Published: January 17, 2012
Is it possible for one of the world’s best †and best-known †collections to still surprise?
It is a question fairly asked of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which on January 16 completed its decade-long reinstallation of its American Wing, a national tastemaker since 1924.
Consumers of the public art experience have come to equate such unveilings with sensational architectural packaging. Think of the MFA Boston’s new Art of the Americas wing, with its sleek, glass box designed by the lordly Norman Foster. Or Crystal Bridges, with its tumbling pavilions arranged poolside by Moshe Safdie.
By the graces of the city of New York, the Met occupies a sliver of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park. Its footprint cannot be enlarged. Its monumental silhouette is a series of historical accretions. There lies the challenge.
On a recent Monday morning, Morrison H. Heckscher, the Lawrence A. Fleischman chairman of the American Wing, and his staff were finalizing the wing’s new paintings galleries. Power tools shrieked, piercing the calm of the 28,000-square-foot space. Jagged paper silhouettes marked spots yet to be filled by objects from the wing’s 17,000-piece collection of fine and decorative arts, nearly all of which are on view in the completed reinstallation. The gut renovation of the old, second-floor galleries left only one period room, the Van Rensselaer Manor House, largely untouched.
“I am a great believer in institutions following their own destinies. Our plan arose from looking closely at the museum and its history,” says Heckscher. An architectural historian by practice and inclination, the wing’s director worked closely with the Met’s longtime house architect, Kevin Roche, to design the understated new backdrop that flatters art, respects tradition and encourages a more focused exploration of complex historical themes.
The paintings galleries are now grouped on one floor, eliminating the implicit hierarchy of the old, bi-level design. There are 26 new galleries, 18 of which are flooded by natural light. Offset by high ceilings, their typically intimate scale draws visitors and art together in breathtaking proximity. Most of the galleries have two or more entrances. The strategically placed openings encourage the eye to travel the length and width of the wing, supplying visual drama and a sense of progression along with seductive glimpses of the postcard-famous collection.
“We have gone from the consciously modern architectural design of the 1980s paintings galleries to a design that in some ways harks back 100 years to the classical, European Beaux Arts picture gallery,” Heckscher explains. “That was not a matter of historicizing, but rather of working to come up with spaces that provided the proper scale and proportion for the art.”
It is a simplified Beaux Arts style, with contemporary solutions for every practical necessity. High-tech systems for managing light, climate and security are tucked away between limestone-clad door openings and inserted above the stone cornices that abut ceiling coves. Heckscher’s only overarching instructions were that the galleries be architecturally of a piece. Walls are uniformly painted the color of sand to match the stone accents. Otherwise, each member of the curatorial team enjoyed broad latitude in installing the collections she oversees.
“This is what we do,” says Barbara Weinberg, the Met’s curator of later American art, cheerfully shrugging off the suggestion that devising the complex “hang,” as it is called, resembled a game of three-dimensional chess. “We know our collections. We think we know how to tell stories and we know how to organize space.”
The rigorously edited sequence begins in the galleries labeled “Colonial Portraiture, 1730‱776” and “John Singleton Copley,” whose beacon, suspended overhead, is a carved and gilded eagle made around 1810 by William Rush for a Philadelphia church.
“As you walk through the new galleries, you gain a real sense not only of the history of American art, but also the history of the Met’s collection,” says curator Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, mindful of the institution’s ambassadorial role. From the Copley gallery, a left pivot takes the visitor into what her colleagues teasingly call “Betsy’s War Room.” A breezy, forthright American style was already taking shape, judging by the contrasting portraits of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1780, and Mather Brown’s more mannered take on the English general George Eliott, painted a decade later.
Kornhauser, who arrived at the museum in September 2010 from Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, devoted three galleries to Hudson River school painting, one of her areas of expertise. The sequence culminates in what curators are calling the Grand Gallery.
The only room designed with specific paintings in mind, the gallery, whose formal title is “History, Landscape and National Identity, 1850‷5,” recreates in part a display from the 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair that featured Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1851; Frederic Edwin Church’s “Heart of the Andes,” 1859; and Albert Bierstadt’s “The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak,” 1863. The three paintings were among the first to enter the collection of the museum, founded in 1870.
