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Back to the BAC
“I sense light as the giver of all presences,” said the late architect Louis I. Kahn, and his last creation—the Yale Center for British Art—was certainly the embodiment of illumination. But two decades of New England weather had dulled the landmark 1977 structure, which was designed to house the collection of British masterworks given to the University by the late Paul Mellon '29. The “ambience of inspiration” that Kahn had sought to create had become somewhat less inspirational.
The roof and the 56 glazed light monitors that created the center’s special ambience were leaking, the heating and cooling systems were wearing out, and the passage of thousands of visitors through the building had taken a toll on the interior. So early in 1998, after an assortment of architects and construction experts, and Mellon (whose philanthropy funded the building and provided an endowment for its ongoing work as both a museum and a resource for teaching and scholarship) agreed on a comprehensive renovation plan, the Center closed its doors to the public, and sent many of its paintings on a world tour. Thus began the $4.3-million renovation that Patrick McCaughey, who succeeded Duncan Robinson as director in 1996, dubbed “the year of the roof.”
McCaughey might well have added, “of the walls and the carpet”—and of the reconfiguration of the collection. For when the Center reopened this past winter with a gala celebration on January 22, the 1,600-plus visitors who packed into the building were treated not only to exhibitions of art by Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon, but were also able to sample, for the first time, a renewed BAC. (Paul Mellon was too ill to be among them; he died, at age 91, on February 1.)
“Louis Kahn would have been both happy and unhappy with the renovation,” says Jules Prown, the Paul Mellon Professor of the History of Art, who worked with the architect when the building was being designed in the early 1970s. “Kahn would have been pleased with the work, which does honor to the structure, but he would have been very disappointed that the roof and the windows, which were replaced in 1996, didn’t hold up.”
Part of the reason problems developed relatively soon had to do with “short cuts” that were taken to reduce the building’s construction costs, Prown maintains. There were also “inherent flaws” in the design that increased vulnerability to the climate, as well as a lengthy period of poor maintenance.
The result was a major project that was coordinated by the Turner Construction Company, a Connecticut-based contractor that had handled the window-replacement project at the BAC, as well as many other renovations at Yale, including those currently underway at the Law School. Turner, along with Yale facilities architect Larry Regan and consulting engineers Wiss, Janney, and Elstner Associates, of Chicago, worked with The Eagle Group, of West Hartford, to replace the roof, and with the George Ellis Company, to replace the worn-out coils in the air-conditioning units.
While the outside of the BAC was wrapped in scaffolding and teams of workers put in six-day-weeks for nine months, officials turned their attention to the building’s interior, which was, says David Mills, the Center’s associate director, “in need of a major facelift.” But there’s a “Kahn look,” Mills continues, so “when you edit, you have to make it appear as if nothing’s been rewritten.”
Architect Glenn Gregg '67MArch, of Gregg and Wies Architects of New Haven, was hired to shepherd the inside work. “Our involvement started with the linen,” says Gregg, whose company has handled interior restorations of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Law School auditorium.
A hallmark of a Kahn structure is its celebration of unadorned surfaces: white oak and matte stainless steel panels; concrete walls, beams, and pillars; brushed aluminum ductwork. Much of the artwork was hung on movable wall panels that were faced with a special kind of linen whose weave permitted easy repair when paintings were moved. But with the artwork either abroad or packed away, it became apparent that the walls themselves were in bad shape. “Buildings are living things that constantly need care, and certain parts wear out on a natural cycle,” says Gregg.
The particle-board walls had outlived their usefulness, and the linen needed to be replaced. But while making new walls that would prevent moisture infiltration—a recurrent problem—proved relatively easy, finding suitable fabric turned out to be an adventure. “When we contacted the Belgian firm that had woven the original material, we learned that the only loom that could do the job hadn’t been used in ten years,” Gregg says. “However, we were assured that the company could get it running again and find the craftsmen to operate it.”
This optimism proved misplaced, but with time beginning to run out, Gregg located a company in Holland that could bring a similar loom back to life. In early November, more than 4,000 yards of “two-over-one-warp” linen arrived in New Haven. “We were very relieved,” says Gregg. “Had it not worked, we would have been out of options.”
