Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Presentation Aesthetics at the de Young (SF)

On a recent visit to the new de Young Museum, I revisited many works of art with pleasure (more on that in a later posting) but also paid attention to how well the architecture and the installations served the art.

The new building, designed by architectural stars Herzog and de Meuron, was a politically thorny and very expensive proposition. It has won renown for its marvelous exterior and even for visitor treats such as the panoramic view of San Francisco from the tower. However, along with many art lovers, I have found many galleries not up to snuff as art environments, in matters of architecture as well as installation. Visual clutter is practically a theme of the museum. I would like to note some of the problems.

A group of 10 landscape murals by Gottardo Piazzoni (1972-1945) found a place at the de Young after San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum decided to remove them from a civic building that became the Asian’s new home. The removal, restoration, and new installation cost a million dollars, according to the Asian Museum, which paid the bill. So these works are not chopped liver.

The murals look splendidly calm in their new setting except for an assortment of visual clutter. The worst gaffe is that, in front of each panel, a black iron bar has been installed for protection. I would not be entirely surprised to walk in and find a bicycle locked to one of them. The bars cut right in front of each panel. (See photos above and below.) They ought to be removed, but the problem is how to protect the paintings in a room that is designed to be an “event room,” where crowds of people and outside caterers occasionally hold sway. I am sure there is a solution, but it’s not clear that the museum is moving toward one.

Another annoyance is that, at the north end of the room, the murals must compete with gilded donor lists (photo below).

Some huge air grates contribute further visual clamor (photo below).

These grates are everywhere. In the examples below, they are in front of paintings by Frank Lobdell and Sam Francis.

In the museum's main lobby, a number of Joan Mitchell paintings are currently installed. Consider the clutter surrounding this diptych from 1992:

In one gallery, a sculpture by Doris Salcedo has been placed (dumped?) next to a large installation by Cornelia Parker. The two works have a thematic relationship, but the Salcedo work is diminished by this juxtaposition. To make matters worse, Salcedo's work—part of a series referencing the catastrophic humanitarian situation in her home country of Columbia—is trivialized by nearby signage (see photo below).

The supreme instance of insensitive placement is the Cornelia Parker. Entitled “Anti-Mass,” this work was created from the charred remains of a Black Southern Baptist church that had been destroyed by an arsonist. The installation is jammed up against one wall in a gallery that contains a variety of work, including Bruce Nauman's sardonic neon, "Double Poke in the Eye II," and a comically sexy sculpture by Rachael Neubauer. Parker's work also shares visual space with the same exit door and signs that form a backdrop for the Salcedo. (See photos below at at the top.) In 2005-06, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts devoted a huge gallery to an exhibition of two Parker works from the church series, a memorable presentation that the de Young might have learned from.

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