Sunday, May 06, 2007

In the belly of the beast

I took advantage of some free time on Saturday to visit the new Libeskind addition to the Denver Art Museum.
It's been a pleasure stopping by from time to time, to check in on the progress of the construction of the building, as the skeletal structure of the extension stood on its own as sculpture.

The exterior of the new Hamilton wing is dynamic, and the exterior public space created by this building in relation to the Central Public Library and Gio Ponti's original museum building is extraordinary. The exterior composition of Libeskind's building and the manner it sits in its environment, represent the best element of the building, but it also signifies the greatest failing of the edifice. This is obviously a structure designed from the outside in, with the resulting pressures bearing heavily upon the shoulders of artwork and visitor contained in the spaces within.

After the assertive, powerful elements looming overhead outside, I was considerably underwhelmed by the lobby which felt unnecessarily heavy, dark and contractor grade. The high point of the effect that the pushing and pulling of the structure's skin has on the interior is the dizzying sensation of vertigo one gets as one looks down at the staircase from the third and fourth floors. It's down right Hitchcockian. It's also the singular saving grace on the interior of the building.
As the Hamilton Wing was opening last fall, The Denver Post's Kyle Macmillan wrote an article with the head line "As Art and as a home for art, it succeeds" As architecture as sculpture, I think it does work, but as a home for art, it certainly doesn't. Art doesn't own this home, it's simply renting. There are so many expansion joints, shadow lines, and compromised installation choices that the effect of the space is actively competing with the artwork. At virtually every turn, the building elbows into one's field of vision, vying for attention saying "Yeah, that Motherwell is ok, but Motherwell and Libeskind, now THAT's a combination." In a recent interview on Colorado Public Radio, DAM Director Lewis Sharp spins the performance of Libeskind's design, saying that the building is anything but neutral. True. Unfortunately this non neutrality does little more than neuter the the very work it was meant to showcase.

There's much to riff on like the odd auxiliary galleries housing some Oceanic and African artifacts located off of the main contemporary galleries which are very obviously unintentional spaces resulting from the building's structure that had to be filled. More afterthought than curatorial intention, these spaces do nothing but add to the adhoc sensation presented as one moves through the galleries.
The selection and placement of work throughout the modern/contemporary galleries is a perfunctory survey through time. Perhaps bowing to the years of bellyaching of local artists that there has been no homegrown contemporary work on exhibit, there are a couple of hometown artists displayed among other work in the collection. A boon to Phil Bender is the placement of one of his arrangement of hubcaps among the Irwin, Judd, and Lewitt pieces. Bender's piece stands out for me as one that perhaps shows an affinity of spirit with these other notable artists, but his presence here feels more like the little brother out on the baseball field only because the older kids are one shy of fielding a full team.

The Anshutz Gallery on the Second floor which is just about the only area in the building with plumb walls. The current exhibit is Radar, selections from the collection of Vicki and Kent Logan. It's reaffirming to be moving through a space with right angles. The drawback in this space for me are the free standing walls that, given the polygonal footprint of the gallery are arrayed in a series of almost parallel partitions that create shallow funnels that at the bottom of which create a log jam of art and audience.

What surprised me most about moving about the new extension was the completely subconscious sense of relief and unburdening that I felt as I traversed the second floor footbridge into the original Ponti designed North building. The first floor of the Ponti building felt like a neglected ghost town, which I imagine will change, and non too soon, for I feel that this it where the soul of the museum still rests.
I'm looking forward to seeing how the curatorial staff will rise to the considerable challenge of learning how to install work in the Libeskind space that hits. It's not impossible for this to happen, however, the potential for it happening might be limited by the political understanding of what the public was paying for when the addition was approved, because the best use of this building may well be contrary to how the building's use was originally pitched.

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