September 4, 2008

The Art in the Vault

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So Dane Cook tells me that “Any guy here, more than sex — if they had the choice between sex and this one other thing — any guy here would rather be part of a heist.” To be honest, I would too: there’s something that’s oh-so-thrilling about the vault. It’s that moment of awe when the composite-steel doors swing open and the titanium bolts unlock. You know: it’s the sexiness of precision machines. At this moment, even veteran thieves (imagine: George Clooney as Danny Ocean) stand for a second in silence in front of their prize.
What the Ocean’s Eleven silver fox doesn’t know is that he’s in for competition. The Richard J. Schwartz Director of the Johnson Museum of Art, Frank Robinson, has unlocked the vault for Cornell’s masses. Behind the scenes of the Johnson is a collection of over 32,000 works, only a fraction of which are ever seen on public display. Pei Cobb Freidd Architects breaks ground in October for a new wing on the University Ave. side of the museum, in the same style and material as the original wing, to accommodate more gallery space.
Here’s what I’ve learned: our museum is as full of mystery as Dan Brown assured me museums would be. Behind the scenes is a strange world: large, wooden crates marked only as “peacock,” rooms with twenty-foot steel painting racks entitled “Mystery Pieces?” and on a lonely shelf, a swirling sculpture possibly made from pure gold.
Robinson will show you the upstairs room where the Johnson Museum’s 20,000 prints, photos and drawings are stored. In this room are the Rembrandts — a Cornell treasure worthy bragging about to that hot art history major at a cocktail party (Noted: Dutch impressionists are fantastically more impressive than gorges, in any season). Robinson reveals a print of The Flight Into Egypt, 1653. He has a special place in his heart for Dutch art — he spent his academic career at Harvard and the Netherlands pursuing these old masters. Robinson challenges me to find the secret of this etching. A miraculous two inches away, I see it: a dark tree obscuring the drawing of an angel. It’s a Rembrandt van Rijn mystery, a plate the artist acquired from an esteemed colleague and etched over.
Robinson shows me a series of other Rembrandts, each with its own secret — figures disappearing between prints, or a slip stroke designating a fake. I won’t give it away here; it’s all very Da Vinci Code. Robinson also informs me that the Johnson’s collection will soon be available to view online via a high quality digital photo program. For good measure, he takes us to check out the museum’s rather expensive digital camera — a monster of a machine more suited to Mission Impossible.
Further behind the scenes are the archives of the Asian Art collection, in a lab-like room behind two sets of locked doors (and an able Swedish security guard firm). The prolific collection, I learn, is the work of one man: Martie Young, a former professor and curator of Asian art from 1959 to 1998. “We now have 7,000 works of Asian Art,” Robinson tells me, “before Martie, we had seven.” It is primarily this collection that will be housed in I.M. Pei’s light-filled extension, which has designateed rooms for Chinese, Japanese and Korean art. Robinson introduces us to Edo period porcelain touched with cobalt: he insists I hold it to feel the lightness, placing ancient treasures into my eager (and probably unreliable) hands.
On a shelf nearby, I notice a box of prints marked “Hokusai.” There is no way, I think, that I am standing next to the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, or that infamous breaking wave that advertises all middle-tier Japanese restaurants. Famous works should be surrounded by flashing lights, huge glass cases and a royal trumpeter à la Mona Lisa. I stand corrected: Robinson informs me that this year the Johnson will exhibit Japanese “surimono” in November — prints even rarer than those prized Views of Mount Fuji because they were commissioned individually. And yes, those labels do refer to the legendary artists. We move along.
We finish our tour in the annals of the museum: the basement. As an underclassman during my (disrespectfully) few visits to the Johnson I always left wondering — where are the Warhols, the Lichensteins, the $3 million dollar endowment? This is the Vegas jackpot. Even though the basement seems to be in a state of disarray, as many works are en route to storage in anticipation of October’s construction, it’s still a wonderfully intimidating place. Robinson tells me, with the wonder of someone who decided at age 13 to spend his life in art, “I believe in quality but also quantity. Having a lot is good.”
Walking through two-story steel painting racks, I spot the corner of a blue and black fiery canvas. Robinson slides a painting over two times my height onto the floor. He introduces me to The Last Building on Park Avenue that has an Inner Court that’s Soon to be Demolished, by Michael Goldberg. Goldberg was an abstract expressionist from the New York School who passed away at 83. During his life, he painted under Hans Hoffman in a studio he inherited from Mark Rothko. This painting in front of me, though, yells in a way that Rothko’s are quiet … standing a foot from it in the Johnson’s basement, the experience is visceral.
During our tour of the museum, I ask Robinson about the lure of the heist: had the open door policy of the Johnson ever resulted in theft? “Not here, no,” he tells me. But he tells me that at another museum, once a student who worked part-time as a security guard had a mental breakdown and stole several works of art. Standing in the basement, surrounded by rare and beautiful canvases, the temptation is easy to understand.
This is where our Danny Ocean comes in: you can take a free tour of the inner sanctum of the Bellagio, without threat of prison. Lucky for our greedy little fingers — and, just to be clear, I am only encouraging awestruck looking — the Johnson has its vault doors open wide.

If you’re interested in your own personal, private tour of the Johnson Museum, whether for academic purposes, personal enjoyment or plain old bragging rights, contact Cathy Klimaszewski (phone: 254-4627; email: [email protected]) or Mariel Gonzalez (phone: 254-4657; email: [email protected]). For information on current and upcoming events and exhibits, visit