My Milwaukee

The Pfister lobby’s superb simulated vault of Heaven.
pfister hotel2006_2_66

The new wing of the Milwaukee Art Museum dominates this portion of the gently curving, very beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline. The first work of the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to open in the United States (in 2001), it features soaring movable “gull wings,” which can be adjusted to take advantage of changing light conditions—a truly spectacular facade. I did not pause long to admire it though. I was on a mission. For the object I remembered most fondly from the old Layton was a sentimental painting by Eastman Johnson, The Old Stagecoach . It portrayed, yes, a disused stagecoach with a bunch of kids clambering on it, pretending, I guess, to fend off an attack by marauding Indians or road agents.

I don’t know why the picture lingered in memory, except that it was very brightly painted and vigorous. More important, I could have a kid-to-kid relationship with its subjects, not available when I confronted the more staid art Mr. Layton had collected. But wandering the long, narrow corridors of Calatrava’s museum—which, interestingly, links to an earlier architectural masterpiece, Eero Saarinen’s 1957 design for the museum (artistic Milwaukee is more comfortable with architectural modernism than I would have guessed)—I could not find it. I found a lot of large, recent abstractionist works. And to my surprise I came upon a gallery containing some good eighteenthand nineteenth-century European works in the neoclassical mode, one of which offered an unexpected jolt of recognition. The smooth marble statue of a dying Greek soldier had been the first thing you saw when you entered the old Layton Gallery. Now, at last, I learned its proper title, The Last of the Spartans , and its creator’s name, one Gaetano Trentanove, who made the piece in 1892. It is utterly of its time and not, I suppose, interesting to ours. Yet it is, I think, a rather good piece, well made and accurately bespeaking a different age’s unambiguous relationship to ennobling death.

Still, I found no stagecoach. I asked a guard about it. She was one of those large, calm, flat-voiced, carb-laden ladies that are still a Milwaukee specialty. “Oh, everyone asks about that,” she said, cheerfully directing me to some stairs behind me. At their bottom I confronted an excellent portrait of Mr. Layton (also by Eastman Johnson), beyond which I found much of his collection and, in a place of honor, the picture I sought. It has what I can only describe as a weird, kitschy energy. There’s something a little demonic about these children; it’s easy to imagine them growing up to be gun-toting, gun-loving Americans. Nearby there were a number of nice Remingtons, which, in their way, carried out that idea—horse soldiers imperiling their lives in the cause of Manifest Destiny. But other basement galleries contained more pacifistic Middle Western landscapes. I found myself responding to their realism rather more than I had to the featured abstractions in the main galleries.

Odd, isn’t it, that the great brewing names persist here only on cultural institutions?

I thought: You can take the boy out of Milwaukee, but you can’t take Milwaukee out of the boy. And: As the twig is bent… . Let’s face it, the Milwaukee in which I was born and raised was all reality, no metaphors allowed. Art, we were implicitly taught, held the mirror up to life. If it did not, we laughed quizzically at it. “Why,” an adult confronting some modernist enigma was bound to say, “my eight-year-old can do about as well as that.” I’ve advanced beyond that stage. I’ve learned to “appreciate” abstraction. Or at least to keep my big mouth shut in its presence. Yet in truth the most resonant images I carried away from Calatrava’s curious masterpiece were the more realistic ones.

I had another nostalgic mission to fulfill on this windy Saturday, something I hoped to find at the Milwaukee Public Museum on the western edge of downtown, a long, healthy walk from the lakefront. I headed east on Wisconsin Avenue, turned right at Water Street, poked my head in at old First Wisconsin National Bank building, where my grandfather’s law firm was once located, then continued on to the city hall, which my architectural guidebook tells me was inspired by guild halls of the Flemish Renaissance (who knew there was a Flemish Renaissance?) and which was, upon its completion in 1895, the third-tallest building in America. That’s so Milwaukee. It would never want to be first in any competition: too pushy.

I strolled past the handsomely renovated Pabst Theater. It was here that I heard my first symphony concert; the Chicago Symphony played a few gigs there annually. Just 90 miles south of us, Chicago shadowed our lives in those days. It had everything we did not. Besides its great orchestra, it had a famous art museum, a truly grand opera house, two major-league baseball teams, and even two National Football League teams. It boasted theaters in which Broadway shows hunkered down for runs of six months or more. It had famous architecture and glamorous hotels and restaurants in which movie stars were known to rest or to dine between trains. Much network radio, including the serials I was addicted to, emanated from there. On visits to Chicago we often went to see network radio broadcasts. You could attend local radio broadcasts in Milwaukee—Heinie and his Grenadiers, “the band with a million friends,” oompahing away in the auditorium at WTMJ—but it wasn’t quite the same thing.