When he was designing the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth the great American architect Louis Kahn said that he wanted it to resemble “a friendly home.” That might surprise anyone familiar with Kahn’s museums—the Kimbell, the Yale Center for British Art, or the Yale University Art Gallery—but I think he was simply saying that he wanted his building to wall out cultural intimidation. What he, or any museum these days, might want to wall in is another story.
At the newly reopened Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—described in these pages by Frank Rose, who is always on the cutting edge of everything—they want visitors to come in and create their own twenty-first-century design experience. At Harvard where the art museums have also just reopened after six years, Ethan Lasser says they want visitors to listen in as the masterpieces talk to each other across continents and centuries, and they have arranged them to do just that.
And then there is the Newark Museum, subject of the loan exhibition at the Winter Antiques Show this month—not newly reopened, not opulently funded, not designed by marquee architects—but a place that will lift your spirits nonetheless. Bringing art to the people makes the heart proud, of course, but you also have to bring people to the art, and that is what they do at Newark. Ulysses Grant Dietz, chief curator and curator of decorative arts, is the Duke Ellington of the museum world—able to do anything and everything on a tidy canvas just as Ellington did with the three minutes of a 78 platter. Dietz’s words await you here and the Newark Museum does as well.
We have other riches in this issue, enough, I think, to qualify it as our own museum without walls: Amelia Peck and Paula Bagger’s article on Prince Demah Barnes, an enslaved Boston portraitist, is a major discovery that should open up a rich field of inquiry on hidden African-American artists for years to come; and just when you thought there might be nothing left to say about Alfred Stieglitz, Carol Troyen has brought together all the portraits of him by his contemporaries to show how artists reckoned with the man who changed their world; and Jack London, photographer? Thanks to Phillip Prodger’s article, we see that the old socialist had his own curious aesthetic. Finally, there is the work of my favorite contrarian, James Gardner, on the Habsburgs, those masters of aesthetic intimidation.
Louis Kahn’s “friendly home” could be said to take material shape in the three beautiful interiors we show. In their quite different ways, each heals the irrational divisions of design and art, past and present, inhabiting territory where beauty, much abused these days, is not beside the point but the main point.