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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Museum Visit

“Later one discovers that reality cannot be captured, that the things we make always represent just themselves.” -- Gerhard Richter

Yesterday, I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' massive new addition. While the building is a handsome Contemporary structure, the area around it (referred to as the “VMFA Campus” yuck) is a bit of a hodge-podge with too much macadam, a random (I know it has historical significance, but it looks odd sitting there all by itself) Victorian Italianate house and a cluttered network of metal ramps and walkways leading from the garage to the museum. I liked the garage (I have a thing for attractive parking decks) with its metal basket weave panels that disguise its true identity.

The museum building is a long, sleek horizontal, unadorned save for an opaque glass rectangle, which turns out to house the clear glass elevators. The interior is very appealing. It’s airy and expansive and yet still manages to feel intimate, unlike the New MoMA, which I find cavernous and cold. There, the artwork is dwarfed and I can’t shake the feeling that when I get off the escalator, I’ll find myself in Neiman Marcus.

The VMFA atrium boasts a seating arrangement of such cool orange chairs I thought at first they were sculptures. Two monumental “dumpling” works by Jun Kaneko had just been installed with a third visible through the window opening out to the sculpture garden. Made of ceramic they have wonderful surfaces, beautiful glazes and an ancient, totemic feel. I particularly liked the one with the indigo polka dots.

The VMFA’s Modern and Contemporary collection is first rate with a stunning Jackson Pollack Number 15, 1948 small enamel on paper, Willie Cole’s Fast Track Home made by scorching the canvas with hot irons is a new one for me. There’s a luscious David Reed, #341, I’m not sure why he’s not where James Nares is in terms of reputation. Reed’s better, more inventive and complex. The beautiful little Vija Celmins galaxy painting is so still and alluring you wanted to contemplate it for hours. The Chicago Imagists are well represented with a dazzling Roger Brown and creepy Ed Paschke, both luminous and arresting. The Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (594-1) features slashes of paint that are at once so free and full of control; it’s muscular and lyrical. Contemporary photography's well represented with a terrific Thomas Struth of a church interior that's a contemporary version of a Pieter Saenredam. The collection boasts stellar work from many other masters; these are the ones that jumped out at me.

Just like I always do when I go to the VMFA, I had to visit the extraordinary art nouveau and art deco furniture and decorative arts collection. Neither of those is my style of choice, but the pieces are of such a high order, so inventive and well made I find them irresistible. If you really look at say, the Tiffany lamps, you find yourself drawn to them and discover they aren’t as gaudy and hackneyed as you thought they were. It makes you realize that the very best, does have a special appeal. Anyway, there are wonderful holdings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Greene Brothers, Ruhlman, Eileen Gray, Josef Hoffman, etc. Beautiful clocks, porcelain, chairs, desks; made with exotic woods, ivory, snakeskin and a personal favorite, shagreen. It’s a side trip into a sumptuous world.

After that I had to go see one of my favorite paintings, a small George Catlin. I love Catlin’s charming (yet unsaccharin) sketch-like paintings of Indians. This one’s a snow scene. A group of Indians is sitting around in a circle listening to another standing Indian. The snow has nearly covered the sitters, forming little white mounds with feathers peeking out the top. The title makes it. It is: A Long Speech.

These three galleries abut the atrium that was constructed in 1985 and boy does it look dated. I never liked it, it reminded me of the Trump Tower lobby with its copious amounts of red marble and brass. A showy monument to excess it’s all about pricey materials, but with zero design integrity. Thank goodness the museum’s taste has evolved and they picked an architect like Rick Mather this time around. His pure design will endure.

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