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Art review: The Crocker Art Museum's new galleries

October 5, 2010 |  5:50 pm

Crocker 1. Pieter Breughel Peasant Wedding 045

SACRAMENTO -- One of America's oldest art museums becomes one of its newest on Sunday, when the Crocker Art Museum, established in 1885, opens a sleek new addition that triples its size.

The original Italianate Victorian building, the epitome of elaborate high style when it was first erected near the city center, has been joined by a gridded Modernist structure whose closest relative is the Getty Museum, high on a promontory overlooking Los Angeles. A 10-year timeline from the start of master planning reflects the civic labyrinth (the Crocker is a city museum). But, with a reservation or two, it works.

The Victorian style is not especially suitable for the functional purposes of a modern museum. Smallish decorated chambers limit public possibilities, for all their ornate splendor -- here centered on a main space that museum director Lial Jones has aptly described as perhaps the most beautiful room in Northern California.

Gwathmey Siegel architects added 125,000 square feet of space, just under half of it for galleries. Respectful of the original building, it's also surprisingly easy to navigate. This is not a museum a visitor will freely get lost in.

Demands of historic preservation dictated ceiling heights on floors that connect the addition with the original. (Ceiling heights rise on the nicely sky-lighted top floor.) The architects cleverly turned that restriction to advantage: Episodic views out of the sprawling new building let you locate yourself to surroundings.

Interior views, however, were less well-considered. Galleries benefit hugely from vista walls -- those terminal sight-lines through a sequence of two or more rooms, where a substantial painting or sculpture is framed as a distant destination. Anticipation is produced. Vista walls invest art with the task of pulling a visitor through museum galleries, enhancing focus.

The new Crocker has few such moments. Every new museum building takes some getting used to for a staff charged with making coherent displays. But the installation here can feel jumbled, as if something to be noticed on the way by.

Crocker 2. Albrecht Durer 046 Some new spaces, like a room of mostly fine early 20th-century Southern California landscape paintings, work well as self-contained units. Others make good use of older spaces.

Since the 1920s the Crocker has had an exceptional international ceramics collection, historical and contemporary. It was kicked up another notch with a 2008 gift of 800 recent clay vessels, most from the 1980s and after. Though there are some surprising omissions, such as works by major artists Ken Price and Adrian Saxe, the collection looks terrific in the re-purposed Crocker mansion -- excellent display space for a domestically scaled art. Add open storage, where the public can see shelves filled with vessels not on formal display, and the presentation is nearly ideal.

So is the new study center for the museum's famous crown jewel -- exceptional Old Master drawings, one of the first such collections in the nation. E.B. Crocker, wealthy retired counsel for Southern Pacific Railroad, moved his family to Dresden, Germany, in 1869, and the former Saxon royal enclave turned out to be an exceptional base from which to collect.

Crocker bought 1,344 drawings in the next 20 months. Shown is a magnificent selection of 56 from Italy, France, the Low Countries and Central Europe.

Albrecht Dürer's delicate 1498 nude appears illuminated from the side, as if by firelight or the window of an enclosed room, an effect subtly heightening its erotic charge. Vittore Carpaccio imagined a critically important historical meeting between the pope and a Venetian doge as an epic scene of calibrated diplomacy, balancing their retinues through composition and formal touch of his pen and brush.

Circa 1796, the young J.A.D. Ingres drew the profile of an actor dressed as a Roman soldier against an unusual, dark black wash, the tiny circular drawing playfully evoking an antique cameo. Jan Savery, the little-known nephew of Prague's court artist, Roelandt Savery, executed a charming chalk drawing of a pair of now-extinct dodo birds, their animated expressiveness almost like a modern cartoon.

Crocker 3. exterior 021 Why did Crocker collect drawings? The practice was then hardly in evidence in the U.S. But curator William Breazeale makes a provocative suggestion in the show's excellent catalog: Perhaps Crocker was assembling a teaching tool for California's new capital, born as the lucrative gateway to the gold rush. The New World oligarch was positioning the Golden State as heir to aristocratic Old World power.

That might explain the more than 700 paintings Crocker also brought back for his museum, mostly from Dresden, Munich and Dusseldorf. Today, 140 years on, it can be hard to remember that he was mostly buying contemporary art. Maybe the old drawings and new paintings were meant to guide California's living artists.

Alas, 19th-century Germany was mostly a backwater for adventurous painting, and much of the art's polished realism is here put to rather dreary sentimental or moralistic ends. With exceptions, the original European painting collection is mostly of historical interest.

Today's Crocker collection does include a small number of fine examples. Among them are Pieter Bruegel the Younger's wittily observed 1624 "Peasant Wedding Dance;" an anonymous 16th-century Portuguese wood carving of the "Pietà," poised between stiff-backed stylization and ethereal idealization; and lush Dutch still lifes by Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Maria van Oosterwyck, the latter an enterprising businesswoman who deserves to be better known. In Gerrit van Honthorst's 1648 "Allegory of Painting," the portrait of a sweet young woman painting the portrait of a handsome man -- perhaps Honthorst himself -- establishes a sophisticated conceptual roundelay nearly as compelling as the rustic one depicted in Bruegel's wedding dance.

Crocker 4. Wayne Thiebaud Pies Pies Pies 051 California landscapes are a strength, especially Yosemite-addict Thomas Hill's. Modest holdings in Asian, Oceanic and African art join sprawling contemporary work, anchored by postwar Bay Area art. Prominent Sacramento artists Wayne Thiebaud (the Crocker did his first museum solo in 1951) and Stephen Kaltenbach are here. Thiebaud, 89, gets a triple header: work in the permanent collection, in a diverse show of promised gifts and a 2007 traveling survey.

But most galleries are overcrowded. Half as much art should be on view.
 
Take Kaltenbach's monumental painting of his dead father, seamlessly melding a gaunt Photo-realist portrait, a patterned abstract interlace and something between ganglia and a semiconductor lit up with pulses of ephemeral light. Intimacy is held in tension with epic scale.

A bench is provided for contemplation: Is this 14-foot wide picture -- by turns kitschy and profound, deeply moving and weirdly sentimental -- for real? It's flanked by busy doorways, and other works crowd your peripheral vision. A meditation on the related mysteries of mortality and art, installed alone in the right room, could be an unforgettable museum moment.

The Crocker's jam-packed debut is sort of like a newlywed couple's first open house, where all the wedding presents and family heirlooms are set out, just in case aunt Martha or cousin Earl show up. What works at home doesn't necessarily fly in a museum, though. The new Crocker has the tools; now's the time to use them.

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento, (916) 808-7000; opens Oct. 10. www.crockerartmuseum.org

Photos: Pieter Bruegel the Younger, "Peasant Wedding Dance," 1624; Albrecht Durer, "Nude with a Staff," 1498; Crocker Art Museum; Wayne Thiebaud, "Pies, Pies, Pies," 1961; Credit: Crocker Art Museum

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