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An architectural reflection: Museum addition serves the art well

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2013 - It was a gracious and welcome invitation. The St. Louis Art Museum invited members of the regional press to come Wednesday (May 15) for an introduction to the St. Louis Art Museum’s addition to its 1904 beaux-arts architectural monument. The new East Building, as it is called, was designed by the British architect Sir David Chipperfield, with local, architect-of-record backup provided by the firm of Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum.

I enjoyed being inside this new wing, and there’ll be plenty to celebrate when the official grand opening comes to pass next month. Sadly, what I reckon to be an important consideration seems absent in the overall design. More about that later.

In the meantime, there is genuine accomplishment to be recognized on the parts of both architects and client. From the white oak planking to the coffered ceilings of the 21 galleries, the work is felicitous. The feeling is openness, with soaring, airy spaces, lighted naturally whenever possible, spaces welcoming to visitors, planned for easy and congenial circulation – and, perhaps most importantly, it features arrangements of space conceived to make art manifest, shown not only to its best advantage but also appropriately and respectfully.

Two especially significant St. Louis museum strengths are its collections of American art and German art. For the building’s opening, modern and contemporary art curator Simon Kelly and assistant modern and contemporary curator Tricia Y. Paik prepared a notable exhibition of post World War II American art that brings forth emphatically this work in its audacity and variety. And Paik is responsible for the show of the museum’s supremely powerful collection of modern and contemporary German art. It is a stunning and important contribution to an understanding of a complex and sometimes daunting period in the history of art.

Both shows reveal strength in numbers, but more important, make us feel the artistic muscle of these sweeping traditions and their representation in our museum.

Life-changing power of art

I’ve been a regular visitor since I landed at Washington University almost 50 years ago, and as a reporter and critic have written about the artistic and administrative life of it as well. Thus my excursion Wednesday provided moments of re-acquaintance, enriched both by the presence of many works of art I’d not seen for a long time or works appreciated anew on the strength of their reinstallation by the formidable and amiable team of Kelly and Paik. I found myself remembering visits as a young art history student when I felt for the first time the astonishing, life-changing power of works of art, experiences that come from knitting together acquired knowledge with visceral reactions.

I had a number of these moments Wednesday, two in particular. The first was when I made a quick 180-degree turn around in the easternmost gallery of the new wing to take a look down a long, beautifully proportioned vista. I saw that vista, and it was thrilling, but I was not prepared to see, in all her enigmatic beauty, Gerhard Richter’s painting, “Betty” at the end of the view.

Last summer, in Paris, Richter was more or less apotheosized in huge exhibitions, and “Betty” was at the heart of a swirl of Richter attention. I found the Richter phenomenon evident both at the Centre Pompidou in an exhibition called “Panorama,” and in related drawings at the Musée du Louvre, in “Gerhard Richter: Drawings and Other Works on Paper.”

“Betty’s” meteoric rise to the special status of masterwork was evident at the time of its purchase by the museum in the 1990s, a time when the museum’s curatorial leadership acquired major examples of contemporary German art for the museum, dramatically elevating its reputation in general, but especially in regard to this highly significant area of the art of our time – if not of all time.

The second revelatory and stunning moment on Wednesday occurred when I went around a corner and encountered Richard Serra’s untitled rubber and acrylic floor piece from 1968 stretching out in its triune magnificence before me. This sculpture, besides its haunting aesthetic qualities, also has a fascinating provenance. It was touched or owned by some of the most notable characters in the 20th century art universe – Leo Castelli, Joseph Helman and Richard Bellamy.

The work presents the intellectual challenges of many works of art that came to be in the variegated new world of the 20th century. That is, how do such humble materials come together to pack such a powerful visual and visceral wallop? This work also places challenges in the hands and at the feet of curatorial-installations teams: How does one install such a complex work as this floor piece, and show it in such a way that does not diminish its power, yet protect it from visitors who might inadvertently step on it?

The museum’s solution is imaginative in its relative conventionality. It is displayed on a low, raised platform. Thus exhibited, it is not isolated from a visitor by being roped off. Its presence as art is given special emphasis – an emphasis that, quite brilliantly, is at once almost expected and entirely surprising. The sculpture is literally put up on a pedestal.

If – as is true in the installation of this Serra chef d’oeuvre – equilibrium is established between curatorial obligations and viewer accommodation, you have something clearly labeled success. So in that regard, Chipperfield et al and the museum staff have done their work commendably well, living up to a promotional promise that “practical goals have focused on creating new gallery space for the collection.”

Genuflecting to the past

Art is at the top of the list of humankind’s most noble industries and it deserves such rigorously, even reverentially, special treatment. That is a huge plus for the building and its creators.

But buildings such as this, if they are to operate effectively on a civic platform, must be persuasive on a metaphorical level, and stand for aspirations and for progress. In our particular 21st century situation in this region, when St. Louis is in the hopeful process of rebuilding and reinventing itself, something seems to me missing in the light of the glow of the art. That is the premise that one would -- or should -- expect the design of an addition to a municipal art museum to look to the future rather than the recent past.

Recently a scientist-philosopher friend and I discussed the nature of goodness in works of art. He decried the decline of American literature in our time, but his observation stretches across the artistic landscape. He said for a book to merit description as truly good, it must change the reader when the act of reading is accomplished. Transformation must occur.

I felt the power of transformation inside the museum’s East Building in encounters with art, with “Betty” and the Serra sculpture, for example. I wasn’t similarly struck in looking at the exterior of the building, which is, after all, an important part of the face our city presents to the world.

Looking at the building, what I sense is subscription to a series of risk-avoiding decisions and obedience to the paralytic strain of architectural conservatism that has held the region back from achievement of design excellence, almost entirely, from the time of the completion of the Arch to the present.

And so, rather than entering into an aesthetic competition with the Cass Gilbert building, the Chipperfield-HOK building genuflects to it, and rather timidly at that. In playing it safe and avoiding risk, we find ourselves stuck once again, having missed the boat, the one called Opportunity.

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