This is an age of disruptions, and the High Museum has effected one of its own with the reinstallation of its permanent collection, which opened October 14.
Thoughtful, imaginative and elegant, the selection and arrangement of 1,441 objects — some familiar works, some long hidden in storage and many new (400!) acquisitions — just might alter your perception of them and their relationships to each other and to you.
The architectural improvements conceived by Selldorf Architects play an important role in the experience. Particularly in the Stent Family Wing, the museum seems airier, and the art seems to have more breathing room even though more works are on display. Pocket galleries offer spatial variety and allow for small focus exhibitions such as that of the Marjorie Eichenlaub West collection of Meissen porcelain on the second floor.
The curators and designers have used pacing and positioning to enliven the presentation and create context. A mash-up of 18th– and 19th-century American paintings mimics the way such works would have been displayed in salons of those times. Similarly, African masks are hung high to simulate how they would have looked as worn during ceremonies. To see Minnie Evans’ colorful drawing “Three Faces Surmounting a Landscape” in a gallery devoted to still lifes is to see her anew as a self-taught Arcimboldo.
The rejiggering also improves circulation flow and creates new sight lines that offer tempting glimpses of art in galleries ahead. There are also occasional axial exclamation points: The suite of small traditional African sculptures, abstracted figures beckoning to visitors stepping off the elevator on the Stent Wing’s fourth floor, ends at the feet of the nine-foot-tall bronze Minotaurus, a powerful, naturalistically rendered half-furry nude female by contemporary South African artist Nandipha Mntambo.
Shimmering seductively to the right is a wall-hanging work by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui composed of pieces of aluminum stripped from discarded liquor bottles. Its inherent drama is enhanced by its position on a wall painted deep red, one of the accent colors that occasionally punctuate the otherwise white-painted galleries throughout the museum. A deep blue, purple and two shades of gray — not so effective in my view — complete the palette. But while we’re on the subject of color, Sol LeWitt’s four-story mural Wall Drawing #729 Irregular Color Bands in the Stent atrium is a welcome reinstatement, injecting dynamism into the otherwise cold space.
But the soul of the reinstallation is the museum’s embracing vision of art and community. Many museums give lip service to including more women and artists of color. The High has made a concerted and noticeable effort to do so. It has also included another typically marginalized group, local artists, among them Radcliffe Bailey, Medford Johnston and Jon Riis.
The inclusive spirit is embedded in the layout. The conviction that art isn’t one story but a constellation of them has resulted in a Venn diagram of sorts. Though largely organized by curatorial departments, there are frequent moments of overlap, either through juxtapositions of individual works or interstitial galleries housing works of different genres that share a common theme, historical moment or formal approach.
The approach seems most fruitfully realized among works of African, self-taught and contemporary art. Another example is the small exhibit in the European galleries displaying paintings by American artists who made the obligatory trip to the continent to learn from the masters in the 19th century. (Its point is a bit obscure, however. Clarifying wall text would be helpful.)
If visitors are so inclined, they will find stories linking works throughout the museum. The power of myth across time and continents connects French artist Jean-Joseph Carriès’ Sleeping Faun (1885) and Minotaurus. The power of invention is evident in the many riffs, both in style and material, wrought on the basic chair, from the 19th-century Neoclassical maple side chair by John Finlay in the Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection to Ron Arad’s Blo-Void I, an aluminum computer-assisted design barely recognizable as seating.
Most striking to me were the recurring references to racial injustice. Some are subtle. Once you read the title of Elizabeth Catlett’s bust of an African American man, Target is no less topical now than it was when she carved it in 1970. Similarly, Thornton Dial, Sr.’s majestic Crossing Waters, which refers to the Middle Passage, reads like an abstraction. Others pull no punches. Police spray hoses on civil rights demonstrators in Charles Moore’s 1963 photograph Birmingham. Violence abounds in the deceptively sedate silhouettes comprising Kara Walker’s The Jubilant Martyrs of Obsolescence and Ruin. Most searing is Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, on view in the new screening room in the Anne Cox Chambers Wing. The montage caroms from scenes of James Brown in performance to those like the heart-breaking image of a white policeman cuffing a crying black youth.
A whole-cloth rethinking of a museum collection is a herculean task, infrequently undertaken. Yet, much remains in storage, and acquisitions continue. Happily, the museum has scattered spaces for changing exhibitions throughout the campus.
Regardless, the installation’s new multiplicity offers plenty to discover over multiple visits. Kudos to all involved.