Tadao Ando’s new Clark, minimalist in its materials and understated presence, is more Zen than a billboard for its disparate architectural elements, more harmony than postmodern dissonance.
By David D’Arcy
At the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, a new Visitor Center designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Adao is discreet, even by the standards of tight-lipped, buttoned-down New England. Above ground, Ando’s redefinition of the Clark in concrete, glass and red granite is a long low wall on approach. Most of the new structure is underground. Much of the Clark’s landscape feels untouched. One of this sensitive building’s many achievements is the preservation of the grounds around it.
Sensitive, in concrete? That’s no small feat at a time when museum architecture tends to be destination logo-tecture – instantly readable bold façades or sculptural trademarks that visitors are willing to travel long distances to see, or so the creators of those buildings hope. Ando isn’t trying to make his building stand out or disappear. He’s being true to where it is. Because of that, a visit to the Clark is more satisfying than ever. And by those standards, the $145 million price tag of the Clark project seems, well, modest, as is the generic term Visitor Center for Ando’s muted elegance.
After World War II, when Sterling Clark decided to site a museum for his collection of Impressionist, American and Old Master paintings, his principal reason for choosing Williamstown, MA was its location outside the blast zone of a potential nuclear attack on New York City. Apart from that eccentric logic and the bombproof vault that he built for his pictures beneath the galleries (the art world’s version of a bunker) in the museum’s 1955 neo-classical structure, Clark was reasonable for a wealthy man with Cold War anxieties. He placed no restrictions on what the Clark Institute could do with those works, where they could be displayed or loaned or what might be added to the collection. Clark died in 1956, his wife in 1959. In 1973, a dark brick box-like structure went up next to Clark’s original building. Five years ago, Ando completed a mix of conservation labs and galleries in the trees uphill from the museum, also in concrete, glass and stone. This summer, after 13 years of excavation and construction, Ando’s new amalgam of galleries and public spaces bridges the art and the outdoors.
Like the disparate elements of the Clark, the ensemble brings together the work of many architects – Annabelle Selldorf for the 1955 building’s interiors, the firm Reed Hilderbrand for the landscape work, and Gensler as the supervising architect. As with any understated work, the mission was more complicated than the finished ensemble seems to be.
Then there’s the outdoors. Ando makes sure that the surroundings are part of his design. A glass facade, steps away from the entrance to his Visitor Center, opens onto a plaza with an expansive pool that extends for an acre. Sunlight entering through that glass penetrates into spaces below ground. On that lower level, the Clark’s huge new gallery for traveling exhibitions extends farther underground than the building’s visible footprint. A cave for art, echoing the bunker that Clark commissioned, just in case? It helps with climate control.
Above ground, the distinctive materials of Ando’s structure are red granite and concrete. The stone reflects a spectrum of shades, depending on where the sun is – color can be soothing during the long winters. It was transported from Minnesota, where the stone for the Clark’s 1973 building also originated.
Like that stone, much of the Clark – whether materials or styles — came from outside Williamstown. Its original 1955 museum commissioned by Sterling Clark is a temple-like structure set in a Berkshire meadow. The next addition to the Clark was a 1973 brutalist mass of brick, harsh in its right angles, designed by Pietro Belluschi (once dean at MIT) and the Architects Collaborative of Cambridge. Thirteen years ago the architect from Japan who still speaks no English came on board.
Ando, 72, has turned the place around, literally. Once an odd couple of buildings nestled in a lawn, looking out onto a street of fraternity houses – typical of museums that grow by accretion — the Clark in Ando’s reorientation now faces backward, toward majestic Stone Hill, which rises to the west and Southwest. Nature, once just a pleasant backdrop, has become part of the equation. Visitors are encouraged to come and walk the grounds, as if the Clark’s grounds were a village commons – with no admission fee for wandering around. The museum that holds so much Impressionism is offering its own Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Skating on the reflecting pools is promised for the winter.
It all seems warmly local, yet term “Berkshire Bilbao” comes up from time to time, conjuring up the image of Frank Gehry’s swirling Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the Basque city once notorious for separatism and political terror. There haven’t been armed rebels in Williamstown since the days of Ethan Allen in the Green Mountains to the North, and the crime rate is low. The label might better be applied to MASS MOCA in nearby North Adams, an abandoned industrial site which was conceived as a Guggenheim outpost, part of a plan to fuel economic growth in western Massachusetts (as the Guggenheim Bilbao, a billboard for its city, was conceived for its Basque region).
