July 18, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

It’s fitting that on the last day that Richmonders are given the opportunity to see the collection of James and Frances McGlothlin that we give pause and thank them. The quality and breadth of their American art collection which they have generously promised to the VMFA is staggering. From the earliest genre painting of the late 18thC, to Edward Hicks’ pupil Martin Johnson Heade, to rooms packed full of Blums, Homers, Chases, Glackens, Henris and Sargents, there is much to cheer about. Thus far my favorite review of this wonderful gift to the Commonwealth was a 40 year old friend who called to tell me he stood in front of the Winslow Homers and wept. Isn’t this what great art does, shake us to the very core of our emotions? That millions will one day be able to have that experience is the legacy of the McGlothlins. Good for them. Good for us. Good for Everybody.

A few collecting suggestions while there is still time, assuming the McGs are feeling expansive. Mrs. Cazalet and the children are apparently still not sold, so it would be fabulous to have them to go with Sargent’s stupendous portrait of William in his hunting togs. Scooping up a tiny Heade hummingbird/orchid picture would sure be nice as they are emblematic of his style and there isn’t one in the collection right now. A Hicks would round out the early stuff nicely. A wintery Twachtman would be fun. A Homer Civil War or rural oil or sketch would be nice, as would be a full size Whistler. This is not to say that the Whistler they have isn’t stunning, iconic and Japanesque, it is all of these things in an image slightly larger than a post card.

It certainly is easy to spend their money, over all though, they seem to have done very well without the writer’s suggestions. In general the choices they have made have been ones which provide the viewer with a very fine example of the artist’s work even if they are not the splashiest- the John Sloan and Robert Blum works are that way. The collection exhibits very good somewhat conservative taste and it will fit in well with Virginia’s sensibilities. One hopes that when the time comes, some thought is given to integrate the collection in with what the VMFA currently has as has been done with the Cochrane gifts. The two little Whistlers, the VMFA has one very similar is style and size to the one mentioned above, side by side would be a splendid vignette. In taking friends for tours of the American art upstairs and this collection one found ones-self constantly referring back and forth to what was in the other area. That is a very good thing indeed as the collections are highly compatible.

The writer hesitates to continue this essay as it will go downhill from here as far as the VMFA is concerned, but these things cannot be avoided in honest reporting. Rick Mather’s new wing has been the recipient of great praise through the architecture and design world, as this is his first American building and he is the darling of the cognoscenti. It is true that this is a titanic effort on the part of the museum, considering its country cousin reputation prior to this addition, adding a space that increases the size and utility significantly. Assuming that the building is still a work in progress, here is the writers punch list.

1) The Cochrane atrium is a vast amount of wasted space- which the artsy will tell you invites people into the gallery. I will tell you it is barren, devoid of interest and the cluster of red chairs and the Levitz sculpture only emphasize exactly how big it is and insignificant the art and furniture is. If there was ever a space begging for a full size Burghers of Calais by Rodin, this is it. The viewer does not feel invited on entrance, they feel lost. A few monumental 19thC Paintings on the walls would go a long way to cover up the abjectly poor wallboard work done by the contractors, which is emphasized by the dead white matte finish wall treatment- somewhat like a woman with stretch marks in a bikini. Why are we seeing seams and puckering?

2) Why do we continue to feel lost once we start towards the collections? Because the signage in the building for where things are is trendy and chic and utterly useless. On first visit, with a map, I managed to end up at the back of the American art, not the front, which was cleverly hidden by discrete signage. Even the National Gallery does a better job with this. It’s hard to see the art if you can’t find it. I fell into the Fisher Expressionist display, the signage was at the other end.

3) On one visit, while dining in the Best Café, I watched as they placed the tasteful clear plastic boxes in the atrium to catch the rain water that was leaking in- from the roof. So the line about no such thing as a leak-proof flat roof apparently applies here as well.

4) The Best Café offers expensive and mediocre food. Having tasted a few examples, the carrot cake- which may or may not be available- was the only medal winner. Seafood chowder was served at room temperature and while consuming same I had to wonder if I was going to be presented with food poisoning later in the day. Members of the staff were milling around with little to do and I received numerous questions from fellow diners about where to put their trays when they were finished. Virtually every food service in every gallery everywhere in the USA expects you to clean your place. Not here- it is annoying rather than quirky and completely out of touch with current food culture.

