A little over a week ago on June 30, 2013 the Director, Board of Directors, Curators and Staff of the St. Louis Art Museum hit a collective Grand Slam inside Forest Park when they unlocked the doors to the new East Wing, allowing free and cogent passage between old and new ages of art in brilliant and thrilling ways.
Wishing to avoid huge crowds on an exuberant and celebratory opening weekend, and knowing well the density of summer traffic in Forest Park, I held back. Then visited twice in seventy-two hours. And oh, how I anticipate returning again and again at my leisure. For to someone who has known the St. Louis Art Museum (http://www.slam.org/) since childhood the transformation represents a greatly anticipated throwing wide of the rich store of modern treasure that long-awaited exhibit space in a fitting context.
David Chipperfield, the British architect with offices in London, Berlin, Milan and Shanghai, who designed the new East Wing of the St. Louis Art Museum is quoted as saying that he sought “to help redefine the original building with an extension that created a seamless circulation between the old and the new.” To my mind he succeeded magnificently, creating drama in Cass Gilbert’s 1904 gem of a treasure house while expanding eastward atop and beneath Art Hill in cunning ways that contrast and complement Gilbert’s original concept.
Against Gilbert’s soft gray Beaux Art edifice Chipperfield positioned modernist slabs of stone and glass, and dark, polished concrete walls speckled with aggregates from the Missouri River in an harmonious counterpoint to the original building. Inside, shaded floor to ceiling windows and a coffered, polished white concrete ceiling that integrates a grid of skylights, suffuse the galleries with soft light.
I think that Louis Sullivan, who broke ground for modern architecture here in St. Louis with the Wainwright Building would love this wing. For his philosophy permeates it. The form is functional – housing fine works of art in a straightforward manner without competing with them and honoring Sullivan’s principal that if you’re going to violate the natural landscape with a man-made structure you need to bring elements of the landscape into your design so that it looks like it belongs. David Chipperfield’s use of stone, river aggregate and white oak native to the Greater St. Louis prairie meld beautifully with the museum’s Forest Park setting.
Ghanaian sculptor, El Anatsui’s huge metallic tapestry Fading Cloth drapes a west wall inside the east wing entrance providing a glittering welcome and reassurance that works we love and have missed while the 211,ooo foot expansion was under construction for three years are back where we can once again savour them. As you meander from gallery to gallery, each one opens to the senses like a box of hand-crafted chocolates, full of surprise and variety.
Wonderful, wonderful things await visitors to the East Wing of the St. Louis Art Museum and the curators of the various collections have done a masterful job of framing and positioning them. I could spend hours in happy contemplation of Leonardo Drew’s 37′ wall installation, a wonder-work in wood, rust, fabric, strings, feathers and mixed media.
Trova the artist was a native St. Louisan as was Josephine McDonald Baker the subject of Faith Ringgold’s vibrant, painted story quilt. Trova’s sculpture mirrors all of us in sleek chrome. As you can see from the detail above, Ringgold’s fabric painting bursts with color a la Henri Matisse.
By 1904, when St. Louis hosted a great world’s fair, the American city which in 1860 had contained proportionately the largest immigrant population in the United States had become an incredibly rich melting pot of cultures. Although many came from countries with palaces most of these immigrants along with most of the eastern and southern Americans who settled in St. Louis had never seen a palace much less stepped foot in one.
The collection that would take up residence in the Palace of Fine Arts at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 was intended to be, after the fair ended - Dedicated to Art and Free to All - the ideal of a democratic palace of the arts, where all St. Louisans, not just the wealthy, could experience, enjoy and draw inspiration from great art.
This Palace of Fine Arts, the only permanent building designed for the World’s Fair of 1904 was meant to give them that opportunity in a grand setting. The same would be true in the domain of literature with the handsome Central Building of the St. Louis Public Library that Cass Gilbert later designed.
He would go on to conceive the soaring Woolworth Building in New York City and the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. but Gilbert drew his inspiration for the grand sculpture court in St. Louis’ palace of art from the Baths at Caracalla in Rome.
St. Louis founder, Pierre Laclede Liguest selected a site for his fur trading post of verdant, rolling prairie set high above the Mississippi and fed by numerous natural springs and river tributaries. The prairie covered abundant clay and coal mines and an underground maze of caves that 19th century German brewers would maximize, even as David Chipperfield Architects modified the interior of a section of Art Hill with construction of a three-story parking garage! How very nicely the British team with technical assistance from HOK (Hellmuth, Obabata and Kassebuam) of St. Louis have utilized the natural bounty of Art Hill.
The St. Louis Art Museum’s master plan, close to thirty years in formulation, includes an exterior sculpture garden by French landscape architect Michel Dessigne to surround the museum on three sides. Works by Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Aristide Maillol and George Rickey are already in place. That these and other works can be viewed from inside the museum as well as from the outside in the context of nature is splendid.
Among these outdoor works are Placebo, American sculptor Roxy Paine’s 56′ x 46’6″ stainless steel tree and British sculptor, Andy Goldsworthy’s Stone Sea, a massive new installation which commemorates the shallow, ancient sea that once covered the mid-western United States. The installation consists of twenty-five, ten-foot arches, each weighing approximately thirteen tons.
Some say that St. Louis experienced her last great epoch in 1904 with a magnificent world’s fair that showcased scientific innovation and the arts while convening the first international peace conference in the world. And that in the ensuing century-plus such dynamism, vision and creativity were lost.
But don’t you believe it. An incredible renaissance is taking place in St. Louis from the Mississippi Riverfront westward to Forest Park, where a bronze knight rendered in heroic scale by Charles Henry Niehaus for the entrance to the 1904 World’s Fair and cast locally by W.R. Hodge sits astride a steed at the center of what Travel & Leisure Magazine has named one of the ten most beautiful city parks in the world.
Congratulations to Brent R. Benjamin, Director of the St. Louis Art Museum, the Board of Directors, Curators and Staff of the St. Louis Art Museum for a monumental achievement, your Grand SLAM in Forest Park! And to the citizens of St. Louis City and County who maintain with their taxes a wonderfully free park and museum district that rivals the rest of the nation and sustains local culture.
Illustration Credit: Baths at Caracalla in Rome – reconstructive drawing 1899, in the public domain at wikipedia.org.
Photography Credits: Louisiana Purchase Exposition St. Louis 1904 – in the public domain at wikipedia.org; St. Louis Art Museum Frieze – colin.faulkingham photographer, released into the public domain in 2006, wikipedia.org; Main Entrance to the St. Louis Art Museum from the West and Forest Park Lagoon at the Base of Art Hill – Maureen Kavanaugh; all other photographs, including the detail of Faith Ringgold’s story quilt Jo Baker’s Birthday - Thomas Kavanaugh, Sr. Photos of works of art within the St. Louis Art Museum have been taken soley for non-commercial use to celebrate the St. Louis Art Museum.