While the new material was being stretched into place on the display walls and exhibition panels, David Mills wondered what to do with the old fabric—some 3,500 yards of it. A curator, noticing that James McNeil Whistler had painted his Nocturne in Blue and Silver on what appeared to be a similar “canvas,” suggested that perhaps the School of Art could use it. The material, once primed with gesso, proved a perfect surface. “For at least the next ten years, Yale’s art students will be painting on our dirty linen,” says Mills.
At the same time Gregg and his colleagues were combing Europe for weavers, they were looking for a company that could replace the BAC’s worn-out carpeting. The original, in keeping with Kahn’s predilection for the natural, was made of wool, but Center conservators adamantly opposed using a similar material for the replacement. Not only can wool harbor artwork-attacking insects, but the fibers give off minute amounts of a sulphurous gas that can destroy the white pigment in paint.
Gregg needed a suitable synthetic with the look and feel of the muted gray-brown carpet that had been underfoot for 21 years, and after he found something that passed muster with the conservators, he nervously ordered it installed. “You want to leave the place without fingerprints,” he explained. He was nonetheless worried that the use of synthetics in a Kahn building constituted a sacrilege.
But Gregg needn’t have been concerned, says Prown. “Synthetics are a product of human intelligence, so I don’t think Kahn would have reacted adversely to the new carpet.”
The architect might have been a bit miffed over changes made to the Founder’s Room, a private meeting place on the fourth floor. In reworking the space to reflect Paul Mellon’s tastes, designer Bruce Budd contravened a central Kahn proscription by having the room side of the main door painted to look like mahogany.
The door aside, critics and BAC officials alike believe that the changes inside and out would have been accepted by both architect and patron. (Mellon was kept informed of the progress of the renovation through a series of reports and photographs.) In fact, with the exception of a new desk in the front courtyard, most of the renovations are invisible. Workers even left in place the curious inscription, “For Joe,” that Mellon had asked to be painted on the travertine of the first floor.
“Joe was a bartender at a tavern on this spot,” says Mills, noting that the establishment, which Mellon apparently frequented when he was a Yale undergraduate, must have made quite an impression on the young man to have caused him to grant the innkeeper a kind of immortality.
As the work progressed, director McCaughey and his staff focused on the artwork, and how it would be reinstalled on the fourth floor, the home of the permanent collection. The Mellon collection of British art, the largest outside of Britain, “offers Americans a whole new vision of what British art is all about,” says McCaughey. “It’s not just full-length portraits of well-dressed gentlemen. Rather, it’s a complicated story rich with themes.”
But instead of following a thematic approach, the collection had been originally hung in accordance with what Malcolm Warner, curator of paintings and sculpture, called the “great man theory of art history.” In chronological order, the viewer would be led from one major artist to another. The works of Gainsborough would all be together, as would those of Turner, and so forth.
“But over time, there'd been an opportunity to tinker, and then, to tinker with the tinkering,” Warner notes. “As a result, the collection began to suffer from what always happens: the tendency to drift away from the original vision.”
Turning back the clock, however, was not considered an option. In recent years, says Warner, ways of seeing art have changed, and this change in viewpoint offered a rare opportunity. “We could start with a clean slate and present the collection in a new way.”
Warner and Julia Marciari Alexander '94MPhil, assistant curator of paintings and sculpture, began looking through the storerooms—“talent-spotting,” they termed it—to familiarize themselves with every one of the 1,600-plus paintings in the BAC. The artwork had already been recorded in digital form, which meant that the curators, with the help of a three-dimensional computer program put together by Glenn Gregg, could “rehang” the collection and move around the walls without any heavy lifting. (This is a task not to be minimized; a masterpiece like George Stubbs’s Horse Attacked by a Lion weighs approximately 500 pounds.)
