Postcard from St Louis

20th June 2024

John Wyver writes: welcome to the fifth Postcard (with two more scheduled) from my and my wife Clare Paterson’s recent mid-west road trip, in this case embracing our visits, for two nights in each city, to Indianapolis and St Louis. The first four Postcards are here, here, here and here.

Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?

On our first morning in the capital city of Indiana, Clare enquired at the hotel reception about how we might get a bus across town to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). Her very friendly respondent more or less burst out laughing before asserting that no-one travels by bus in the mid-west. Well, we’d got around pretty well on public transportation in Chicago, but beyond the big city it’s so obvious, and so depressing, that everything is geared to a private car culture. Why did we expect anything different?

So our hire car comes out of the garage for an 8-minute freeway hop to IMA, which would indeed, according to Google Maps, have taken the best part of 90 minutes by a bus which runs only once an hour, and even then there would have been well over a mile of walking. When we arrive we’re greeted by Roy Lichtenstein’s delightful Five Brushstrokes, designed 1983-84, fabricated 2012 (above).

No-one baby but the brave

By the time I’m writing this, we’ve visited five major art museums across the mid-west. Chicago and Columbus, Indiana I’ve already written about, and St Louis is below, with Des Moines to come next time. And by far the boldest, most stimulating and most satisfying has been IMA. There are great works from the past here, including two that echo paintings I’ve highlighted previously:

Paul Cézanne, House in Provence, about 1885
Edward Hopper, Hotel Lobby, 1943

And there are some sensational recent pieces, including Robert Irwin’s Light and Space III, 2008, extending way up one wall of the central atrium.

But IMA is special because of its attempt to experiment with displays, to challenge its audiences, and to involve them in the experience of looking at, thinking about and responding to what’s on the walls and plinths.

In brief, the central museum’s central presentation of its permanent collection, which is frankly labelled as an experiment, is titled ‘Work in Progress: Conversations About American Art’. For this, IMA collaborated with a quintet of Indianapolis area residents to create content – poems, paintings, historical analysis – that responds to the collection. The five call themselves ‘Looking Glass Alliance’ and as they write:

We are using the idea of a looking glass to turn upside down the white, heteronormative interpretations of art and the American mythos that have traditionally been communicated in museums… we reflect on these practices, disrupt damaging narratives, and make marginalised voices, places, and people more visible.

And despite the slightly earnest note of the manifesto, it works wonderfully well. Historical paintings and photographs are illuminated in new ways, without the art being reduced simply to social history or illustrations of ideology.

Take Constance Coleman Richardson’s 1930 Streetlight, for example. From this achitectural historian and archivist Jordan Ryan spins a discussion about the city’s 1981 streetlight moratorium, about class and race, neighbourhoods and discrimination and investment. Their modest panel and references offer ways of looking at what is a relatively unremarkable realist painting in quite new ways.

There are also some strong contemporary works here, including Kara Walker’s 2001 cut paper and projection installation They Waz Nice White Folks While They Lasted (Sez One Gal to Another).

Elsewhere, there’s the exceptionally bold ’The Clowes Pavilion Reimagined’. George Clowes bequeathed his collection of mostly European old masters to IMA on his death in 1958. Now the museum has reinstalled this, hanging for example an iconic masterpiece like Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, 1629, perhaps the institution’s best-known work, in a darkened space with a Bill Viola group portrait in video and, across the room, desks at which you can sketch your on image on an iPad and have it emailed to you. Maybe it ought not to work, but for me it definitely did.

The display is full of such surprising juxtapositions, and there’s also an interior courtyard with a very cool 6K digital display for a ceiling.

Nearby, a simple wall display headed ‘Absence and Return’, built around a work labelled as ‘Edo Artist of the Royal Bronze-casting Guild, Palace Plaque Depicting a Warrior, 18th-19th century’ (super hard to photo – soz; click the link for a much better image). This is the clearest and most direct engagement with the British imperial violence and looting that I’ve seen from any institution anywhere.

Everywhere the labelling is smart, engaging and committed, but there’s no sense that viewers are patronised, and nor is the integrity of artworks undermined. Invitations to become involved, whether in colouring in a quilting square or choosing an artist’s quote to take away, feel genuine and worthwhile. 

Also, and this is an idea I’d love to see picked up elsewhere, as above there are solid seats (not just stools) scattered through the galleries which you can move anywhere you want to sit and stare for a while. Last but not least, the café serves absolutely excellent salads.

One last pairing, which I can’t resist. Diabolo (neige et fleurs), 1969, by Joan Mitchell (I know, I’m a bit obsessed with her work now) hung across from Angel of the Resurrection, 1903-04 by Frederick Wilson and Tiffany Studios.

I Believe in a Promised Land

The day after a whole day at IMA we drove to St Louis, and as the city came into view it was clear that the Gateway Arch dominates everything here.

