The Saint Louis Art Museum opens its new David Chipperfield-designed wing next month. The addition provides the museum with 30 percent more gallery space than it has now, 21 new galleries in all, including new galleries for special exhibitions. (The museum’s former special exhibitions space has been converted into European painting, sculpture and works on paper galleries.)
With the exception of one antiquities gallery that serves as one of the bridges from SLAM’s 1904 Cass Gilbert masterpiece into the Chipperfield, all of the new art spaces have been installed with modern and contemporary art. Construction of the new wing cost $130 million. As part of the campaign for the building, the museum raised $32 million for its endowment, raising its endowment total to $127 million. (The museum’s most significant source of funding is Saint Louis city and county taxpayers, who fund the museum through a regional property tax.)
So how is it? I previewed the building and the installations last week. Some thoughts (with one nota bene: over the years I’ve noticed that links to SLAM’s collection are notably fugitive, so here’s hoping…):
1.) Viewed from almost anywhere in Forest Park, the grand city park in which the museum is sited, the building is decidedly unobtrusive and low-profile. Heck, from many popular parts of the park, such as the Grand Basin or along Lagoon Drive, it’s invisible. The building is almost as unnoticeable when you’re standing right in front of it. That’s the right design decision: The front and rear exterior facades of Gilbert’s original building (below left) are among his best work, and among the most awesome museum facades in America. Nothing Chipperfield could have done could have successfully competed with them. So he didn’t. (Forest Park factoid: It’s 50 percent bigger than New York’s Central Park.)
2.) Visitors may enter the museum the traditional way, through the Gilbert, or in two new ways: Through a just-built parking garage under the Chipperfield addition or through the front door of the Chipperfield. The museum expects the three entrances to receive roughly equal use. Visitors entering the Chipperfield will see a modest, low-slung desk which will provide information and ticketing for special exhibitions. The museum’s opening exhibition is of German contemporary art from the museum’s outstanding collection (SLAM is second only to MoMA in the U.S. in collecting German contemporary). SLAM is a free museum, by opening with an exhibition from its own collection, even the special exhibition galleries will be free. Upon entering the Chipperfield visitors will immediately see art: If they come up a set of stairs from the parking garage, they’ll be greeted by this Georg Baselitz. Visitors entering from the park will be greeted by an El Anatsui on the right and a David Smith and a Richard Diebenkorn on the left.
3.) What visitors will not see is a football-field-sized party-rentals space anywhere in the Chipperfield. SLAM has bucked — and hopefully begun the end of — the trend of museums expanding in part to build massive voids that they may lease out for events. (Spaces for this purpose at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond damaged those expansions by cleaving the new galleries from the long-time galleries, that is, from the whole of the museum. Cleveland has done it too, but I haven’t seen that one yet.) St. Louis deserves significant credit for prioritizing the experience of art over party-rentals.
4.) The museum’s new galleries are exceptional and vary widely in size. There is no obvious route through them. The architectural detailing is impressive (I’m not sure I found a single spot where the floating walls in the gallery ever touched the ground) and the light is terrific. Forest Park is visible from many places in the galleries, peek-a-boos that recall the way Yoshio Taniguchi let New York into his building for the Museum of Modern Art. The light in the collection galleries is filtered through square concrete vaults, which soften it and which seem to spread it evenly throughout spaces. Sound-dampening material, embedded in the gallery walls, leaves the spaces unusually (and blissfully) quiet.
5.) The high quality of Saint Louis’ collection of modern art is well-known, but because of a lack of significant space for contemporary art, those holdings are less well-known. The new wing will change that. The museum has stuffed all 21 galleries with contemporary art (a couple of galleries feature pre-Vietnam art from Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and the like). [Image: Jackson Pollock, Number 3, 1950, 1950.]
6.) Starting with the first painting in the contemporary collection galleries, this terrific 2006 Julie Mehretu (below), the initial installation is chock full of great art. Listing particularly strong works would require a near-recitation of the entire hang, but my favorite moments included seeing this substantial Richard Long in natural light, arguably the first great large Frank Stella, a wonderful sight-line from a wonderful Sam Francis to this 1994 Christopher Wool, a two-Philip Guston wall that provides a rare opportunity to compare a black-and-white abstraction to a colorful one, And I loved seeing this Jane Fonda painting by the underrated Mel Ramos.
7.) And the Germans! As I noted above, SLAM is opening the Chipperfield with its seven special exhibition galleries hung with highlights from its collection of contemporary German art, from Polke to Beuys to Bechers to von Heyl. The installation includes what might be the two best Richters in America, Betty and the 1989 November, December, January triptych, which may be Richter’s most significant squeegee paintings. (Chicago might have a case to make.) The museum has particularly strong examples of Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer and Lüpertz. [Image: Julie Mehretu, Grey Space (distractor), 2006.]
8.) As in any initial installation, there are a few missteps: Numerous artworks that should be placed on the gallery floor, such as a Larry Bell and this Anne Truitt, are sited on platforms. Seeing a sassy Duane Hanson removed from the gallery floor is to not see a Duane Hanson at all. The museum’s intent is obviously to protect the artworks, but the result neuters the art and defies the artists’ intents. For example, at six feet tall, the Truitt is scaled to the human body. Putting it on a plinth destroys that relationship, and with it much of the power of the work. In another gallery, curators effectively bisected this 1969 Donald Judd by installing it on top of a long floor vent.
9.) One artwork should generate headlines and buzz: SLAM has installed Richard Serra’s fragile masterpiece 1968 untitled cast rubber sculpture. It is an enormously powerful piece, a mixture of power and delicacy in orange. (It is one of the many, many great Serras in St. Louis, America’s best city for Serra.) The rest of the artworks in the gallery — including strong work by Lynda Benglis and Bruce Nauman — are rendered invisible by its gravity. I believe that the piece has only been installed one other time since the early 1970s, in 2003.
9a.) Interesting: A wall-sized Leonardo Drew, installed in the gallery next to the Serra and visible from a sightline that includes the Serra, stands up to it pretty well. [Image: Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988.]
10.) Part of the success of curators Simon Kelly and Tricia Paik’s initial installation is that it suggests that SLAM under-built. On opening day, the Chipperfield will be stuffed to bursting with SLAM’s collection, and in a few months one-third of these galleries will be given over to special exhibitions. With the exception of a couple of weak Kenneth Nolands (they droop in the presence of marvelous the Ellsworth Kelly, Stella, Morris Louis and Judd with which they share a gallery) and an inert Helen Frankenthaler, there’s no filler here. In a few months, about one-third of this art will move into storage. (And, of course, the museum continues to collect.)
I don’t know if SLAM suffered from a failure of imagination, timidity or from something else. Certainly credit the museum for building within its means and for raising what seems to be enough new endowment (and adding a new revenue generator: the garage) to cover increased operating costs.
But still: While what’s here is very good, it seems a step rather than a culmination. The museum’s fundraising goal was a relatively modest $145 million. It raised $160 million. (Kansas City, a metropolitan area smaller and significantly less wealthy than Saint Louis, raised $370 million in its last capital campaign.) Ironically, the initial installation of the Chipperfield is of such high quality that it argues SLAM should have been significantly more ambitious. Hopefully the new building and the great art within it will motivate the museum in that direction.