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A new temple of art serves several faiths

October 12, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — IN the ongoing effort to rethink what an art museum is -- and what it can be -- the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park offered unparalleled opportunities. Founded more than a century ago, and housed since then in a variety of unusual buildings that were haphazardly added and weren't always suitable for their purposes, the De Young has long been a bit of a mystery. Specialists in 18th and 19th century American painting, Anatolian kilim rugs or painted Maya ceramics from Mesoamerica might hold the place in high esteem, but they likely didn't stray much beyond their particular field.

And casual visitors, confronted with that art-jumble, could hardly get a grip.

All that changes on Saturday. An eagerly anticipated new building, clad in a remarkable stamped and perforated copper skin that is expected to slowly develop a green patina as years pass, opens to the public for a weekend-long celebration.

Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron were blessed with a clean slate. The new De Young was built from scratch on the site of its former ad hoc home, destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Sixteen years later, and for the first time, the museum's collections have ample space and a welcome coherence.

The collections are a revelation. Since the 1960s, the De Young has developed considerable strengths in three areas: pre-Columbian objects, especially from the regions of modern-day Mexico and Central America; textiles, which seemingly represent every corner of the globe and every use to which a weaver's loom has been put; and 18th, 19th and early 20th century American painting, sculpture and decorative arts.

Now a fourth area of depth has been added, Oceanic art, and for once the news release is right: It's extraordinary.

The inaugural display features about 350 examples of Oceanic art, much of it from New Guinea. Partly a gift and partly a purchase, the selection is from an assembly of more than 3,000 objects acquired by New Yorkers Marcia and John Friede. The De Young has always had Oceanic objects in its Victorian-attic-style collection, but now it surely ranks among the finest such holdings in a public museum.

There are other types of art too, including exceptional African works, a rather mixed bag of contemporary crafts and more. Given the distinctive diversity, director Harry S. Parker III, his curatorial staff and the architects faced the challenge of bringing them together in harmony under a single roof. They approached the task in a couple of interesting ways.

The first is in the deployment of the collections. The second concerns the building.

Provocative artistic connections are made through clever installations, some of them startlingly successful. The Oceanic galleries, for example, are adjacent to the American art galleries. Between them curators have installed a large Colonial American wallpaper mural showing a lush, fantastic scene of Capt. James Cook exploring a richly romanticized Pacific island. His heroic image looks out from the edge of the American galleries toward the magnificent ceremonial figureheads, ritual objects and decorated tools of Oceania in galleries across the way.

In a room with several fine fool-the-eye still lifes by 19th century masters William Harnett and John Frederick Peto, a 1960s painted-lead relief of a slice of bread by Jasper Johns neatly bridges centuries, styles and American traditions. In the early '60s, a friend gave Johns a reproduction of Peto's painting of a humble pewter drinking vessel, "The Cup We All Race 4." At the De Young, Johns' bread relief hangs near the actual painting.

Thoughtful juxtapositions like these speak more eloquently than endless texts printed on museum walls. The De Young has apparently learned from the unfortunate wave of theme-driven permanent collection installations of the last decade, which too often were used to hide gaps in a collection's chronology or to show off pyrotechnic curatorial theories. Used sparingly, the insertion of a contemporary work into a historic gallery or the juxtaposition across time and space of wholly different yet pointedly resonant objects can be meaningful.

The De Young has also made a healthy commitment to new art, commissioning work from a number of prominent artists and updating its collection with recent work. Among the finest is a brilliant sculptural tableau by Josiah McElheny. Vessels in blown mercury glass set on a low, mirrored table subsume Brancusi, Arp, Noguchi and much of classic Modern sculpture into a reflection of the cheap alternative to the silverware that once furnished the houses of the rich.

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