BENTONVILLE, Ark. — A crystal is the most ordered object in the universe. Ions click into their atomic place in an endless lattice pattern. Contaminates produce gemstones’ brilliant hues. Clusters colonize rocks like some kind of jagged, glittering mold. We mine, carve, and covet them — and now edify them with pedestals and wall captions. Crystals in Art: Ancient to Today at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, is a survey of over 75 thematic objects: unpolished minerals, paintings, photographs, sculptures, beads, screen-prints, videos, and more. Curators Lauren Hayes and Joachim Pissarro have grouped the objects into five sections with such titles as “Sacred and Transcendent,” “Science and Mysticism,” and “Crystallic Form.” They buck the “American art” edict of the museum’s mission by pulling from other continents for the millennia-spanning survey.
Rock hounds interested in a rainbow of citrine, rose, and amethyst will be disappointed, as the exhibition (perhaps to dispel any resonance with the mineral wings of a natural history museum) doesn’t sample the whole natural crystal world. In the first gallery, set off by deep black walls, sits Marina Abramović’s “Self Portrait with Quartz Crystal” (2018). It’s a life-sized head cast in salt (which, yes, is a crystal) with a piece of quartz protruding from the figure’s forehead. Her gaze is lifted; her mouth is open as if chanting. The whole evokes the metaphysical: for instance, crystal as the body’s conduit to the spiritual, a tool to facilitate enlightenment through the third eye.
The union of crystal and body continues in a video installation by Abramović. In “Dozing Consciousness” (1997), a close crop of the artist’s face shows it buried in thin quartz rods that shift gently over her eyes, nose, and mouth when she breathes. Light, tinkling edges give way to carnal curves when you turn to see Marilyn Minter’s “Crystal Swallow” (2006) beckoning from the next room. In Minter’s enamel painting, wet rouge lips part to hold a crystal like a lozenge. This wing is dedicated to human decadence; crystal beckons like candy for consumption or serves to adorn people and homes.
Robed female mystics holding fake crystal balls in photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue (“The Crystal Ball,” 1931) and Cindy Sherman (“Untitled #296,” 1994) are in the “Science and Mysticism” section. A caption accompanying a crystal ball on display includes a small picture of “Salvator Mundi” (1500), Leonardo da Vinci’s mystery-embroiled painting that depicts a man holding a supposedly real crystal ball. The juxtaposition of the male and female seers shows the woman’s spiritual power, like her glass orb prop, as theatrical. But the man’s robe is no costume; we legitimize his mysticism as religion (Leonardo’s subject is Jesus).
There are a couple of walls summarizing Arkansas’ mineral-mining history, as well as crystal’s healing and scientific applications. A video explaining quartz’s ability to produce an electrical charge under applied stress would have been more enlightening than the brief blurb. And when it comes to New Age therapies and Chakra-talk, I’m curiously agnostic. Though, yes, I did purchase $4.99 piece of quartz from the museum gift shop.
On my first walkthrough, I didn’t even register “The Holy Grail,” the so-named 1,500-pound raw quartz cluster (excavated by exhibition sponsor Avant Mining) stationed in the middle of the “Crystallic Form” section. Instead, I went right for the adjacent Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris paintings, “Guitaire” (1908) and “Guitaire sur un Table” (1916), respectively. While neither is overly striking, it was when standing before them that it happened: I became a convert to crystals in a high-art context. I realized that mundane things like salt and sugar and snowflakes — not just polished collectibles and precious stones — are crystals. Crystal is not a form of matter; it’s a form that matter can take. It’s a way a thing is structured, not the thing itself. It’s then the artist’s prerogative to paint within that structure representationally, or, like some of the best artists do, to challenge, abstract, and deconstruct form as well as content.
If crystals are organized patterns catching and refracting light differently, Andy Warhol’s repeating Marilyn Monroes and soup can series are actually more crystal-like than his four-screen-print series Gems (1978), hanging here. The emerald is suitably green, the round-cut stones are multi-faceted, but Warhol rejects crystalline order with irregular black lines shaping the saturated colors.
For the “New Ways of Seeing” subsection, the curators chose contemporary sculptural works that, according to my PR packet, ask: “Why is crystal so special, and how do we differentiate it from other translucent materials like glass, acrylic, resin or even synthetic, industrial crystal?” In objects like Gisela Colon’s amorphous, opalescent “Morph (Iridescent Platinum)” (2018), I’m not sure the question is answered, unless we’re merely making an argument for isolating crystal’s various properties like shape and opacity.
Daniel Arsham’s “Blue Calcite Column of Footballs” and “Hollow Boxer” (2016) — a blue tower of footballs and a boxer outfit, respectively — have crystals peeking out of craters in their surfaces, like some kind of beautiful decay eating them from the inside out. With that uneasy image in mind, I turned to Alexis Arnold’s Sweethearts-candy-colored crystallized book sculptures, “Smithsonian Nature Guide: Rocks and Minerals” (2019) and “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals” (2019). These foretell a future where books are artifacts, preserved and archaic.
It was hard to give Arnold’s borax-encrusted books their due with the pièce de résistance glowing near the exit. Anthony James’s “Portal Icosahedrons” (2019) are two 20-sided steel structures, one average waist-height, the other taller than most heads, both lined with light bars at each edge and mirrors on each face. When not crossing and joining in points that reach a seemingly infinite distance, the light bars fall into a perfect hexagon, framing a black void. Rather than some cosmic expanse, it seems like a portal to something internal, suggesting a depth of self and psyche perhaps too remote to plumb.
But this light installation is only the penultimate marvel. The reverie breaks with Ai Weiwei’s enormous (fake) crystal light tree, “Chandelier” (2015). Viewers might ignore altogether Miya Ando’s quiet “Tides” (2011), aluminum plates dusted with sapphire crystals, for the Instagrammable moment “Chandelier” provides. Weaving through the crowd to avoid featuring in someone’s snap or Boomerang, I felt jilted ending here, looking at these slightly dirty, brilliantly lit glass squares. It’s as if the crystalline infinite evoked by “Portal Icosahedron” and previous objects is not art’s ability to vacillate between chaos and order or to explore some yet-unearthed psychological insight — but merely our limitless greed for shiny objects.
Crystals in Art: Ancient to Today continues at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Arkansas) through January 6, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Lauren Haynes and Joachim Pissarro. A related programming series includes a Distinguished Speaker Series with Marina Abramović on Wednesday, October 30, and Spotlight Talk with artist Gisela Colon on Friday, November 9.