After nearly a quarter century in deep crimson, the nearly 100-year-old walls of Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's most recognized space, Morgan Great Hall, are gray. The shade is closer in hue to what they were when the hall was dedicated by J. Pierpont Morgan as a tribute to his father, Junius Spencer Morgan.
The American history paintings that had been hanging there will stay in the Austin Gallery, where they had been relocated during the 13-month overhaul of the hall, part of a $16 million renovation project that won't be complete until 2013.
In their place, the two-story expanse of wall space, which had held cloth work for so much of its existence that it was long known as Tapestry Hall, is now displaying oversize contemporary art from the museum's permanent collection.
Only a couple of the nearly 20 works had been on current display. Some hadn't been up for a decade, such as the Willem deKooning's 1969 "Montauk I." Others hadn't been shown at all, such as a large sculptural abstract by Elizabeth Murray, a gift last year from the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, or a subtle color field work by Sean Scully purchased in 2009.
Patricia Hickson, the Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art at the museum, hadn't seen much of the work herself until she went on a trip to the three off-site storage sites in the state. She found one — a vivid abstract by the German Ernst Wilhelm Nay acquired in 1964 — that had never been shown.
Along with these are some familiar works from the Atheneum collection, including a round geometric Frank Stella abstract, a Tom Wesselmann "Great American Nude #69," a camouflage-patterned Andy Warhol self portrait and a color field corner by Kenneth Noland.
The works are grouped generally, so they work together, in some cases even better than they planned, museum director Susan L. Talbott says, pointing out how the large Elizabeth Murray picks up some of the color and approach of Helen Frankenthaler's neighboring 1959 "Sea Picture with Black," which in turn resonates with the brooding Morris Louis cloud of paint above it, "Impending," also from 1959. And yet the most minimal flash of yellow in the Louis points down to the influential deKooning below it.
One whole wall is taken with the colors and numbers of Alfred Jensen's huge 1977 oil "The World as it Really Is," the largest painting in the display. Another wall-length space is taken up by Andreas Gursky's 16-foot-long photo of an outdoor rock-concert crowd, above which floats the similarly sound-oriented landscape of Bob Thompson's 1960 oil "Garden of Music."
It's nearby the other oversized German realist photo, the steady gaze of the young unnamed woman in Thomas Ruff's "Portrait," dressed in a jersey that might mistake her for a UConn Husky. It compares with the classical gaze of the 19th century William Wetmore Story statue of Alcestis next to it (and the non-gaze of the lips and hair of the Wesselmann above, all asking: How do male artists depict women?).
What exactly is Story's 1874 sculpture doing amid all this contemporary work? Well, it fits with other marble details of the hall by Beaux-Arts architect Benjamin Wistar Morris (who also did City Hall next door). Besides, Talbott says of the Story and the two other full-size sculptures of the same era by Edward Sheffield Bartholomew in other corners, "technically it's a huge job to get rid of them."
But she says, the more they all thought of it the more they liked the idea of new art remaining in dialogue with the old.
To balance such art in a fourth corner is something contemporary, in this case Nick Cave's 2009 sculpture assemblage of found crocheted and hooked rugs, "Soundsuit," which is of about the same size as the classical sculptures and their pedestals.
Likewise, a bust over a doorway on one side of the hall is balanced with a 1969 Jean Dubuffet sculpture, "Lion Rampant," of roughly the same size, across from it.
Cecil Adams, the head of museum design who is overseeing the renovation, says it's in the tradition of the vivid Sol LeWitt wall drawing that swirls in the otherwise old-style lobby.
To put up the initial display of contemporary work, Hickson says she wanted to get a full balance: "abstract and figurative, painting, photography, sculpture, male/female, ethnic diversity."
The works were mixed and matched in models that were made, says Adams, whose main concern was the installation of an innovative lighting system that uses natural light from skylights, but bounces upward to the atrium ceiling and back down so as to avoid having the works be struck by direct light. Some of the old pictures of the hall show dour strips of fluorescent tubes across the middle.
Other than the Dubuffet and Cave, there is no contemporary sculpture in the wide expanse in the center of the hall, where marble lions stood on pedestals in 1919 and a Morgan-lent suit of armor stood in the center in 1947, when the hall reopened to the public after being closed for more than a decade for lack of funds.
There are too many events held in Morgan Hall these days to make sculpture there practical, Talbott says. Besides, moving sculpture can be hazardous to the work.
As for the new, definitely not-red wall color, Talbott says once it was determined to be a space for contemporary art, "we agreed it had to be gray, not white, that would be too stark."
The precise shade was the process of experimentation, what would best show off plaster highlights that were repaired. In all, six shades of color were used to finish the hall, which in its original incarnation was done in a light beige.
Still to be renovated and opened are the hall's side galleries, which will be used to display largely decorative art and smaller works, Talbott says.
In its nearly 100-year-history, Morgan Hall has housed a number of exhibits, from children's art in 1938 to the a Paper Ball promenade in 1936 to a showcase for the traveling "Whistler's Mother" in 1965. And while it's occasionally shown some pieces of contemporary art, it's never been the basis of the entire space.
In its new incarnation, the individual modern works in the museum collection will rotate in and out: The deKooning is promised to a big show at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall; photography is too sensitive to be on display for extended lengths of time.
The historical paintings, "which are very important to people, especially school groups," Talbott says, will stay upstairs in the Austin Gallery, where, she adds, "We keep hearing how much better they like them up there."
And the new exhibits — including Patti Smith in the fall, and Andrew Wyeth to follow — will be installed in renovated space on the third floor.
"When I came to the Atheneum my goal was to shake things up," Talbott says.
In addition to a goal of community outreach, the idea was to change people's notions about what is, after all, the oldest public museum in the country. Presenting its most iconic hall as a showcase for contemporary art, Talbott says, is "a way to really show how vital, exciting, about today and innovative we are."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times