5) There is no excuse for cheap in an art museum. If we are there to educate the public in the fine arts we need to give them surroundings which reflect that. Was there anything in the café furniture and fixtures which wasn’t purchased in China? A Hoosier Farm Boy friend who is big, in a fit healthy way, was legitimately concerned that the chairs were not going to hold his weight. They are cheap looking and feeling. The cleverish light fixtures were hung in such a way that the architect’s rendering, which this writer had reviewed, was clearly never seen by the contractors- it was a hot uneven mess, all four times I was in the café. For such a thing to work right, theyhave to be hung PRECISELY and that wasn’t done. Nor was the café actually finished, bare concrete columns and parts of the ceiling had not been provided with even one coat of whitewash. As a result it looks as though the space was completed as an afterthought when they were running out of money. The Biltmore syndrome, as George Vanderbilt did the same thing there. As a surprise concept, it would be useful for the museum higher ups to remember that every space in the museum is there to educate and enlighten. Providing a café for the unwashed that looks like that’s for whom you provided it is inexcusable. It is noted that better chairs were provided for Amuse- the white tablecloth restaurant replacing the members dining room-and clearly a hoped for source of revenue.

6) Not all the collections are currently on display and the VMFA is to be commended on taking their time in those installations to come. For those that are, some observations by collection:

American: Trying to find the entrance is issue number one. Figure out how to let the public know where they need to go. The loaned items are impressive and there are some real superstars on display, the Peale Washington Porthole, the Burial of Latane, St. Gaudens’ Pilgrim, Valentine's Lee manque, and a number of really well thought out vignettes for the decorative arts from PA painted furniture to Egyptian Revival mantle sets.

There is an issue, there is mood lighting and a number of the walls are painted dark or intense colors, an improvement over the oatmeal colored walls of past installations. However, in an effort, I think, to allow for easy reading by those with disabilities the notes for the objects are now 8 inches off the floor and in most cases written in a Times New Roman 12 in low contrast. This requires some visitors to bring flashlights and kneel down to read the cards. This is bang-ass crazy and needs to be fixed. So what if you don’t think anyone reads them, people do, and they need to be legible. So you put the cards on a white background and use sans-serif fonts at about 14 or 16. This one issue nearly ruined the entire museum experience for one out of town guest. Interestingly, not every gallery followed this labeling protocol and so one cannot argue that it is museum policy.

19thC Art Nouveau and 20thC Art deco: With the exception of the Godwin sideboard, there is not a great deal of stuff that will be new to the viewer, although in some cases there are additional pieces on display; the Guimard office suite is now all there. These additional pieces, that were previously owned and are now out, are helpful in understanding the works as an ensemble. One observes that there is a paucity of Ceramic decorative arts- particularly English- which is regrettable since the museum owns some stellar examples. The little display on Christopher Dresser is devoid of any mention of his graphic design for which he is famous. Polishing the tureen would have been nice. The elastic hairband which had been inadvertently shot at the Guimard sideboard would best not have been on display and it is disturbing that guards who were patrolling the gallery failed to notice this.

Quibbling with the Godwin installation, it would be nice if the side shelves had been lifted up so that the full Anglo-Japanesque effect can be seen. Quibbling further, because it really matters, placing the Ars Nouveau sculptures of Sara Bernhardt and Loie Fuller so that they abut the atrium and one is utterly blinded by the glare from the opposing white wall is just plain stupid.To see the sculptures requires either a cloudy day or that the viewer sprout wings. The result is they are seen almost only in silhouette and any detail or color value is completely lost. Were they placed where they are because the curator ran out of room?

Finally the Tiffany room- as one wag said, they succeeded in completely sucking the life out of the objects. What was once a brilliantly beautiful window is now a gloomy grey, the only object which is allowed to be viewed in a three dimensional way is the punch bowl [which really is fantastic and would have helped the lackluster Tiffany show enormously]. There is enough space in the room to display other objects and lamps similarly. I understand the installation of the lamps- as this is done as well at the Hosmer-Morse Museum in Winter Pak, FL, as it allows the curatorial staff more flexibility in display, but the Peacock lamp surely loses significant lustre this way. The companion installation of the All Saints Episcopal Window on the 3rd floor is absurd- causing two of one party I was with to go into the bathrooms to see if you could get a better view of them from there. Sadly you cannot. While useful for seeing the external texture of the windows, being able to see them as Tiffany intended requires dead of night, the “shade” that is supposed to enable appropriate darkness during the day fails to do so and further creates a large white block which is visible from the outside and creates a jarring effect from the street on an already troubled Grove Avenue façade.

