Thursday, February 7, 2013

Yale's New Art Museum

By Charles Kessler
The Yale Art Gallery — all of the above: The modern building on the far left, opened in 1953, was designed by Louis Kahn. The Florentine Gothic building in the center, including the bridge over High Street, is called "The Old Art Gallery." It was designed by Egerton Swartwout and opened in 1928. On the far right is "Street Hall." The oldest of the three, it opened to the public in 1864.
South exterior elevation. Left to right: Louis Kahn building, Old Yale Art Gallery building with a two-story addition, Street Hall (© Ennead Architects).
It's officially called "The Yale Art Gallery," but calling it an art gallery when they have 200,000 works in their collection, and 4,000 of them on display, is like calling Whole Foods a bodega. It's really an encyclopedic museum, one of the oldest in the country; and, since December 12, 2012 when the new renovation and expansion (by Ennead Architects) opened to the public, it's one of the best small museums. Even though I read several articles about it before I went (two good ones are here and here), I was surprised at how extensive the changes were, and how extraordinary Yale's collection is.

At first the museum didn't look any different than the last time I was there, when I saw Picasso and the Allure of Language. They had just restored the Louis Kahn building which had been their main exhibition space since 1953. It was Kahn's first major commission and Yale's first modern (i.e., not Gothic) building. Over the years, several "improvements" altered and screwed it up, so restoring it back to the original was a good thing. I don’t think it’s very successful as an art museum though because the interior is dark and low, and the coffered ceilings are a distraction. Still, the building is among the earliest examples of curtain-wall construction, and it's important as a piece of architecture.
The Louis Kahn building from the Yale campus; and a view of the interior of the building, the Indo-Pacific gallery.
When I saw it in 2009, in addition to the Louis Kahn building, part of the collection was housed in half of the "Old Yale Art Gallery" — a 1928 dark and dreary Gothic building with a black floor and gray walls. Now it has been cleaned and restored, classrooms and offices have been moved out, and two stories have been added on top.

Who knew what a gorgeous building it was! The black floors and gray walls, once cleaned, are a luxurious cream color, and the light from the Gothic windows is glorious. Here's a before and after picture:
The new addition on top of the Old Art Gallery couldn't be more beautiful. The proportions are large enough to be spacious but remain comfortable and intimate; and the light is calm, even and airy. When I first entered these rooms I wanted to close my eyes and inhale the refreshing, soothing air — a perfect place to experience modern art.
Contemporary art gallery in the new addition on top of the Old Art Gallery. 
And there's more! The Art History Department was moved out of Street Hall (don't worry about them — they moved to a nice new building), and that building was also converted (converted back actually — it began as an art gallery) to exhibition space for Yale's prized collection of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts.
American Art Galleries, Street Hall. 
Seamlessly integrating a new addition and three entirely distinct buildings while keeping the unique identities of each of them was a real tour de force. (The Los Angeles County Art Museum should hire these guys.) Not only are the buildings diverse, but each of the eleven curatorial departments got to design its own space. Here's another example:
Newly refurbished European Painting Galleries in the Old Yale Art Gallery.
However impressive and public the collection, this is a truly educational institution in many ways.  They provide free brochures about the art, instructive wall labels in every gallery, and free lectures (usually about one of the current exhibitions, but also on other topics). They have a very extensive website; and there are smart, informative and enthusiastic guards and docents everywhere. There are also numerous classes for all ages taught on site, in front of the art. They even have a gallery devoted to a teaching collection, the Levin Study Gallery on the top floor of the new addition. All faculty members, not just those in the arts, can select and display work from the Yale collection to support a particular class. (For more about this, see Randy Kennedy's article in the New York Times.)

Of course, most educational are the exhibitions they organize and the scholarly exhibition catalogs they publish. During my visit, the main exhibition was  Société Anonyme: Modernism for America (until July 14, 2013). It surpassed even my high expectations. (Yale has another website devoted to the exhibition that uses Flash.)
One of the new galleries devoted to Société Anonyme: Modernism for America. 
The Société Anonyme was an organization founded in 1920 by Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp with some additional help from Man Ray. It was America’s first contemporary art museum, and their mission was not only to collect and exhibit contemporary art, but to promote it and educate people about it. By the time they disbanded, they published about thirty publications, curated more than eighty exhibitions, and organized at least eighty-five scholarly programs — all to bring modernism to America.
Katherine S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp in the library at The Haven, her estate in West Redding, Connecticut, 1936, shortly after Duchamp repaired his Large Glass in the foreground. 

It's entirely fitting that this should be their first exhibition in the new space because in 1941 Dreier donated almost the entire Société Anonyme collection to the Yale University Art Gallery — more than 1000 works by about 100 artists including such well-known artists as Constantin Brancusi, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Joseph Stella, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, El Lissitzky, and Kurt Schwitters; and of course Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray; as well as lesser-known artists including one of my favorites, Louis Eilshemius. 
Louis Eilshemius, The Pool, ca. 1920, oil on printed sheet of music paper, laid down on laminated chipboard, 10 11/16 x 13 5/8  inches  (click to enlarge). 
And this surprise by an artist I didn't know — a 1920-21 abstract shaped painting:
Laszlo Peri, Room (Space Construction), 1920-21, tempera on composition board, 39 x 30 inches (Gift of Collection Société Anonyme).
After fourteen years and $135 million, three important buildings were restored and united, the exhibition space was expanded from about 40, 000 to 70,000 square feet, and the lighting and functionality of the museum was vastly improved. Good job, Yale. Now we'll have to see what Harvard comes up with in 2014 when additions and restorations to their three art buildings are supposed to be completed.

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