Published: January 21, 2003
By Karla Klein Albertson
NEW YORK CITY — Necessity is truly the mother of invention these days when it comes to creating more space at major city museums. Urban land values and building restrictions often make adding a new wing virtually impossible. So great minds are hard at work utilizing every square foot throughout the existing structures.
That wonderful scene in the 1960s film classic How to Steal a Million, where Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole hide after hours in the museum broom closet, is a thing of the past. Cleaning staff must bring their mops in a van: supply closets have been transformed into tiny medieval chapels and triangular under-the-stairs cupboards are now curiously shaped print galleries. Departments arm-wrestle in board meetings for unutilized floor space.
Nowhere is the need more pressing than at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wedged between Fifth Avenue and Central Park in New York City. So the opening of a newly created gallery last October devoted to displaying the works of local genius Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was a moment of triumph for the staff of the American Wing. Some 80 examples of his windows, lamps, furniture, mosaics, blown glass, enamel work and jewelry, along with design drawings, are now exhibited in a permanent installation devoted to this brilliant artist.
Many individuals contributed to the moment: Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts; the technical team — Daniel Kershaw, exhibition designer, Zack Zanolli, lighting designer, and Constance Norkin, graphic designer; and longtime museum supporters Barrie and Deedee Wigmore, after whom the gallery and its neighbors are named. The Wigmores are especially interested in decorative arts of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries and have helped the department acquire significant new works in this area, including a sensational floral hair ornament that headlines the new jewelry display.
“I proposed this gallery about three years ago, and it took an enlightened funder to help bring it all together,” explains Frelinghuysen. “For me, it’s a dream come true; I’m just thrilled. No other American designer can have this sort of unified treatment outside of Frank Lloyd Wright. Visitors will capture an impression of this artist who could really work magic in so many different materials, and I hope they see the linkages between the blown glass vases in flower forms next to a chandelier with iridescent gold lily blossom shades next to a leaded glass shade of water lilies. And they can see nature interpreted yet again in ceramics and enamel works. Tiffany had a reverence for nature and at the same time a very tactile and luxurious quality on the surface of his materials.”
She continues, “One of the biggest differences is that they’re all seen together rather than divided between one place and another in the museum. Now you see the full artist and the range of his work in one place — everything from windows and lamps to furniture and mosaic panels. Enamels and ceramics are mingled with blown glass and wonderful jewelry.”
Tiffany’s creations have certainly never been invisible within the Metropolitan. Mosaics, stained glass windows and the entrance loggia from the designer’s Laurelton Hall residence are among the glories of the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing, where they will remain. The limestone loggia capitals were salvaged from Tiffany’s extraordinary summer residence at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, which was destroyed by fire in 1957. Tiffany’s father had died in 1902, leaving him at least $3 million, a princely amount at the turn of the century. He immediately began constructing a residence and garden on 580 acres of land, once occupied by a resort hotel on the island. Each of the Moorish-influenced capitals is carved with a circle of flowers and they supported architraves covered with Favrile glass tiles. Collectors also can look forward to a major exhibition at the Metropolitan in the fall of 2006 on Laurelton Hall, which is well documented through period photographs and visitors’ descriptions.
In spite of the architectural elements on view, there was no place to display — even on a rotating basis — significant groupings of the Met’s very extensive holdings in Tiffany iridescent Favrile glass or design drawings on paper. The curator notes, “We have a major collection of 400 design drawings from the Tiffany Studios, and a rotating selection of these will be on view. We have a drawing up now of our fabulous large enamel bowl decorated with repousse plums. We also have a drawing of our autumn landscape window.”
Frelinghuysen adds, “We have the greatest collection of early Louis Comfort Tiffany jewelry anywhere. He exhibited his jewelry for the first time in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St Louis, and we have three things on view that date to that year, all very much nature-inspired. Each one was acquired from its original owner, including a grapevine necklace.” Another of the exhibits in this category is the recent acquisition mentioned above, a hair ornament, only three inches in diameter, of silver, copper, enamel, opals and garnets in the form of a Queen Anne’s lace wildflower bloom.
