PHILADELPHIA — You know what’s chicer than spending a ton on a landmark building? Spending a ton and barely showing it.
When other museums and cultural institutions have turned to Frank Gehry, the Canadian Angeleno and 92-year-old grandmaster of torquing titanium, he has summoned up buildings both inventive and ostentatious: curves of metal at the Guggenheim Bilbao or Disney Hall in Los Angeles, or billowing sails of glass at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. But here in Philadelphia, where he was tasked to reimagine one of the country’s oldest and most significant museums, he has left the stainless steel and the kinematics software at home.
Fifteen whole years after the Philadelphia Museum of Art engaged Gehry for an expansion and renovation of its Beaux-Arts home at the top of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the first part of the work is complete — and discreet. His Core Project, as the museum calls it, has cleared out and reshaped the underground guts of its Greek Revival home to produce 20,000 additional square feet of galleries, along with a refreshed entrance and an atrium with potential for performances and gatherings in post-pandemic days. It’s cost $233 million so far, and this is just part one; next will come additional new galleries underground, and a window puncturing the eastern staircase (you know, the one from “Rocky”).
You’ll see Gehry’s hushed interventions first via the western entrance — which I still think of as the back of the museum, although it’s been the primary access for years now. (The eastern entrance, off the parkway and up the steps, is closed for now.) It has more inviting glass doors and proper ramps for wheelchair access. The west lobby, called Lenfest Hall, has been given larger windows, and been denuded of the postmodern ticket booths designed by the museum’s previous architects, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
The lobby’s east wall has been torn down, and an auditorium has been ripped out to make way for a new central atrium, clad in the same honey-toned limestone that the museum’s initial architects used in 1928. Here you’ll see Gehry’s only concession to showiness, in the form of a Piranesian switchback staircase leading to the basement level. Even that is outshone, though, by the splendid vaulted walkway leading off from it, decked out in Guastavino tile and re-emerging after decades as back of house. (For the moment nothing is down here except a couple of sculptures, a gift shop, and a little cafe; the macchiato was pretty good.)
One floor up are the new galleries, whose design is satisfyingly boring — and really, it speaks volumes about museum buildings in the 25 years since Bilbao that we’re now enraptured by architecture you barely notice. (Once Gehry and his ilk were feted as master builders on the covers of magazines; now everyone wants to be Lacaton & Vassal, whose ultra-discreet renovations won them this year’s Pritzker Prize.) This surgical approach, though, was always Gehry’s plan. “It’d be a real challenge to do something that’s virtually hidden, that could become spectacular,” the architect told The New York Times in 2006, when the museum first brought him on. Spectacular is not the word I’d use for what’s resulted, but it’s certainly smart. I’ll take that any day.
When it’s all done this will be a very substantial museum, whose circulation may resemble that of the Musée du Louvre: an older U-shaped palace whose three wings are first reached through light-filled spaces below. Right now, Philly is still the right size for a pleasant long afternoon. With four hours you’ll make it through most of the collection.
Saint-Gaudens’s gilded Diana still lords over the main staircase, and Marcel Duchamp’s enigmatic “Étant Donnés” still invites peepers to its wooden door. Thomas Eakins’s “The Gross Clinic,” that bloody masterpiece, is here currently — the museum shares it with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The handsome rotunda in the modern wing still holds Cézanne’s final and largest “Bathers,” though I gravitate to Édouard Manet’s “The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama”: hands down the greatest painting of the American Civil War, which reinvented maritime painting as an up-to-the-minute, trans-Atlantic media event.
Of two large temporary exhibitions, the more important is “Senga Nengudi: Topologies,” a survey of one of the most accomplished figures of American post-minimal sculpture and performance. (It was organized by the Lenbachhaus in Munich; it was seen there in 2019 and has also toured to São Paulo and Denver.) After study in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and early experiments with fluid-filled plastic, Nengudi in 1975 began creating sculpture from used pantyhose, sometimes shaped by internal wires. Some stretch to the ceiling, pulled seemingly to their limits; some sag under the weight of sand, and recall breasts or stones or tumors.
These fragile and provisional sculptures, known collectively as the “R.S.V.P.” series, are rare to see in such numbers; that alone makes this show an event. Their impact also resides in associated performances, primarily by the artist Maren Hassinger, who would entangle her body in the elastic fabric, as if the sculpture was another dancer, broken but reanimated. In this show you’ll see both early photographic documentation, a recent video of Hassinger dancing with Nengudi’s sculptures, as well as a bank of TV monitors of other performances Nengudi and her colleagues did at Just Above Midtown, the pioneering Black-owned gallery in New York.
In the new temporary exhibition galleries is “New Grit,” a group show of 25 artists from Philadelphia or living here. The quality is mixed, and it’s a little too eager to be topical, but local artists are the right focus for an inauguration. Beyond the most familiar names (Howardena Pindell, Alex Da Corte), its most valuable player is certainly David Hartt, whose newly commissioned “The Histories (Crépuscule)” marries tapestry and video, and imagery of Jamaican beaches and ice floes in Newfoundland, into a cross-media and cross-continent wandering.
Most surprising are the new American galleries, devoted to art from the colonial period to the Civil War. At least in visual terms, they look great. Colored walls display to advantage the museum’s deep collection of Charles Willson Peale and other American painters. There’s a rich display of Spanish colonial art, and an illuminating gallery of Philadelphia’s free Black clockmakers, porcelain makers and silversmiths.
Interpretively, there’s still a way to go. New wall texts underscore the Black and Indigenous presence in Pennsylvanian society, as well as the presence of slavery in a region that likes to think of itself as more enlightened than the rest of America. (Not without some cause: In 1790 there were seven times as many slaves in New York as in Pennsylvania.) But it does so with an extreme focus on individual biography, canceling each portrait’s subject for his or her personal evil, and hyping other objects for any imputed connection to servitude.
The text accompanying an 18th-century silver bowl, for instance, tells us nothing about the bowl, nothing about the market for silver, but all about the silversmith, one John Hastier, and his enslaved artisan, called Jasper. “Perhaps Jasper created this bowl,” the panel muses.
Sure, I don’t know, perhaps! But who created this one bowl is hardly as important as the political and economic institutions that sustained its creation, and the aesthetic forms that connect it to other times and places and cultures. Right now all we get is new, moralistic language sprinkled upon the same old story — and by the way, applying that language exclusively to American history can only be called myopic. In these same galleries, to take just one example, I saw a charger emblazoned with the insignia of the Dutch East India Company, which instituted slavery on multiple continents; this passes with no comment at all.
It’ll take more time for the museum — for all our museums, really — to forge an approach that puts these objects in new relations, rather than appending them with asterisks indicating who was a nice person and who was a mean one. It’s hardly impossible! It just means treating objects and images as more than a biographical record, but as vectors in a grand and global network of images and ideas. If we’re talking about institutions stained by colonial legacies, universal museums rank pretty high on the list of malefactors — but who knows what new routes and sightlines you can contrive with the right renovation?
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Advance reservations recommended but not required. 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia; 215-763-8100, philamuseum.org. The museum is open on Memorial Day.