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What Museums Are For

"What Museums Are For" by Daniel Baird, Spring 2009, pp. 58-65

When the Art Gallery of Ontario reopened in mid-November, I dodged the long lines and cold rain by showing up at 11pm—the museum was open until midnight on Friday and Saturday. Ignoring the architecture—the massive sheets of glass and titanium and beams of wood and steel I had watched being assembled over the past year—I headed straight for the permanent Canadian collection, the reason I had ever cared about the AGO in the first place. On the second level, I found Emily Carr’s Indian Church (1920), a simple white church set against a lush vortex of green, Lawren Harris’s moody, glimmering Beaver Swamp, Algoma (1929), Jean Paul Riopelle’s autumnal Chevreuse II (1953–54) and Paterson Ewen’s ecstatic Cloud Over Water (1979). These are all visionary paintings, but in a way that feels peculiarly North American, with earth, water, sky, trees and light turbulent, haunted and on the cusp of transformation. It struck me that engaging with art of this kind is what going to a North American museum is for.

The best way to begin a visit to the new Art Gallery of Ontario is not to hurriedly duck out of the rain via the great glass-andwood facade at the main entrance, but rather to start at the back, in Grange Park. Hovering above the Grange, the reserved 19th century Georgian manor in the park, is an immense cube clad in shimmering, reflective blue titanium. Set amid the blue is a T-shaped window from which whorls upward an enclosed steeland-glass stairway spanning the fourth and fifth levels: from a distance, it looks evanescent, like a silvery jet of spiralling water.

If the AGO’s southern face is sublimely elemental, deferring to the classical balance of the Grange, then the main entrance on Dundas Street West radiates an immediate warmth and intimacy. The exterior curved glass skein that encloses the Galleria Italia (and sculpture gallery) is ribbed with Douglas fir beams that bend and torque against the cascading rhythm of the glass. And with the galleries’ wood-panelled backing, the museum seems to float and smoulder like a massive communal hearth, the inviting heat spreading out onto the street. Upon actually entering the building, the visitor encounters a serpentine wooden ramp that slithers toward Walker Court and the Grange, a powerful north-south axis that is one of the museum’s organizing principles. And then there is the vastly expanded installation of the collection itself.

The first level of the AGO is largely, though not exclusively, devoted to European art, and there are several highlights that give the collection the kind of historical depth that it previously lacked. In Tintoretto’s beautiful Christ Washing His Disciples’ Feet (ca. 1545–55), for instance, Christ is relegated to a right-hand corner of the wide rectangular canvas while a dog lies in the foreground and other disciples clown around, unaware of the gravity of the moment. Bernini’s 1655 bronze The Crucified Christ (Corpus) is by turns erotic and remote, its tone one of quiet lamentation. The sculpture’s smooth surface, softly lit, has the sensuousness of skin; the body hanging down from the cross subtly writhes, tendons and muscles taut and rippling: Bernini captures Christ in transition between the materiality of this world and the immateriality of the next. And in what may be the AGO’s single most spectacular room hangs a trio of Rubens masterpieces—The Entombment (1612–4), Samson and Delilah (1609–10) and The Massacre of the Innocents (1611–12). If Bernini gravitates toward the melancholy dimension of the life of the body, Rubens is shamelessly carnal and dramatic. In The Entombment Christ is muscular and ravaged, unmasked in harsh light, more like a dead gladiator than the son of God, and in The Massacre of the Innocents a frenzied clutch of naked men hurl infants onto the paving stones, the swooning women’s long silk and velour gowns half ripped off, as though they were being raped.

But the European wing does not only include the work of Old Masters; in a spirit characteristic of the whole museum it allows for contrasts and associations that rise above history. In a room called “Encounters with Diversity,” for instance, one finds Delacroix’s hallucinatory The Fanatics of Tangier (1857) alongside Nancy Spero’s deliberately archaic-looking feminist scroll Rebirth of Venus (1984). In the sculpture atrium, whose windows look out onto Grange Park, one finds David Altmejd’s The Index (2007), which consists of a wall that is littered with shards of mirror and from which artificial trees grow. There are swaths of bloody fur, brittle white rodent bones and stuffed squirrels. Life-sized figures in suits with bird’s heads lord over the scene. At the far end of the installation is a glittery cave in which another bird-man sits, presumably ready to head out for the office. The Index is funny, beautiful and creepily allegorical: North America as a shattered natural-history-museum-cum-hall-of-mirrors, ruled by hybrid beasts who are one part company man, one part indigenous god.

