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The Asian Art Museum: full of art with a past, not the past

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San Francisco

Approaching the Asian Art Museum’s fine arts building from the Civic Center Plaza across the street, one might assume that nothing has changed despite a nearly six-foot expansion and modernization project. years and over $ 100 million. Completed in 2020, it is only now inaugurating its new exhibition spaces. But head to the entrance to the neighborhood stores behind the museum and three murals proclaim the opposite. The line drawings of Chanel Miller’s “Know My Name: A Memoir” are visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows; Jenifer K. Wofford’s colorful Pattern Recognition fills a street-level wall; and, as you turn the corner, Jas Charanjiva’s woman in blue and pink “Don’t Mess With Me” looks down from a terrace, one hand raised in a thumbs up. Because a museum whose collection spans some 6,000 years, welcoming us with contemporary works from Asia and the Asian diaspora is like shouting “Asian art is a phenomenon with a past, not with the past!

The museum has long insisted on this point. Curators have incorporated modern and contemporary paintings, ceramics, and other small- and medium-scale works in some of the galleries in the collection, and have exhibited large-scale installations in the halls on the ground floor. But these often seemed to be isolated postscript. Now, contemporary art has a larger and more integrated presence. A new 8,500 square foot state-of-the-art gallery for special exhibitions allows them to dedicate one of the existing galleries on the first floor to contemporary commissions and acquisitions. When designing this extension, Los Angeles-based architect Kulapat Yantrasast added a rooftop art terrace slated to open later this month or early September.

Two works are already in place: “Don’t Mess With Me” and “Fountain of Light” by Ai Weiwei in 2007, a scintillating and glass-beaded interpretation of Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” in spiral from 1919 -20. These will be joined by Ala Ebtekar’s “Luminous Ground”, a 55-foot-long expanse of hand-made tiles onto which the artist imprinted images from the Hubble Telescope using cyanotype, an early photographic process with a Prussian blue tint. From the terrace, visitors can enter the collection galleries on the second and third floors, delving into a past that is sometimes as varied, dynamic and global as the world in which artists work today.

Here, the layout remains largely unchanged, with selections from the museum’s roughly 18,000 holdings organized into geographic sections that have both chronological sequences and thematic groupings – an Indonesian gold jewelry case, for example, or a dark walled room filled with Chinese jade carvings. Each section also distinguishes one or two masterpieces which now have more eye-catching and informative presentations.


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