Big on Vertigo, Small on Style
by Greg Rawlings
Ever since the Denver Art Museum announced it would be building a sizeable extension and hiring a major international architect to do so, the eyes of the art world have been on Denver. When the DAM subsequently announced that wunderkind Daniel Libeskind was the chosen one, attention zoomed up another level. Museum-watchers the world over wondered what unique design Libeskind might conjure up to show a massive amount of under-seen art on the inside and make a major statement on the outside. The eyes of Denver have been glued to a large space just south of the old (and in its day controversial) DAM building — Gio Ponti’s North Building. The result: a simple angular design for the outside and a bizarre rabbit warren of galleries on the inside. The result: an unmitigated disaster. Honestly, the new addition is a DAM disaster. From the striking but "poorly contexted" exterior to the dizzying stairways and galleries, the city of Denver has spent a fortune on a catastrophe.
Except for the gift shop. The new extension has a whale of a gift shop. Fun, well set-up, colorful, spacious — a joy to visit. Also, they make a truly excellent espresso at the little coffee carts scattered about the building — inky, with a nice crema — certainly better than the ones at the Getty or the Met. However, the high point of an art museum should not be the gift shop or coffee carts. It should be the building and the art housed within.
I guess there are some good points beyond the gift shop and the espressos. I’m not a complete curmudgeon. On the first floor, just past the gift shop, is a wonderful collection of Japanese art from collectors Kimiko and John Powers, with a focus on 17th- and 18th-century painted screens. These masterpieces are sublime in every way; from the flowing lines of the primary compositions (clouded mountains, dragons, men on horseback) to the calligraphy, these works exude a sense of discipline, yet also joy. You simply can’t help but smile as you read the small poems and glimpse the minimal colors used to maximum effect; this is workmanship of the very highest order.
But then you must venture up, and I do mean up, through the so-called Boettcher Canyon Walk. What a criminal waste of space. Only to get you to another criminal waste of space, the Anschutz Gallery. Here you will see more mediocre modern art — mainly European and Asian — than on any one floor of any museum you ever will enter. You name the flashy but meaningless modern artists and you’ll find him/her here: Damien Hirst, George Condo and Eric Fischl. Other than a cooly dark painting by the Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara, "The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand," the entire floor is a wash. Then, up again to the third floor. And, again, I do mean up. You can get quite a workout doing the stairs if you don’t get vertigo and bolt the building, which I actually saw someone do.
Somewhere in the claustrophobic niches that comprise the interior of the new Frederic C. Hamilton addition to the DAM there must a pleasant place to simply look at great art, but I haven’t found it yet. The closest place I’ve found, so far, is the main gallery on the third floor, where a dazzling one-two-three punch of Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning spans an entire interior wall, with a Clifford Still a bent pane to the right. Most major museums have gallery after gallery of this quality art in a setting conducive to appreciating it. Not the new DAM; there, all is chaos.
I’ll grant that there is another quite wonderful Motherwell just inside and a classic Mondrian to the left, with a small gallery of Monet, Degas, and other great dead French artists farther in, but the spaces are so annoyingly haphazard. You really could get lost in here, and I don’t mean in a glorious daze of great art.
Other highlights: a wall-sized piece by Sean Lander on the fourth floor that always gets a laugh; a large Sean Scully construction, "Darkness, A Dream"; and Richard Serra’s "Basic Maintenance." The outdoor sculpture garden is handy, too, for getting fresh air amid all the greening complexions. Of course, the collection of Western art is first-rate, but should probably be in the old building. The Oceania and Africa sections are small but impressive, if you can find them.
Oh, yes, finally, the outside, and I don’t just mean the building, I mean the odd kitschy pieces strewn about the lot as if by a giant six-year-old with issues: the big black cow and calf, the broom and dustpan, the scary spider. Ouch. And the view of the mountains driving west on 13th Avenue that’s now history, as with the southern view of the Michael Graves addition to the Denver Public Library, now blocked by condos and a parking garage. Context isn’t everything, but it always is something to keep in mind, which Libeskind simply didn’t do, and which the DAM and the city let him get away with. To all their shame.
The new addition to the DAM could have been the greatest thing that ever happened to downtown Denver; instead it is a ridiculously expensive folly. Although I am a big enemy of Denver’s scrape-and-build-something-else mentality, this might be the exception to the rule. Burn, baby, burn.