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Cultural District Confidential

Posted 12:57pm on Wednesday, Sep. 22, 2010

Genteel. Elegant. Refined. These words quickly come to mind when we think of Fort Worth's world-class museums. But in every hallowed hall, there must be some irreverence lurking beneath the gilded frames of the Monets and Remingtons. Or at least some juicy morsels only known to insiders.

We're especially mulling these prospects as this weekend approaches, because Cowtown's Cultural District is amping up for a weekend of artistic excess: Things kick off Thursday at the Modern with the sixth installment of "Modern Cinema 2010: Great Movies You Haven't Heard of ... Yet," a film festival programmed by DFW.com's own Christopher Kelly. (For a full schedule, see pages 13-15.) And then on Saturday, it's Day in the District, when admission to eight of the city's cultural hot spots is free.

So in preparation for our cultural gorgefest, we tried to pry loose a few secrets (or at least a couple of zany stories) that make these reverential palaces feel a little more human, and even more endearing.

Kinda like us.

Two Cultural District museums were happy to play along and spill a little. Two others, well, they stayed as buttoned-up as a Victorian matron in bonnet and gloves. (Hmm ... makes us wonder even more!)

But thanks to the Modern and the Kimbell, we have some curious tales and tidbits to share -- one as sweet as green candy, one as gory as an old-fashioned bloodbath and one that might be considered the ancient ancestor of The Hangover.

Modern Art Museum

What you know (or should know): The Tadao Ando-designed building is a marvel in itself: a gorgeous creation of steel, glass and concrete, with long pavilions that set into a reflecting pond. This incarnation of the Modern was unveiled in 2002, and its permanent collection boasts more than 3,000 works, including pieces by Jackson Pollock, Susan Rothenberg, Richard Serra, Rosson Crow and Andy Warhol.

Popular pieces: Ladder for Booker T. Washington by Martin Puryear, Untitled (Seated Woman) by Ron Mueck, Book With Wings by Anselm Kiefer, Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol

Cultural District confidential

Guerrilla weddings! The contemporary elegance of the Modern makes it a sought-out wedding reception destination (there was even a planned proposal underneath Conjoined, the shimmering outdoor Roxy Paine sculpture of two entwined trees). While the Modern has hosted about 150 wedding receptions, wedding ceremonies aren't permitted. But in our flash-mob world, people sometimes can't help themselves. Over the last five years, at least two guerilla weddings have taken place at the Modern -- one by the massive Richard Serra sculpture outdoors, and the other in the gallery containing Martin Puryear's graceful, ascending sculpture, Ladder for Booker T. Washington. (Puryear made it from a single ash sapling that he carefully split down the middle and rejoined with maple rungs.) In that case, guests gathered in the intimate gallery at the appointed time for a hasty ceremony. The guards noticed that the gallery was suddenly filling with people, then a white-gowned bride appeared. Before they had time to even plan a course of action, the ceremony was over, and the wedding party had dispersed. Note: Neither we nor the Modern condone this.

No 'Ladder' for you! If it weren't for Modern chief curator Michael Auping, that couple wouldn't have had a ladder to get married under. The artist wasn't even interested in talking about Ladder, let alone selling it to the Modern -- it was an older work of his, and many artists prefer to look forward. But Auping persisted -- he knew it would be a dazzling fit for one particular gallery, said media relations coordinator Dustin Van Orne. After much arm-twisting, Auping finally got Puryear to agree to at least loan the piece to the Modern for its opening. "And when [Puryear] came to the gala opening to see it, he realized that it would never look good anywhere else," Van Orne said. The Modern bought the sculpture. "And now it's become a really pivotal piece in [Puryear's] body of work."

Defiling the green candy! As a gallery attendant at the Modern, James Lassen gets to overhear plenty of interesting comments. One piece that always invites questions -- and odd behavior -- is the huge floor-level stream of individually wrapped green hard candies, officially titled Untitled (L.A.), by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Some people know that you are permitted to take a piece of candy from the work. ("We restocked it just a few weeks ago," Lassen says, "and you can taste the difference.") But some museum visitors take things a little too far. The staff have caught people starting to walk on or sit on it. "One time a teacher laid in it and got his class to lay in it and started making snow angels," said Lassen, who's also a local artist. "Like, how could you think it's OK to just lay in a piece of artwork?"

Kimbell Art Museum

What you know (or should know): The Kimbell's small but mighty collection of fewer than 350 works ranges from antiquity to the 20th century. European works make up the most extensive part of the collection, with pieces from Fra Angelico and Caravaggio, Cézanne and Matisse. The Kimbell's most recent crown jewel is Michelangelo's first known painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony (the only work by Michelangelo on exhibit in the Western Hemisphere).

The building, opened in 1972, is known as the masterpiece of architect Louis Kahn. His design is renowned for its classic-meets-modern style, and use of natural light. The museum announced an expansion plan that will add a building to be designed by Renzo Piano, who designed Dallas's Nasher Sculpture Center and co-designed the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The new 85,000-square-foot building is scheduled to be completed by 2013.

Popular pieces: The Torment of Saint Anthony, Portrait of May Sartoris by Frederic Leighton, L'Asie by Henri Matisse, Two Gibbons Reaching for the Moon by Ito Jakuchu

Cultural District confidential

The European collection seems to hog most of the Kimbell spotlight, so for some little-known facts, we decide to hit up Jennifer Casler Price, curator for Asian and non-Western art. She peeled back the curtain on the museum's current exhibit, "Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea."

Killer iguana-jaguars! Once inside the exhibit, we were struck by a stunning vessel with a title that grabbed us by the eyeballs: Lidded bowl with the Iguana-Jaguar eviscerating humans. "It probably was a food-serving vessel -- it probably held tamales," Casler Price says. "We don't think about the Maya actually eating tamales, but they did!"

According to Maya origin myths, the illustrations on the bowl are primordial creatures doing battle with gods. It's a beautiful but gory piece. A creature with an iguana body and a jaguar head swims on top of the bowl. Look closely at the sides of the bowl and you can see the half-chewed bodies of humans or deities. "The one in front, the blood is cascading down the surface of the vessel -- in a quite lovely way," Casler Price says, laughing. In his mouth, the jaguar has another head -- maybe a deity's. "The jaguar himself has one eye kind of pulled out of his head, and the deity likewise has an eyeball hanging from its socket," she says. "Then you think about lifting up the lid and: 'Oh! Tamales!'"

Party like it's 599! The piece, from 550-650 A.D., is called Assemblage of Figurines From the Tomb of an Unknown Ruler. It's a recent find from Guatemala, and this is the first time it's being shown in the United States. There's a wonderful story about how the Kimbell helped fund and oversee the painstaking restoration of these once-crushed figurines. But there's something else about this display that we just can't shake.

The official line, from the archaeologist who uncovered them, is that the figurines are a king and queen and a royal court with dancers. But Casler Price happened to tantalize us with another theory. Not hers, mind you. This one came from the brain of the exhibit's co-curator, Brown University professor Stephen Houston. "His interpretation is that this is a huge party scene, and that this guy [she points to a male figurine holding an oddly shaped vessel] is holding an alcohol enema." She then points out four female figurines holding curious-looking belt-type objects. "And apparently, they're vomit bags. So they're just having a huge party and drinking to excess."

Casler Price reiterates: "It's not what the label says."

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