Maximizing the Minimalism or vice versa-
Updated: May 7, 2021
Musing on architecture and art (or the lack thereof)- an essay by Brian Keeler
From Bellini to Brutalism and from Raphael to robber-barons, a lot of ground is covered in this essay on some issues currently drawing attention. They may seem disparate, but they all relate to how art is displayed (the setting and context) or how architecture for art or architecture alone is regarded or destroyed.
As of late some issues in the aesthetic realm have been raising concerns in print (The New York Times) and (The New Yorker Magazine) and on social media. Considerations of beauty are also meshing with the pragmatics of housing and city planning. Most of these concerns are very pertinent, valid and engaging, as they confront issues of community, history and how art is viewed. This dovetailing of various categories may not come up on everyone’s radar, so I thought I would share my impressions here. These issues are from publications and locales separated by location such as the Frick Museum in NYC and Ithaca, NY and my hometown, Wyalusing, PA.
The springboard or starting point for this essay is from the publicity documenting the temporary move the Frick Museum in NYC is making from their historic and ornate digs in the mansion of the erstwhile owner, Henry Clay Frick on Park Avenue. While the museum is undergoing major renovations the entire collection has now been moved to the former Whitney Museum a few blocks uptown on Madison Avenue. Therein lies the rub.
This contrast of exhibition spaces could not be more stark. It may be of little concern to most who read this, but for museum goers it presents quite a conundrum. The two camps are locking down, but so far being respectful of opinions.
I love the Frick and have been going there for decades. Aside from the superb collection of some of the masterpieces of realistic painting and sculpture, there is of course the setting and context. It is a sumptuous museum that is quiet, not too big, and softly lit with skylights. There is also a rule of no photos allowed, which is wonderful as these days the hordes in some museums, like the Louvre and elsewhere can be positively aggressive and extremely disturbing. I recall this issue being bandied about in art magazines several years ago. And the argument in favor of allowing photos was that the guards were spending all their energies scolding visitors to stop with the selfies and other photos instead of protecting the art. Anyway I digress.
The former Whitney, which I used to visit on occasion too is what is now referred to as Brutalism in architecture. It is cold and industrial like on the outside and the same on the inside. Many modern museums are built in this same style. The Johnson Museum here in Ithaca, as is the East Wing at the NGA in DC and Everson Museum in Syracuse, all designed by the architect, I.M. Pei. One wag on a FB feed referred to the Johnson Museum as that "Singer Sewing Machine on the hill." There is a new wing also at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA that is equally as austere, featuring unfinished concrete, severe geometry and warehouse like interiors.
Here is an opinion expressed by Robert Salsberg, an avid art connoisseur and former radio host at the NPR affiliate, WVIA FM in Scranton, PA. Used here by permission.
“I have always found the atmosphere at the Frick one of superannuated nouveau-grandeur and reverent self-importance- in other words, oppressive, and I’m sure it’s colored my ability to see the collection, which, with a few notable exceptions, has never appealed to me. I’m looking forward to seeing the work without its Margaret Dumont-esque trappings of post-robber baronial turgidity.”
So Robert sums up the opinion of those who are in favor of the temporary Whitney backdrop to work from the Frick. Robert says further, that he is not trying to be a polemicist but merely expressing a viewpoint. Hmm, but still, I wonder how Robert could not be gobsmacked by the virtuosity of so many of the beautiful canvases there. For example the Holbein's, two pendant portraits, one of Thomas Cromwell and one of Thomas Moore. They show veracity in every stroke that surely would be hard to walk away from indifferent to or nonplussed.
I will have to admit however, that my nose was never out of joint about these modern buildings nor with the historic Frick or other mansions. The modern muesums were regarded as, just the way it is, and it was rather fun to traverse the interiors in an exploratory kind of way and marvel at the exteriors. For example, that extremely sharp triangular point at the East Wing of the NGA in DC has been appreciated close up by myself and many others, as the oil from thousands of hands caressing it has left a mark.
