Tag Archives: Philadelphia Museum of Art

A Brush with Placeness

For as long as anyone can remember, the little stretch of midtown Philadelphia real estate has been just one thing: the 1400 block of Cherry Street – a narrow byway of such little distinction, most people have thought it was just a sunless, easy-to-miss alleyway that runs alongside one of the finest buildings a city could possess, Frank Furness’ glorious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. But, what a driver sees (there are few pedestrians, other than art students, who make their way down there) when zipping through that block is not the wonderful front of PAFA, but its nicely bricked but otherwise inconsequential and street-unfriendly north-side façade, and some back doors; and, across the street, a similarly semi-interesting side to another of the school’s buildings, the Hamilton. By block’s end, where Cherry meets 15th Street, there is a corner convenience store and a parking lot.

If ever there was a place so close to great art and, at the same time, a whisker’s distance from great architecture, that had so little presence and placeness as this street … well, we defy you to find one. Most people don’t know it’s there; it’s the kind of street you don’t even realize you’re on, and once past it, can’t quite remember having been on it. In a big city, it is one of those nonentity streets, a shortcut, a place where you might find a parking space. It’s not the road to nowhere – it is nowhere.

But, now, it is on the verge of becoming somewhere. Some locales are born with placeness, some achieve placeness and others have placeness thrust upon them. The 1400 block of Cherry Street falls into the latter category and, with the help of big bucks and an artist of American iconography, is destined to be transformed into, oddly, a destination.

If you walk on Cherry Street due east from the Academy, crossing Broad Street, you will more than likely bump into a burly construction worker helping to put the finishing touches on the new, hulking, even monstrous addition to the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It is this massive taxpayer-funded project, with its gigantic main entrance staring right down Cherry Street, that kickstarted the idea of a plaza of some sort as a way to prettify the view for conventioneers, and at the same time create a connecting walkway between the two PAFA buildings, and at the same time devise a tourist-y locational conceit. The improved area would be seen as and deemed a conduit – feeding who? Doctors here for the orthodontists’ annual convocation? – to what’s being marketed now as Museum Mile, a jeweled cultural belt along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the Barnes Foundation, Rodin Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art as the most glittering of the gems.

With money from H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest ­– a local multi-multi-millionaire whose stated goal is to spend down all his money, so that it and he hit zero at about the same time – and a design by the distinguished landscape-architecture firm Olin, all that was needed was a landmark. Enter Claes Oldenburg (sadly, sans Coosje van Bruggen). His outsized renderings of commonplace items – spoons and buttons, electrical plugs and garden spades – are brilliant objectifications of industrially-designed products, illuminating their art by eliminating their function, and, lately, honoring extinct or endangered items made in the 20th century, like typewriter erasers. (In fact, just a quarter-mile south of the officially-named Lenfest Plaza stands Oldenburg’s towering “Clothespin,” a 35-year-old work of note across from City Hall.)

So, the centerpiece of the plaza (groundbreaking for which occurred last week) is an apropos, if obvious, art-linked object: A giant paint brush, complete with humongous paint drip. Nicely, it will lean out from the plaza and be visible on Broad Street, like Lady Liberty’s torch – its red-paint coated bristles acting as the beacon, its long, thin body angling down like a finger pointing to and, ultimately, anchoring in the plaza. From there, Olin has designed a self-contained yet open-at-both-ends hard-surface fuselage, complete with a long and curving bench, tables and chairs, and congregating and activity areas. It is easy to picture it as the outdoor public space that the building-bound Academy has craved: a place for students to mill in between classes, a spot for performance art, a location for post-openings soirees, maybe even clothesline shows for starving young artists. It makes the institution seem less cloistered, and brings its esoteric doings – mysterious to a suspicious, generally culture-averse population – into the light and air.

But how it will be used – how the institution will permit it to be used – will determine if it attains a placeness. The city – indeed, every major city – is peppered with plazas that, despite good intentions, are arid, unfriendly dead zones, little- or unused, stark scapes that even pigeons avoid. Too much or too little sun, no place comfortable to sit, bad feng-shui, purposelessly sited as an ego trip for a politician or donor. (Olin, masterful as they are, have done a few of these themselves.) After all the money spent on this Lenfest Plaza, will the Academy permit its students to post notices on its surfaces, or to paint on its walls, or rally or party in it? Will outsiders – nearby office workers, those conventioneers, other tourists and city residents – feel welcome to be in it, comfortable to use it? Will it be a vital space or merely a decorated canyon?

