Walsh paints picture of ‘modern’ museums

Director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum John Walsh wants to know how museums can avoid smothering modernity.

Walsh, who is a visiting professor, addressed this issue Wednesday to a packed audience in a lecture titled “‘Either You’re a Museum or You’re Modern: Buildings for Recent Art.” The first part of the title refers to a quote by Gertrude Stein that implicitly claims that museums are vestiges of antiquity and therefore can never be modern.

But Walsh said the recent “museum mania” of modern art museums that showcase art for its own sake breaks with the traditionally held belief that museums are for all things old and outmoded.

Walsh surveyed many of the modern art museums whose architecture is considered art as well: the original Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) and the Guggenheim in New York City, the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo, New York, the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art in Texas, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, France.

Walsh discussed the original MoMa as being “flat and sleek, [with] no trace of ornament.” Its novelty, he said, was how easily it blended in to the background yet still was decidedly artistic.

“It spoke in a new language, a foreign language,” Walsh said. “From the outside you knew it was about modernity. It was not elevated, but integrated.”

The building illustrated that both modern art and the museum could be accessible, he said.

Following the examination of the MoMa, Walsh discussed the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which he described as “energetic, exotic, freestanding — in effect, a sculpture.”

With its inverted ziggurat architecture, the precise ability of the Guggenheim to stand out puts it in striking contrast to the MoMa.

The curvature of the Guggenheim in New York allows museumgoers to experience art as “a single continuum, an uninterrupted one-way trip,” Walsh said. This, too, is distinct from the more regimented MoMa.

Originally, Walsh said, Solomon Guggenheim designed the museum to be a place where people could sit down on plush seats, listen to Mozart playing in the background and experience the art inside the museum as well as the art of the museum itself.

But these more accommodating ideas were eventually shelved and, with large crowds, the viewing experience at the Guggenheim today is sometimes difficult and distracting, Walsh said.

Walsh also commented on the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, where the collection is housed in three wings, each built by a world class architect — Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and Richard Meier, respectively.

“Each exhibits different ideas about modernism … and each with such graceful choreography between such great architects,” Walsh said.

Walsh also spoke about modern additions to older buildings.

Lesley Tucker, who works at the Yale Art Gallery, said she was most interested in the additions to the older buildings, specifically the different ways the architects solved the problem of keeping an existing building while making it new at the same time.

“It’s easy to have the freedom of working with a blank slate, but more difficult when you have the history of an existing structure,” Tucker said.

Elizabeth Kyle SOM ’04, who took Walsh’s graduate school seminar on “The Architecture of Art Museums,” said she enjoyed the lecture.

“It’s a thrill to have him here commenting on our museum buildings at Yale and bringing with him his greater study of museum architecture,” Kyle said.

Walsh spoke as part of the Andrew Carnduff Ritchie Memorial Lecture Series.

Director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum John Walsh gives a lecture March 3 on the architecture of museums whose designs are also considered art.
Zoe Pershing-Foley
Director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum John Walsh gives a lecture March 3 on the architecture of museums whose designs are also considered art.

Comments