We also think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s adventurous circular Guggenheim in NYC. Or the wildly and wonky Frank Gehry creation of the Bilbao Museum in Spain. Architects should be encouraged to be inventive and creative but also in finding a balance between form and function as well as a balance between the art within and without.
But alas, after reading these articles, I am now looking at these museums and wondering about this penchant for industrial chic. When we see raw concrete, left jagged and rough cut, we have to wonder about the aesthetics. We could look at other interiors as well, of say, any Wallmart or Target, with the ceilings left similarly open with pipes and ducts all exposed up to the metal roofs. Whatever happened to energy conservation and insulation, let alone clean lines?
I am recalling another concept in art that highlights process, and that would be “the non-finito.” This approach was invented by Michelangelo with his late sculptures that were supposedly left semi-finished showing lots of chisel marks and rough stone. The same in painting too, where the process of brushwork is allowed to be part of the finished work. I am not sure that these pairings are fair - that is comparing Michelangelo and the architecture of museums to box stores, but still worth considering.
Other aspects of this unfinished nature in architecture are readily visible in Florence and elsewhere in Italy, like Urbino and Bologna where famous Renaissance churches have unfinished facades. San Lorenzo in Florence almost had an elaborate marble covering designed by Michelangelo but the project was scrapped. We see these major churches today with fortress-like façade left in rusticated form for centuries.
But now onto the lovely mansion-museums of which there are many along with artist’s studios that have been made into museums. Not far from the Clark Institute, is the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY. This mansion was built to house the collection of the owner who made his money as lumber baron. It contains a famous portrait of Christ by Rembrandt and many other world-class paintings. The Frick is one of these too. A couple of others that come to mind are The Ca’ Rezonico in Venice, The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and the former Barnes Museum in Merion, PA. This last one, we know the transitional turmoil and fate, as it was fraught with controversy and a protracted legal battle.
The experience of seeing great art in the context of a former collector who spent great sums of money is a unique opportunity, but more importantly, to view a collection assembled out of love and connoisseurship. We get to see a vision of times gone by when painting and sculpture were more central to the lives of many. At the Frick a few years back, they changed the color of the velvet walls in one room to a muted type of dusty rose. This one alteration received an entire page of commentary in the New York Times. So we can see how crucial the context of displaying art can be.
Speaking of context and setting, we can think of so many of the masterpieces of the Reniassance and medieval period paintings, entire altars and sculpture that are now in museums throughout the world. They are now removed from the setting, purpose and atmosphere they were designed for. Some of these paintings, for example the San Zaccaria Altar painting by Bellini in the Church of the same name in Venice was painted in such a way so as to duplicate the marble pillars around it, as well as the lighting conditions on a precise time of day. The shadows and light in the painting correspond to a late afternoon light during certain times of year.
Rome has two extraordinary examples of Mansion museums that I’ve visited several times, namely the Doria Pamphili Gallery and Gallery Farnese. Each opulent and lavish in accouterments with Caravaggios and Raphaels inside. Nothing to sneeze at.
Rome has some modernist controversy too with an I.M. Pei like glass and concrete structure covering and protecting the Ara Pacis of ancient Rome, right in the historic center of the city. This received a scathing review in the NY Times when it was first opened. It was referred to with disdain by the critic,Vittorio Sgrabi thusly:
"A Texas gas station in the very earth of one of the most important urban centres in the world."
Designed by the American architect, Richard Meirer, The Ara Pacis structure was the first architectural intervention into the historic center of Rome since Mussolini's aggressive leveling of historic areas in the 1930's. It is however another anomaly in Rome that I’ve enjoyed. It is a unique blend of having an ultra-modern housing around a precious vestige of Imperial Rome. It further underscores the palimpsest nature of Rome, which is to say, layer upon layer that each generation makes.