To organize the art into coherent themes, the curators first employed a method that was surprisingly low-tech. “Every painting on our 'A' list—there were about 500—was reduced in size and glued onto cardboard,” says Warner. With piles of these art cards (each about the size of a photographic slide) in hand, the curators and McCaughey began regular meetings in what quickly became known as the “war room” to map strategy.
“We tried lots of experiments that didn’t work,” notes Warner. For while the collection is rich and varied, it is not equally deep in all areas, and so the planners quickly realized that there was not enough material to permit an adequate exploration of, say, the still life. Then there was the “dinner party” effect. “Even when you have what looks like a perfect guest list, you can’t guarantee that everyone will hit it off,” says Warner. “Sometimes, it was the images that didn’t look good together; sometimes, it was their frames.”
Eventually, however, the director and the curators were able to develop 32 themes that take the viewer from the time of Henry VIII in the 1500s to the turn of this century. Included among the themes are the idealized landscape, conversation pieces, the Grand Tour, the pleasures of the city, night pieces, the visionary in art, the romantic traveler, and, given Paul Mellon’s love of outdoor pursuits, the sporting life. There are also thematic looks at the art of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and because their paintings are next to one another, viewers are afforded the opportunity to compare and contrast approaches.
To put the art in context, Warner and Marciari Alexander wrote labels that explained each theme. “Art is all about the pleasure of looking at an object, but at times, it’s also helpful to know something about the painter and the period,” says Warner, touching on what he terms a “great debate” among curators. “There are some antediluvian types who feel that any information actually spoils the experience, but then there are the zealots who believe that a work of art is incapable of meaning anything to the viewer without the words of a curator. In keeping with Mr. Mellon’s intentions, we lean toward the educational side of things.”
Of course the BAC, woven as it is into the intellectual fabric of the University, has always provided an education for visitors ranging from Yale students to New Haven schoolchildren to art lovers from around the world. One offshoot of the renovation, however—the creation of what’s known as the Long Gallery on the fourth floor—has served to tie the Center into the undergraduate curriculum. In addition to being home to a display of portrait busts, the Long Gallery, which once was a series of storerooms, is now being used for frequently changing displays put together by art historians and students to explore themes different from and, perhaps, more ephemeral than, those on the nearby walls.
One recent show examined British imperial expansion through the lens of art; others delved into marine art and the ways in which Shakespearian theater has been depicted. More explorations are in the works.
“I was keen to come here because of the increasing opportunities to teach,” says Gillian Forrester, assistant curator of prints and drawings. “It’s good for the collections to be used, and we’re always trying to build closer links to the University.”
Among those links, says Forrester, is the possibility of bringing in an artist in residence to be shared by both the BAC and the recently opened Digital Media Center for the Arts. “New scholarship is continuously being brought to bear on the collection,” notes the director, “and this keeps us lively and up-to-date.”
Another thing that ensures that the BAC will remain current is its recent emphasis on modern British art. McCaughey, who helped bring to fruition the Moore, Bacon, and Freud exhibitions that opened the Center in January and has added to the collection works by such controversial British artists as Damien Hirst, is clearly committed to continuing the examination of modern British art. “I’m only building on what Paul Mellon and Duncan Robinson started when they decided to feature such 20th century artists as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth,” McCaughey says.
Many of the shows planned for the second and third floor will deal with current material. This month, for example, Gillian Forrester premieres an exhibition titled “Graphic! British Prints Now,” and at the same time, the BAC unveils a recent purchase of Untitled (Ten Tables), a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread that the artist calls “rather blank and unforgiving” that “contains all sorts of unanswered questions.”
Questioning, of course, is precisely what artists—and, by extension, art museums—are supposed to do. “People have seen the BAC as a respite, and they come in expecting to be soothed,” says Scott Wilcox, curator of prints, drawings, and rare books. “But we don’t want to be a tranquilizer.”
Without a doubt, there’s a tranquil quality to the renovated building, with its modulated natural light, soft colors, and, thanks to the reconfiguration of the walls, longer vistas. But the house that Mellon built is not, by design, an antiquarian shrine. “We want to show the continuity of British art,” says McCaughey. “This is an ongoing story.”
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