Published: June 5, 2007
For months, architectural critics have heralded the debut of one of the most anticipated new museum buildings in years. Partially submerged on 22 well-manicured acres, five glass-sheathed pavilions address the stately classical facade of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. At once classical and contemporary, the Bloch Building addition is being hailed as a near perfect design solution: strikingly original sculpture on a grand scale and a thoughtful answer to the timeless question of how best to display art.
Called “one of the best museums of the last generation” by the New Yorker and “one of the most captivating contemporary museum experiences since the opening of the Tate Modern” in London by Metropolis magazine, the Bloch Building, which honors board chairman Henry Bloch, co-founder of H&R Block, and his wife, Marion, opens to the public on June 9.
The $200 million project got underway in 1999 when architect Steven Holl of New York was chosen from a field of six finalists.
Presented with the challenge of creating a design that would unite the museum’s original Beaux Arts-style home, an expanse of buff-colored limestone completed by Kansas City architects Wight and Wight in 1933, with the adjacent Kansas City Sculpture Park, designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley and Jaquelin Robertson and finished in 1989, Holl found an unconventional solution. Emphasizing light and space, he wed landscape to architecture in a design that is both grandly eloquent and invitingly human.
Holl describes the connected segments as “lenses,” focal points that draw the eye out to the landscape and back again to the architecture. Inside, the galleries, which are connected below ground, are bathed in natural light. The effect is equally striking at night. Gleaming against the Kansas City skyline, the pavilions have been likened to giant magic lanterns, their glow illuminating the adjacent Sculpture Park.
Connecting the old and new wings is a granite-paved entrance plaza with a reflecting pool. The centerpiece of the plaza is Walter De Maria’s sculpture “One Sun/34 Moons.” At the bottom of the reflecting pool, skylights, or “moons,” project water-refracted light into the garage below.
Named after two early benefactors, William Rockhill Nelson, founder of the Kansas City Star, and heiress Mary McAfee Atkins, the 33,500-object Nelson-Atkins Museum is regarded as one of the finest general art museums in the United States.
Particularly well known for Asian art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum was the first institution in the country to have a dedicated gallery for Chinese art. The museum is also well known for European and American paintings, Modern sculpture and Native American art.
The Bloch Building houses the museum’s permanent collection of contemporary and African art, along with galleries for temporary exhibitions. Three exhibitions honor the building’s debut.
“Manet to Matisse: Impressionist Masters From the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection” presents 30 masterpieces from a collection that is being shown in its entirety for the first time.
Working in consultation with experts, the Blochs collected for more than 20 years. Highlights of the display include Manet’s “The Croquet Party,” Van Gogh’s “Restaurant Rispal at Asnières,” Gauguin’s “The Willow” and Cézanne’s “Man With A Pipe,” as well as major works by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Morisot, Sisley, Bonnard and Matisse.
Presented in chronological order, “Manet to Matisse” explores the themes of pre-Impressionist art, Impressionist landscape, post-Impressionism, and Twentieth Century works from Toulouse-Lautrec to Matisse.
A catalog, Manet to Matisse: Impressionist Masters from the Marion and Henry Bloch Collection , includes essays by Impressionism authorities Richard Brettell and Joachim Pissarro, as well as an introduction by Ian Kennedy, the Nelson-Atkins’ Louis L. and Adelaide C. Ward curator of European painting.
“Developing Greatness: The Origins of American Photography: From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, 1839‱885,” studies the first generation of American photography. The exhibition, which continues through December 9, presents classic works from this pivotal era, as well as new discoveries exhibited or published for the first time.
The exhibition is drawn from the Hallmark Photographic Collection, a 6,500-work trove acquired by the Nelson-Atkins in January 2006 through a combination gift and purchase. The collection of mostly American photographs spans the history of medium, beginning in 1839, with works by Edweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Harry Callahan, Lee Friedlander, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman. The pioneering assemblage, which began with the Harry Callahan collection, was started in 1964.
Featured are 300 images, from one of the earliest known daguerreotypes to one of the first hand-camera snapshots. The Civil War, pioneering Western landscapes and portraits are themes. Among the portraits are studies of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jenny Lind, Frederick Douglass, Tom Thumb, General William T. Sherman and Abraham Lincoln. Three-dimensional stereographic images, some of the most popular and widely circulated images of the Nineteenth Century, are also showcased.
A catalog, The Origins of American Photography, From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, 1839‱885, presents a comprehensive view of the collection. With text by photography curator Keith F. Davis and exhibition organizer Jane M. Aspinwall, the book complements An American Century of Photography: From Dry-plate to Digital †The Hallmark Photographic Collection ( 1999), which focused on the contents of the collection after 1885.
On view in the museum’s new Project Space is “Kiki Smith: Constellation.” Glass figures, presented in a darkened gallery and lit from above, represent the night sky.
The installation provokes a dialogue between contemporary art and the architecture of Nelson-Atkins’ new wing, says curator Jan Schall.
“One of Steven Holl’s philosophies for this building was about controlling and using light in a focused and dramatic fashion. While many of the Bloch Building galleries are luminous, Project Space will be quiet, heightening the magical, otherworldly effect of Kiki’s installation.”
The Project Space is a dedicated gallery for contemporary exhibitions, including single-artist displays, new media installations and traveling exhibitions from other institutions.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is at 4525 Oak Street. For information, 816-751-1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org .
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