• John Diamond-Nigh

The #Asheville Art Museum: glowing and new-made

The first art museum I remember visiting was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. My father took me there to meet Rembrandt. He made a big impression. To this day art museums are enchanted woods. Fairy labyrinths. Haunted houses. There I shake hands with the best, most generous hands of my humanity. There I feel a place–so few are left–that still has the guts to object to the scams, gluts and impostures of the world. As Jeanette Winterson points out, a great art object is one that has the force of conscience to object.

Museums, of course, are changing, adapting to new, eclectic imperatives. But one thing they’ll always do well, or so I hope, is to help us to imagine. To imagine is to image. To do that well demands a perpetual tutorial of looking at other images. Great, nutritious, resourceful images. We imagine images; they imagine us. If we want to live in an imaginative society, to engage in imaginative solutions, it doesn’t take much fancy footwork to see how central museums can be to achieving either, or to sustaining democracy itself.

In a time of dogma, of fundamentalisms of every color, I treasure any place where an opposite mood of hypothesis persists, that summons to attempt, to risk, to try out for size–what Montaigne called, so beautifully, an essai. As Teju Cole puts it, I want to be “dragged down into a space of narrative that I haven’t been in before.”

I like the new museum in Asheville a lot. Remarkably, at night, the whole glass foyer glows like some lyrical, urgent, Milky Way lighthouse. (Not crazy about the big glass upscale-mall-ish globe out front.) By day, glistening, dramatic and serene, the new museum is not as audacious as other recent museums, but is audacious enough for a small, conservative city. Particularly well designed is the union of the old structure and the new, without blurring that difference of old and new, of opaque and translucent, attesting to the gravity of the past and the exhilaration of the present as one long mission of aesthetics. That’s not easy to do.

At the top of my saluting list, I put the architecture itself. With any new museum, it’s actually hard not to look like a corporate atrium–the glassy opulence, impeccable detailing, suave desk staff, high white vacancies and whopping blue-chip art on the wall. But get past that and the Kenneth Snelson piece in the corner is a remarkable beauty, an elegant algorithm of tensions, and holding court on its own adjoining wall is the piece by Maya Lin that I liked best of all, composed of silver nails embedded in the wall, diagramming the contours of the French Broad River. As ethereal as smoke and yet so accurate (as Lin always is). I was enchanted.

If Louis Nevelson had never existed, maybe My Big Black America would be interesting. But after Nevelson’s almost mystical compression and intensity, the black, scrap-carpentered map of America looks like Nevelson on an off day doing the unthinkable (for any abstractionist)–opting for easy populism.

The large gallery upstairs, displaying works from the permanent collection, is a joy in three respects. The glowing moral core–what museum in the world wouldn't want such formidable aesthetic genes–is the Black Mountain College exhibit. I don’t always swoon over the work itself, but the spirit of the place, as evinced in the work, is so moving, hypothetical, pioneering. It pervades everything else in the gallery like an ancestral perfume.

Number 2 is scale. Perhaps of necessity a small museum tends to have small works. I rejoice. It is just so nice to see Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Alexander Calder, Romare Bearden, Adolph Gottleib, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Mangold, so many others, more regional names, at a small, parlor scale. Big works, as Robert Hughes pointed out, get infected with big egos. Small works, as a rule, are just more real, more subtle, more intense, more perfect transcriptions of what the artist was after.

In short, better art.

Number 3 will wait for a week. But a word on the inaugural Appalachia Now exhibit: it should only take a line. It made me miss the room-sized, all-wall-covering Sol LeWitt mural that was torn down with the demolition of the old museum. Nothing in the Appalachia show touched me half as much, or at all; may Sol LeWitt return and soon.

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