Now that the all-new, tripled-in-size Crocker Art Museum has opened, it’s hard to decide which aspects of this achievement are the most remarkable: the building itself, the art inside or the fact that the project actually materialized.
Over the past two decades nearly every urban renewal idea hatched in Sacramento has failed. Yet by operating above the fray of local politics (and, apparently, outside the black hole of post-crash economics) the Crocker, led by Director Lial Jones, scored a succession of hits. It raised $100 million from mostly private sources. It hired Charles Gwathmey to build an architectural masterpiece, and over the project’s 10-year gestation period, it used its growing clout to convince artists and collectors to part with some 4,000 works of art valued at between $25 and $50 million, according to Chief Curator Scott Shields.
The results are something to behold. The new structure seamlessly blends the Crocker family’s original Italianate Victorian buildings with a 21st century design. Its 19th-century pomp meets high-modernist slick, but without any of the ego-flexing we’re accustomed to seeing in “art chapels” designed by big-name architects. To be sure, there are plenty of high-tech appurtenances. Sleek, curving exterior lines, glassed-in cylindrical porticoes (echoing Victorian-era cupolas), an exterior sheathing of aluminum and zinc panels and a saw-tooth roof, whose clear panels let natural light stream into galleries – these are just a few of the expanded museum’s key features. (Now, you can even buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich in the museum café or take in a film or a lecture in the 260-seat auditorium – two things that were never possible during the museum’s first 125 years.) Yet from the exterior little of this is even hinted at; you could pass by on surface streets or on Interstate 5, which abuts the museum to the west, just a stone’s throw from the Sacramento River where prospectors once plucked nuggets, and never notice. The real beauty of the all-new Crocker lies within.
The upstairs galleries of the expanded 125,000-square foot new wing are a labyrinthine maze of interconnected rooms: light-filled spaces that seem to flow one into the other, each revealing a different part of the Crocker collection. It’s a bad-news/good-news proposition. Much of what the museum inherited from its benefactor, Judge Edwin B. Crocker, just isn’t very good. On various buying sprees, the judge and his wife, Margaret, loaded up on Central European paintings that hang on the walls of one very opulent, very beautiful room in the original gallery. California Impressionists, a group that made negligible contributions, also occupy substantial space. To their credit, the Crockers amassed one of the world’s largest collections of Old Master drawings. Those, too, have a room of their own. More recently, the museum, which was already a major player in ceramics, acquired Sidney Swidler’s encyclopedic collection of 800 pieces. They roam from the merely functional to the utterly phantasmagorical and are documented in a 408-page catalog written by Associate Curator Diana Daniels.
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the museum, which I’ll call the “Early California Room”, is dominated on one wall by the high-kitsch dramas of Charles Christian Nahl (1818-1878), a failed prospector who earned his living painting commissions for San Francisco’s elite. His rose-tinted, Arabian Nights meets Rape of the Sabine Women depictions of virgins being pursued by lusting horsemen look like something straight out Cecille B. DeMille.
The really good news is that the Crocker, which bills itself as “the oldest museum in the West,” can now host traveling exhibitions and display about 20 percent of its permanent collection — up from about five percent before the expanded museum re-opened October 10 after a six-month hiatus. This means – finally — that the Crocker can shed its reputation as a stodgy repository of inconsequential art. It can now, for the first time ever, show its stuff. And it has plenty to show. Spread across two floors, and organized into various thematic categories (e.g. Pop, Latino, Funk, Bay Area Figuration, Abstract Expressionism), are works that represent a Who’s Who of Northern California art, much of it from the post-WWII period when the axis of cultural authority briefly tilted toward the West Coast.
Highlights include major works by Wayne Thiebaud, Nathan Oliveira, Bruce Conner, David Park, Frank Lobdell, Christopher Brown, Paul Wonner, Michael Stevens, Suzanne Adan, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Viola Frey, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Robert Hudson, Richard Shaw, Hung Liu, Marilyn Levine, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Brady, Mike Henderson, William Allan, Deborah Oropallo, Robert Colescott, Peter Vandenberge, Martin Ramirez, Stephen De Staebler, Raymond Saunders, Enrique Chagoya, Stephen Kaltenbach and Peter Voulkos.
Then, there are a slew of wonders that defy easy categorization. Two that stand out are Charles Simons’ ceramic wall installation which mimics, at a vastly reduced scale, an Anasazi cliff dwelling. The other is Richard Notkin’s earthenware tile “painting” of George W. Bush, All Nations Have Their Moments of Foolishness which photorealistically depicts the 43rd U.S. president and his sins. It’s been in the Crocker’s possession for some time now, but it still stuns. So does Stephen Kaltenbach’s deathbed portrait of his father.
Will the museum always pack so many works into the building? I doubt it. My guess is that this is a one-time performance, designed to give the public a taste of what the museum has acquired but couldn’t show for lack of space.
Are there other nits to pick? Yes, I’ve got a few. The Crocker should really have at least a couple major works by William Wiley. The single painting of his that it has on display is the same one it’s shown for years, Columbus Rerouted (1962). It’s a pale reflection of what Wiley accomplished later. Photography is another gaping hole. In the entire museum, I counted only four images. Two are by Edward Burtynsky; one is by Robert Maplethorpe; the other is by George Platt Lyne. None are notable.
While the Crocker is not the contemporary art museum that many hoped it might become in its new incarnation, it’s not your grandmother’s Crocker, either. While the museum remains committed to mounting shows that reflect its current and historic strengths — drawings and prints; Flemish, Dutch, Central European and Italian art from the 16th to the 19th centuries; American Impressionism; early and contemporary California art; international ceramics; and art from Asia, Africa and Oceania – it also plans to keep at least a toehold in the present.
In January, for example, it will open Inferno of the Innocents, an exhibit by Vienna-born painter/photographer Gottfried Helnwein, whose depictions of inhumanity and violence are sure to ruffle feathers amongst the Crocker’s more conservative constituents.
The single best thing about the new Crocker is that it gives Sacramentans a way to view important art locally — without having to travel or imagine what it looks like from reproductions. In revitalizing this historic institution, the Crocker demonstrated that at least one part of California’s capital city actually works. Now it has a museum that everyone can be proud of.
–DAVID M. ROTH