I mentioned above about artist’s studios that are now museums and here we can really enter into the context of art. The first one that comes to mind is the Cezanne’ Studio in Aix-en-Provence in France. What a wonderful treat to be there and see the work and accouterments of his creative life. I visited there years ago and traversed the same path he walked dozens of times to paint Mt. Saint Victorie, where I also did a small painting. We visited the studio of the Irish painter, Derek Hill in County Donegal a few years back and it too offered a unique experience – the docent was fantastic, as she explained with alacrity all about his work. Here in America there are the two homes and studios on opposite sides of the Hudson, The Thomas Cole Museum and Frederick Church’s Olana. Two other amazing studios that I was fortunate enough to visit were the Fridha Kahlo home and her husband, Diego Rivera’s modern studio in Mexico City. Art in a home, or art in a studio is a special way to view creativity and to understand how it can be integral.
So with all the labels and audio guides we have at our disposal in museums, they still cannot duplicate the devotional purpose or setting. So we see how those who visit the cold concrete halls at the former Whitney will feel some disdain. But still it is temporary and allows us to still avail ourselves of the Holbein portraits, the Piero Della Francesca fresco, the Turner paintings and so much more.
I want to touch on this intrusion of brutalism in architecture in a local aspect here and bring in political manifestation as well. Who would’ve thought that the philistine slug of a president, Donald Trump would wade into these waters? You may recall he had a brief foray into this area by trying to enact a policy of preventing any new intrusions of modern museum architecture in DC, say like the Hirshorn. Well, they say even a broken clock gets the time right twice a day. But this is coming from the same fellow who allowed raw sewage in our drinking water and so many more transgressions of civility. Does he even have a scintilla of taste or decorum? To undercut this so called urge of his to maintain beauty in public buildings, we need look no further than his desecration of former Post Office in DC that made this once beautiful building into a crass and glitzy Manhattan-like edifice similar to his Trump Tower. Then there is the thorny issue of the emoluments clauses of making money from such commercial endeavors while in office.
But here in Ithaca, there has been an assault of the Brutalists with the recent construction of a building along the inlet. It is a huge cube-like monstrosity. Some are justifiably calling it ugly. The mayor is reportedly countering, by asserting that beauty is subjective. Then a few years ago an entire row of historic buildings, old Victorian era homes, were leveled on East State Street to make way for a student housing project. Then we see the Commons transformed in recent years with a bevy of high rises. Hmm, one wonders how this could happen. Our Facebook friend, Terry Harbin regularly posts photos of magnificent mansions that were lost in Ithaca during the 1960’s urban renewal campaign. The former Women’s Community building on Seneca street was one such modern building that replaced a stately Victorian- and it too has been razed for yet another non-descript apartment building. There was a book published in Ithaca back in the 1980's (?) titled, "Then and Now" that documented these changes from Victorian splendor to 20th century banality.
Everywhere and every town has its examples of loss to the crass and commercial. My hometown, Wyalusing, PA is not exempt either and the obliteration continues today, as another historic building is about to be torn down- and by the borough council no less. A few years ago, members of the borough council spearheaded the destruction of an historic house on US Route 6. This was triply wrong- as it took a bank away from downtown, destroyed a beautiful old house and replaced it with a characterless modern structure. I've compiled a list of these historic losses in Wyalusing, and included as part of a slide show. Its amazing that a town of less than 600 could have seen 30 or so historic buildings razed in such a short amount of time.
To conclude, I will mention a further complicating aspect of Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie and that is of their involvement in suppression of labor workers in the 1892 Homestead Strike. It was a violent suppression where strikers were gunned down. Not pretty. We could think of the Hyde Museum too, being assembled by the money earned from clear cutting original growth forest in New York. So the background for some museums, like the Carnegie Mellon and by extension the National Galley in DC have a fraught history sometimes.
In the end, I hope we can find a way to enjoy masterpieces of art and those from us mere mortals in many ways. With COVID 19 causing us to connect via zoom and social media more, we begin to pine for the times in front of the actual objects in situ. The Frick is rising to the occasion with a wonderful series of Youtube lectures on their collections. It is called “Cocktails with the Curator” and hosted by the chief curator, Xaviar F. Solomon. So if you’re not ready to venture into the Big Apple yet, consider these wonderful lectures.