“The Met is fortunate to have what in their time were called ‘great pictures,'” Kornhauser says of the Church and Bierstadt canvases. “They were really historic landscapes, attempting to rival the highest form of art, history painting.”
“All the school kids went to see Leutze’s Washington, but it was dreary,” Heckscher says of the once waxed and dirty picture, now thrillingly high-definition after a painstaking, four-year treatment by New London, Conn., conservators Lance Mayer and Gay Myers. Relying on a recently rediscovered photograph, Eli Wilner & Company of New York City reproduced the massive, gilded frame for the canvas measuring more than 12 feet high and 21 feet long,
“Whenever possible, we like to draw a connection between painting and sculpture,” explains sculpture specialist Thayer Tolles. Monumental sculpture remains where it is best enjoyed, in the Engelhard Court. Smaller pieces are scattered throughout the new galleries. Erastus Dow Palmer’s chaste marble statue “The White Captive,” circa 1858, rejoins Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” in the Grand Gallery. A spectacular amalgam of old and new imagery, Ames Van Wart’s “Indian Vase” of 1876 pairs with Bierstadt’s “Heart of the Andes.”
“I examine the war and I examine the peace,” says Weinberg, in charge of Wing’s powerhouse collection of American art from the Civil War to the Stieglitz School. Elegant, elongated society likenesses by the Gilded Age painters Sargent, Whistler, Beaux, Chase and Eakins crowd the gallery called “Portraiture in the Grand Manner, 1880‱900.” No visage is more imperious than that of Charlotte Louise Burckhardt, painted in 1882 by John Singer Sargent, who displayed it alongside his virtuoso “El Jaleo.”
“For me, and I think for many others, Sargent always carries the day. He manages to be charming, investigative, technically powerful and yet a little bit flashy,” Weinberg admits.
The new American Wing encompasses the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Galleries of Eighteenth Century American Art, composed of eight galleries, four of which are dedicated to decorative arts. Among them is the Roy J. Zuckerberg Gallery of American Silver. Recalling the Met’s 1924 presentation of the Clearwater collection, the installation arrays Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century masterworks. Curator Beth Carver Wees is completing a catalog of the museum’s early silver, last published in 1920.
“People who want to look only at silver can see it here in quantity. We show the very best of our collection,” says Wees, gesturing toward a chased bowl made around 1700 by the Manhattan silversmith Cornelius Kierstede. Dutch in profile and ornamentation with cast figural handles in the English taste, the bowl reflects the melting pot that early New York had already become. Sotheby’s sold a similar bowl in 2010 for nearly $6 million, an auction record. Additional silver is arrayed on the balcony, alongside ceramics, glass, pewter and jewelry from the Seventeenth through the early Twentieth Centuries, and shown by form in the Luce Study Center, as well.
The renovated American Wing galleries boast a few relatively recent acquisitions †for instance, John McMullen’s resplendent silver hot water urn and matching tray, presented to Philadelphia physician Dr Phillip Syng Physick in 1798, and two Impressionist landscapes by Theodore Robinson, American views that contrast nicely with the artist’s French work †but the novelty of the new presentation is in its display.
As in the Boston reinstallation, folk art receives a small gallery of its own, prompting the awkward, still-unresolved question about the place of folk art in the broader story of American art. Intriguingly, canvases by Edward Hicks, Ammi Phillips, Thomas Chambers, Sheldon Peck, John Rasmussen and others, many formerly in the collection of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, are shown with a handful of high-profile loans from the American Folk Art Museum, encouraging further speculation about the beleaguered institution’s fate.
“A collection is not a website. It has certain imperatives that are determined by the space,” says Barbara Weinberg. That noted, the new paintings galleries, in tandem with the revised period rooms, Engelhard Court and Luce Center, make for a dynamic, accessible American Wing very much suited to our information-hungry times.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-535-7710 or www.metmuseum.org .
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