Gehry’s renovation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is elegant but befitting the old building

Gehry’s renovation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is elegant but befitting the old building

Philadelphia – This is a city of eccentric art spaces. Its longtime art institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sits atop a hill, but it has always been more impressive on the outside than on the inside, with depressing private exhibition spaces and strange circulation in the main galleries. The Barnes Foundation possesses one of the finest treasures of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world, but is forever forced by the dead hand of its founder, Albert Barnes, to keep that art crammed into rooms that quickly induce spiritual claustrophobia.

But both institutions continue to operate, and are doing well despite the architectural and organizational challenges they face. In May, the Philadelphia Museum unveiled a major renovation by Frank Gehry, which reconfigures about 90,000 square feet of the building and adds gallery space, amenities and lower-level corridors that make the building feel open and inviting for the first time. In March, the Barnes opened an exhibition bringing together the works of Chaim Soutine and Willem de Kooning, with inspiring results – proof that compelling statements can be made even on a relatively small scale.

The changes at the Philadelphia Museum are amazing. The original building is a massive U-shaped classical temple of art, and is unusually old-fashioned in its use of height as an architectural metaphor for the experience of art. From the outside, it is accessed by a giant staircase leading onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and once inside, visitors must climb another impressive set of stairs to reach the main European and Asian collections. These wings, filled with period rooms filled with priceless historical furniture, sometimes give the art gallery the unfortunate impression of being a giant emporium, an art warehouse combined with a luxury goods warehouse.

Gehry’s renovations don’t touch any of that, but rather open up new spaces underneath old ones. It created opportunities for circulation at ground level below the upper floor, with two giant corridors connected to a large central hall, reached by elegant stairs connecting to the existing western entrance lobby. The space that had been used for offices, a café and a bookstore has been converted into galleries, including a gallery hosting an impressive installation of the museum’s large American collectibles, and another showcasing an engaging show dedicated to local artists, “New Grit: Art and Philly Now.”

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Jerry’s touch is light but impressive. The famous architect used the same yellow limestone from the quarries that supplied the materials for the original 1928 building, and although his additions are distinctively elegant, they do not conflict with the original vocabulary. The vaulted arcades that run north and south under the main axis of the building retain their aura of history – built on a grand scale in a way reminiscent of ancient architecture – but are elegantly lit in a way that feels thoroughly contemporary.

Visitors exploring the restored building should visit the old special galleries. These are not always inspiring spaces, and often feel closed, underground, and discouraging. But for now, they’re energized by “Singa Nengudi: Topologies,” an exhilarating show that explores the career of Nengudi, an African-American artist who is considered one of the most original and unclassifiable figures of the past half-century.

Nengudi came of age with the Black Arts Movement, but forged her own path, drawing on her experience as a trained dancer with an exceptional intuitive understanding of basic materials, such as pantyhose, sand, liquids, plastics and found objects. Her works are characterized by an eerie tension, full of taut strings, which often seem to stretch and reach, or dangle and dangle, in ways that are both eerie and strongly reminiscent of the human form. Along with featured works that use pantyhose to create biomorphic forms, the exhibition includes the first showing of Ningudi’s immersive installation “Black and Red Ensemble” since it was unveiled in 1971 as her master’s project at California State University.

At the Barnes Museum, there are also tendons on display, including the animal entrails of Soutine’s painting of a skinned rabbit in the permanent collection, as well as a disposable chicken and two photographs of its corpses in her exhibition “Soutine/De Kooning: Conversations in Paint.” The two artists were born just over a decade apart – Soutine in 1893 and de Kooning in 1904 – but Soutine died at the age of 53, while de Kooning lived into his 90s. One reflexively thinks that they belong to different centuries, with Soutine following a figurative expressionism that traces its roots to the nineteenth century, while de Kooning is central to the Abstract Expressionism of the middle of the last century.

But in 1977, when de Kooning was asked which artists had influenced him, he cited Soutine, and this exhibition underscores just how important that influence was. The two artists are linked by their similar use of paint, and by an affinity in colour, form, mood and architecture. These similarities are particularly striking in its treatment of the human figure, where de Kooning’s works not only borrow from Soutine’s poses and distortions but also embrace his same sense of metaphysical space. De Kooning’s figures relate to the background, the margins of the picture, and their bodies just as Soutine’s precedents do. It’s not plagiarism at all, but the similarities are profound.

However, there is one difference that becomes more apparent the deeper one looks into the relationship. In Soutine, the expressive disorder is internal, disturbing and distorting images in a way that seems torturous but is present within the image. In de Kooning, violence begins on the surface of the picture and seems directed outward, as if the artist were fighting his own work, cutting and distorting it in a kind of frenetic rejection of its representational power.

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When Barnes University moved from its old campus in Merion, Pennsylvania, to its downtown location, it added a special exhibition space to its gallery. It’s a medium-sized place, and the museum sometimes struggles to find exhibits that feel comfortable in it. “Soutine/de Kooning,” curated by Simonetta Fracelli and Claire Bernardi, is just the right show, with some 45 works that make their points succinctly and clearly. In September, the exhibition will move to the Musée d’Orangerie in Paris, another museum that struggles to hold large exhibitions in limited space.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on museum schedules, closing some exhibitions entirely and confining audiences to others, including important shows like those dedicated to Ningodi, Soutine, and de Kooning. Fortunately, the architectural changes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are here to stay. But art lovers should be sure to visit those galleries before they close later this summer.

Senja Ningudi: Topologies Through July 25 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Soutine/De Kooning: Conversations on Painting Through August 8 at the Barnes Foundation.

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