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Gehry renovation at the Philadelphia Art Museum is stunning and sleek, but suits the old building

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Lenfest Hall, part of the Gehry renovation unveiled in May. (Steve Hall/Hall + Merrick Photographers/Courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art)
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PHILADELPHIA — This is a city of eccentric art spaces. Its legacy art institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is set commandingly atop a hill, but it has always been more impressive from outside than in, with dispiriting special exhibition spaces and awkward circulation in its main galleries. The Barnes Foundation has one of the finest troves of impressionist and postimpressionist art in the world, but is forever compelled by the dead hand of its founder, Albert Barnes, to keep that art jammed in rooms that quickly cause spiritual claustrophobia.

But both institutions soldier on, doing good work despite their architectural and organizational challenges. In May, the Philadelphia Museum unveiled a major renovation by Frank Gehry that reconfigures about 90,000 square feet of the building and adds gallery space, amenities and lower-level corridors that make the building feel open and inviting for the first time. And in March, the Barnes opened an exhibition that juxtaposes the work of Chaim Soutine and Willem de Kooning, with revelatory results — proof that compelling statements can be made even on a relatively small scale.

The changes at the Philadelphia Museum are stunning. The original building, a massive, U-shaped classical temple of art, is unapologetically old-fashioned in its use of elevation as an architectural metaphor for the experience of art. From outside, it is accessed by a giant stairway leading up from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and once inside, visitors must ascend another impressive set of stairs to access the main European and Asian collections. Those wings, full of period rooms stuffed with priceless, historic furniture, sometimes give the unfortunate impression of the art gallery as a giant emporium, a storehouse of art combined with a warehouse of luxury goods.

Gehry’s renovations don’t touch any of that, but rather open up new spaces below the old ones. He has created opportunities for ground-level circulation beneath the upper-level fustiness, with two giant corridors joined to a large central hall, accessed by elegant stairs that connect to the existing western entrance lobby. Space that was used for offices, a cafe and bookstore has been converted to galleries, including one hosting an impressive installation of the museum’s substantial American holdings, and another exhibiting an engaging show dedicated to local artists, “New Grit: Art and Philly Now.”

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The Gehry touch is light, but impressive. The famed architect has used the same yellow limestone from quarries that supplied materials for the original 1928 building, and though his additions are distinctively sleek, they are not dissonant with the original vocabulary. The vaulted passages that run north and south under the main axis of the building retain the aura of history — massively built in a way that recalls ancient engineering — but they are elegantly lighted in a way that feels entirely contemporary.

Visitors exploring the renovated building should pay a visit to the old special exhibition galleries. These are not always inspiring spaces, and they often feel enclosed, subterranean and dispiriting. But, for now, they are enlivened by “Senga Nengudi: Topologies,” an exhilarating show surveying the career of Nengudi, an African American artist who is one of the most original and unclassifiable figures of the past half century.

Nengudi came of age along with the Black Arts Movement, but she forged her own path, drawing on her experience as a trained dancer with an exceptionally intuitive understanding of basic materials, such as pantyhose, sand, liquid, plastic and found objects. Her works have a curious tension, full of taut sinews, often seeming to stretch and reach, or sag and droop, in ways eerily and powerfully reminiscent of the human form. Along with the iconic works that use pantyhose to create biomorphic forms, the exhibition includes the first display of Nengudi’s immersive installation “Black and Red Ensemble” since it was unveiled in 1971 as her master’s project at California State University.

At the Barnes, there also are sinews on view, including animal viscera in Soutine’s painting of a flayed rabbit in the permanent collection, as well as a plucked chicken and two carcass images in its exhibition “Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint.” The two artists were born only a little more than a decade apart — Soutine in 1893 and de Kooning in 1904 — but Soutine died at 53, while de Kooning lived well into his 90s. One reflexively thinks they belong to different centuries, Soutine pursuing a painterly expressionism with its roots in the 19th century, while de Kooning is central to abstract expressionism in the middle of the last century.

But, in 1977, when asked about the artists who had influenced him, de Kooning cited Soutine, and this exhibition underscores how substantial that influence was. The two artists are connected by their similar use of paint, and by affinities of color, form, mood and architecture. The parallels are particularly striking in their treatment of the human figure, with de Kooning’s works not just borrowing from Soutine’s poses and distortions, but also adopting his same sense of metaphysical space. De Kooning’s figures relate to the background, the margins of the image and their own bodies just as Soutine’s precedents do. It’s never quite plagiarism, but the parallels are profound.

There is, however, one difference that becomes more apparent the deeper one looks into the relationship. In Soutine, the expressionist turmoil is inward, roiling and distorting the images in a way that feels tortured but contained within the image. In de Kooning, the violence begins on the surface of the image and feels outwardly directed, as if the artist were fighting his own work, slashing and smearing it in some kind of frenzied refusal of its representational power.

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When the Barnes moved from its long-standing campus in Merion, Pa., to its downtown location, it added special exhibition space to its gallery footprint. It is a midsize venue, and the museum has sometimes struggled to find exhibitions that feel comfortable in it. The “Soutine/de Kooning” show, curated by Simonetta Fraquelli and Claire Bernardi, is exactly the right fit, with about 45 works that make its points succinctly and clearly. In September, the exhibition will move to the Orangerie, in Paris, another museum that struggles to mount substantial exhibitions in a constrained space.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on museum schedules, shuttering some exhibitions entirely and circumscribing the audience for others, including important shows like the ones devoted to Nengudi, Soutine and de Kooning. The architectural changes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art are, fortunately, here to stay. But art lovers should be sure to visit those exhibitions before they close later this summer.

Senga Nengudi: Topologies Through July 25 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Soutine/de Kooning: Conversations in Paint Through Aug. 8 at the Barnes Foundation.

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