There are gems as well……….the Asian installation is stunning. The red walls with object cards at eye level are easily read and the Moghul paintings and Nepalese hangings are interesting and will expand many people’s understanding of this discipline. The sculpture is thoughtfully displayed and I suspect our former director had a hand in selecting some of the recent acquisitions, so his impact on the museum is gratefully felt. A clearer understanding of what was on top of the amazing marble pavilion would be useful and I suspect there will soon be requests for use as a marriage venue. It is a special and beautiful place.

The Arabella Worsham Huntington Huntington bedroom is a welcome addition to the American gallery. We are grateful that the Museum of the City of New York could no longer house it and equally grateful to Rockefeller for being too cheap to redecorate. It is an exceptional interior which warrants the addition of some little things so as to be seen not as a museum room but as a living space. A desk set and stationery on the desk, some bibelots on the shelves and a dressing set would enhance the experience enormously. It is also too bad we can’t figure out a way to see it from the other side….. Having seen this as a child in NYC I recall the upholstery as being plush, the hard surface damask will be easier to dust no doubt.

The temporary display of 18thC European painting in the Near gallery is presented in the Continental style, so appropriate to the works displayed. Although this will probably vanish once the galleries are ready, it is to wondrous effect and one wishes there were more of it.

We are thankful to Jerome and Rita Gans for donating even more exceptional items from their silver collection which has been reinstalled in a far superior way than before and creates a marvelous space for the works. Reviewing these works with English ceramics experts brought about an intriguing discussion of the translation of ceramic works into silver. The Garrard gold wash teapot and the Neo-classical work in particular. Study on the part of the curatorial staff may produce origins for some of the designs in the works of Wedgwood; the birth of an outstanding Master’s thesis perhaps?

For those with particular tastes, one would not want to miss the Native American and Mesoamerican art which is thoughtfully displayed or the Kawase Hasui prints which leave one in a wonderful meditative state. The Mellon French and Sporting galleries were not significantly changed with this renovation and there are many lovely things on display. Removal of the carpeting in those rooms would be helpful. With the new addition one observes how dated the Hardy Holzman and Pfieffer addition has begun to look- 1985 was not a very good year. Refacing the atrium stair hand railings with thinner wood would help enormously, they look dated and clunky.

To sum up- the new addition offered more in concept and promise than it delivers. The execution of the architect’s plan was clumsily done. It is clear that much of the work was done with cheap labor rather than with an eye to posterity and quality. Friends observed that glass panels were installed incorrectly and sloppy painting and wallboard installation distract from Mather’s design significantly. The flat white paint shows every single fingerprint and using it at ground level was absurd when one considers that patching that surface will be impossible without it showing up like a carbuncle on the Mona Lisa. Cheaply done work is expensive to maintain. As was said about Mies’ Seagram’s Building;  it is great modern architecture that looks as good as it does because it used expensive materials and they were installed perfectly. One need only drive 90 minutes on 64 to see a more satisfactorily done addition: the Chrysler Museum.

The installation of the works runs the gamut from intellectually stimulating and stunning to abjectly thoughtless, to the point of appearing thrown together without any idea of what message they were trying to convey to the public. Objects which would naturally go together are placed in totally different rooms thereby reducing their ability impact the viewer.It is clear who the stars are in the curatorial and installation departments.  The glare in a number of galleries caused by the thoughtless use of super bright wall treatments is inexcusable. Alternatively the lack of lighting to make the information cards legible is a significant bugaboo, particularly in the American collection.

Should you go? Yes, there’s lots of good stuff to see. While the building ultimately fails in the details I believe it will be far more useful than the late Robert Stewart addition as it provides additional gallery space and far more flexibility. Signs that maintenance will be an issue are bubbling up both inside and outside in the reflecting ponds. But avert your eyes and focus on what’s there, the art, as Howard Carter said when he discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, “I see wonderful things.”

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