The Shock of the Familiar
The new De Young Museum brings it together.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
We will get to watch, in coming years, as the dimpled and perforated copper skin of the new De Young Museum turns mottled green and brown—already it is starting to develop a visible patina. And already, six weeks after its grand re-opening, the new De Young is becoming part of the city.
Last Saturday, as throngs mobbed the stores off Union Square, other throngs gathered at the De Young. It was a bigger and more diverse crowd than one ordinarily sees at an art museum—similar in makeup to the crowd on opening day.
No doubt most of the locals and tourists there on opening day were not there just to look at art; they were there to participate in the biggest cultural event in the city this year, which is also the biggest art event around here in the decade since SFMOMA’s opening.
It’s a safe bet that many will return. It seems clear already that the De Young succeeds in its mission, pursued amid much controversy, to break down the walls between regular people and the pleasures of visual art.
This success begins with the space that the De Young creates for looking at art—the building itself. While some critics deride the new museum’s radical design—executed by the Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Neuron—the people seem to love it.
Sitting next to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, it is a big thing to behold, a huge vertical edifice clad in a wall of copper, patterned symmetrically with three-inch circular bumps, indentations and holes, and topped asymmetrically by a six-story, cockeyed tower at its northern end. Its sheer mass makes it one of the city’s most important buildings; its ambitious design amplifies its impact.
As it happens, the building’s impact can be felt even more deeply inside, although here it is more subtle.
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The De Young’s entrance is nothing spectacular—there is a walkway leading into a cut-stone courtyard. The walkway and courtyard are, in fact, artwork, made by the brilliant nature-artist Andy Goldsworthy (subject of the unlikely hit 2003 documentary Rivers and Tides), and is similarly unspectacular: It is a narrow crack which runs underfoot, beginning on the path in front of the museum, and moving through massive stone slabs that nicely serve as seats, and then through the cut stone pavers again up to the museum’s front doorway, of course evoking the earthquake that ultimately brought this remodeled museum into existence.
Once inside the De Young, a visitor must decide. There is no obviously correct way to go. The sprawling building contains no clear hierarchy—to the right of the ticket counter are some smaller galleries and the tower; to the left is a huge, open lobby.
The lobby is dominated by an enormous mural by Gerhard Richter: a blurry, black-and-white grid of circles that here resonates with the patterned circles that wrap the building. (It is in fact a rendering of the atomic structure of the man-made substance strontium titanate, which is used to make artificial diamonds.) The piece, commissioned by the De Young, commands immediate attention, but it pulsates in a way that is ultimately dizzying. This problem is certainly intentional.
To the left of the Richter are four paintings by American pop artist Wayne Thiebaud that offer comforting contrast—all are happy-colorful fantasy landscapes. Upon closer viewing, they turn out to be dizzying in their own right—as streets travel directly up, and shadows fall impossibly. Their inclusion in the lobby near the brilliantly disorienting Richter is also, probably, no accident.
A door in between the four Thiebauds leads into a smallish “family room” that brings one directly back down to earth. It is empty except for a long table that stands before a wall of windows; the walls on the right and left are made up of two five-panel murals, “The Land” and “The Sea” by the San Francisco painter Gottardo Piazzoni, which adorned the walls of the city’s main library from 1931 until 1999 (when the building was converted into the new Asian Museum).
Piazzoni’s murals of golden hills and cypress-framed waves, which evoke a nostalgia for the gently glowing California of an earlier era, represent a small piece of the De Young’s large and idiosyncratic collection of early California painting. Their placement within eyeshot of the Richter, with the wacky Thiebauds standing like guards outside the door, set up a juxtaposition that is evident almost everywhere in the new museum.
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The De Young is a museum curated with muscularity and vision. Its permanent collections are separated into categories—California and American paintings, decorative arts, African art, Oceanic art, etc.—but within those categories the museum surprises. The chief curator, for example, has revealed that in every room, there is one work that is “out of context,” a refreshingly offbeat idea.
Even without this simple trick, the De Young places artworks in combinations that allow the viewer’s brain to work. Occasionally it’s an obvious pairing: Albert G. Marshall’s Untitled (Moon Reflecting Over Water) alongside Arthur Clarence Pillsbury’s Sunset on the Golden Gate, which together comprise a short meditation on color and composition (and once again inspire a delight in place). Or The Last Moments of John Brown, painted by Thomas Hovenden in 1884, which sits in a corner with The Trial of John Brown, painted by Horace Pippin in 1942; which show an evolution in style, and perhaps divergent political perspectives on the rebellious/murderous slave.
And this bizarre Whistler, The Gold Scab Erupts in Filthy Lucre (The Creditor)—this half-man, half-lizard—what, in God’s name, is it doing here? Oh…that’s right: juxtaposition.
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At one point in my first visit to the new De Young, I came upon what was for me an inspiring moment: the discovery of The Blue Bay, by Clark Hobart. The painting is not all that remarkable—it’s a lovely impressionistic seascape, with some buildings in the foreground—but I felt a familiarity instantly, and then began to recognize the sweep of line that is the Monterey Bay, looking north toward Santa Cruz, and then realized that it was painted from a perspective that only exists in one place, a spot mere blocks from the house where I live. Later, looking again at a Chiurra Obata that hung a few years ago in the Steinbeck Center, I felt a similar twinge.
In a presentation of a film about the new museum, the filmmaker Lisa Swensen stated her opinion that it is the job of a museum—perhaps of all art—to help people know “what it means to be part of a culture.” At the De Young, this appears to involve the friction of the old and the new rubbing up against each other, along with the disconcerting and the familiar. One minute we are utterly disoriented and the next we are looking at something that feels like an old friend. Whatever that means, there’s no way that the thousands of regular people witnessing it all for the first time, in this new way, could possibly miss it.