There are many flavors of obnoxious New Yorkers. My own: the well-traveled provincial. Before the pandemic I tallied up alarming carbon emissions in search of art, thought nothing of jetting to East Asia or South Africa for a single exhibition or performance — and then neglected institutions just a time zone or two away. When the lockdown came and my passport’s power shriveled, I made the embarrassing calculation that I’d been to four times as many foreign countries as I have U.S. states.
Go west, young Manhattanite! My post-pandemic resolution (“post”-pandemic: it was wishful thinking) has been to take in the extraordinary museums in the country of my birth — especially the grand institutions of the Midwest founded at the start of the last century, where all the world’s cultures converge. Equipped with a few KN95 masks and a Japanese-made compact car, this delinquent finally suited up for a Cleveland-to-Detroit road trip — en route to four museums, linked in a three-hour curve around Lake Erie. Together they make a fine Labor Day weekend excursion (though all four are closed on Monday, as usual), but each contains a whole globe’s worth of treasures.
Cleveland Museum of Art
For almost a decade I’ve been meaning to get to Ohio to see the expansion and renovation project that affirmed this museum’s place as one of the nation’s most important art institutions. What finally got me to brave LaGuardia was a shrewd, surprising exhibition on French painting at the turn of the last century. “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis” admits us into the salons, bedrooms and winter gardens of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton and the show’s true star, Édouard Vuillard: four Parisians who gave domestic scenes the psychological intensity of crime fiction. Vuillard’s dense and fraught patterning, especially — a bedspread congested with hundreds of colored daubs, a dress crosshatched like the bars of a jailhouse — invite a reappraisal of what an artist can do when he stays indoors: good lesson for the 2020 plague year, though one I’d have hoped was no longer needed in vaccinated 2021.
For a museum of its size and importance, Cleveland offers an abundance of intimate encounters. In the low-lit medieval galleries, I couldn’t break away from four alabaster statuettes of mourning monks, carved at the start of the 15th century by Claus de Werve for the tomb of the Duke of Burgundy, whose pained faces peek out from their hoods. Another naturalistic monk, equally heart-stopping: a statue from Kamakura-era Japan, crafted from hinoki cypress and depicting a Zen master, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, the picture of enlightenment. It can be found in the sparely handsome west wing, which was designed by Rafael Viñoly and opened in 2013.
And the museum is home to one of the rarest works of art in the United States: the Apollo Sauroktonos, or the “Cleveland Apollo,” a lithe bronze god that the museum attributes to the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. (Greek bronzes of this scale are exceptionally uncommon, as most were melted down.) Known for years through later marble copies, the bronze Apollo arrived in Cleveland in 2003; its attribution will be debated for generations, and its provenance, too, is more than a little murky. Rilke once looked at a statue of Apollo in the Louvre and concluded, “You must change your life.” My own Apollonian experience was less thunderous — but 10 minutes or more alone with him in the museum’s ancient art galleries, finally gazing at his downcast face and the whipsaw curve of his right hip, had its own poetry.
Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard, Cleveland, (216) 421-7350, clevelandart.org, admission free.
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
Stanford or Smith, Williams or Northwestern: So many of this country’s most fulfilling museums are at universities, and so many have spent the pandemic in limbo. Academic museums have been closed longer than almost any other art institutions, mostly because of university restrictions on bringing outsiders on campus.
Oberlin’s museum, less than an hour from Cleveland, was closed to the public for 15 months — but since this summer outsiders like me can re-enter one of the nation’s most important teaching museums. Its painting collection includes a major Baroque tableau of the dying, arrow-pierced Saint Sebastian by the Baroque painter Hendrick ter Brugghen; the modern collection is rich with Monet and Mitchell, as well as Oberlin grads like the sculptor John Newman. The architecture is a collection highlight of its own: a mashed-up Renaissance fantasy designed by the Beaux-Arts architect Cass Gilbert (who designed numerous buildings at Oberlin), joined up with a checkerboard extension by Robert Venturi.
The most extraordinary object on view is one of the smallest: a newly acquired portrait medallion, painted in 1635, of an Ethiopian traveler at the court of Savoy. The sitter is a pretender to the Ethiopian throne called Zaga Christ, and the artist Giovanna Garzoni picked out the curls of his hair and the details of his lace ruff in a miniature just two inches high. Even on its rear face the medallion testifies to Euro-African exchanges: She signed her name in both Italian and Amharic.
Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 87 North Main Street, Oberlin, Ohio, (440) 775-8665, amam.oberlin.edu, admission free.
Toledo Museum of Art
Ninety minutes west of Oberlin is a museum long beloved in the Buckeye State, whose collection I have admired in books and loans and websites but whose riches have to be seen to be believed. The Toledo Museum reflects the city’s glory days as a glassmaking capital, and in and around its Great Gallery is an anthology of European art history that seems only to have high notes. There are the brawny nudes of Luca Signorelli, one of the most careful anatomists of the Renaissance. The fresh beauty of Vigée Le Brun’s portrait of an ancien régime countess, its nonchalance hinting at the revolution to come. Manet’s arresting late portrait (from 1880) of the writer-politician Antonin Proust, holding a yellow leather glove rendered as just a few bold dashes of goldenrod.
New art is not neglected; in October, the museum will host the North American premiere of “Doppelgänger,” by the Canadian video artist Stan Douglas, which was a standout contribution of the 2019 Venice Biennale. But the museum’s greatest contemporary draw is architectural: its Glass Pavilion, a low-slung belvedere designed by the Japanese architects Sanaa, which since 2006 has housed one of the world’s largest collections of glass (as well as a glassmaking facility). Its transparent curved walls, its serene dissolution of inside and outside, make it a museum building worth a pilgrimage.
Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio, (419) 255-8000, toledomuseum.org, admission free.
Detroit Institute of Arts
Ever since I turned to art professionally, the most shameful lacuna in my American museumgoing career has lied here in the Motor City. I spent half my time here kicking myself for delaying my first discovery of Bellini’s “Madonna and Child,” in which Mary and her son stand before a curtain of lustrous green, or Matisse’s pared-down 1916 interior that was the first to enter an American museum.
A commanding nkisi n’kondi from Kongo, its hips thrust forward, its body studded with nails, lords over an impressive African collection that integrates performance and masquerade to show the continent’s expressive cultures across media. A more recent, more surprising African acquisition: a mask by an artist of the Chewa people of Malawi, whose straight jaw and painted sideburns confirm he’s none other than Elvis Presley.
Parked now at D.I.A. is “Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City, 1950–2020,” the first show on automotive design the museum has mounted since 1985, which includes a dozen cars meant for both the road and the experimental showcase. The strangest, and the coolest by far, is the 1987 Lamborghini Portofino, a sedan with scissor doors that attempted to bridge the racetrack and the suburban school run. It exists only in this single prototype, and I am dying to pilot it to museums further afield.
As for Diego Rivera’s murals of Detroit industry, which I’d only seen as reproductions in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s recent “Vida Americana,” their wedding of the Ford assembly line to Aztec cosmology has all the grandeur of a cathedral. I gazed up into one corner of the Rivera Court, at a scene controversial in its day: a doctor, nurse and infant in a laboratory, their poses echoing scenes of the Holy Family. A horse, a cow, and some rams graze in front of the flasks and condensers. The boy has a crown of gold hair that looks like a halo, and he is partaking of a breakthrough in human industry whose promise has not waned. The Christ child is being vaccinated.
Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, (313) 833-7900, dia.org; advanced tickets required.