The architecture of the 1928 wing of the Old Yale Art Gallery at the corner of Chapel and High Street is stunning: huge, arched windows buttressed by Corinthian columns flood the gallery with natural light; busts dot the open space, holding their own against the larger reliefs, sculptures, and mosaics on display, each piece speaking to its companions. The gallery is decidedly “Yale,” situating the school’s trademark Collegiate Gothic style in a context for which it is well suited — a fitting mix of the lavishness and mystique that is the Ivy League. The wing could just as readily be in Paris or Rome as New Haven.
The 1928 wing is also, as I learned during my first weeks at Yale, the number one spot on campus for Instagram photos. Indeed, my feed was flooded with pictures of the exact same gallery, taken from the exact same angle — right as you enter from the Louis Kahn-designed lobby, just in front of an Assyrian relief (Human Attendant Carrying a Bow, Arrows, and a Mace), facing Timotheos’s Leda and the Swan. The lighting in each post may have been slightly different, of course, depending on the time of day — that’s part of the appeal of the windows — but each snapshot was essentially the same.
To buzzing first-years during their first weeks on campus, the Yale University Art Gallery symbolizes all that Yale stands for. The über-aesthetic photos show Yale in all its glory, masking this sudden yet exclusive perk with a no less sudden newfound interest in art and art history. This, at least, was my mindset when I posted my own photos: look at all these intellectual opportunities! Yup, this is definitely how I’m going to spend my weekends — right here in the middle of these glorious manifestations of antiquity.
In the first few weeks of September, it seemed as though the “ideal day” at Yale — a day without a visit to the stacks to outline essays or solve p-sets — was one spent in the ancient art wing of this magnificent gallery. Nine months later, I can confirm that this is indeed my ideal day on campus — but not just in the ancient art wing, rather in the art gallery as a whole, savoring the immersive experience within the novel spaces of artists past and present, with domestic and foreign pieces that both comment on the past and speak to the present. Those first few days in the art gallery, when I only went because I saw others going, led me to one of my favorite classes at Yale: HSAR 418, a seminar on the perception and description of physical works across time.
I urge you, then, eager freshman suddenly free from the shackles of high school senioritis, to spend a day in the art gallery. Fuel yourself with apple French toast casserole from the dining hall. Go uncaffeinated if you can, and alone better yet. Leave your phone behind (unless you want to plug in headphones). And if you do listen to music, put on some Tokio Myers, Liszt or Elle Valenci — these are my favorites. Grab a folding chair from the rack just to the left of the welcome desk, then take the spiral staircase (a trademark element of Kahn, who also designed the Yale Center for British Art just across Chapel Street) up to the second floor to the Modern and Contemporary wing. Take a right, then a left just before the door into the European wing. It is there where you’ll see my favorite piece from the gallery (or my favorite piece so far, I should say -– there’s still much I want to explore). Set up shop in front of Alberto Giacometti’s Mains Tenant le Vide (“Hands Holding the Void”). Take twenty minutes and explore the statue. Don’t think about it, don’t try to draw conclusions. Examine the lines, the geometry, the angles, the tilts and reservations of the figure. Reflect on the striation and texture of the white plaster. Then, try to feel what Giacometti is trying to say. Start to draw conclusions. Lean into the interpretation. Sit there until you feel something — anything. I won’t tell you what I felt, only that it wasn’t something easily captured for Instagram.
Repeat this process as often as you want, dear first-year. The gallery offers much, and is a sublime escape from the hot chaos of the first few weeks of school. I’ve learned now that when I am the most homesick, when I am the most stressed, when I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing with my life (and as much as you think you know what you’re going to major in when you start classes, trust me — you don’t), the art gallery is as close to home as it gets. It’s a bit ironic: the best antidotes to the burnout Yale inflicts are sometimes the resources of the university itself.
Then, when you inevitably head to New York City for fall break, go to the MoMA, fifth floor. It will be more crowded here, for obvious reasons, but make your way through the throng towards the Albert H. Barr Gallery. You may just see something you recognize -– and appreciate. It is in this moment that all will go silent and that Yale may just start to be home.