Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Mega-Galleries of Chelsea

 David Zwirner's new five-story, 30,000 square-foot exhibition and project space at 537 West 20th Street. 
By Charles Kessler

I have mixed feelings about the enormous gallery spaces being built in Chelsea lately. On the one hand, they do some great shows. Gagosian (11 spaces worldwide, two large ones in Chelsea) just closed Helen Frankenthaler from 1950 to 1959an exhibition any museum would be proud of; David Zwirner (30,000 square feet added to its already enormous space) is currently showing Richard Serra, Early Work; Hauser & Wirth (their new space is a former roller rink, and they've included a bar that overlooks the High Line) recently had an enormous Dieter Roth exhibition.
Hauser & Wirth’s new 24,700 square-foot venue at 511 West 18th Street – former home to the Roxy roller rink.
Bar over the entry ramp to the Hauser & Wirth Gallery – architect Annabelle Selldorf.
And there’s Pace Gallery with three spaces in Chelsea, two in London and one and Beijing; and even Sean Kelly, a mid-sized gallery, moved to a 22,000 square-foot space at 475 10th Avenue.

What’s happening, I think, is the top galleries are making so much money that not only can they afford these huge spaces, but it’s also an absolute business necessity if they want to compete for the billionaire market. It’s no big deal for billionaires to pay millions of dollars for an ordinary Gerhart Richter painting, but they're not doing it because they’re committed collectors who are knowledgeable and passionate about art. What they’re really buying is prestige, and this kind of conspicuous size and luxury is necessary to convince them that they’re getting it.

I know the art world has always been like that, but these mega-galleries flaunt it so much that, in spite of the high quality of some of their shows, I feel dirty even going into them.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Museum News

 By Charles Kessler

Ed Ruscha, The Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968, oil on canvas, 53 ½ x 133 ½ inches (collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC).
Art museums have been in the news quite a bit in the last month, much of it about the turmoil at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). First the Los Angeles Times reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which has its own problems) proposed a merger with MOCA. (A botched article by Carol Vogel about it in the New York Times resulted in one of the longest and funniest corrections ever.) Then MOCA board member and biggest donor, the billionaire Eli Broad, who opposed the partnership, announced a possible partnership with the National Gallery of Art (which turned out to be merely a possible sharing of programming) or with the University of Southern California. Ultimately the MOCA trustees decided to remain independent and, finally showing some responsibility, promised to raise the money needed to stay open. The Los Angeles Times has just reported that happily MOCA already raised $75-million toward their $100-million endowment goal.

I don’t think this particular fiasco should be blamed on Jeffery Dietch, MOCA’s controversial new director. Roberta Smith called it correctly when she wrote: “From the start, the Los Angeles art world and news media have heaped abuse on Mr. Deitch, who has certainly made some missteps. But his main mistake was to be the only person optimistic or naïve enough to take the job in the first place.” Stay tuned!

MOCA isn’t the only California museum in turmoil; the Fine Art Museum of San Francesco is also having problems, also due to an irresponsible board of trustees. You can read a good summary here.

For an object lesson on how a great museum can be destroyed, read “Pasadena's Collapse and the Simon Takeover: Diary of a Disaster,” John Coplan’s February 1975 article in Artforum now reproduced in PDF form here and republished here. It’s a well-written, extensively researched, very long and informative article by someone in the know.
The beloved old Pasadena Art Museum, located at 46 N. Los Robles Avenue, 1960s (courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History).

