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Pointedly different

Tilted funhouse isn't so fun inside

September 30, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Denver — THE startling new addition to the Denver Art Museum, all spiky angles and tilted walls sheathed in silvery gray titanium, looks like a gigantic crystal that has plunged from the sky and slammed into a downtown street. The violent force of the impact appears to have bent a bulky, 40-foot-tall sculptural plinth by Beverly Pepper in the plaza. Nearby, beneath one severely pitched museum wall, a monumental painted metal sculpture of a dustpan and broom, "Big Sweep," by the Pop art duo of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen seems poised for the futile task of sweeping the place into history's dustbin.

The most dynamic feature of the $91-million Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opens to the public next Saturday, is the long, narrow wedge that thrusts up and across 13th Avenue, like a ship's prow. The sharp end points at the museum's original structure -- a sleek, meandering vertical tower, built in 1971.

Named for the oilman who is the museum's longtime board chairman, the Hamilton Building radiates eye-popping visual drama. The show continues inside the front door, where an explosive atrium rises through all four floors of the 146,000-square-foot structure. This soaring space is dominated by a jagged stair, which merges the traditional grand staircase in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art with the icy Fortress of Solitude in "Superman: The Movie."

There's no denying the eccentric excitement of a building that's encapsulated by "Hot DAM," the Denver Art Museum's new marketing slogan. But that changes the moment you enter the galleries.

Suddenly, the "wow!" factor morphs into the "huh?" factor. Every tilted wall, sharp point and obtuse or acute angle visible on the building's exterior is replicated in the interior rooms, where art is displayed.

Walls tip, thrust, fold and pleat, while ceilings rake and soar. Some paintings are suspended in space from walls that lean back or forward at angles approaching 45 degrees. Rooms end in narrow wedges of claustrophobic space, where sculpture feels squeezed.

Low barriers are installed in places where a distracted visitor might bump his head on an unexpected angled-wall or stair. (Museum officials are waiting to see how the public responds before deciding whether the barriers will be permanent.) Temporary walls sometimes embrace the crystalline design and sometimes straighten it out.

Either way, the building intrudes. DAM admirably took an architectural gamble, which institutions rarely do. But risks are -- well, risky. Here the result is an array of the least congenial galleries for art that I've seen in 20 years, since the opening of the gruesome Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.

Architect Daniel Libeskind was given free rein to design an envelope of his choosing. Interiors were left wide open. DAM design director Dan Kohl crafted the 50,000 square feet of display spaces for the collection and temporary exhibitions. But the task verges on impossible.

The problem is most serious in the permanent collection galleries. In the older building the museum's great holdings of Native American, Pre-Columbian and Latin American painting, sculpture and liturgical art from the Spanish Colonial period are shown to good advantage. The Libeskind addition houses DAM's more modest holdings in African and Oceanic art; painting and sculpture of the American West; and Modern and contemporary art. Some works are very significant, such as Robert Smithson's 1966 dystopian sculpture of stacked and cantilevered black cubes, "Plunge." But many have a tough time competing.

Take the big painting of vertical stripes by Gene Davis, the Washington Color School artist. The stripes disperse skinny bands of saturated color across a wide, CinemaScope visual field. Their contrapuntal rhythms are an optical equivalent to musical themes and variations.

But the top edge of the canvas is flush with a pitched wall that slopes away behind it, leaving the color stripes to hang in space like laundry on a line. Emphasizing the painting as a weighty, planar object suspended in three-dimensional space severely undercuts the magical, disembodied qualities of color and sound.

The galleries seem most conducive to commissioned works, for which an artist can address a given space. A lyrical video projection by Jennifer Steinkamp, which was undergoing final adjustments on the day I visited, is composed of fluid, satiny squares of sliding metallic color. Shown on a radically tilted wall, the work plays brilliantly with the spatial eccentricity.

The awful Ludwig Museum's 1986 floor plan is laid out like a rib cage -- two rows of dead-end galleries lined up on either side of a dead-end spine. Denver's dilemma lies not in gallery circulation, which is here easy to navigate, but in the relentlessness of a zestful exterior and overheated interior. Rather than deadened galleries, a visitor gets incessant visual noise.

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