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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Atlanta's High Museum of Art

Atlanta's High Museum of Art                              
Meier's central atrium.
The High Art Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, was not what I'd expected. In some ways it exceeded my expectations, in others, not so much. Ensconced at 1280 Peachtree Street NE, the museum is about two miles north of Atlanta's congested downtown in the arty neighborhood of the Woodruff Arts Center. As with many younger art museums in the U.S., the museum is really a complex of architecturally related buildings, in this case joined by glass skywalks. I arrived shortly after the museum opened on a day which, fortuitously, they offered free admission. That was the good news. The bad news was, I had to walk half-way around the building to find the main entrance which is buried deep within the museum complex's sunny Sifly Piazza. The good news was that dozens of kids, their art teachers, and their parental chaperones (below) were taking advantage of the free admission, enthusiastically learning about, and enjoying, the art. The bad news was they did so in an environment obviously not designed acoustically by either Richard Meier nor Renzo Piano with high-pitched, pre-adolescent voices in mind.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Atlanta school children congregate atop Michael Lin's floor mural,
Utah Sky at the base of Meier's atrium.
Hit My Summer Hard and Fast,
1974, Jim Dine (an Ohio artist).
The High Museum is named for Hattie High who, in 1926, donated her Tudor style home and art collection to become Atlanta's first art museum, though the core collection originated with the Atlanta Art Association founded in 1905. In the years that followed, several other neighboring homes and structures added square footage for the museum's growing collection, if not unity. In 1955 a nondescript museum building was built adjoining the High mansion which began to bring the museum's collection more or less under one roof. In 1980 a Richard Meier-designed masterpiece of museum art more than doubling the museum's floor space. That was followed in 2000 by Renzo Piano's three-building addition, an embracing complex of subdued unity, which in no way competes with the art within, nor on the outside with Meier's dramatic masterpiece. All this rises to an attractive, impressively functional, museum, but also contributed to my having difficulty finding the main entrance (in the Wieland Pavilion).
High Museum of Art floor plan. The Richard Meier core is at upper-left,
the remainder of the complex is by Renzo Piano.
Raphael, 1855, Thomas Crawford
For the benefit of those visiting the High, the complex complex is basically four separate buildings (above), the Wieland Pavilion (photography and contemporary art); the Cousins Special Exhibitions Gallery (the Meier-designed, centerpiece unit); the Stent Wing (Folk Art, Modern Art, and decorative arts); and the Chambers Wing (temporary exhibits). There's also a small theater, a big auditorium, a high-end restaurant (Table 1280), a sculpture plaza, and assorted extraneous structures making up the remainder of the Woodruff Fine Arts Center (named for Coca-Cola heir, Robert W. Woodruff, the museums major benefactor).

Supreme Hardware, 1974, Richard Estes

The Shade, Auguste Rodin
The museum itself is fairly easy to navigate once you get inside and realize you're dealing with not one but FOUR separate and unequal buildings joined by skywalks, which seem to be something of a fetish in Atlanta architecture (they're everywhere, all over town). The art collection is uneven. Sculpture (especially that of the past two centuries) is strong (above, right), with a couple nice Rodin pieces. The French government made a gift to the museum of Rodin's The Shade (left) in memory of 106 Atlanta art patrons killed in a tragic plane crash as they flew home from a visit to Paris in 1962. The museum's decorative arts and furniture holdings are also strong, if somewhat peculiar in a few cases. The museum's Folk Art, African Art, and African-American Art seem likewise strong.

Fourth of July Parade, 1886, Alfred Cornelius Howland
Platters that shatter traditional art
The weakest area of the museums holdings seems to be in painting. Contemporary work abounds, but over all, the museum's painting collection lacks both breadth and depth, most of its oldest works by largely second-rate, inconsequential artists. Though the museum claims to own two works by Monet, a Pissarro, a Bazille, a Toulouse-Lautrec, and a Corot, I either missed them all, or they were in storage. The American painting collection is largely of the 20th-century variety. The European works are even fewer and of secondary importance, highlighted by individual works by Tiepolo, Durer, and Bellini. There seems to be acres of empty wall space. It's a beautiful container architecturally, but frequently leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of content.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Atlanta school children find a giant reflective disk endlessly fascinating.


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