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.
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.
The European collection moves from these strengths to a striking weakness in the 17th-century display, which is anchored by a van Dyck with nauseating angels and Rubens’s Hero and Leander (familiarly Puffy Women Drowning, 1605). A pair of large portraits by Hals (first among Holland’s second-string portraitists) provide enhanced dourness. Most museums wouldn’t be able to rectify such a deficiency with any amount of money, but the Yale collection is so deep that you never know what misattributed masterpiece might turn up. In 2010, for example, they found an extraordinary early Velázquez. More recently, a Titian was reclaimed. Both are now in restoration.
Throughout the 18th- and towards the 19th-century galleries, the walls switch from purple to burgundy. The collection here remains uneven but has some surprising successes, such as Alexandre Cabanel’s striking 1881 portrait of the unfortunately named Miss Fanny Clapp. The later 19th century is much stronger, but the attempt to highlight the star attraction—van Gogh’s The Night Café (1888)—has backfired. The painting is centered opposite a doorway from one room to the next, nicely bracketed for the viewer. At the viewer’s back, however, blue daylight streams through unscreened windows and washes out the painting. A less prominent space would show this darkly shimmering masterpiece to better effect.
On the floor above, the transition from European-dominated prewar art to postwar American is beautifully done: You burst out of the closed-in Kahn gallery to an expansive new space in the Swartwout building. Arshile Gorky is to the left, Jackson Pollock dead ahead. In the right corner, an explosive 1970s Willem de Kooning and a 1950s Hans Hoffman are bounded by a black-and-white de Kooning lithograph and a Franz Kline with a rare touch of deep, saturated green.
Further off to the left, an Alexander Calder mobile dangles cheerfully above the best painting in the museum, Stuart Davis’s Combination Concrete #2 (1956-58). This space has the nonchalant exuberance of an E. B. White essay, or a snowball fight with your girlfriend, and is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. The only disappointment is a pair of Mark Rothkos which should not have been separated from the third Rothko in the Yale collection. These man-sized canvases need a low ceiling and low light (Rothko specified 40-watt bulbs). They should appear monumental and numinous. In this big, bright space, they don’t.
At this point, we still haven’t set foot in the third building. Street Hall is now a self-contained museum of American art before 1900. Paintings are on the upper floor; furniture, silver, glassware, and two charming period rooms are on the lower. Here, unfortunately, the object checklist rears its lazy head and makes it hard to follow the extraordinary story of the American aesthetic. Yale’s collection is first-rate and the installation is splendid. But objects are numbered, and the corresponding descriptions are bundled together on beat-up sheets of cardboard, thus turning the museumgoer into a librarian. And if the checklist has gone missing, you won’t learn anything from a display case except how many objects are contained therein.
The heart of the upstairs painting collection is John Trumbull’s famous Revolutionary War series, which was acquired directly from the artist in 1831 and made Yale the first American university to have an art gallery. Also well represented are Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer; five Homer watercolors tucked away in their own little room are the best pieces here. John Singer Sargent gave most of his work to the Metropolitan Museum, but he did have time to dash off an unusual and beautiful little still life for Yale. Two large Shakespearean scenes by Edwin Austin Abbey are bizarre, but fascinating. Abbey’s wide-eyed heroines seem to be enthralled by a bright, twirling object just offstage, and would obviously believe anything you told them.
Back in Swartwout, a gallery of 20th-century American representational art includes four Edward Hoppers, which is as strong a collection as you’ll find outside the Whitney. Yale has Rooms for Tourists (1945), one of Hopper’s greatest achievements, and the overrated Rooms by the Sea (1951), beloved of the symbology crowd.
In the battle of the curators, Yale has an inherent advantage: The Metropolitan Museum may technically be free, but it is run as a commercial operation. Laurence Kanter curated the Met’s Robert Lehman Collection for 20 years, and there, he says, success was measured in units of 25,000 visitors. The Yale galleries are genuinely free and in a university town off the beaten track; this has produced a different kind of museum. The curator still faces certain political pressures, which show through at the edges, but the museum overall is a landmark achievement.
Kanter recognizes that only a small number of visitors, whether at the Met or at Yale, will engage the art deeply enough to be influenced by it. At Yale, he has tried to create the best space for deeper engagement, and he has succeeded.
Daniel Gelernter is an artist and CEO of a tech startup.