It is both inevitable and appropriate that the AGO’s defining collection, the one that Frank Gehry’s architecture thematically alludes to throughout, is the Thomson Collection. The rooms devoted to the Thomson Collection are clean, elegant, austere and brightly lit. There are no labels on the walls, just hand-held guides at the entrance of each room with a list of works. While this can be inconvenient, it encourages sustained contemplation. Set in raised glass cases are examples from Thomson’s significant collection of First Nations art, drawing attention to the deeper continuity—the vertical integration, one might say—of North American art-making. Highlights include an intricately ornamented shaman’s rattle and a beautifully carved antler club, both made by members of the Coast Tsimshian from northern British Columbia.

While the Thomson Collection contains works by numerous important artists, its real strength lies in the work of Lawren Harris and David Milne, two profoundly different kinds of painter. While Tom Thomson and most of the Group of Seven painters adopt a visionary stance toward landscape, Lawren Harris’s mature work goes a step further and is openly mystical, bathed in otherworldly light. In Lake Superior III (ca. 1923–24), bright clouds slide along above radiant blue water and an infinite horizon. In Untitled Mountain Landscape (1927–28), a vaulted cathedral sky cracks open, flooding the snowy mountains with pale golden light—an annunciation enacted among the elements. In works like Baffin Island Mountains (ca. 1931), the ice-congested sea and sheer ice mountains are dwarfed by the vast blue dome of the sky. These paintings are not only devoid of human presence but depict an alien, spiritual realm from which human beings seem to be excluded. By contrast, David Milne made paintings that have an intimate, human touch, suggesting that Milne’s world is far gentler than Harris’s, with its Platonic absolutes.

From the intensity of Harris and Milne one spills out into the glowing warmth of the Galleria Italia and its long, bending wooden ribs, its view of the street and beyond and Giuseppe Penone’s sculptural installation The Hidden Life Within (2008). In one portion of the installation, a massive cedar trunk has been hollowed out to reveal a tree growing within the tree, and on the back wall, planks have been whittled into branches. Penone’s work suggests that we here in this world of wood and flesh are enfolded within deeper processes of growth, continuity and time. The Galleria Italia, whose structure evokes the skeleton of a giant canoe, is one of many places in the museum where Gehry’s architecture, in concert with the collection, proposes this kind of continuity while remaining conscious of the very contemporary city outside—the panorama of bustling Dundas Street West literally fills the room.


The contemporary galleries on the fourth and fifth levels are reached by way of the precipitous central spiral staircase, with its views of the building’s roof and the city beyond (or by elevator). Ascending the staircase gives one a sense of how Gehry has used the experience of space to create metaphors that frame the collection itself. The two levels devoted to contemporary art are appropriately high-ceilinged and flexible, and the collection is as eclectic as the art world has become. There is Joyce Wieland’s Time Machine Series (1961), showing a face blurring against a spreading stain of aqueous blue, and nearby are the bleeding oranges and blues of Helen Frankenthaler’s Orange Breaking Through (1961): both paintings are about the fluidity and beauty and heartbreak of time. Around the corner, in sharp contrast, is Agnes Martin’s austere white Untitled #8 (1977), with its grid of prairie horizon lines. In still another shift in tone we then reach N.E. Thing Co. and IT Works’ finely wrought send-ups of 1960s art stars, such as Pneumatic Judd (1965).

At the top of the staircase one finds another lively, contrapuntal mixture of sensibilities and styles, Canadian and international: a room devoted to Gerhard Richter (containing his haunting, vaporous black-and-white Helga Matura, from 1966), and a room devoted to the late Betty Goodwin, in which hangs the fiercely painted Falling Figure (1965). There is Karin Davie’s undulating In Out In Out (1992), Susanna Heller’s apocalyptic wall-sized drawing World Trade Center Tower I—Disintegration (2002) and Brian Jungen’s trilogy of masterfully ironic golf-bag totem poles, 1960, 1970 and 1980 (2007). After all of this and more, I was relieved to reach the spiral staircase on the southern side of the building and contemplate the CN Tower and the lights of downtown Toronto. For those who take the elevator, there is still more: playing on a small LCD screen inside is Vera Frenkel’s menacing This Is Your Messiah Speaking (1990–91).

Significant works of architecture have often made for problematic museums; rather than expanding a viewer’s experience of a collection or an exhibition, they tend to compete with it. Few works can hold their own against the swirling concrete ramparts of Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim or the heavy, low-pitched roof and luminous windows of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s transcendent Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The brilliance of Gehry’s transformation of the Art Gallery of Ontario is this: the experience of the building is part of the experience of not only the art but also the city, country and continent that it is in, part of being immersed in a North American landscape and history, from the vantage point of the 21st century. One can only look forward to future exhibitions, like “Remix: New Modernities in a Post-Indian World,” which opens this April, and how they will enter into a dialogue with both the building and the permanent collection. And how all three will be in a dialogue with us as we walk up and down those spiral staircases, occasionally stopping to gaze out at the city.

This is an article from the Spring 2009 issue of Canadian Art.

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