Concurrent with the opening of its gleaming new building, designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, San Francisco's De Young Museum also premiered four new commissions, by contemporary artists Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell, Kiki Smith and Andy Goldsworthy. Two of these — Goldsworthy's and Turrell's — are outdoor works that reference the way the museum is integrated with Golden Gate Park. Last Friday, on the eve of the museum's public opening, the artists, along with Ruscha and Smith, addressed the De Young's packed auditorium.
Earthquakes are never far from San Franciscans' minds — lately scientists predicted that, there is a 60 percent probability of a major quake sometime in the next 30 years. In 1989, the De Young's original structure was damaged irreparably by the Loma Prieta earthquake, and the new building has been designed to be seismically sound.
British artist Andy Goldsworthy evokes the specter of seismic events in his site-specific piece for the museum's entrance courtyard. It's a crack running along the ground that runs far out into the courtyard, where it branches into smaller cracks. It is accompanied by slabs of limestone, also cracked, that function as benches. The artist was self-deprecatory in discussing his commission's effect — "It's not an entry sculpture that stands out in the usual sense, announcing the entrance of the museum," he said, "it's a very subversive work."
He explained that he sees it as a drawing, and indeed its title, Drawn Stone, reflects that notion. Goldsworthy has been using the motif of cracked stone for some time. "The crack is a window, a way into the stone," he mused. He makes the cracks by using a hammer, which allows him a degree of unpredictability.
There is an oddly personal aspect to this work — the rock that happened to appeal most to Walter Hood (who used it for the courtyard's pavers) was limestone from Yorkshire, England, which just happens to be Goldsworthy's hometown.
If Goldsworthy's piece reminds viewers of the earth, Turrell's encourages them to ponder the sky. A Turrell skyspace consists of an outdoor structure into the roof of which he has carved a circle, allowing those inside a telescopic view of the sky. With the sun's changing position, the lights and shadows in the room shift, and clouds drifting across the circle become actors in an abstract drama.
Lately, these contemplative spaces seem to be popping up all over the United States. There is one at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Arizona, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (another Herzog & de Meuron building), the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, and elsewhere. There is a skyspace in a Quaker meeting house in Texas, and they are increasingly being commissioned by private collectors at costs upwards of $500,000.
The De Young's skyspace, titled Three Gems, is inconspicuous from the outside, cleverly disguised by the grass-coated mound that covers it; this was designed by landscape architect Walter Hood. Inside is a small room with a bench running around its perimeter that can seat about 20 people.
Musing on the motivations behind his skyspaces, Turrell said, "The sky always seems to be out there, away from us. I like to bring it down in close contact with us, so you feel you are in it. We feel we are at the bottom of this ocean of air; we are actually on a planet. We have spent billions to go to the moon — we go to this lesser satellite called the moon and say we are in space, but we are in space right now; we just don't feel ourselves to be in space. Some forms of art and some forms of spirituality do give us that sense." He also spoke of using light, something most people take for granted, as a material to make art, and emphasized that light can be seen as a thing, not merely as a phenomenon.
When discussing the ideal viewer for his skyspaces, Turrell took the opportunity to lament the miniscule amount of time viewers tend to spent with art these days, adding that he is not exempt from this accelerated culture. "I feel my work is made for one being, one individual," he said. "You could say that's me, but that's not really true. It's for an idealized viewer. Sometimes I'm kind of cranky coming to see something. I saw the Mona Lisa when it was in L.A., saw it for 13 seconds and had to move on. But, you know, there's this slow-food movement right now. Maybe we could also have a slow-art movement, and take an hour."
He also voiced a desire that, even in the face of their current needs to bring in high visitor figures, museums would remain places of contemplation. He praised places where people could grab a few moments of privacy, such as the now defunct phone booth, and churches, which he called "time out zones."