Minneapolis -- JAO, an artist dressed in paint-spattered cycling gear, bounced before an easel set up in the bed of a bright yellow pickup -- her "artmobile" -- decorated with cartoon men with rake-like hands.
While blasting a shrill police whistle, she did energetic warmup exercises to the high-adrenaline strains of Hungarian Gypsy music -- "the best music for speed painting," she said.
Speed painting is her specialty, and she was about to demonstrate it to a crowd in the parking lot of an old northeastern Minneapolis warehouse.
It's set in a gritty, industrial section sliced by highways and railroad tracks. But art blooms in this plant once used to process and package seeds. The brick, four-story Northrup King Building houses about 100 studios, where painters, jewelry artists, weavers and printmakers work.
Art blooms not only at the Northrup King Building but also throughout Minneapolis. The most recent development is this year's expansion of the Walker Art Center, which for decades has honed the cutting edge of "the art of our time."
The Walker's new galleries continue a trend that included the 1993 opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and the continuing growth of the venerable Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
I try to visit the Walker each year when I come home to Minnesota on family visits because it always gives me something to think -- and, often, smile -- about. In May, when a series of dismal, rainy days forced me indoors, I made an art week of it, taking in the city's best-known museums.
As someone who often rambles through Manhattan's museums and has Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art near my doorstep, I found much to excite and entertain me here.
"We seek to be a center for daring artistic experimentation, a place to experience something unexpected, an incubator for discussion and debate," Kathy Halbreich, the Walker's director, said of her museum. But her statement summed up the broader Minneapolis art scene as well. A lot is happening here, in the museums, the galleries, the studios. And that's even without considering neighboring St. Paul.
Walker Art Center
ONE of the most-photographed objects in the city is "Spoonbridge and Cherry," by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, set in the Walker's sculpture garden at the edge of downtown. This 5,800-pound metal sundae spoon holds a 1,200-pound, bright red cherry. On a hot summer day it looked luscious, kept that way by the spray of a built-in fountain.
Nearby, in the garden's humid palm-frond-filled and lilypad-perfumed conservatory, Frank Gehry's 22-foot-long "Standing Glass Fish" -- his personal ode to a carp -- filled the greenhouse.
At the Walker, artistic media are not restricted to bronze and oil on canvas. On an outside wall, a sign reading "Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole" is itself a text-art work in anodized aluminum that invites the viewer to give it meaning.
Inside, Mike Kelley's "Four Part Butter-Scene N'Ganga" employs galvanized steel washtubs. Jac Leirner's "Blue Phase" is an irregular round formed from thousands of devalued Brazilian bank notes pressed together so tightly that you can see only their edges. And even though Sherrie Levine's "Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: AP)" is bronze, it's still a urinal.
Irony is a common commodity at the Walker. Jasper Johns' "Light Bulb," embossed on a lead sheet, is barely visible, hanging extinguished in a dark room. There seem to be more video monitors than canvases here. In a showing of Chantal Akerman's "D'Est," I counted 25 of them, each playing street scenes shot in former Iron Curtain countries in the early 1990s. In Bruce Nauman's "Mapping the Studio II With Color Shift, Flip, Flop & Flip / Flop (Fat Chance John Cage) All Action Edit," seven projected, tinted videos show mice skittering and cats skulking around the edge of a room. You can join in the creative process, putting your own shadow into the pictures.
The recently completed improvements added 130,000 square feet, nearly doubling the museum's size, increasing the gallery space by a third to 45,000 square feet and expanding facilities for the performing arts. After exiting rooms displaying Warhol Jackies, a Chuck Close closeup and a Lichtenstein Donald Duck, I heard a young girl exclaim, "This seems like a game to me." I paused, then realized she was a fellow visitor, not an artwork.
The Weisman Art Museum
THE Weisman, like the Walker, stretches your mind, pulling it in unaccustomed directions. It has a smaller collection, so take it in before the Walker, as an appetizer, or afterward, as a dessert. From across the Mississippi the Weisman seemed an almost random placement of brushed stainless steel panels with unpredictable angles and curves. It called to mind the bows of boats cutting through the water or the castle of a deranged crusader.
Inside there was abundant space; each work had room to breathe and conduct its own dialogue with the visitor. There was a wall-sized Lichtenstein comic-strip woman with long, eel-like fingers; another of Gehry's fish, this one in the form of a lamp; and a Warhol portrait of the museum's major benefactor, the late Frederick R. Weisman, who attended the University of Minnesota in the 1930s but was forced to drop out for lack of money. He apparently did OK.
