July 10, 2013

Still Point of a Turning World: The Johnson Museum Turns 40

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“Architecture has nothing to do with the various ‘styles’,” Le Corbusier famously argued, and everything to do with “the masterly, correct and magnificent display of masses brought together in light.” His vision was adroitly realized by I.M. Pei, the architect behind Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art. Pei’s design is alluringly articulated in “JAMuse,” a photographic essay by architect and photographer Alan Chimacoff ’63. The exhibition, now on view at the Johnson’s Gold Gallery, is one of two shows the museum commissioned to mark its 40th anniversary.  “Post More Bills,” a selection of exhibition posters on display at the Johnson’s Opatrny Gallery, offers a succinct but fascinating survey of the range of shows presented at the Johnson and its predecessor, the Andrew Dickson White Museum.

In 1964, prompted by the White Museum’s lack of gallery space and fire protection, the University announced plans for a new art museum. Chiefly funded by a $4.8 million donation from wax magnate and trustee emeritus Herbert Fisk Johnson ’22, the art museum’s presence was “to be felt more on campus than ever before,” the Johnson’s founding director Thomas Leavitt said shortly before the 60,000 square feet, nine story building opened in 1973. Prof. Kenneth Evett, art, was not alone in praising the project for rehabilitating Cornell’s “philistine” image. The Johnson has since grown bigger and bolder, while remaining open to all free of charge, welcoming over 80,000 visitors annually. The museum’s much-needed new wing, designed by John Sullivan III ’62, a member of the original building’s design team, opened in 2011.

“JAMuse” elucidates how “the structure is a work of art … a sculpture in and of itself,” said Nancy Green, the exhibition’s curator and the Johnson’s Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints and Drawings 1800 to 1945.  Lushly shot in black and white, Chimacoff’s photographs eloquently evoke the communion between interior and exterior. We see how, rising far above Cayuga Lake and Libe Slope, the Johnson Museum exults in the play of light and shade. Long bands of windows punctuate the building’s surfaces, accentuating the flow of lines and allowing light to circulate within the museum’s galleries. The fifth floor cantilevers over the second floor Mallin Sculpture Court, carving a voluminous void in the concrete; the museum becomes a window, framing sweeping views of the luminous streets that lie below. The museum’s new wing is depicted on more abstract terms; the photographs are fragments of lines and light.

The museum has a very strong presence, much of which can be attributed to its materiality. Unadorned concrete characterizes the building, inside and out. This is a trait Chimacoff highlights relentlessly. Close up shots of the museum’s cratered exterior are juxtaposed against gallery walls composed of wizened concrete. What results is a startling continuity of experience.

“JAMuse” is a witty investigation of scale. Chimacoff’s “tapestries,” each a tiled assemblage of a single photograph, underscore the building’s cubist heritage. The tessellations resemble carpets from afar, but on closer inspection reveal moments of a visitor’s experience of the museum — a painting glimpsed through interlocking walls or a sliver of a spiral staircase.

Photographed from various vantage points around Ithaca, the museum assumes different characters. We are drawn into a guessing game, which Ms. Green likened to “Where’s Waldo?”  In several pictures, the Johnson lurks discreetly behind dense foliage and pylons. The museum is dwarfed in a photograph dominated by a rotund mass of trees, with drooping branches that echo the stately masts of nearby sailboats. When perched above an impervious band of trees and a sloping, sun-scorched roof, the museum assumes an authoritative air.  It’s oddly surprising when the museum emerges from beyond Cornell’s magnificent stone buildings, or the pensive silhouette of the A.D. White statue on Arts Quad.

If the omnipresence of the Johnson sounds strangely familiar, look at the display of works from past exhibitions, specifically Hokusai’s landscape prints. Mount Fuji’s stillness abides in every scene of “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji,” iconic for its rendering of nature’s sacred beauty.

While “JAMuse” examines the Johnson’s architecture, “Post More Bills” reflects on the spectrum of shows held at the Johnson and its predecessor. While many posters record significant events, others capture the moods of bygone eras or are simply fun to look at, said the Johnson’s Registrar Matt Conway, who curated “Post More Bills.” One of Conway’s favorites is a 1954 poster advertising an industrial design exhibition that included Olivetti typewriters, also at the White Museum. A number of posters stand out for their exuberance, particularly the boldly colored, star studded posters for “Social Comment in America,” a 1968 exhibition of contemporary American sculpture held at the White Museum. Another especially energetic poster, with spirited Bauhaus lettering and charged strokes, advertises “Directions in Afro-American Art,” the Johnson’s first major exhibition and collaboration with Cornell’s Africana Center.

Both the Johnson and White Museums were instrumental in the development of the Earth Works movement, which embraced spirituality and ecology but rejected commercialism, and found expression in massive landscape interventions in the ’70s.The White Museum was the site of the landmark “Earth Works” exhibition curated by Willoughby Sharp. Robert Smithson, who participated in the 1969 show alongside such artists as Robert Morris and Hans Haacke, returned to Cornell for a solo exhibition at the Johnson in 1980. The aptly minimalistic poster, bearing black words on a cream background, is commandeered by a majestic aerial view of Spiral Jetty. Smith’s 1970 masterwork is a sweeping swirl of black basalt and mud, stretching into the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

It seems appropriate that the Johnson Museum rests on the site of the ill-fated Morse Hall, presiding over the “sacred ground” of Libe Slope and lending Arts Quad much-needed closure. Art museums can be seen as rituals, as the art historian Carol Duncan wrote. They do not just resemble temples and palaces in terms of architecture; they are spaces in which we seek a state of exalted contemplation, and we hopefully go away feeling enlightened and nourished. Such spaces are more necessary than we might think. They are the still points of our turning world, to apply T.S. Eliot’s wise words: “Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

“JAMuse” is on view at the Johnson Museum’s Gold Gallery through Sep. 1.  “Post More Bills” is on display at the Opatrny Gallery, in the New Wing, through Jul. 21.

Original Author: Daveen Koh