Kate Abbott: Taking in the new Clark


The sun is baking hot, and the crew laying down sod remind me of the July days when I mucked out the sheep pen in worn-thin jeans and boots and a t-shirt knotted at the ribs and had to stop every half hour or so for a drink at the hose nozzle and a breath of ammonia-free air.

The new approach follows a gravel path along a driveway still smelling of tar. Along a granite wall, I come to the glass doorways and walk through to the terrace, and the landscape opens out.

The reflecting pool stretches away in three tapering tiers, with a maple tree at the farthest point. Trust an art museum to get perspective lines right.

I am standing inside the new Clark Art Institute, waiting for a press lunch.

It's hard to take in. Here we are around a white linen table cloth while the people in the buffet line are speaking French and Spanish and Japanese. We are looking across this stretch of calm water 13 inches deep to the grassy bank and the split-rail fence and the slope of stone hill. We can see new trees and the stacked trunks of the trees they must have replaced. The cows are either over the brow of the hill or inside in the shade.

And it's an almost physical dislocation, because that ankle-deep lake ought to be a parking lot. I've known this place for almost 20 years. My freshman entry at Williams had a bonfire on Stone Hill. I've hunted fireflies up there and walked Mary Lawrence's dog there on a night too dark to see the path and felt the way with my feet.

It's the same. It's all changed.

These renovations have been 10 years in the making. In my first summer with the magazine I wrote about the first leg, when they built the Stone Hill Center up the hill to house the art conservation lab and some small, flexible gallery space with the best view in town. They aligned the building to catch different light in different rooms. That was six years ago.

Since then I've seen a scale model and a film rendering of the plans and walked around the construction site and (in April) stood on the roof balcony to look out over the bulldozers ... but I've never eally understood what it would feel like to walk around inside the new spaces.

Now I know.

You approach in a long curve around the lily pond, where the lilies are really blooming pink and white, and along a granite wall, until the glass doors of the visitor's center block your view. To your right, a flexible gallery space holds 3,000-year-old Chinese bronzes on loan from the Shanghai Museum -- coiled serpents forming a giant bronze bowl, two cats climbing the rim of a vessel to become handles, a herd of water buffalo on the lid of a container for cowrie shells, pots with dragon heads or feet or tails. A row of screens shields them from the sunlight falling through a wall of glass.

To your left, a long open space of visitor's center and cafe and shop angles away toward the new glassed-in entrance of the origial marble building. (One of their ongoing challenges in all this is that the three original buildings looked, in order, like a Greek temple, a granite office block built by Frank Lloyd Wright, and a warehouse built by a 1960s public school architect. They knocked down the last one to build the space where we're standing. And directly before us two more doors open onto the terrace out to the sheet of water.

The architects spoke to us, and then they turned us loose into the permenant collection. I got hold of Sally Morse Majewski to show me the new works on loan -- Rodin sculpture, a glass mosque lamp made by a 19th-century Frenchman, the painting of North African barber giving a shave to a man sitting cross-legged, leaning gently against him.

And she showed me their newest acquisition, a Carpeaux of Daphnis and Cloe. He is bending to whisper to her, and she is leaning into him, laughing, in white marble.

After that we slipped away, my intern and I. I had already spent a couple of hours taking with the Clark curator of the Chinese bronzes and the Chinese-American curator from Minniapolis who worked with him, and my intern and I had already spent an hour the day before talking with the contemporary art curator about the David Smith sculptures at the Stone Hill Center.

Smith's are geometric shapes in steel painted with automotive paint -- by a midwesterner turned New York art stucent / WPA artist / abstract impressionist / Schenectady welder with a studio in the Adirondacks. And in talking abot his work David Breslin used exactly, to a word, the same description that I'd heard Teresita Fernandez use about her new installation at Mass MoCA -- sculptured landscape, the viewer creating an experience by walking around the work.

In both cases the work is about negative space, light and shadow, bright flat surfaces. I think of landscape, like the landscape architect who spoke to us, as a living system of moving water and trees and bats and fireflies ... or like Tadao Ando, who imagined this space, as a place that draws people into it, the glass walls holding the sweep of the mountains, the water reflecting light onto the ceiling of the room.

And if I want to create this experience of looking at the water or the mountains, I'd need the heat and the voices and the sore feet, and the gentle aside conversations with the college girl standing beside me, and the quiet tension of the staff as this place begins to come alive.


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