Oils and Water (and Bleach) Don’t Mix

While lunching at the National Gallery on Friday, I tried to ignore the constant drip, drip, drip of water from the ceiling onto my table, and indeed onto many of the tables that surrounded me.  I also tried to ignore the overpowering smell of chlorine that was wafting from the glass-fronted waterfall directly across from the dining area.  While both of these issues are indicative of the rather shoddily built addition to the National Gallery, completed in 1978 by the rather shoddy starchitect I.M. Pei, they are also symbolic of some of the questions which one has to ask about the intent of this taxpayer-funded museum and its future.

The National Gallery is my favorite museum in the Nation’s Capital, and I have spent more time there than at any other cultural institution in the city.  I have wandered its corridors over the years for more hours than I can remember.  And while the splendor of the original, West Building by architect John Russell Pope allows the spirit to soar, reflecting on how incredibly quickly such a young nation built up such an impressive collection of art masterpieces for the education and betterment of its citizens, the East Building by Pei is always a depressing place to visit, once you get past the rather monolithic but not unimpressive atrium and delve into the dark, often eerie, and poorly-laid out exhibition spaces which often have art to match.

I.M. Pei is, of course, among the most famous architects working today.  His buildings are generally pretty awful, or simply blah, and he has an obsession with triangles and pyramids that borders on the manic.  While one can make allowances for the usefulness of things such as the Louvre Pyramid, his test run of doing the same thing at the National Gallery has not proven to be of any lasting good to the Nation’s art collection.  You may be aware of the fact that the stone panels Pei placed on the exterior of the East Wing of the museum have started to pop off, and because of the risk that they might fall and kill someone, the museum is engaged in a multi-year project to repair this potential catastrophe.  When I visited on Friday the cranes and scaffolding that surrounded the building were very much in evidence.

Unfortunately, no one seemed to be paying any attention to what was going on with the underground concourse Pei designed to connect the two wings, and where I was treated to a humid, bleach-soaked breeze as the air conditioning spread the vapor in all directions.  The best that the staff were able to do was to put up folding yellow “Caution: Wet Floor” signs, and hope that people would not fall and break their leg, but this was only done at two points on the walkway.  None of the cafeteria tables were removed or roped off, which means that the water dripping onto their tops will, of course, slide down onto their metal fasteners and bases, causing them to rust over time.

Yet none of this addresses the most important issue, which is the preservation and protection of the art inside the museum.  Even if you have only a limited understanding about art, I need not tell you that from a purely practical standpoint, even a bit of exposure of wood, paper, or canvas, and the chemicals in paint, to high levels of humidity is not a good thing.  Try leaving the family photograph from last Christmas, or a child’s drawing from school, unframed, in the bathroom for a week, and see what happens to it.  Similarly, a bit of common sense and experience tells you that if you splash a bit of chlorine bleach on your jeans, you will soon find white spots where once all was blue.  Bleach is not any kinder to artists’ materials.

In the case of Pei’s underground concourse, it is true that these problems are physically far away from the art, so as not to come into direct contact with the priceless pieces owned by the citizens of this country.  And yet as we all remember from basic high school physics, water and chlorine do not remain in a permanent liquid state – they dissipate into the air.  Water evaporates, thereby increasing humidity, and if we can smell chlorine at a distance it is because it is turning to a gas.

As there are no air locks in the National Gallery, one has to ask: exactly where are these substances going?  One has to wonder what effects this combination of water and bleach in the interior atmosphere is having on the works of art on display and stored there.  While bleaching out a Rothko or Twombly seems to me rather a good  idea, the more delicate works of art – say a Siennese tempera altarpiece of 1350 or an oil portrait by one of the Peales – which actually involved some skill in their creation are surely more likely to suffer from such exposure, over time.

It also raises the question, at one point does the National Gallery have to decide on its focus? If we take a look at the collections of the National Gallery in London, for example, we will not find works by artists such as David Hockney or Richard Serra (thank heaven for that.)  The Brits have left that to the Tate Modern, and have capped the National Gallery’s collection with artists of the early 20th century.  We do not necessarily have to do the same, of course, but we do have to ask why it is that our National Gallery exhibits works which would be more at home in the collection of the Hirshhorn – which is also a taxpayer-funded art museum, just across and down the National Mall from the National Gallery – when the best part of its holdings are, like the National Gallery in London, concentrated up through the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist/Early Modern period.

The best fate for the East Building, in my opinion, would be to tear the entire thing down now, which our grandchildren will have to do in 100 years anyway, and give the land to some other institution to use, as building space on the National Mall is now completely filled/requisitioned.  The National Gallery could then acquire, as Congressman Mica has spearheaded, the FTC building across the street and use it for its collection of late 19th and early 20th century works, as well as for temporary exhibitions, films, and so on, giving the rest of its collection to the Hirshhorn.  That museum could then seek to expand to house all of the hideous Robert Motherwell monstrosities it likes.

Admittedly, this is a pipe dream of mine, and yet as the water, bleach, and who knows what else continue to float through the halls of the museum, it does not seem such an unbearably high price to pay.

Shot of my water-covered lunch table at the National Gallery on Friday

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