In the mid-1970’s, when my brother attended the Rhode Island School of Design, he and his classmates used to refer to RISD ironically as “the Harvard of the art schools,” an unfortunate tagline apparently coined by the college marketing department. I thought of that the other day when my son Sam and I visited the Harvard Art Museums, exquisitely expanded and fundamentally re-imagined by the Museums’ curators and the Renzo Piano Building Workshop.
Surrounding a stunning light-filled interior courtyard, the galleries rise in open tiers, offering an astonishing cross-section of cultures, periods, and styles. As has been widely noted, the new museum brings together three existing institutions and their collections: the Fogg, focused on American and European art; the Busch-Reisinger, devoted to works from Germanic cultures; and the Sackler, representing Asia and the Middle East. On the face of it, trying to combine so much diversity into a coherent whole seems like a daunting task, and indeed, there are some pretty startling transitions and juxtapositions. Here’s Fra Angelico and Gilbert Stuart, Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly, a tiny jade Buddah and a bronze bust of an African king. Conceptual pieces, installations, a Jenny Holzer chase sign, and way up at the top a remarkable intersection of art an technology: a room full of Mark Rothko murals, badly faded over time, and restored not with pigment but with projected light. The effect was genuinely magical, a sleight of hand so subtle and effective that it was impossible to rests the urge to hold a piece of paper up to the light, trying to figure out how they did it.
Sam is 11, curious and open-minded. For Christmas we gave him a series of field trips to local art museums, and this was our first trip. We agreed to just wander, with no particular plan, lingering on anything that caught our fancy but free to move right along. This turned out to be just the right approach for a collection so profoundly varied, and so very, very fine. It was like a tasting menu of the world’s great artistic traditions, just a bite or two from each, but each bite nearly perfect. The Harvard of the art museums.