Gehry’s silent interventions reshape the Philadelphia museum

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PHILADELPHIA – You know what’s more fancy than spending a ton on a historic building? Spend a ton and barely show it.

When other museums and cultural institutions turned to Frank Gehry, the 92-year-old Canadian Angeleno and grandmaster of titanium, he summoned buildings that were both inventive and ostentatious: curves of metal at Guggenheim Bilbao or Disney Hall de Los Angeles, or inflated glass sails at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. But here in Philadelphia, where he’s been tasked with reinventing one of the nation’s oldest and most important museums, he’s left stainless steel and cinematic software at home.

A full fifteen years after the Philadelphia Museum of Art hired Gehry to expand and renovate its Beaux-Arts home atop Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the first part of the job is complete – and low-key. His main project, as the museum calls it, cleaned and remodeled the underground bowels of his Greek Revival home to produce an additional 20,000 square feet of galleries, as well as a refreshed entrance and atrium with potential for performances and gatherings after the pandemic. days. It has cost $ 233 million so far, and this is only the first part; then will come additional new underground galleries, and a window piercing the eastern staircase (you know, the one from “Rocky”).

You’ll see Gehry’s silent interventions first through the west entrance – which I still consider to be the back of the museum, although that has been the main entrance for years now. (The eastern entrance, next to the promenade and steps, is closed for the time being.) It has more inviting glass doors and suitable ramps for wheelchair access. The west hall, called Lenfest Hall, received larger windows and was stripped of the postmodern counters designed by the museum’s previous architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The east wall of the lobby was demolished and an auditorium torn down to make way for a new central atrium, clad in the same honey-colored limestone that the museum’s early architects used in 1928. Here you’ll see Gehry’s only concession at the spectacle, in the form of a Piranesian staircase leading to the basement. Even that is overshadowed, however, by the splendid arched walkway that rises from it, decked out in Guastavino tiles and re-emerging after decades as the back of the house. (At the moment, there is nothing here except a few sculptures, a gift shop, and a small cafe; the macchiato was pretty good.)

A floor higher are the new galleries, the design of which is quite boring – and really, that says a lot about the museum buildings in the 25 years since Bilbao that we are now delighted with an architecture that you hardly notice. . (Once Gehry and his ilk were celebrated as master builders on magazine covers; now everyone wants to be Lacaton and Vassal, whose ultra-low profile renovations earned them this year’s Pritzker Prize.) This surgical approach, however, has always been Gehry’s plan. “It would be a real challenge to do something that is virtually hidden, that could turn spectacular,” the architect told the New York Times in 2006, when the museum first brought him in. Spectacular isn’t the word I would use for the result, but it’s certainly smart. I’ll take this any day.

When completed, it will be a very important museum, whose circulation can resemble that of the Louvre: an older U-shaped palace whose three wings are first reached by light spaces below. Right now, Philly is still the right size for a long, pleasurable afternoon. With four hours you will walk through most of the collection.

Saint-Gaudens’ Diana Dorée still dominates the main staircase, and Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic “Being Given” still invites the gaze to its wooden door. Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic”, that bloody masterpiece, is here now – the museum shares it with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The beautiful rotunda of the modern wing still contains Cézanne’s last and greatest “bather”, even if I am drawn to Édouard Manet “The Battle of Kearsarge and Alabama”: presents the largest painting of the American Civil War, which reinvented maritime painting as a topical transatlantic media event.

Of two major temporary exhibitions, the most important is “Senga Nengudi: Topologies”, an investigation of one of the most accomplished figures in American post-minimal sculpture and performance. (It was organized by the Lenbachhaus in Munich; it was seen there in 2019 and also toured in São Paulo and Denver.) After studying in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and first experiments with fluid-filled plastic, Nengudi in 1975 began to create sculptures. from used tights, sometimes shaped by internal threads. Some extend to the ceiling, seemingly pulled to their limits; some sag under the weight of the sand and resemble breasts or stones or tumors.

These fragile and provisional sculptures, known collectively as the “RSVP” series, are rare to see in such numbers; that alone makes this spectacle an event. Their impact also lies in the associated performances, mainly by the artist Maren Hassinger, which would entangle her body in the elastic fabric, as if the sculpture were another dancer, broken but revived. In this exhibit you will see both early photographic documentation, a recent video of Hassinger dancing with Nengudi’s sculptures, as well as a bank of television monitors from other performances that Nengudi and his colleagues performed at Just Above Midtown. , the pioneering black-owned gallery of New York City.

In the new temporary exhibition galleries is “New Grit”, a group exhibition of 25 artists from Philadelphia or living here. The quality is mixed, and it’s a little too eager to be topical, but local artists are the right target for a grand opening. Beyond the most well-known names (Howardena Pindell, Alex Da Corte), his most valuable player is certainly David Hartt, whose new commission “The Histories (Twilight)” combines tapestry and video, and imagery of Jamaican beaches and ice in Newfoundland, in a cross-media and transcontinental wandering.

The most surprising are the new American galleries, devoted to art from the colonial period to the Civil War. At least in visual terms, they look great. The colorful walls showcase the museum’s rich collection of Charles Willson Peale and other American painters. There is a rich exhibition of Spanish colonial art and an illuminating gallery of Philadelphia’s free black clockmakers, porcelain makers and goldsmiths.

From an interpretation point of view, there is still some way to go. New wall texts highlight the black and indigenous presence in Pennsylvanian society, as well as the presence of slavery in a region that likes to think of itself as more enlightened than the rest of America. (Not without reason: in 1790 there were seven times as many slaves in New York as in Pennsylvania.) But he does so with an extreme emphasis on the individual biography, canceling the subject of each portrait for his personal harm and exalting other objects for any connection imputed to easement.

The text accompanying an 18th-century silver bowl, for example, tells us nothing about the bowl, nothing about the silver market, but all about the goldsmith, a John Hastier, and his enslaved craftsman, called Jasper. “Maybe Jasper made this bowl,” the panel thought to themselves.

Of course, I don’t know, maybe! But who created this bowl is hardly as important as the political and economic institutions who supported its creation and the aesthetic forms that link it to other eras, places and cultures. Right now all we get is new moralistic language sprinkled over the same old history – and for that matter, applying that language exclusively to American history can only be called short-sighted. In these same galleries, to take just one example, I saw a loader bearing the insignia of the Dutch East India Company, which instituted slavery on several continents; it goes without any comment.

It will take longer for the museum – for all of our museums, really – to forge an approach that puts these objects in new relationships, rather than adding them with asterisks indicating who was a nice person and who was bad. It is hardly impossible! It simply means treating objects and images as more than a biographical sketch, but as vectors in a vast global network of images and ideas. If we are talking about institutions tainted by colonial legacies, Universal Museums rank high enough on the evildoers list – but who knows what new roads and sightlines you can find with the right renovation?

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Advance reservation recommended but not required. 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia; 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org. The museum is open on Memorial Day.



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kurt watkins

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