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Art in the Balance 

A sneak peek at the new de Young reveals a rethinking of museum ideas

Wednesday, Sep 28 2005
At first glance, the new de Young Museum rises like a rusty Star Destroyer on the forest moon of Endor. A hulking mass, all angles and high-tech edges, it's crowned by a twisting periscope of a tower to the north. Celebrity architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron intend the building's custom-designed copper cladding to oxidize, eventually fading to a soft green that will blend into the surrounding foliage. It's a nice gesture, but it's hard to imagine such a huge, striking form ever blending in, anywhere.

And yet, walking east on JFK Drive toward the building's back door, I realized that the spaceship actually can fit into its surroundings. From a distance on a foggy morning, its rear profile resembled a gently sloping, dark brown hill nestled among the trees. It looked almost natural.

As it turns out, this chameleon quality is characteristic of the new de Young. Refocusing itself as an educational space, the de Young has internalized the practice of institutional critique: the process by which artists expose the inherent biases of the museum system. In a move as bold as the new building, criticism of the museum's collection is built right into the de Young's curatorial strategy.

Like any brash new diva, it's rife with contradictions. A case in point is the building's main entrance. Little more than a hole in the blunt exterior, the opening feels heavy and forbidding instead of welcoming. You tunnel through the massive facade to emerge in a small, bright courtyard, studded with blocks of stone; it's actually an installation by artist Andy Goldsworthy, and the courtyard and stones are laced with a meandering "fault line," a nice homage to the Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged the original de Young building. But this brief respite only throws the weight and mass of the structure into high relief. The de Young's exterior impresses not with grace or beauty, but with brutal bulk.

Inside, the drama continues. The building's halls and transitional spaces feature nary a right angle, which can make getting your bearings difficult. It is bold architecture that deviates assiduously from the rectilinear, but the overall effect resembles a rabbit warren. Sometimes, as in the first-floor entrance to the Koret Auditorium, it feels as though you've wandered into a closet.

However, such eccentricities serve a purpose. On the first floor, as you angle down a short, triangular hallway that ends in a sharp point, you suddenly find yourself within the spacious 20th-century galleries and breathe a sigh of relief. With their creamy white walls and filtered natural light, they're sublime, classic spaces. In this setting, the cornerstones of the de Young's permanent collection -- from Diego Rivera to Richard Diebenkorn -- all look fantastic. The slanted halls and oblique doorways have turned the simple act of entering the galleries into a theatrical experience.

The rest of the museum is just as dramatic -- the floor-to-ceiling wooden display cases in the second-floor African galleries are especially gorgeous and make you feel as if you've ascended into the tree canopy -- but occasionally the architecture gets the best of the art. On the second floor in particular, some galleries (more like hallways, really) feel like afterthoughts. The Connections Gallery is situated at an "X" in the building's floor plan, the intersection of the African, Oceania, and American galleries. Conceptually this placement makes sense, as the gallery is dedicated to the work of contemporary artists invited to interpret the museum's collection. The inaugural exhibit includes Catherine Wagner's photographs of the de Young's collection of period chairs upended and arranged in vaguely sexual poses. Just around the corner are the actual chairs, modesty intact, in a more formal lineup. This kind of synergy with other objects in the museum justifies the Connections Gallery's porous floor plan, but I wonder if it will be difficult to actually spend time with this potentially challenging work -- art about art -- once the gallery is filled with people traipsing through on their way to other exhibits.

Despite its physical limitations, the Connections Gallery is a key part of the museum's revamped curatorial strategy. It positions the items in the permanent collection not only as precious artifacts, but also as raw material that artists may use to construct their own narratives. It acknowledges that there's more than one way to look at art, and that the story changes depending on who's doing the telling.

This strategy is in evidence primarily in the early American galleries. Each period room purposely includes at least one piece that is chronologically out of sync with the rest of the works but related in subject matter or approach. So a painting of John Brown's execution made by a Northern abolitionist at the time (1860s) hangs next to a vastly different painting of the same subject by a mid-20th-century African-American painter. In this way, the de Young hopes not only that viewers will make connections between art from different time periods, but also that larger conversations about race, history, politics, and representation can emerge.

Another room displays works by Native Americans and Spanish colonists side by side in an attempt to raise questions about the impact and legacy of conquest. It's a brave endeavor, as it threatens to expose the colonialist attitudes at the root of most museum collections. After all, museums exist primarily because wealthy Europeans and Americans have plundered the artistic and cultural riches of other cultures and put them on display, out of context, where they are co-opted by other artists. In exposing these power imbalances, the de Young has found a clever way to confront the history of museums as colonialist institutions and to frame its hodgepodge collection. By situating art within a context of dialogue and debate, it asserts that the pieces are not isolated works of individual genius to be worshipped, but are touchstones in a larger web of power relations.

This new approach to presenting the collection is the smartest move the museum could make. And the new building, with its balance of the avant-garde and the traditional, is its perfect counterpart. While the new curatorial position makes an end run around critics who might otherwise accuse the museum of being old-fashioned, the beautiful new galleries ensure that the time-honored pleasures of art appreciation remain intact.

About The Author

Sharon Mizota


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