Equally spectacular is another recent gift, a Favrile glass mosaic panel, circa 1891, presented in 2000 by Paul and Chloe Nassau. The panel was a prototype for those that decorated the Fifth Avenue mansion of Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer, and is displayed with furniture and a leaded-glass window that were also part of this design commission by Tiffany’s most important patrons.
Wishing and hoping for a new gallery is one thing; making it all happen was the job of Metropolitan installation designer Dan Kershaw, who said, “I worked with Nonnie on coming up with galleries we’d both be very happy about, and she and I are thrilled with how everything worked out. For a tiny bit of space, we had a lot of fun.” Collaborating with Frelinghuysen and Catherine Vorsanger before her, Kershaw had been begging and pleading for a decade to be allowed to convert the small storeroom into a Tiffany-dedicated gallery.
“But it took a long time to get the material which had been stored in there moved out of the way,” he remembers. “The reason I was so anxious to get at this space is because of how strategic it is: it’s awfully hard to get around the American Wing, there are a lot of blockades and stopping points and different levels. I had always found it extraordinarily frustrating to come to a dead-end and not be able to circumnavigate the Frank Lloyd Wright room. People are inevitably peering in one end of that room, seeing the occasional visitor and the open door at the back end of it, but they can’t figure out how the heck to get there. So this is a way to get around there that hadn’t been available since the wing was first built and that area sealed off.”
The compact size of the space available from the storeroom, merely about 21 by 26 feet, was only one of the problems that arose during its transformation into an exhibition gallery. Kershaw points out, “There was no great sightline coming down through the McKim, Mead & White stair hall and into the American Decorative Arts Galleries. You were looking at a blank wall. I’ve been very happy with the way that we have come up with a partition featuring a leaded clear glass window, which divides but doesn’t close off the room. I kept thinking of ways to let people have a vista of something — an object, some stained glass or other materials — but not a solid blockade. So we kept layering things. The small stained glass of hibiscus and parrots is cut into a wall at the tail end, which pulls you down to what would otherwise be a blank wall. Another example of stained glass is lapped over one step behind that, set into a light box. It seemed to fall into place very nicely and naturally.”
Lighting designer Zack Zanolli worked with Frelinghuysen and Kershaw to relight the new gallery and the adjoining Deedee Wigmore Gallery devoted to material from the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts Movement. Kershaw points out, “The gallery is not very high-ceilinged so you’re aware of the fixtures, but he came up with this very sophisticated shielded track lighting which works perfectly.”
For his part, the installation designer was able to add a period detail from an unexpected source: “I’m a bit of a treasure hunter here in the museum, and many years ago I had found and used this one beautiful Nineteenth Century Metropolitan Museum display case. They’re great pieces of old museum architecture. ” Anyone more than 50 years old can remember when the Metropolitan was a veritable forest of hardwood vitrines filled with scarabs or Greek vases or Sandwich glass. In order to reuse them today, however, they must be retrofitted to modern conservation standards.
Kershaw continues, “I’m loathe to let anything disappear into the basements of the building because, God knows, it might get thrown out one day. So I revived, brought down and discreetly modernized this Nineteenth Century showcase with glass shelves for Tiffany ceramics, glass and enamels. And then I copied its wooden details — reddish mahogany stain on walnut — for the new display cases, which are all stained wood, rather than painted, to match the Nineteenth Century feel of the old cabinet.”
In spite of the challenges, Kershaw remains optimistic about future possibilities: “There are a lot of changes afoot in the American Wing, so who knows what spaces may become available.”
Period photos of Laurelton Hall and the Havemeyer residence in New York City are among the illustrations in The “Lost” Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany by Hugh F. McKean, originally published in 1980 and reprinted this year by Pennsylvania’s Schiffer Publishing as part of its Classic Reference Book series ($49.95 through bookstores or www.schifferbooks.com). McKean was one of the young artists who spent time at Laurelton Hall participating in a program Tiffany created to share his ideas on art with younger designers.
In addition to the museum’s own small publication, Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, collectors will enjoy the new book, Louis Comfort Tiffany at Tiffany & Co. by John Loring, design director of Tiffany & Co. since 1979. One of many books by this prolific author, this volume features stunning photos of jewelry, enamels, glass and pottery from the Tiffany archives. Available for $60 through bookstores or see www.abramsbooks.com.
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