Saint Phalle and a Hirshhorn bookstore engage readers

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Regarding Blake Gopnik's essay on the Niki de Saint Phalle exhibit along New York Avenue ["Taking it to the streets," Style, April 28]:

Our Puritan history would seem to propose that every action be directed at improvement and self-education, with an eye to salvation. Niki de Saint Phalle, it must be said, does not speak to a Puritan tradition. There is much more in her art of a striving toward joy, an interest in conveying lightness of being or what -- pleasure? happiness? Do we have a word for "having a good time"?

The first Saint Phalle I saw was the odd, delightful, moving, splashing fountain figures near the Pompidou Center in Paris. Then, a large exhibit at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, France, out on the terrace and all about the place. Finally, a huge, midnight-blue, sparkly, flying female figure swooping down from the ceiling of the Zurich train station, arms wide to embrace us below.

So what is worth doing? Is there room for delight in the vocabulary of art? Perhaps. Sometimes perception is actually bigger than the current vocabulary of criticism. Not everybody wants always to be striving for a leg up, or to express anger or despair. Other sides of human experience are also valid, and a great relief.

Nancy Donnelly, Washington

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Blake Gopnik seemingly condones the decision to pay for a proposed new bookstore for the Hirshhorn Museum with money diverted from the museum's acquisition budget ["Let there be light," Style, April 21]. Gopnik argued, "The displacement (even relegation) of the Hirshhorn's retail venue, and its rethinking by a prominent artist, should send the message that, in this institution at least, art and ideas come first."

However, this is an area where one needs to tread carefully. Taking money from the acquisitions budget to build a bookstore places the museum on a slippery slope. First, one stops acquiring art to instead fund capital projects. Next? Selling off bits of the collection (no one sees them in storage, after all) to fund other projects? A bookstore, no matter how conceptual or how artfully sold to the public, cannot replace the art itself.

Does the museum merit a new bookstore? Yes. Does this attempt to dress up pure commerce as high art offer the proper solution? No.

Find a donor, put his or her name on the wall, and keep buying the art that draws people to the institution in the first place. That's what will really advance the welfare of the institution.

Keith Williams, Manchester, N.H.


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