American Art in New York

By Lewis, Michael J. | New Criterion, March 2012 | Go to article overview

American Art in New York


Lewis, Michael J., New Criterion


Alfred Hitchcock was famous for insisting that the cinema was a visual art, which was at its best when it told stories by means of images and not words. He once told Francois Truffaut that the very worst thing a screenwriter could say was "We'll cover that in a line of dialogue." Much the same might be said of museum curators, whose strongest exhibitions are nearly wordless, letting their objects speak for themselves, and whose weakest ones rely on their didactic labels--those text-heavy installations that read like the enlarged pages of a textbook (hence the mordant term "a book on the wall exhibition.")

Why museum exhibitions have become so garrulous is no mystery, hi part, it reflects the increasing tendency for the tone of museums to be set by their education departments, for which the occupational hazard is a well-intentioned condescension. (A curator at the Getty Museum told me he was not permitted to use the words triptych or frontispiece--the goal evidently being to shield visitors from unfamiliar words, rather than to teach them). It also reflects changes in the curatorial profession itself, which has discovered that prestige comes from ambitious thematic exhibitions in which the art objects are used as documents of developments in social or intellectual history. The tendency is to make the museum object subordinate to the text, rather than the other way around. What should be the principal focus of attention and thought is diminished and, in the worst cases, reduced to the status of a book illustration.

One institution that has stalwartly resisted this tendency is the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened its New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts this January. This is the final phase of its far-reaching and comprehensive reinstallation of the American Wing, which has been in the works for a decade. The first to be completed was the Neoclassical and Greek Revival collection, which reopened in 2007, followed two years later by the period rooms and sculpture court. It is now the second floor that has reopened, where twenty-six galleries have been installed, all but five of them completely new spaces, encompassing some 30,000 square feet. In its gracious and generously skylighted spaces, its unforced and logical sequence, and its scrupulous deference to the objects themselves, the new wing achieves something close to the Platonic ideal of museum design. It has that great merit in the hanging of a permanent collection: it looks as if it has always been there.

The new wing is the end result of a long and uncommonly happy collaboration between the curator Morrison H. Heckscher, the chairman of the American Wing, and Kevin Roche, the architect. Roche has served as the museum's principal architect since he drafted its master plan in 1970, and he has been responsible for each of the incremental steps in the transformation of the wing. His guiding principle has clearly been to make the architecture recede to allow the paintings to advance. The result is a series of spaces much like those in which these paintings were first created and displayed, with natural lighting, and humanly scaled rooms of somewhat formal character. Instead of unpartitioned flowing space, Roche and Heckscher have broken the exhibition up into discrete rooms of varying sizes, which are quite elegantly detailed. Roche has made the mechanical systems as unobtrusive as possible and has pocketed fixtures in recesses set into the door jambs between the galleries. Also lovely are the floors, which are made of oak except for a strip of creamy travertine that runs along the wall, quietly indicating to the visitor how close one might approach the paintings, that most effective of all signs, the one that operates unconsciously.

But it is the layout itself that is most remarkable. Arranged in the form of a relaxed U, it presents chronologically the mighty arc of American painting from its tentative colonial origins through its nineteenth-century crescendo to end on the threshold of Modernism with New York's own Ashcan School. …

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