A work of art in itself

Architect Preston Scott Cohen has created large, square-shaped galleries on a triangular site at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new wing.

Tel Aviv Architecture 521 (photo credit: Amit Geron)
Tel Aviv Architecture 521
(photo credit: Amit Geron)
As one might expect of a tour of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new wing, the Herta and Paul Amir Building opened this week with commensurate fanfare, a glittering reception and a guest list taken straight from the national Who’s Who.
The press conference and tour of the $50 million addition – 80 years after the institution first opened – attracted a sizable press entourage, both local and from abroad. Cameras whirred and clicked while acting museum director Shuli Kislev, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and German artist Anselm Kiefer, whose “Shevirat Hakelim” (Breaking of the Vessels) exhibition opened the new show space, offered their insights on the project. The three speakers also praised the role played by late museum director Prof. Mordechai Omer, who had long envisaged and worked on the new wing but died just a few months ago.
Kiefer noted that it was a matter of some significance that he, as a German, had been chosen to present the new facility’s inaugural exhibition “at a museum in the Jewish state.”
Architect Preston Scott Cohen also sat at the head table, but saved his comments for the start of the actual tour.
Huldai, meanwhile, took pains to place the museum and the new building in a historical and cultural context, noting that Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, had invested great effort in getting the then-tiny city on the global cultural map from the outset.
“Meir Dizengoff knew that in order for the city to develop, it must have cultural institutions,” said the current occupant of City Hall, adding that the declaration of the new state in 1948 had been made at the Tel Aviv Museum building – then on Rothschild Boulevard.
“This is an important part of the museum’s legacy,” continued Huldai. “There are many fine art institutions in the world, but I do not know of any other nation that chose to declare its independence in its main art museum.”
The mayor also took the opportunity to talk about the municipality’s decision to make 2012 “Art Year,” with a program of conferences, exhibitions, educational activities and community programs scheduled. The highlight, he said, will be Art Weekend, due to take place March 21-24.
“All these things help to make Tel Aviv the culture capital of Israel,” he declared, adding that holders of Tel Aviv residents’ cards would be able to visit the museum free of charge throughout November.
Such long-awaited events are naturally prey to heightened expectations, but, it must be said, the outlay appears to be worth every penny. The Herta and Paul Amir Building is pleasing to the eye and awash with natural light, engendering a feeling of welcome.
After the museum’s chief restorer, Doron Luria,wound up our guided tour at the reading room, we were left wanting to come back for more.
The new wing incorporates the country’s largest collection of Israeli art, and there are also display areas for architecture and design, German expressionism, graphic art and photography. Luria proudly noted a room with an exhibition he curated devoted to Omer, which includes portraits and photographs of the late museum director, and some of his thousands of art books.
Kiefer was an inspired choice for the inaugural exhibition. The 66-year-old painter and sculptor has immersed himself for some time in Jewish mysticism and feels a strong bond with this part of the world. His paintings are generally expansive and stark, and the large canvases on view are striking, replete with dark colors and a sense of hidden meaning lurking beneath the surface.
The exhibition’s eponymous work comprises droopy slabs of lead – which, Luria explained, were in plentiful supply in Germany several years ago – surrounded by large shards of broken glass. Luria added that Kiefer had created the transparent artistic detritus that very morning and that the process had been quite an experience.
That energy was palpable. Born just two months before the end of World War II, Kiefer has never shied away from his country’s Nazi background, and he maintains a sober and intense dialogue with his personal conflict regarding 20th-century German history.
Naturally, generous sections of the five-story, 18,500- sq.-m. new wing are devoted to the efforts of our own artists. All the usual suspects – Reuven Rubin, Menashe Kadishman, Bezalel art school founder Boris Schatz – are there, plus more contemporary works by artists including David Vakstein, Zoya Cherkassky and Ya’acov Kaufman.
Cohen was chosen to design the building after a lengthy selection process that began in 2003. Actual work on the new wing began in 2007. His design called for the construction of five floors, including three below ground, each of which was designed as a separate unit. Even so, the aesthetic and physical dynamics of the design conspire to lead the visitor among the various sections in a natural and comfortable manner.
The 27-meter-high central atrium, which the architect calls “a waterfall of light,” not only floods the building with natural light, it also serves to facilitate access to all parts of the wing, which can be entered via the old front door to the museum and via a separate foyer.
Looking up to the top of the atrium, the visitor cannot help but be impressed by the pristine lines.
For his part, Cohen said the project had presented him with “a considerable challenge, to build a number of floors of large galleries, natural and square-shaped, on a limited triangular site. Our solution was ‘to square the triangle’ by planning each level as an independent unit.”
He added that the end result of his architectural approach “allowed us to combine two seemingly contradictory paradigms of contemporary art museums: a museum of neutral ‘white boxes,’ offering an optimum and flexible exhibition space, and a showcase museum which excites the visitors and provides them with a unique social experience. The Amir Building synthesis integrates conventional geometric shapes and radical shapes, thereby creating a new museum experience whose roots are firmly planted both in Baroque and in Modernism.”
For more information about the Tel Aviv Museum: www.tamuseum.com or (03) 607-7020.