A nice break from creeping post-modernism...

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Toledo Museum of Art, and I only wish I had visited the place earlier. In my state of ignorance, I had assumed that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) would be the the be all and end all, and I was both annoyed and disappointed by a very snarky Post Modernist attitude there, which takes the form of ridiculing and disrespecting much of the art on display. The DIA seems ungrateful for what it has, and they do a piss-poor job of showing it. They simply have it wrong. A Free Press article about the DIA's current director danced around the issue a few years ago:

...beneath Beal's starched demeanor beats the heart of a populist. He believes in the power of art to change lives, to ennoble the human condition. He believes that museums have a moral duty to speak to anyone who walks in the door, not just those who know the difference between Picasso and Pollock.

Beal believes these things so passionately that he has staked his professional reputation -- and that of the DIA -- on them. Six years after breaking ground on a $158-million renovation rooted in Beal's egalitarianism, the DIA reopens to the public Nov. 23. More than 5,000 works have been reinstalled, from ancient Egyptian art to cutting-edge contemporary paintings.

The collection has been heavily reinterpreted, relying less on traditional art history than on stories and themes pitched to average visitors. Thousands of labels have been rewritten in plain English. There are high-tech interactive displays, videos, explanatory panels, booklets and lift panels.

Many critics are suspicious. Beal has been accused in some quarters of dumbing down the DIA, and aficionados are holding their breath. Beal knows his legacy is irrevocably tied to the reinstallation. The chance to rethink one of America's greatest encyclopedic collections was the reason he left the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the DIA in 1999.

Dumbing down alone would bad enough. But it's the condescending way it's implemented that I find much more annoying. Why the need for all the captions with big letters? People can either read or they cannot. Or is the idea to have as few words as possible in order not to turn off "slower" readers? Quite frankly, it's as if the museum staff thinks that its patrons are children. The idea is to display art, not preside over a post-Modernist kindergarten class! And while I can do without gratuitous commentary about artists catering to white male privilege, I would find it more bearable it it were at least intelligently presented.

I'm pleased to report that I was not subjected to dumbed-down post-Modernist indoctrination at the Toledo Museum of Art. (Museum web site here.) They appreciate what they have, and display it in a coherent, accurate, and respectful manner. The reason for the overall feeling of coherence is that most of the paintings (which include Rembrandt, El Greco, Velazquez, and van Gogh and other impressionists) were painstakingly collected by glass titan Edward Drummond Libbey who founded the museum and bequeathed one of the most impressive art troves in the United States.

I'm not alone in being impressed:

...there are many reasons to visit this grand regional museum, whose collection is astounding for a city Toledo's size. The room with Greek, Egyptian and Assyrian antiquities is fabulous. The contemporary collection, which includes an early Christian Marclay video, an Op art room, a Juan Munoz sculpture and plenty of photo-realist paintings, is truly remarkable. And the cafe is pretty fabulous too! I'm totally looking forward to the upcoming Glass Pavilion, which will house their fabulous glass collection, originally purchased with Libbey Glass money.
I agree, except that I wouldn't call this a regional museum. It's world class (considered in the top ten), and while the collection is not as extensive as the DIA, the DIA only exhibits a small fraction of what it has (and does a piss poor job, IMO).

Plus, the Toledo Museum of Art serves the best museum food I've had!

I'm not much for photographing art at museums, as it rarely does it justice, and most of the works can be found online. But I was enchanted by a couple of Yves Tanguy paintings (I have an old Tanguy print, which I restored last year), and took a photo of one:


The artist seems to have been quite a character.


Guys like Tanguy make the stodgy post-Modernists with their stupefying drivel look like the antithesis of creativity.

posted by Eric on 06.12.10 at 08:36 PM


No wonder I find your point-of-view so reassuring on so many levels! Tanguy has been one of my favorite artists for many years. Do you by any chance like Frederick E. Church (Hudson River School)?

Aristomedes   ·  June 14, 2010 5:28 PM

I am delighted that you share my taste for Tanguy!

As to Frederic Edwin Church, yes! Not only do I like him, but I saw his and other Hudson School paintings at the Brooklyn Art Museum in the summer of 2007.

Eric Scheie   ·  June 15, 2010 6:13 PM

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