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The Arts

February 1, 2021

The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art navigates into its second decade as Charlotte’s touchstone of European modernism.

by Michael J. Solender

In 2010 when Charlotte’s then-mayor Anthony Foxx welcomed the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to the city, fans of European modernism were both delighted and intrigued. New and shiny are particularly valued in Crown Town, and the Bechtler’s opening represented both. 

The Mario Botta-designed, terra cotta-skinned jewel box itself was a stunning work of art, and the museum helped anchor Levine Center for the Arts, South Tryon Street’s cultural hub that also includes Mint Museum Uptown, the Gantt Center and Knight Theater. Legions of tourists (and locals) flocked to its front door for mandatory selfies with Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Le Grand Oiseau de Feu sur l’Arche,” aka the Firebird. The museum displays works collected over 70 years by Hans and Bessie Bechtler of Zurich, Switzerland. Their son, Andreas Bechtler, inherited and then donated the works to establish the museum, adding pieces from his own collection. 

Todd DeShields Smith and Anastasia James (Photo by Bob Leverone)

As the Bechtler enters its second decade, a freshly installed leadership team looks to reintroduce the collection to a new legion of admirers and deepen the enthusiasm of its most ardent supporters. In the months ahead, audiences can expect immersive installations, a showcase of undercelebrated holdings, and thought-provoking vehicles to contrast modernist art of the recent past with social and political movements inspiring today’s creatives.

“The Bechtler speaks to a part of history missing in Charlotte,” says Todd DeShields Smith, the museum’s executive director. Smith joined the Bechtler in late fall 2020. He arrived from southern California, where he was director and CEO of the Orange County Museum of Art.

“European modernism starts to get at the core 20th-century identity of the art world, and to have our collection fill that gap is significant. Part of our strategic plan moving forward is looking to make connections between our collection, the creative process and what surrounds us today.”

The collection lends relevance to the current situation with the pandemic, Smith notes. 

“At our present moment,” Smith says, “it’s not that unlike what happened at the beginning of WWI. The situation that unfolded was collectively experienced across the globe. This inspired artists in their creative process — how they looked at the world, inequities, horrors and how and what they created. If we understand the origins of modernism, we may better understand the visual arts perspective of today.”

Germaine Richier, The Grasshopper

In reintroducing the works to Charlotte audiences, the curators plan to feature intimate explorations of the Bechtler family as collectors and evidence of their relationships with some of the 20th century’s most accomplished artists. 

“It’s rare for a museum collection to have such personal records illustrating deep personal relationships and connections with artists such as [Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto] Giacometti, [Spanish painter and sculptor Joan] Miró and other giants of modernism,” says Bechtler curator Anastasia James, referencing letters, cards, personalized drawings and sketches within the collection. “These help to shed more light on not just the artwork but also the personal nature of the collection.”

James, who joined the Bechtler in December 2019, cited a letter French sculptor Germaine Richier sent to Hans and Bessie Bechtler, where she spoke of her work, “La Sauterelle” (The Grasshopper, a sculpture on display at the museum), and how it would look beautiful in the Bechtler’s yard. 

“I view these artifacts as significant as the art itself,” says James, who once worked in the archives at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and was curator for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles before coming to Charlotte. “They lend a richness to what we have and take it to a new level.”

Barbara Hepworth, Garden Sculpture

Richier is one the artists whose work will be featured in the forthcoming exhibit, 20th Century Women (Feb. 13 – Sept. 26). Showcasing more than 100 pieces by 24 artists, the show looks to women who’ve made significant contributions to 20th-century modernism and its legacies. 

“We want to humanize the modern art in our collection and talk about the people who made the work — who they were, when then lived, why they made the work they did,” James says. “The work represented in this show has not been fully investigated — there are incredibly interesting stories to tell.” 

Works on display will include those by British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, Portuguese abstract painter Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, German-Swiss surrealist Meret Oppenheim, op-art painter Bridget Riley, Yanceyville painter Maud Gatewood and UNC Charlotte assistant professor of painting Maja Godlewska. 

“The Bechtlers were a Swiss family living in Europe when collecting these works,” James says. “We want to trace out legacies of modernism to the present day, show how it relates, so contemporary audiences can draw parallels and discover relevancies. Art is universal. It connects people.” SP

20th Century Women will be on view at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art from Feb. 13 – Sept. 26. NOTE: At press time, the Bechtler was temporarily closed due to Covid restrictions. Please check in advance before planning a visit.

Above featured image: Bridget Riley, Wave

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