Thomas McDonald - The New York Times
The African art gallery at the Yale University
Art Gallery, including works donated by Charles B. Benenson.
At Yale, Renovation Puts Africa in Spotlight
NEW HAVEN, Jan. 3, 2007 — Fans of air, light and it-just-feels-right in
architecture will find everything to admire in the revamped and revivified
version of the Yale
University Art Gallery’s Louis Kahn building. Post-Kahnian partitions
have been pulled down, picture windows uncovered. Rangy Modernist space —
the space of the future when the building opened in 1953 — unfurls in all
like this Congo carving is featured at the Yale
University Art Gallery’s reopened Kahn building
Yombe maternity Yale University
(c) 2007 Thomas McDonald for The New York Times
And for the first time I can remember, the famous coffered ceilings really
come across as the leitmotif they were meant to be. Repeated from floor to
floor, gallery to gallery, their deep tetrahedral pattern starts out feeling
overbearing, then gradually becomes dynamic and a little hypnotic. It sinks
into your brain. I saw it in a dream the night after my visit.
But what about the reinstalled art, in galleries that have been closed for
much of the last three years? There’s fresh life of many kinds in this area,
too, and at least one tremendous innovation.
The overall sense of renewal begins with a smart group sculpture show
organized by Yale
students in a new temporary exhibition gallery off the lobby. The work chosen,
from Alexander Calder to Matthew Barney (B.A., Yale, 1989), all from the
museum’s holdings, complements Kahn’s candid materialism. But it also —
this is the smart part — offers a picture of Modernism itself as a shaky,
Upstairs, several collection favorites, like van Gogh’s “Night Café”
and Manet’s impossibly saucy “Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume”
(so fabulous), have been astutely positioned. New items have been added to
various displays: a brace of Persian miniatures, a recently acquired Pontormo,
a spiffed-up van Dyck that someone found buried in storage.
Elizabeth C. DeRose, a curatorial assistant, has assembled a fine small
show focused on a single Jasper Johns print for the occasion. The presentation
is neat and thorough, as is its small catalog. The expanded 20th-century
galleries, on the other hand, are sort of a mess. But, honestly, what can you
do? The 20th century was messy, and so was its art — all those voices and
egos! — which is why we’re nuts for it.
So you poke around and find what you like: an exquisite little Agnes
Martin, an eye-snapping Ellsworth Kelly, a phantasmal Arshile Gorky and on the
floor a green plastic “Home Sweet Home” welcome mat by the Korean-born
artist Do-Ho Suh (M.F.A., Yale, 1997), its thousands of sole-scraping bristles
made from miniature human figures.
And now we come to the innovation, and the compelling reason (Kahn apart)
for making a visit: a big new permanent gallery devoted to the arts of Africa,
with an inaugural display of a size and quality to put Yale at the head of the
class, among university art museums, in this field.
Most of the art arrived only recently. It’s from a collection of nearly
600 African objects given to the museum by Charles B. Benenson (1913-2004), a
New York real estate developer and Yale alumnus. And in addition to leaving
Yale one of the largest gifts of art in its history, Mr. Benenson endowed a
curatorial position in African art at the museum. Frederick John Lamp,
formerly of the Baltimore
Museum of Art, has the job, and he designed the inaugural installation.
Africa is immense and immensely, complexly diverse. Try to define its art
strictly by region or culture and you’re in trouble. Existing national
boundaries are largely colonial inventions. A; he produced a terrific
multidisciplinary book, “See the Music, Hear the Dance” (Prestel), in
Baltimore. Rather than narrow categories, he expands them.
As if in direct contrast to the compartmentalized European installation, he
has left the African space undivided and open. Although some objects have been
bunched into thematic units, most fall under two loose conceptual categories,
based on the idea of art as psychologically and spiritually “cool” or
“hot,” a distinction explored by many art historians, among them Robert
Farris Thompson, with whom Mr. Lamp studied at Yale.
Coolness, connoting serenity and benevolence, streams from the
powdery-white female figure in a Yoruba shrine sculpture at the gallery
entrance. And it is the essence of a grand Baga dance mask representing an
ideal of maternal probity. Exceptional in size and beauty, it is one of the
noblest images at Yale, and anywhere else, for that matter.
Arrayed on a diamond-shaped platform across from it is a kind of flying
wedge of smaller “hot” figures, several from Cameroon and Nigeria.
Grimacing, twisting, generally making a spectacle of themselves, they project
volatile, forceful, even violent dispositions. In the right hands, their
energy can be channeled in a positive, coactive direction, and Mr. Benenson
seems to have been particularly partial to them, judging by the number here.
He was also that rare thing, a connoisseur of the uncanonical hybrid in
art, as demonstrated by the presence of a headdress mask of a water spirit
from Sierra Leone. With its brashly painted face and serpentine body made of
imported leopard-skin-pattern fabric, the piece is a hot-cool medley, sweetly
fanciful but also fierce in the fashion sense.
Pieces like this stand well outside “classical” African art as defined
by Western taste, and I’m told there is more, and even wilder, stuff in the
Benenson gift. If so, I can’t wait to see it. (Maybe some of it will show up
in a show of new acquisitions scheduled for September.) In fact, my single
reservation about the new gallery is that it is a mite tame, adhering too
closely to well-mapped ground.
Over the last few decades, scholars, and specifically scholars of African
art, have been redrawing that map. They’ve scrambled, revamped and
revivified all sorts of old-time either/ors: art vs. artifact, Western vs.
non-Western, functional vs. spiritual. They’ve shown that sound, movement
and touch, the very elements we police our museums against, are essential to
African art’s meaning. They are the art, because
they complete it.
Much of the redrawing has been through experimental exhibitions, notably
those at the Museum for African Art in New
York, of which Mr. Benenson was a
founding trustee. (The same institution’s founding director, Susan M. Vogel,
was director of the Yale University Art Gallery in the 1990s.)
Of course, the present Yale installation is just a start. Mr. Lamp already
has interesting plans in the works. They will lead him, no doubt, to tell the
African art story differently in years to come. And his successors, perhaps
one of his own students among them, may tell that history yet another way.
I love art for its pleasures, but I believe it is ultimately about teaching
and self-education. University art museums are where self-education for many
teachers-to-be begins. This is what makes them such important institutions.
They are safe houses for success and failure alike. (I hope the new African
gallery risks both in a big way.) And they are workshops where intellectual
space and ethical light should be abundant, which is why the reopened Kahn
building feels so right.