Bearing Gifts

Bearing Gifts

The Yale University Art Gallery is open again and with it some fresh, crowd-pleasing installations. Among them are highlights from the museum’s Modern European collection, a reimagining of the African art displays and a set of newly acquired works by Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. Even the normally stoic guards were smiling on the gallery’s opening day, May 14, as visitors with free, timed-entry passes wandered through most of YUAG’s space for the first time since October, when an attempted reopening proved premature.

For now, YUAG is open only Friday through Sunday, with advance tickets available online and walk-up tickets on a first-come basis. At the front reception desk, situated in front of a vibrant new Sol LeWitt drawing, staff suggested I start at the top of the building, level 4M, where the new Rothkos and Klines are on display.

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All six pieces were a gift from the Friday Foundation, honoring the legacy of collectors Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang. This small installation, on view through July 18, offers an intimate look at the works of two midcentury masters, juxtaposing earlier and later pieces with sometimes surprising results. For example, a surprisingly realistic painting by the famous abstractionist Kline, Portrait of Nijinksy (1942), depicts the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinksy in costume as the heartbroken puppet Petrushka. Hung nearby is a later effort, an untitled study for Kline’s abstract painting Nijinksy (1950), now in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art but reproduced beside the study for comparison. Here, Kline returns to the same subject matter but treats it in an entirely new way. Is the puppet’s large, rectangular hat in the realistic Portrait echoed in the black rectangle outlined in the later abstract painting? Two other untitled works by Kline help us notice the new moves he’s making and the progression when, late in his life, he brings color back into his composition. The pieces by Rothko, too, give a sense of the artist’s development over time. On the third floor, you’ll find another painting by Kline and two more Rothkos that broaden the scope.

Downstairs from 4M is a new, temporary installation of Modern European works—“greatest hits” from the collection that include big names like Matisse, Dali, Miró, Duchamp and Kandinsky. Hung prominently near the stairwell is Picasso’s First Steps (1943), a wartime portrait of a mother stooping to hold the hands of a child who has just learned to walk. The mother is flat, painted as if to fade into the canvas. She’s dressed in black, her eyes cast downward at the child. In contrast, his colorful face and blue garments are three-dimensional and textured, and his eyes are focused right on us. His naïve smile seems uncertain as he stumbles awkwardly forward. The painting’s label references World War II, but its contents resonate today: “The war can be viewed as a thematic subtext to the painting’s portrayal of the determined but uncertain first steps of a child and its evocation of hope in the face of precarious circumstances.”

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The Modern European installation, on view through July 18, also includes some delightful surprises. Among them is Kasimir Malevich’s Tochil’schik Printsip Mel’kaniia (The Knife Grinder or Principle of Glittering) (1912-13). In this colorful abstract painting, Malevich has chopped and diced and julienned the parts of a knife grinder and his sharpening wheel to convey a dazzling, whirring sense of motion, his foot pumping the pedal, his knife flashing as he touches it to the whetstone. Oskar Kokoschka’s View of the Thames from the Vickers Building, Millbank (1962) is a gorgeous, smeared pink landscape of London, with the river tipping toward the lower right corner of the painting as if it might pour out of the corner of its gilded frame.

After making my way down through the third and second floors, I landed at last in the first-floor African galleries. Newly rearranged by culture rather than themes, the gallery now offers groupings that allow visitors to notice some of the shared characteristics of pieces from particular parts of the continent. One niche, for example, features textiles and various objects made of wood—loom pulleys, reliquaries, gong mallets, headdresses, masks—all originating from cultures and nations on Africa’s western coast including Cameroon, Gabon, Liberia, Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

But perhaps the most compelling feature of the renovated gallery is a new slide show of images of ancient African rock art, some of it as much as 90,000 years old. Ingeniously projected on the outside of the cylindrical concrete stairwell, these photographs by David Coulson are a compelling reminder of where we come from and the vast scope of time. I sat awhile on a bench facing the stairwell and watched these ancient images brighten and fade on what passes for a contemporary wall of rock, until a human handprint emerged. Surrounded by white pigment, it stood out clearly from the rock on which it had been traced sometime between 10,000 BC and 300 CE at what is known as the Tin Kani site in Algeria. The seven months it had taken for the museum to reopen melted into the infinitesimal.

Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Fri 3-7pm, Sat-Sun noon-4pm
(203) 432-0601 |

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by Jessica Smolinski and provided courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.

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