘Burgh is almost always a galvanizing one.

The Carnegie

An aerial view of the Carnegie Museum of Art (bottom center) during warmer climes with Carnegie University in the background (click to enlarge) (photo by Jimmy Lin, Flickr)

Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory, “Tapestry: Autumn” (late 17th century) (click to enlarge)

When I visited last month I hit the ground running, going directly to the Carnegie Museum of Art from the airport. It was on. In the lobby I was greeted by a large and unusual Alex Katz. It was sort of the opposite of an Amy Sillman. Where Sillman’s work is abstraction that sometimes breaks into the figurative this painting was figurative on the verge of abstraction. The room behind it was filled with a spiky Cecil Balmond structure tainted by wonder. After dropping off my bag in the self-check bag area (tip for visiting Pittsburgh museums: Bring a quarter!), I made my way up to the exhibition Gods, Love, and War: Tapestries and Prints from the Collection.

Pieter Brueghel The Elder (after), Pieter van der Heyden (engraver), “Ira (Wrath)” (1558)

The show is in two large rooms, and I probably could have spent a couple hours there. I usually vote against listening to music while looking at art, but I also know when to follow my instincts. It was time for King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King album. The songs feel connected to the Renaissance. Plus, in the moment, the dual heaviness worked. Sometimes it’s fun to knock on history’s door with the spontaneous. As gorgeous and grand as the tapestries were, what was truly overwhelming in the room was the prints. Print masters Hendrick Goltzius, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and Albrecht Durer were the ones who made me take off my headphones. The technical and emotional accuracy of their work is actually frightening. Reaching across the centuries their prints had me watching my back, proving once again that the best art has the longest arms.

Thankfully, all that heaviness was relieved with my next stop in the Carnegie, Palm Springs Modern: Photographs by Julius Shulman. Breezy. In addition to photos, the exhibit included original drafts and designs for houses in Palm Beach. The draft for Dinah Shore’s home was the highlight here — ‘nuf said. But I mean that in a good way.

Carl Andre, “Fallen Timbers” (1980)

Stepping out of the Palm Springs show I entered what’s become my favorite room at the Carnegie, the Hall of Sculpture. The curators consistently find the sweet spot between the antique and the modern here. This time, contemporary art was represented by Carl Andre’s “Fallen Timbers” (1980). The sculpture holds its ground and its power in the company of the permanent inhabitants of the room. Pitch-perfect.

When I broke out into the Carnegie’s permanent collection of paintings, I quickly saw a theme develop, already exemplified by the Alex Katz in the lobby. Unusual paintings by well-known painters, and stunning works by lesser-known artists. A really punchy Julie Mehretu painting was one of the first things I came across. A couple rooms later I found a painting by the Russian-American Raphael Soyer (1899-1987). I had never heard of him. Color me schooled. All this is not to say that the occasional outstanding example of work by Rothko, Bonnard, or Thibault doesn’t work its way into the mix. It does, and it does well. Wayne Thibault’s “Table Setting” (1961) stopped me in my tracks and held me there for a few minutes. This wasn’t a painting. It was life. And I hadn’t even hit the highlight yet, kids. You know the highlight. That’s where a curatorial choice is so strong it actually brings tears to your eyes. On one wall there was a line-up of Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and Jo Baer. Minimalist art. Maximalist moment. I’ve been here before. This is par for the course at the Carnegie.

Alex Katz, “Autumn” (1999) (click to enlarge)

I still had three more places to visit. Yeah. I was in Pittsburgh.

Coming up tomorrow: The wonders and the bad photo policy of The Warhol; the wonders and the, well, just the wonders of The Mattress Factory; and an institution that consistently makes me wonder, Wood Street Galleries.

Brent Burket is a writer and curator living in Brooklyn. His blog is called Heart As Arena, and he tweets here. He has a really bad sense of direction.

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