From the glass jewel box facing south and east in the new wing of the Cleveland Museum of Art, you can see a couple of the region's major architectural projects. To the east, through the trees, there's Frank Gehry's vision of curled stainless ribbons. To the south there's Severance Hall, returned to symmetry and given a polish in 2000. This week, the Cleveland Museum of Art opens its latest contribution to the evolving architecture of University Circle, the upper level of its East Wing.
Outside, the Rafael Viñoly-designed East Wing balances, echoes and updates the museum's 1971 addition by Marcel Breuer. If Breuer's brutalist block of chocolate and coffee layers is in complete contrast to the neoclassical 1916 building, Viñoly's East Wing is the peacemaker. He's triangulated the ancient and modern aesthetic poles, and figured out how to make them talk to each other — mirroring Breuer's lines and layers, but in shades of licorice and skim milk. Its lines and position make symmetry with the Breuer building, complementing that of the pillared original. That helps it make visual sense again.
If you stand inside that jewel box in the wing's southeast corner, the spatial order continues. Here you can see a straight line from Rodin's sculpture (the focus of the glass cube, which displays about one-third of the museum's collection of the artist's work) and 19th-century European painters all the way to abstract expressionism. Indeed, looking north along the corridor, instead of a vanishing point, we see a large canvas painted in wild, thrashing gestures by mid-20th-century American painter Lee Krasner. For its architecture and view, as well as its contents, the glass jewel box full of Rodin that overlooks East Boulevard is certainly one of the most beautiful and memorable rooms in the city.
"We hope people will be engaged with the surrounding vistas as much as with the collection," says chief curator Griffith Mann.
The stroll down that corridor is a gift to field trippers. One can follow the evolution of painting styles and read a visual dialogue among the painters as they responded to what came before. Genteel formal portraiture of the early-19th century gives way to more casual subjects and settings, an emphasis on brush strokes and the build-up of paint. Then comes the Impressionists' painting of light, the Cubists' multiple perspectives crushed together and the panoply of later aesthetics as painters allied themselves with divergent revolutionary schools of thought.
A few of the paintings offer especially teachable moments. What may be Renoir's first signed canvas shows its grounding in the refined style of half a century earlier, but takes off from there: His 1864 portrait of Romaine Lacaux has precise lines and a smooth surface on her face, but rougher, blurrier paint strokes around it. In "Frieze of Dancers," Edgar Degas seems to have portrayed one ballerina in stop-motion looking at her foot. Beneath the dancers, you can see the artist's thumbprints in a patter of beige smudges where he applied paint literally by hand.
There's a large panel of Monet's water lilies in the pond at his home in Giverny. There are Van Goghs, Gauguins and Cézannes. Picasso gets most of a room to himself, allowing something rare in this survey — a representative look at a painter's career. Matisse's 1917 "The Windshield on the Road to Villavoublay" says something not only about the evolution of painting, with its rough sketch of a landscape seen through the windshield of a car, but also about the dawn of the automobile age.
THE BIGGEST NEWS about the new building is that for the first time ever, the museum has a dedicated Cleveland gallery, which will feature rotating exhibits from its collection of works by artists associated with Northeast Ohio. For its opening, it's showing some of key figures associated with the Cleveland School of Art. There's an impressionist portrait of Mary Holland Bacher in a tennis dress by her husband Otto Bacher, the first Cleveland artist to achieve international renown. Bacher died in 1909, when the land where the museum now stands — donated to the city in 1882 — was still being used for picnics
There's Frederick Gottwald's landscape — in muted, natural shades — of the Umbrian Valley in Italy, which was the first painting ever acquired by the museum from a living artist. There's William Sommer's "The Pool," a pastoral view of a horse reflected in a pool of water beneath a crescent moon, and a small building, tiny by proportion, off to the side — apparently inspired by an abandoned schoolhouse at Brandywine between Cleveland and Akron, which Sommers had converted to a studio.
Industry is paradigmatically represented by Carl Gaertner's "The Pie Wagon," an urban scene of laborers on their lunch break, gathered around a vendor in the shadow of the steel mills. Cleveland has had a significant role in African-American art history thanks in large part to Karamu House. There are a couple of paintings that help tell that story: Hughie Lee Smith's "Untitled (Rooftop View)" illustrates Smith's predominant theme — the solitude of a black man — portraying a man alone on an urban rooftop. There's also a painting by Charles Sallee, Jr., who trained at Karamu and was the first African-American graduate of the Cleveland School of Art.
Nearly as significant as the museum's first ongoing commitment to exhibiting this region's historic art — and more fun to look at — are the contemporary galleries around the next corners. The rooms are spacious enough that you can appreciate large works like German artist Anselm Kiefer's "Lot's Wife," a richly textured view of a barren railyard rendered in oil, ash, stucco, salt and other materials on canvas and lead foil, more than 10 feet square. As if it weren't bleak enough, the tracks are, for Kiefer, symbolic of his country's transportation of the Jews during the Holocaust. Claes Oldenburg's "Giant Toothpaste Tube" — another common object, like Oldenburg's Free Stamp downtown, presented by the artist on an enormous scale — is as whimsical as Kiefer's lead railyard is heavy.
Four years after the permanent collection was un-installed, the museum has a long way to go in its full-campus project — in tough economic times. The next milestone will be the reopening of Gaertner Auditorium, slated for February 2010. The lower-level galleries of the 1916 building will reopen next summer. Then the timeline becomes less certain. But there's still plenty to do, like a giant glass atrium, which will create gathering space like the museum has never had before. There are many more galleries to install and reopen. But for now, the East Wing marks the satisfying completion of another stage in the museum's ambitious project.