To the point: Can you impose placeness on a place merely by making it into something that is supposed to have it? Can placeness be legislated and design-built? Or is it just something that, inexplicably, just is, all of its own, with a power that it simply has and imbues, and which no one can control? Why do young children eschew certain toys and prefer to play with the boxes they came in? How do plans fire imagination, and how does imagination find the very thing it needs in order to sing, or simply to find a resonance in? Oldenburg’s brush, like the 1400 block of Cherry Street, has two ends; will it point down, attracting simpatico souls to a place they recognize as something of their own and of themselves, or will it point them away from the plaza, propelling thoughts and gazes elsewhere?

We wish it luck, the Lenfest Plaza; we hope it “works.” It has big guns and good brains behind it, and the city can use it. But placeness is a funny thing – it may not be where you want it to be, but it is where you least expect it, and most need it, when you come upon it. And you know it when you feel it – the way a painter knows that that stroke of her brush is just the right one.

 

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Stop and Yo!

OK, a question (and it is, perhaps, of the trick variety, so think carefully before answering): To one side of you is a collection of some of the greatest art ever produced, all there for the viewing and, if you play your cards right, you can even see it all for free; to the other side of you, mere feet away from the previously alluded to fine-art cornucopia, is a larger-than-life bronze, of competent but pedestrian quality, atop a pedestal and sculpted to look like an idealized, classical heroic version of the lead character in a series of hit movies – indeed, it was created as a prop for one of those films.

The question: Which one – the great art, the movie prop – would you stand in line to see and have your picture taken with?

The answer is not so obvious.

Let’s fill in the blanks. That art collection? It’s the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the world’s finest repositories of humans’ greatest endeavors.

That statue? It’s of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, fashioned for the movie “Rocky III” by A. Thomas Schomberg.

Depending on which touring shows arrive at the museum in any given year, its annual attendance hovers around 800,000 visitors. There is no official tally as to the numbers of tourists who want to see and be seen with the Rocky statue (and how many of them who never venture past the statue to enter the museum), but they are there, in queues, all day and into the night, with a curiosity and a passion that many of the museum attendees do not have; it is not uncommon to drive by the museum at midnight or later and see, out of the corner of one’s eye, the flash of a camera, and in that momentary brightening, spy groups of people standing in front of the Rocky statue, striking a similar pose to the figure’s aggressively victorious stance.

And it is impossible to know how many tourists and even city residents climb or run up the art museum’s grand steps not with an eagerness to see the new Monet show or Eakins’ “Gross Clinic,” but, rather, to emulate what has, amazingly, become a global, iconic action based on a moment from a 35-year-old movie: standing at the top, arms raised, bouncing weight from foot to foot, staring out at the Parkway below and the city spread out beyond, hearing in one’s head the trumpet-y “Rocky Theme” and saying, to one’s self or aloud, “Yo, Adrian!” You probably know what we mean.

To these people, the art museum is a mere backdrop – it has become the movie prop (the museum steps are even now referred to as the Rocky Steps – just Google it), in a supreme example of the reality-distorting power of popular culture and iconography, the defining image and the empathetic moment: we are all “Rocky,” but we are not all that Jasper Johns in the hall, or those Duchamps in the back room, and we are not all what many in the “Rocky” contingent think that that building represents: an elitism, keeping the uninitiated at arm’s length. Though this is not true – there is far more deep identification and emotion in any gallery of the museum, and a greater opportunity for life-changing sudden awareness, enlightenment and growth there than can be had by posing with the Rocky statue – it is, however, a truism, a “truthiness” felt by and strongly held by many, if not most, “regular” people.