Ando’s new Clark, minimalist in its materials and understated presence, is more Zen than a billboard for its disparate architectural elements, more harmony than postmodern dissonance – a frame for the landscape and a vessel for the art. There’s also the Zen paradox in the task of transforming a place to enable it to stay the same. Another paradox is the soft feel of the structure’s concrete, Ando’s favorite material, remarkably adaptable given the Visitor Center’s mass and volume. Those who knew the Clark will find a new coherence there. Visitors will discover a serene place that now looks as if it has always been that way.
Since the art of the Clark’s collection is the institution’s reason for being, it is another standard by which the architecture will be measured. Ando’s gallery below ground was a place for partygoers at the building’s opening. Its value as an exhibition space will be tested when modern works from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. are installed there in August. So far, that space promises to be all about art – no windows, no jagged walls, no permanent site-specific installations – all reasons to be optimistic.
Upstairs, at ground level, bronzes from the Shanghai Museum are on view, evidence of a collaboration that the Clark intends to pursue. The display is lit elegantly to encourage a close look at the bronzes while the explanatory materials help the visitor see the works.
You feel the greatest interior transformation in the 1955 building, where the architect Annabelle Selldorf removed walls to ease the experience of viewing paintings, creating spaces for sculpture among American (Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent) and European pictures. Many of the works on view look better now, as they do in a spacious room dedicated to Renoirs, where you can follow the painter back and forth through portraits, landscapes and still-life. Renoir, a crowd-pleaser, doesn’t work for everybody. The skeptical just might be converted in Selldorf’s renovation. (Start with Renoir’s A Box at the Theater – At the Concert, from 1880.) Dancers in sculptures and paintings by Edgar Degas won’t require much convincing.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr (1873), where a rugged mythological man/beast in the grasp of four gently aggressive young females barely puts up a fight, was painted in Paris as Impressionism was taking off. To say that the much-scorned Bouguereau was overtaken by the then-new Impressionist upstarts is an understatement. It’s not an obvious Yankee style, either. From 1888 to 1901, the picture was on the wall of a bar at a hotel in New York, and then bought and locked away by a collector who wanted its celebration of group lust unseen. To our good fortune, Sterling Clark bought it in 1942. Now back at the Clark Institute after hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the renovation, the massive picture can be spied through one of the portals of Selldorf’s Renoir gallery, a room away from the understatements of Impressionism.
The Clark’s Old Master classics, Virgin and Child by Piero della Francesca, portraits of a Renaissance man and woman by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio and Dying Christ by Perugino, benefit from the harmony of the new interiors and from the chance to see them without the inevitable crowds at other American museums which own works by those artists. Contemplation is a goal that Ando and Selldorf share.
The renovation can take you to pictures that you might never have seen on earlier visits to the Clark. For me, that was the case with St. John the Baptist Preaching (1593-95), a haunting mannerist scene painted on panel in red by Abraham Bromaert where figures are overshadowed by an ominous grove of trees – another perspective on art and nature. (Checking the acquisition date, I realized that I hadn’t seen the smallish picture because it was bought in 2013, during renovations.) It’s a gem of a painting that might go unnoticed in a larger museum.
Renovations are still underway in the Manton Research Center, the 1973 Clark building that’s been much maligned. An oversized chunk of brick for a green meadow, the structure (where I entered the Clark on my first visit) has a sunny atrium, comfortable well-proportioned reading rooms, and a terrace on its top floor that offers the best view of woods and clearings for those who won’t make the walk uphill to the Ando’s Stone Hill Gallery (now called the Lunder Center at Stone Hill). It will be devoted to research, I’m told. The Clark’s renovation was right to preserve it, if only to help in demarcating the plaza space created by the ensemble of three structures. To be fair, the building also has more character than most of the brick campus-clone structures on the Williams College campus down the street. (And few museums want to be in the company of the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art, which plans to raze the former home of the American Folk Art Museum alongside it to accomodate a corporate-scale enlargement.)
When you Google “Clark Art Institute,” a photograph of the 1973 Belluschi building comes up instead of anything more recent – the spirit of the past persisting? So far, the square-ish place has a new lease on life, which promises to last a while. For now, everyone’s eyes are on Ando’s reorientation of the Clark toward the nature around it and the art inside.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.