Gold Standard on Madison: The Morgan
America may have abandoned the gold standard in 1933–but not in Murray Hill. Now that the dust from the final installment of the Morgan Library & Museum’s restoration has settled, It will surprise no one that the dust is purest gold. Of course it’s no secret that the Morgan is in stronger position than most institutions. By maintaining the highest curatorial standards and making a courtly bow to current realities, it has been able to perfect a balancing act that no one else has achieved with such grace. There’s a philosophy behind it that works.
Instead of investing in the kind of blockbusters-and-buildlings that characterize so many of our museums, the Morgan has decided to simply make the most of what it has: location, collections, dedication and endowment, which have been allocated to the creation of a soaring atrium (building up, not out), a jewel of a wooden auditorium with wondrous acoustics, and the fine-tuning of a restaurant, a cafe, and a gift shop tucked into one side of the building. The galleries have been kept small, and filled only with the best that there is.
A special fund from six donors has financed the restoration of J.P. Morgan’s own sumptuous library where, in addition to original rooms with shelves of priceless books, manuscripts, paintings, and objects, you can find within a few steps iconic treasures from several millennia. Nothing hits you over your head, or in your face. Except what’s on view.
Americana? In the rotunda there’s the Declaration of Independence, Houdon’s cast of Washington’s face, Lincoln’s notes for debating Douglas, and a letter from Jefferson to his daughter Martha.
Europe? In the East Room, a letter from Queen Elizabeth (the first), Galileo’s declaration of innocence, a Bach Cantata, and Chopin’s ubiquitous Polonaise. And don’t overlook an 1818 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, proofs of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Dickens’s manuscript for A Christmas Carol, stories and poems by Hemingway, or (in case, by now, you want to thank Someone for the largesse) a Gutenberg bible. Keep going.
In the West Room, you’ll find two Memlings, a Cranach, and a Tintoretto. There are cases of tiny cuneiform seals (thoughtfully accompanied by enlarged photographs), pre-Christian jewels from Sarmatia, Mediaeval gold from the North Sea to the Danube, and exquisite silver for every occasion. Yet, despite this profusion of excellence, everything is mounted to allow you to spend time with each object without feeling fatigued.
In the Atrium, you can admire a stunning conceptual work, The Living Word, by Xu Bing, rising from the floor to the roof: piles of modern black pictographs―niao, the Chinese character for bird―taking flight, changing colors as they rise, and changing shape also, from Mao’s simplification, to standardized Chinese text, until finally, all in white, they become the Chinese pictograph of antiquity. It’s exhilarating time travel that greets you as you enter the Museum, and Installation of the work was part of the exhibition; visitors were able to watch Xu Bing supervising a crew with a cherry picker and a lot of patience suspending the pictographs, one by one, as they swoop toward the sky visible through the Atrium’s ceiling. It’s the perfect expression of the Morgan’s philosophy: using modern sensibility as a way into art history. But what sensibility, and what art!
Currently, you can see Dickens at 200, seventeen exquisite drawings by Ingres, and David, Delacroix, and Revolutionary France, on loan from the Louvre—even images of the Morgan itself, from its site in 1850 through the creation of Renzo Piano’s current makeover.
Now, more about the philosophy: the Morgan always owned the mother lode. But they have moved it adroitly into the 21st century – not by dumbing down their presentations, but by the judicious addition of imagination and wit. Yes, wit! On the way to the Dickens, you’ll spy a single New Yorker cartoon on the passageway wall: the author sitting in his publisher’s office with a manuscript, as the publisher says “Mr. Dickens! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Make up your mind!” This leavens and humanizes the greatness of the Morgan’s achievements.
In Illuminating Fashion―this year’s look at the evolution of styles from Mediaeval to Renaissance based on images seen in illuminated books―the show’s conception was as brilliant as the illuminations themselves. Curator Roger Wieck had a timeline painted on the walls of the gallery, above the images. And just below the timeline, Wieck added some sly, very contemporary commentary: “Late Gothic Vertigo 1460s and 70s,” or “Tormentors are Always Well–dressed.” and “Salome and Herodias in Killer Clothes.” Because the aesthetics of the show were so impeccable, the commentary was a dash of reality; these were no longer stylized miniature works of art in gilt and saturated colors, but a mirror of what real people wore centuries ago. A slight readjustment of perspective; a big readjustment of attitude.
And the Morgan’s new philosophy isn’t limited to the galleries. Within its jewel of a wooden concert hall, it has booked a lavish schedule of public programs related to the exhibitions, and a top-notch concert calendar, beginning in September with the Boston Early Music Festival. Some outstanding lectures are on the agenda and, in a highly anticipated program coup, several operas from Emerging Pictures’ Opera in Cinema, with dream casts in HD live from opera houses all over the world. The Museum’s July trial balloon—William Kentridge’s production of Magic Flute from La Scala—was sold out. Now, coming up, imagine Tosca with Bryn Terfel, Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Georghiu—conducted by Antonio Pappano! (see our post of May 31, 2010) and yes, still more.
I’ve saved the best for last: at the Morgan, shows don’t disappear when they’re taken down; they migrate to its outstanding Web site: beautifully designed, shockingly easy to navigate, a virtual monument to intellect and intuition. So if you regret what you missed or want to revisit it at leisure, it’s there for you. So is the entire season of concerts, films, operas, and lectures, and priceless resources, waiting to be bookmarked: the Morgan
By now, you may have grasped the idea that the Morgan is always worth the trip. Yet not just for the art and the atmosphere. It’s deeply civilized—a last bastion of a kinder, gentler more personal time, but with an artful mix of today’s energy and high technology and none of its angst. Small enough to be encompassed, still large enough in its ambitions and holdings to provide an epicurean feast every time. In an age of big shows and bigger shops, there’s nothing like it. Make it a habit.