WHEN THE AMON CARTER MUSEUM first opened, in 1961, the compact modernist temple perched on a Fort Worth hillside seemed little more than an elegant cenotaph to its late benefactor, local publishing and oil magnate Amon G. Carter, Sr. Crammed with his collection of paintings and bronzes by Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles Marion Russell, the Carter was, as its architect, Philip Johnson, later remarked, "never intended to be a real museum." Expectations quickly changed, however, under its first director, the late Mitchell Wilder, who in Fort Worth in the sixties did what Alfred Barr had done in New York in the thirties with the Museum of Modern Art: He created an entirely new genre of art museum. Expanding the Carter's franchise to embrace early-nineteenth-century Hudson River School landscapes and twentieth-century Taos School abstractions—and amassing one of the world's premier collections of fine-art photographs and Western documents—Wilder not only placed Amon Carter's cowboy art in the broad sweep of American art but also set American art and thought in the context of our nation's defining enterprise, the conquest and settlement of the West. Less oriented to the eastern seaboard and Europe than its peer museums of American art, more catholic and intellectually fecund than any museum of Western art, the Amon Carter Museum became known to scholars and the cognoscenti as the little museum bursting with big ideas."
"We like to say that we were doing American studies before American studies even existed," says the Carter's current director, Rick Stewart, who reopened the museum this fall after a two-year, $39 million, 90,000-square-foot expansion that tripled the previous gallery space and culminated in a sprawling septet of inaugural exhibitions, all drawn from the Carter's own collections. Boasting American art icons like Martin Johnson Heade's balefully transcendent 1868 Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay (sui generis among American nineteenth-century landscapes) and Thomas Eakins' 1885 Swimming (arguably the apogee of American figurative painting) and bolstered by scores of new acquisitions such as Stuart Davis' masterful modernist still-life Egg Beater No. 2 (1928), the Carter is effectively going public after decades of relatively obscure excellence.
Philip Johnson, the New York-based architect who has been the Pied Piper of Texas' architectural tastes for half a century, provided most of the sizzle when the Carter opened forty years ago. But in reprising his design role, the irrepressible nonagenarian had the wisdom to make news by not making news. The augur of the age of celebrity architecture has created instead a marvel of stealth architecture, a low-profile, triangular monolith (shaped to fit the skewed convergence of Camp Bowie Boulevard and Lancaster Avenue) of mocha-hued Arabian granite that shimmers like a desert mirage behind the museum's original five-arched portico. The trick is so slick that the new addition actually seems to vanish entirely as one approaches the 1961 facade (an underrated triumph of modern classicism that presaged and complements its revered downslope neighbor, Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum).
Inside, visitors begin where the West—or the West of popular imagination—began, with Amon Carter's collection of Remingtons and Russells, which have been restored to the lobby gallery, along with Johnson's original Burmese teak paneling. Carter's interest in art never strayed beyond the twin avatars of the cowboy genre, but within his narrow field he bought only the best. "Carter was way ahead of his contemporaries in his eye for quality," Stewart says, a claim substantiated by works like Remington's landmark 1889 painting, A Dash for the Timber, a cowboy-and-Indian chase scene so cinematic that it looks like it was filmed in Todd-AO.
Russell's predictable sentimentality and Remington's predictable theatricality may have served as the models for the twentieth century's reel West, but visitors to the Carter soon find a considerably more complex and nuanced picture. The new addition's single, rather modest architectural flourish is a minimalist two-story atrium, clad with the same fossil-flecked limestone as the original arcade and capped with a domed skylight. A divided staircase leads to the second-floor galleries and a procession of first-rate works by familiar American masters—punctuated by entirely unexpected American masterpieces. The marquee attractions include Thomas Cole's Edenic vision of New Hampshire's White Mountains, The Hunter's Return (1845); Winslow Homer's post-Civil War feel-good pastoral, Crossing the Pasture (1871-72); John Singer Sargent's characteristically dashed-off yet exquisitely subtle portrait of a storied American beauty, Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1888); and Marsden Hartley's pioneering abstraction painted in Berlin in 1914, American Indian Symbols, a striking East-meets-West merger of German Expressionism with stylized tepees and feathered headdresses. But the unexpected pleasures are also a measure of the Carter's quality; the inevitable John Frederick Peto and William M. Harnett trompe l'oeil still-lifes are joined by the extraordinary Wrapped Oranges (1889) by Eakins' student William J. McCloskey, who actually specialized in painting tissue-wrapped oranges. Set against a black backdrop, the almost incandescent oranges and the meticulously rendered translucent tissue combine the stark, metaphysical mystery of a seventeenth-century Spanish still-life with the geometric materiality of Cézanne's apples.
Nothing, however, illustrates the Carter's innovative eye so much as its vast photography collection. Mitch Wilder, himself an accomplished photographer, stole a march on the market, acquiring the entire estates of personal friends like groundbreaking colorist Eliot Porter and Navajo chronicler Laura Gilpin at a time when most museums ignored, if not actively disdained, the medium; the Carter has gone on to assemble about thirty thousand exhibition-quality prints and a couple hundred thousand negatives and related documents. While most of the wealth is kept in state-of-the-art cold-storage vaults in an enormous new basement complex, the new galleries dedicate enough real estate for five inaugural photography exhibits and a "learn more" gallery with examples of various printing techniques. The central survey, "Masterworks of American Photography" (on view through March 3), pushes beyond the risk-taking evident in works like the McCloskey, not so much challenging accepted standards as setting them. The usual shopping list—Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward Weston—isn't overlooked, but that this isn't the standard textbook overview is quickly established