Here are some highlights:
... Los Angeles is a highly urbanized but nonetheless diffused area. Unlike New York, common meeting grounds are virtually nonexistent. Consequently firsthand contacts across generations and professions are extremely rare. The museum’s openings were more than social events. They brought together a large array of people from all over Southern California who normally had little contact with one another, but a strong common interest. The openings engendered a rare intimacy, which broke down, if only for a single night, the sense of isolation that the L.A. art community felt.
... In spring of 1966, the plan and model for the new building was to be presented by the director and the president of the board of trustees at the museum’s annual general meeting. Hopps, exhausted, in the midst of a split with his wife, felt unable to face the membership and explain why the plan was a disaster. He had flown from New York for the meeting, but when he arrived at the L.A. International Airport, he wandered aimlessly, suitcase in hand. He felt himself about to have a nervous breakdown from the accumulated pressures and the difficulty of his relationship with Rowan. Phoning a psychiatrist friend, he had himself admitted to a hospital, and rested up for a couple of weeks. The new building was enthusiastically received at the meeting. Not long afterwards, Rowan told Hopps he doubted his capacity to handle the directorship, and fired the man who had virtually single-handedly lifted the little museum into international prominence.
... The history of the ambitions, and the decline and fall of the Pasadena Art Museum, reveals many of the problems that have retarded the development of effective museums in California. It is a history of compromises, conflicting goals, egomania, and private greed that has acted against the common good, and has ended finally in a violation of the public trust. This chronicle of pathology reflects more diffuse, hidden, and complex workings in larger institutions. But what has happened to the Pasadena is only an extreme instance of the outcome of predicaments that afflict museums from one end of the country to the other.
And one other bit of California Museum news: The Getty Museum, as part of its Pacific Standard
Time survey of Los Angeles art, has organized a massive exhibition called “Overdrive," a survey of Los Angeles modern architecture from 1940 to 1990.
Michael Light, Highways 5, 10, 60, and 101 Looking West, L.A. River and Downtown Beyond, 2004, archival pigment print, 40 x 50 inches (collection of and © Michael Light, courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica).
In other museum news, philanthropist Leonard A. Lauder gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art one of the best collections of Cubist art in the world, thereby single-handedly filling a major hole in the Met’s collection.
George Braque, Trees at L'Estaque, 1908 – one of Leonard A. Lauder's gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The donation includes 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris — in total worth an estimated $1-billion. Lauder’s gift was made without restrictions so curators can display it however they think best. Compare the philanthropy of a mench like Lauder with that of say … Eli Broad.

And there's more good news from the Met: beginning July 1st, they will stay open seven days a week — the first time since 1971. Not to be outdone, the Museum of Modern Art, beginning May 1st, will also open every day. Staying open an extra day is comparable to increasing their capacity by more than 14%. Given how crowded theses museums have become, it’s a wonder it’s taken this long. Can we look forward to more late nights?

And speaking of MoMA, they bought the adjacent American Folk Art Museum building which the Folk Art Museum couldn’t afford. The building was designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and got rave reviews when it opened just 12 years ago. MoMA intends to demolish the building to make room for yet another expansion.
Interior of the American Folk Art Museum.
Needless to say this demolition is controversial, but I never thought the building was a good place to display art anyway. It was too narrow, too dark, and it had too many distracting architectural conceits.

The biggest museum news world-wide is the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum after a ten-year (not a typo) renovation costing almost half a billion dollars.
The fireworks and smoke bombs go off to celebrated the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands (photo: Getty Images).
Originally built in 1885 to handle an estimated 200,000 annual visitors, they now expect two million visitors – double the number they had before the renovation. The renovation mainly restored the building back to its original Gothic-Renaissance state, doing away with the modern "improvements" that had accumulated over the years. They of course updated the lighting and climate control, but they didn't add much space. There’s a good article about it here, and you can see a good collection of photos here.

This isn’t really news, but I thought I’d stick it in anyway since I went there yesterday for the first time in years. The American Museum of Natural History, right off of Central Park West at 81st Street, has an excellent collection of Northwest Coast Native American art – some of the best, most dramatic art ever made – but it's displayed in shamefully poor, shockingly old-fashion, conditions.
Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, first floor, American Museum of Natural History. It really is this dark!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The High Line


Billboard on the right right: Ryan McGinley, Blue Falling, print on vinyl, 25 x 75 feet (courtesy of the artist and the Team Gallery – until April 30th). 
Progress on the new High Line headquarters and the new Whitney Museum, obscured by spring in bloom. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum's 2004 new entrance.
By Charles Kessler

If it were in any other American city besides New York, the Brooklyn Museum would be recognized as the great encyclopedic museum it is. It's one of the oldest art museums in the country (McKim, Mead & White designed the Beaux-Arts building in 1893) and, at 560,00 square-feet, and with about one million objects in the collection, it's one of the biggest. Best of all, the Brooklyn Museum takes its educational mission seriously, and it’s a truly welcoming community institution that tries to make a diverse population feel comfortable.
One of the many seating areas – Luce Center for American Art, fifth floor.
And like Brooklyn, the museum has been getting better and better.

In 1993, they renovated 30,000 square feet of gallery space on the third, fourth and fifth floors of the west wing – the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing – where they house special exhibitions and their great collection of Egyptian art. They redesigned the galleries to be flowing, gracious and colorful.
Ancient Egyptian Art, Late Eighteenth Dynasty (beginning with Tutankhamun) – third floor.
Ancient Egyptian Art – third floor.
The very substantial space devoted to changing exhibitions on the fourth and fifth floors of the Schapiro Wing are various sizes — each evenly lit and pleasantly proportioned.