What is it, in terms of placeness, that draws people to the Rocky statue? Is it more fascination with all things movie-ish, or does it have something like the presence of a shrine, or, in the manner of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, with its collection of stars‘ hand- and footprints, is it – within its context – representative of both? Why does it attract so many when superior sculptures nearby get nary a notice? And, the question has to be asked, what is it that makes those others “superior”? Who says they are, and why? Is the Rocky statue “art”? By what definition of “art” is it not? And who says nay or yea? Does it come down to the difference between what’s good for you and what’s fun for you? Is it a flashpoint in the people’s art vs. snooty art divide? Or is it something more profound: Does the little area at the foot of the art museum steps, with the gladiator-ish bronze boxer installed there, have more placeness, make us feel better to be there, than the museum, with all its value and importance? Or is it simply a matter of context and siting: Would there be as much interest in this semi-artless creation if it had remained at the Spectrum arena, where it was ensconced for a while, or more interest had it stayed at the top of the steps, where it was positioned for the movie and then left there until enraged art aficionados booted it off, calling it an insult? In other words, are the lines of snapshooters there because the statue is there or because the steps are there, and that the steps give the statue a life that only its association with the building and its idealized vision of it in the movie can bestow? Is Rocky the draw, or is it our cultural memories? Rocky or “Rocky”? Is it actual placeness or, like a contact high, contact-placeness – the thing it’s in “contact” with being a totally fictional entity?

We heard someone say, recently, that when they have out-of-towners visit them here in Philadelphia – a city that offers venues for great theater and music and art, and sports, too – the only two places they are sure to take them are the Liberty Bell and the Rocky statue.

Yo.

 

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Sculpture Garden, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art and its grounds are a facsimile of the Acropolis of Athens: a flat-topped mini-mountain with temples sprouting forth. The museum building sits astride a rocky promontory named Faire Mount, once topped by an earthen-walled reservoir that held the city’s water supply; aptly called the “Parthenon on the Parkway,” the Greek-inspired structure and its site offer dramatic bird’s-eye views – one side looks down on the Champs-Elysees-style Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and from the opposite side, the flowing waters, elegant dam and sinuous valley of the Schuylkill. Over the past two years, in a project almost as massive an undertaking as the original 1815 reservoir, there has been an excavation of parts of the bluff for a parking facility and an accompanying designed reuse of the ground above, actually a green roof, for a sculpture garden. The opening for this welcome open-air addition was in September, but we explored it on a quieter day.

First, it feels odd to be inhabiting space on the grounds (formerly a rock and grass cliff face) where you couldn’t go before – so, it is like visiting unknown territory surrounded by the familiar. The landscape plan, by Olin, utilizes the changes in grade to create terraces and garden rooms (but with views both in and out, above and below and, as we’ll see, through). The Museum itself calls this a “gallery without walls,” but many of the terraces do have walls, only they are glass. Despite the amount of plate glass a city-dweller passes by every day, not much of it is freestanding, so there is something strange about its presence in the landscape, generally, and its use as exterior fencing, specifically. However, the surreality aside, using glass as a frame and railing around the terrace edges has the dual ability of being not only a transparent, discrete and nondisruptive border but also a palpable design presence in the greater environment – there, and yet not there. Of course, the plantings are new, so the “garden” part seems sparse and small in relation to the open space, which is magnified even more by the elevation of the site, creating a kind of natural pedestal for the artwork and for the viewer. The vistas out to the Schuylkill, its west bank rolling hills, the tree-lined parkway and its background of Fairmount Park, and the increasing density of high rises as the view heads east – all is hugely entertaining and encompassing. The question is: Can the sculpture garden compete in such a setting?

The inaugural exhibition in the garden is of stone works by Isamu Noguchi, whose pieces are diverse enough to make one think that this might be a group show – except that the sensibility is familiar in all. One particularly fortuitous pairing is of a Brancusi-like column standing against a backdrop of The Philadelphian apartments – both having a sameness in patterning and color, with their grey and white striping, the one undulating totemic form and the other massive edifice, in a stand-off conversation across the Parkway.

In answer to the question posed above – yes, the sculpture garden can compete. This is a bit of the Tuileries with a penthouse command, made up of contrasting colored gravel paths, green knolls, geometrically aligned trees and captivating captured scenic panoramas. Stylish in and of itself, it coexists with the surrounding beauty of the river as well as the nearby built environment, blending the two and mixing them up in an unfolding of defined spaces with both hard and soft edges and plenty of vantage points – for the garden rooms themselves, for the larger environment and for the sculptures that will inhabit the lofty perches created.

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