Where Opposites Attract
Where Opposites AttractBy HOLLAND COTTER, New York Times, 12/13/12, originalNEW HAVEN — In a museum era dominated by the vying forces of bad economics and compulsive building, it’s a miracle when something comes out right, which makes the opening of the splendidly renovated and expanded Yale University Art Gallery here a happy event. The angels of art, design and budgetary planning were on duty. Everything worked. The country’s oldest university art museum has arrived at a kind of institutional ideal of opposites in balance.
After the expansion — all interior work, with one discreet addition — the museum has gained substantial usable space. It’s large enough to get lost in, but intimate enough for close art encounters. There’s a lot more art to see than before, from a collection that’s now closer than ever to being encyclopedic, with a mix not found in a masterpieces-only museum. Objects grand and modest keep company; high sits with low; silly with serious; flawless with ruined.
As a result of all this, which came to fruition with a reopening this week, a respected institution is already assuming the aura of a destination. Local art lovers can stay close to home and enjoy it; the full global picture has come to them. New Yorkers, who have museums huge and tiny but few at the harmonious in-between scale of this one, will want to start checking New Haven train times.
Harmony was by no means inevitable in this project. As was typical of old museums, this one was accumulated rather than planned, put together in pieces across different eras, each with different styles and values. The process started in 1831 when the artist John Trumbull, a Connecticut native, sold Yale a series of paintings he’d done of the American Revolution and designed an on-campus museum to hold them. Art attracts art, and soon more came Yale’s way, chiefly American painting and copies of European old masters, until the pattern-breaking arrival of ancient Assyrian reliefs from what is now Iraq, in the 1850s. The reliefs were big; Trumbull’s museum was not, and in the 1860s a new one had to be built. Called Street Hall, it’s the oldest of the three contiguous, utterly unalike buildings that together make up the expanded museum.
Street Hall also began to fill, notably with Italian Renaissance paintings. They originally belonged to James Jackson Jarves, a diplomat, art critic and all-purpose entrepreneur who repeatedly gambled with fortunes and lost: you envision him with a perpetual sheen of flop-sweat on his brow. He had picked up the paintings cheaply in Europe, added top-dollar names — Duccio, Giotto, Raphael — and offered them to an art-hungry Yale as collateral for a loan. In 1871 repayment of the loan came due; Jarves was broke, again, and the university got the pictures.
What a deal. Some attributions have dropped a notch; others have risen. But at the core of the Jarves group is one of the finest ensembles of 13th- and 14th-century Italian painting in any museum, anywhere. They include a jewel-like altarpiece panel by that most elusive of Renaissance figures, Andrea di Cione, known as Orcagna, and a gable-shaped “Crucifixion” by Guido da Siena, which, in terms of preservation, is as perfect as perfect can be.
And art kept coming, often from alumni, often in waves shaped by international politics, market trends and period fashion. It came in dizzying varieties: Greek vases, Egyptian friezes, Peruvian textiles. It came large (the Assyrian reliefs) and small. The museum’s celebrated American collection, now in a refurbished Street Hall, is a cornucopia of silver, glass and ceramics, with bowls, plates, creamers, beakers, bottles, vases, flagons, pitchers and teapots virtually spilling out of display cases.
Then there were more bulk deliveries, important ones, like a shipment of archaeological finds from the site of Dura-Europos, a city that flourished up to the third century in what is now Syria and that yielded a cross-cultural wealth of religious material, including sculptures of Roman gods, Jewish paintings and some of the earliest known depictions of Jesus.
By the time the Dura-Europos trove reached New Haven, there had been a further museum expansion, into a new building, Florentine Gothic in style. That was in 1928. The museum was still, essentially, a 19th-century institution, just beginning to inch toward the 20th century. It didn’t get there for a while, but when it did, it was with a leap.
The catalyst was another Connecticut resident, the artist and collector Katherine Dreier. Born in Brooklyn in 1877, she met Marcel Duchamp in 1916 and, with him and Man Ray, formed a private advocacy group, the Société Anonyme, in support of avant-garde art. Support, in her case, mainly meant buying new art, and she amassed enormous holdings that she kept in her Connecticut home.
In 1941, hoping to turn that house into a museum, she approached Yale gallery personnel for advice, and they had just one suggestion: Give us the art. She agreed, and in a stroke, the museum was on the Modernist map. Over the past few years highlights from this collection have toured the country as the exhibition “Société Anonyme: Modernism for America.” Now the show, looking daisy-fresh, is ensconced in a suite of new galleries that connects the 1866 and 1928 buildings as part of the overall renovation by Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott of Ennead Architects in New York.
The Société’s front-runners — Duchamp, Kandinsky, Kurt Schwitters — are here. And so are many intriguing, now forgotten artists, several of them women, including Dreier. Scanning the names, I saw nearly a dozen I didn’t know, and nearly a dozen theses and dissertations waiting to be written.
In 1953 a third building, by Louis Kahn, joined the others. Kahn’s design, with imposing tetrahedral ceilings, remains controversial as an art setting. But it still feels innovative and daring, and atmospherically right for Yale’s two youngest non-Western collections, those of African and Indo-Pacific art.
The present African installation, in place for a while, has recently been enhanced by the addition of antique sculptures from Mali and Nigeria. Such art, often caught up in international cultural property disputes, is both understudied and the focus of heated debates. What you see at Yale is its expressiveness, complex but straight to the heart. The sight of rows of terra-cotta heads, lined up as if sprouting from the earth, makes a powerful impression, deepened by the knowledge that most of the sculptures were field-collected in Africa in the 1950s and ’60s by the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
The major news, though, is the debut of the Indo-Pacific gallery. If you need one irrefutable reason for a visit, this is it. The collection, primarily promised gifts, is relatively new to the museum, as is its curator, Ruth Barnes, who comes from the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. For this inaugural presentation, she seems to have brought out as much art as possible, and she’s absolutely right to have done so. The installation is enrapturing, as intricately patterned as the Indonesian textiles and Borneo carvings that fill it.
Like most ambitious museums, Yale’s is acquiring a lot of contemporary work. (Its prodigious director, Jock Reynolds, who masterminded the expansion project, is himself a sculptor.) There is plenty of contemporary art on view, along with many terrific examples of postwar modernism by the big names of the period. Yet a New York visitor, with ready access to Chelsea and the Museum of Modern Art, may want to concentrate on other aspects of the collection, and on types of images seldom seen elsewhere.
For example, few American mainstream museums give space to the agonized, outré emotionalism of 16th-century Spanish religious art, the kind of painting John of the Cross would have seen.
Yale does. Just this year the museum bought a fantastic painting by Luis de Morales of Christ carrying the Cross, his tormented body light against dark, like a candle in a confessional.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA you can see van Goghs as great as Yale’s “Night Café.” But you’re less likely to find, tucked in a corner, as you do at Yale, a tiny, blissful heartbreaker of an oil sketch by Georges Seurat, this one depicting a little cow under a tree in a sunny summer field.
And it takes a particular kind of museum to place old and new art genres in natural equilibrium, as Yale does in a pre-Columbian gallery that displays a classical 15th-century ceramic head of the Aztec god of music against an exacting 21st-century watercolor copy of a Maya mural made by a young, Yale-trained archaeological illustrator.
Balance. For decades we’ve had an art culture that tries to wow us with too muchness — blockbusters, biennials, bank-breaking museum buildings no one needs — and that ends up delivering way too little. Could it be that the day of just enough is upon us, and that Yale’s just right museum is a bellwether?
The Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven; (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu. The exhibition Société Anonyme: Modernism for America runs through July 14.