The Arch was built as a monument to the westward expansion of the United States, and was designed by Eero Saarinen as the winning entry in a competition in which he beat out his own father, Eliel. Shaped as a weighted catenary arch, it was constructed between 1963 and 1965, although the public only got to go up to the top in the summer of 1967.

There are other notable structures in and around the town, including the historic Eads Bridge and the justly celebrated Wainwright Building. The former is a combined road and rail bridge across the Mississippi completed in 1874, and it remains a great triumph of engineering.

The latter is a 10-story office building by our friends Danker Adler and Louis Sullivan and built 1890-91. Frank Lloyd Wright called it ’the very first human expression of a tall office-building as Architecture’.

But St Louis really is all about the Arch, The landscaping around its base on the river front is  exceptional, and there’s a terrific (free) museum underneath which imaginatively relates the history of the area, of the 19the century heyday of the city, of the white man’s appalling treatment of Native Americans, and of the circumstances of the commissioning and building of the monument.

The climax of all this, however, is the trip to the top, cocooned, as Clare is below, in a 2001-type capsule as part of what they call a tram. Employing an ingenious combination of elevator and escalator tech, this gets you the 630 feet up in around 4 minutes. and as you rise all you can see is the inner workings of the system, but this simply enhances the sense of technological sublime. All in all, it’s an astounding achievement, deeply resonant with the optimism of the 1960s.

At the top, where you get to stay for around 10 minutes, there’s a viewing gallery with spectacular views of the city and the Mississippi; here’s my best shot.

As for the city’s art, there is the very fine Citygarden downtown with an eclectic collection of modern and contemporary sculptures, including a marvellous Lèger wall panel.

Fernand Léger, Femmes Au Perroquet, 1952

Adjacent to this is the city’s seemingly little-loved Richard Serra, Twain, 1982, one of two major works by the sculptor here. This one, composed of eight sheets of Cor-ten steel, sits now in a sadly lightly littered grass area with an interior that last saw a mower a good while ago (see here).

Mansion on the Hill

And there is the St Louis Museum of Art, a neo-classical pile high up in Forest Park which was the site for the 1904 World’s Fair. Asking for directions at the front desk we were confronted with one of the major disappointments of the trip: Henri Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle, 1907-08, one of the gems of the collection here, was until recently in a special exhibition about Matisse and the sea and it has not yet been put back on display in the permanent collection.

We console ourselves with other beauties, including a remarkable gallery that faces off Morris Louis’ Alpha Tau, 1960-61, with Frank Stella’s 1971 Madinat as-Salam III, across Don Judd’s Untitled, 1969, and with a luminous late Mitchell, Ici, 1992, on another wall. But I must have spent ten minutes or more in this space, with only a wary guard for company. Despite the museum being free to all on this day there were strikingly few visitors.

Nor was the glory of the institution, at least for me, much more populated. This is a central gallery displaying more than a dozen canvases by Max Beckmann who, after fleeing the Nazis and then a period of exile in Amsterdam, taught between 1947 and 1949 at a local School of Fine Arts, Washington University, just before his death in 1950.. Many of the paintings came to the museum as the result of a bequest from Morton D. May, chairman of May Department Stores, Here be marvels indeed.

Max Beckmann, The Town (City Night), 1950
Max Beckmann, Acrobats, 1937-39

Perhaps it was the contrast with the vibrant IMA, but the St Louis Museum of Art overall felt staid and traditional in its displays, with little concern to reach out to contemporary audiences. And today that simply doesn’t feel good enough. One imaginative juxtaposition, however, illustrated how new audiences might be excited and involved, In a gallery devoted to historical European art, Daniel Mytens I’s Charles I1633 hangs next to Kehinde Wiley’s 2018 painting of the same name, a portrait of St Louisan Ashley Cooper, selected by the artist. Entwined in Wiley’s trademark patterning, they proudly mirror the pose of the English monarch. The pair look terrific together.

One more stop was the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, a rigorous Tadao Ando building opened in 1992 and home both to temporary exhibitions and another great Richard Serra, Joe, 1999. This is a spiral of weathering steel that draws you in and seems to curve around for far longer than you think possible. It’s a work that is glorious to experience, including the slightly echoing sound of your feet on the gravel, and effectively impossible to photograph (which may be part of its greatness). Here’s an external view and an abstract shot from inside.

Next time: the Postcards Food Awards for the trip. But before we leave St Louis we have to recognise how hard it was to find anywhere to have dinner downtown, so much of which seemed closed up and deserted. The centre of the city felt desperately hollowed out, and while we noticed this condition elsewhere on our trip, it seemed especially the case here.


  1. John Wyver says:

    Even with decent planning, a trip like this is bound to miss a lot, and now I’m kicking myself that in Indianapolis we didn’t search out the former College Life Insurance Company of America Headquarters, designed in 1970 by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates:

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