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.

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