These internationally known artists join local ones such as Charles Biederman, whose paintings take inspiration from rural Minnesota, or Eugene Larkin, whose "An Artist's Odyssey" is a series of woodblock prints on mythological and Biblical themes.
The full-scale "Pedicord Apartments," by Nancy and Edward Kienholz, took me literally inside the artwork. Based on an old apartment building in Spokane, Wash., it is complete with frowzy lobby and stains on the wall that you wouldn't want to analyze too closely.
I walked down its dim, gloomy hallway and paused, as suggested, at each doorway. Triggered by sensors, sounds emerged from each apartment. Sobbing could be heard in one, a dog barked a warning in another, in a third someone was listening to a ballgame. I found myself oddly compelled to know more about the fictional residents.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
THE Minneapolis Institute of Arts is one of the nation's great fine arts museums. It has acres of gallery space in its southern Minneapolis quarters with more than 100,000 objects in its permanent collection. Picassos and Klees share the building with other works of diverse genres, cultures, eras and continents.
There, I can analyze a 19th century Japanese woodblock print, visit three centuries in period rooms or enjoy a Gauguin Tahitian landscape or a Van Gogh olive grove. I can examine art's beginnings in a Venus figure 22,000 years old, give or take a few. And only last month, the institute's period rooms got a new neighbor -- the 1735 Grand Salon from the Hotel Gaillard de la Bouexiere, one of the most intact existing interiors from early 18th century Paris.
Northrup King Building
AS fine as they are, the Weisman, Walker and MIA rarely let you speak with artists whose works you admire. For that, you have to go to the Northrup King Building.
There, Nancy Stephani, for example, does multimedia assemblage, combining metal and layered acrylic. One, titled "Tuna," is a cat fashioned from flattened cans. Many of her works are diptychs or triptychs, and for a good, practical, typical Minnesotan's reason: "It's easier to fit them in a car," she said. In another studio, Pamela Belding created wry collages based on 20th century advertising. In one, three altar boys look pure of heart until you look at their thoughts, revealed above their respective heads.
Outside, as I left, JAO was launching her second show of speed painting. This time she had traded the Gypsy music for the overture to "William Tell." Working with Dollar Store sponges and buckets of house paint, she smeared a face onto the paper on her easel, pausing to leap or spin, then executed a two-handed splat that put pupils into the eyes of her character. Sweating and panting even on that cool day, she finished the work in 90 seconds. Actually, she can finish in 30 seconds, she said, but she likes to take time for leaps and spins.
Art in Minneapolis is out there -- blooming, bouncing, leaping and spinning. Cue the Gypsy music.
Only in Minnesota
From LAX, nonstop service is available on Northwest and connecting service (change of plane) is offered on United, America West, American, Frontier, Continental and Delta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $220.
WHERE TO STAY:
Graves 601 Minneapolis, 601 1st Ave. N.; (612) 677-1100, www.graves601hotel.com. Brushed metal and cool design. Doubles from $209.
Millennium Hotel Minneapolis, 1313 Nicollet Mall; (612) 332-6000, www.millenniumhotels.com. Within walking distance of Walker Art Center. Doubles from $125.
WHERE TO EAT:
20.21 Restaurant and Bar, 1750 Hennepin Ave.; (612) 253-3410. The Wolfgang Puck restaurant at the Walker Art Center emphasizes Asian influences. Dinner entrees from $16.
Gallery 8 Cafe, 1750 Hennepin Ave.; (612) 253-3400. Also in the Walker Art Center. Cafeteria-style, but the food isn't. Excellent salads and soups. Lunches about $14.
Arts Cafe by D'Amico & Sons, 2400 3rd Ave. S.; (612) 870-3180. Italian influences dominate in this upscale cafeteria at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Lunches about $13.
Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave.; (612) 375-7600, walkerart.org. Galleries open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. Closed Mondays. Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors (65 and older); $5 students and teens with ID.
The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Road on the University of Minnesota campus; (612) 625-9494, www.weisman.umn.edu. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closed Mondays. Free.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.; (612) 870-3131, www.artsmia.org. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Free.
The Northrup King Building, 1500 Jackson St. N.E.; www.northrupkingbuilding.com.
TO LEARN MORE:
Minneapolis Tourism, (888) 676-MPLS (676-6757), www.minneapolis.org.