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Look and Learn

One collection plus three buildings equals the Yale Art Gallery.

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By DANIEL GELERNTER
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New Haven 
The Yale University Art Gallery reopened last December after a 14-year renovation. I was pessimistic: Yale may be drowning in money, but a curator with a good eye is hard to find, even when a museum feels like looking. Yale has a great collection, and the current director, Jock Reynolds, has a well-earned reputation for enhancing it. But a great collection in the wrong hands can still leave you with a terrible museum, the Whitney in Manhattan being a textbook case.

Yale

chris gardner

The chief curator at Yale is Laurence Kanter, scholar of medieval and Renaissance painting. He was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss the new galleries. Given the choice, Kanter would rather look at paintings than read about them, which makes him unusual in the academic art world. He has a fine eye and regards the arrangement of artwork in a gallery space as an art in itself. As it turns out, the new Yale gallery is among the best-curated collections I’ve ever seen; the installation and selection of works is superior. An encyclopedic art museum is a tough act to pull off, and Yale may be the finest of its size in the country.

The new gallery consists of nearly 70,000 square feet in three connected buildings. Street Hall, the oldest building, is on the corner of Old Campus and first opened in 1867. In 1928, the collection moved across the street to the Swartwout building, and Street was converted into classrooms; in 1953, architect Louis Kahn appended one of his earliest solo commissions. Street Hall has now been reconverted into a gallery, and though gluing these three buildings together has not produced a unified exhibition space, what the museum lacks in flow it makes up in (mildly labyrinthine) charm. Wandering around is a pleasure.

The main entrance is through the Kahn building, which is both the most impressive and the worst space for showing paintings. Kanter points out that interesting architecture tends to compete with interesting art, but one of Kahn’s later buildings, right across the street, is a rebuttal to that: The Yale Center for British Art (1977) is better for displaying paintings in every way. The problem with Kahn’s earlier gallery is the concrete-honeycomb ceiling, which seems to press down on the open floor plan, and soaks up all the light. Still, sculpture shows to particularly good effect in the somber surroundings, which is why, says Kanter, the Asian collection “looks better than it really is.”  

The only area where the Kahn building hurts the art is the Modern European section on the third floor. Some of the museum’s best pieces are here—the plaster original of Alberto Giacometti’s 1934 L’Objet invisible (Mains tenant le vide), a small Modigliani portrait, an extraordinary Egon Schiele drawing—and they all seem uncomfortable. If the entire floor were emptied, leaving only the Giacometti sculpture, spotlit, at the very center, then you’d have something.

The Kahn building sets up some wonderful transitions to the thoroughly space-and-light-filled Swartwout galleries, though. On the ground floor, the low Kahn lobby opens to a double-height, barrel-vaulted hall containing sculpture and pottery of Ancient Greece and Rome. This is one of the museum’s best points, in quality both of collection and installation, and includes a beautiful Berlin Painter amphora. The light-drenched stone floor is usually strewn with a half-dozen maidens from art class, sketching the sculpture and looking like a painting themselves.  

Above the Greek gallery, at the geographical center of the whole complex, is Kanter’s masterpiece: the medieval and Renaissance rooms. The walls are saturated mulberry-purple, a color chosen by Kanter himself after giving it a trial run in a 2010 exhibition. The purple supercharges the orange-gold ground of 14th-century Florentine painting; these rooms glow. The atmosphere is warm and intimate, even when ruffled by the class groups that occasionally barrel through. Two small panels right next to the door, by the brothers Orcagna and Nardo di Cione, encapsulate high-medieval Tuscany as beautifully and neatly as any artwork in this hemisphere. A trimmed-down Pontormo in the next room achieves a subtler coloristic triumph.

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