I saw several excellent shows this visit — two of the solo shows in particular impressed me, but in very different ways. I found the huge show of the African artist El Anatsui, Gravity and Grace, surprisingly powerful. I didn't care for his work when I saw it a few months ago at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. I thought, materials aside, it was boring academic abstraction. But those were all relatively flat wall works, while these are transparent, undulating, enormous hanging sculptures and reliefs, and are thrilling to see.
Installation view, El Anatsui, Gli (Wall), 2010, aluminum and copper wire (courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery) – fifth floor.
The other exhibition, LaToya Ruby Frazier/ A Haunted Capitalis much smaller but more poignant; it moved me almost to tears sometimes. Don't miss it. Here's a sensitive review by Karen Rosenberg that includes reproductions of some of Frazier's photographs.
LaToya Ruby Frazier / A Haunted Capital – second floor.
In 2001 the Museum refurbished their 10,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts Court (replacing the floor in 2007). Unfortunately European paintings from their collection are installed around the perimeter of the Court and are overwhelmed by it. I hope they find a better place for the paintings and a better use for the Court — maybe sculpture would work here.
Beaux-Arts Court with European paintings installed along the perimeter. 
With money from the Henry Luce Foundation, they beautifully renovated and re-installed their American art galleries,
The Colonial Period Galleries – fifth floor.
and, in 2004, they built the adjoining Visible Storage and Study Center, a 5,000-square-foot glass open-storage area providing public access to some 1,200 items from their American collection.
Luce Center for American Art, Visible Storage Study Center – fifth floor.
Also in 2004 the Museum redesigned its forbidding front entrance and added a new public plaza (see photo at the top). The new entrance is much more inviting and more in keeping with the Museum's mission: ... the Museum aims to serve its diverse public as a dynamic, innovative, and welcoming center for learning through the visual arts.

Another thing that distinguishes the Brooklyn Museum from other New York museums is the myriad ways they go about educating people about the art on view: videos, free brochures (I picked up six of them), an informative and fast website, a blog, and even a free app; and of course wall labels — each enlivened with graphics. (One of my favorites explains why the noses of Egyptian sculptures are frequently broken — it's not just accidents. Go to the Museum and learn why.)
One of many video areas — this for the exhibition African Innovations: Art That Moves – first floor.
And many of the installations of their permanent collection are instructive. The one photographed below, for example, demonstrates the variety of ways people were depicted in various times and places.
Installation view,  Connecting Cultures - Connecting People – first floor.
All is not perfection; some of the changes are disappointing. I was really looking forward to seeing Life Death and Transformations in the Americas, the new long-term exhibition of their renown collection of Northwest Coast Indian art and other art of the Americas. It was favorably reviewed by Holland Cotter ("The stuff is hypnotic, one spellbinding fever dream after another."), but the installation is so antiseptic  — white walls, rectangular glass display cases on gray stands — that this dramatic and gutsy art appears tame and precious.
Installation view of Life, Death, and Transformations in the Americas - a long-term installation – fifth floor. 
And the new (2009) gallery for their permanent collection of Contemporary Art, which should be outstanding given the vitality of the Brooklyn art scene, is a relatively small 3000 square feet, and it's ill-proportioned and drab. It has none of the beauty and warmth of the other new galleries.
Contemporary Art Gallery,  Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Kitchen Table Allegory, 2010 in foreground – fourth floor.
And to make it even worse, the Contemporary Art space is adjacent to about a dozen historic facades and period rooms and serves as an entryway to them — it's a disorienting distraction.
Entrance to the 18th-Century Period Rooms, right off the Contemporary Art Galleries – fourth floor.
As a footnote: It seems Joseph J. Lhota, who under Giuliani tried to censor the Museum's controversial 1999 exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection by threatening their funding, is now running for mayor. Happily his past bullying is hurting his campaign (see the New York Times article about it). The Museum didn't back down then and, I am pleased to note, they still don't abide censorship, even self-censorship — the most treacherous kind. This delightful and funny sculpture was on display in the middle of one of the Egyptian art galleries — no separate room, no discrete covers, no warning signs — no big deal.
Erotic Composition, Ptolemaic Period, 305 - 30 B.C., limestone, painted, 6 ½ x 6 11/16 x 3 ¾ inches (Brooklyn Museum, 58.13) - third floor.