The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is housed in a concrete, minimalist building that looks inward onto a long, rectangular courtyard filled with a shallow pool of water. It is a monastic structure, designed by architect Tadao Ando, with gallery space in one of its long arms, and a library and offices in the other. Views out of the public spaces—which are serene and cool and very difficult to represent in photographs—are tightly controlled, but you don’t feel walled in. One vista is down the length of the courtyard, where a glimpse of trees makes you think perhaps the building is set down in a forest. But it’s not. The Foundation is located in a once grand but now rather gritty section of St. Louis, which makes Ando’s accomplishment even more remarkable than the Stone Hill Center at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, where the magic has a lot to do with beautifully framed views of the Berkshires.
The Foundation is currently displaying an exhibition of old master painting called “Ideal [Dis-] Placements,” which I visited over the weekend. It was a series of small revelations, about how light works in a building, and how we mentally map blank spaces with old formula. Except for a brief period late in the day, only natural light is used in the exhibition. The transformative power of seeing painting entirely in natural light was most apparent in a small “chapel” space, filled with gold ground paintings from the 14th to early 16th centuries. The only illumination comes from a doorway near a line of low windows that look onto the water-filled courtyard. In very low light, the gold glistens, reflecting light rather than absorbing it into a dull yellowish surface. And the tooling on the gold is set into higher relief. Turn on the lights, and the paintings become flashy and flat, at the same time.
The exhibition also plays with the open layout of the Ando space. An entryway, more shadowed than other places in the building, is filled with paintings that emphasize intimacy and private suffering—a St. Sebastian by Caracciolo and a Mary Magdalen by Vaccaro—which makes you feel like you are moving around in some subterranean part of the soul. But as you move toward the light, a long view down a side axis of the building frames Giaquinto’s Presentation in the Temple. From private forms of contemplation and suffering, to the collective act of worship—and suddenly a concrete transitional space becomes the transept of a church. The impression is strengthened when you approach the Giaquinto, and the long open gallery running at a right angle to the transept is revealed as a kind of nave. Except that the paintings displayed there have been hung very close to each other, rather like a rich collector might have hung them, once upon a time, to save wall space. And suddenly the church dissolves into a stroll through an old palace. Ando’s minimalism is a blank slate, transformed not by the art itself, but by the relation between the paintings.
I was lucky enough to spend some quiet time Friday with the show. Given that I was expected to dilate on the subject of “Solitude in the Museum” at a Pulitzer Foundation seminar on Sunday, I tried to take mental note how seeing paintings (almost) alone changes the experience. You can, for instance, see a very dim shadow of your reflection in the surface of some paintings, which might not be apparent in a larger crowd. You can also move around freely in front of a painting without hindering your neighbors. There’s no need to rush, no sense that someone is looking over your shoulder and would be happy for you to shove off to the next room. That sense of relaxed time is rather like the slow revelation of the paintings in the darkened chapel. But it is the small, uncensored thoughts that strike you, ideas that might be lost in the hubbub of a more distracting environment, that one most cherishes in a solitary art ramble.
The seminar required each participant to bring a subject to the table and discourse on its significance for a few minutes before submitting a question to the group. Here’s what I had in my notebook (though it came out a bit differently in the event):
Is there a place for solitude in the art museum? Solitude is troubling, perhaps, because you can’t know what a single person, standing silently in front of an artwork, is thinking. You can’t be sure that they understand it, that the work is reaching them. Solitude requires faith in both the art and the visitor. Given how much museum professionals prize crowds and attendance, how the success of a space architecturally is judged by how busy it feels, how crowds are an easy metric for determining whether or not you are fulfilling your mission, is there anyway to ensure the possibility of at least a little solitude in the museum?
Even as I was trying to articulate why I care about solitude, the whole thing began to sound elitist to me. But I was struck by how many people in the room—top curators, art museum professionals, architects, an artist and one very fortunate journalist—offered up their secret places in museums to escape the crowd. And how many people described intense, private epiphanies about art that are fundamental to why they work in the museum. Even as we were discussing how to lay out spaces to ensure the most meaningful experience for the crowds we hope to entice into the museum, we were also cherishing ideas about very solitary, quiet, private experiences.
I doubt you can do both: Build vibrant, dynamic museums that become social centers for large numbers of people, and offer the chance to stand quietly, alone and deep in thought in front of a painting. Survival requires the former, while the latter is a privilege it seems we can’t afford any more. But here’s why I think it’s worth keeping the paradoxical desire to be alone in the museum somewhere ready to hand: Museum professionals are trying to promote one experience (broad public engagement with art), even as their own passion for art is built, phenomenologically, on something much more solipsistic, intense and meaningful. The schizophrenic nature of so many conversations about art, in a pluralistic society, really come down to that paradox.