Issue 9.1: February/March 2006

Mind Bending

by Curt Sandburn
photo by Mark Darley


On the second floor of Golden Gate Park’s sensational new de Young Museum, there’s a permanent exhibition called “Art in America.”

Not “American Art,” mind you, but “Art in America.”

The exhibition’s first gallery features a few lush, 19th-century canvases—romantic wilderness studies of the Hudson River School. Across the room are some dusky, unattributed portraits from California's Spanish-colonial days. Right next to them hangs a large rock fragment, its smooth face incised with the sinuous figure of a lizard surrounded by curlicues. According to the petroglyph’s wall label, it’s from “present-day Arizona” and dates to “100-1500”— no “B.C.” or “A.D.”

These juxtapositions are not casual curatorial choices. Rather, they announce that the art of the North American continent is a universal impulse: Taste doesn’t begin and end in a New York salon, the artist himself may be unknown, and it really doesn’t matter (for Anasazi culture, at any rate) when Jesus lived.

The de Young is full of such mind-bending cues. First opened in 1895, the old museum building was demolished in 2000 in favor of a brand-new $188 million architectural tour de force. The galleries and concourses intersect obliquely around glassy light wells, allowing visitors to wander seamlessly through the museum’s cosmopolitan collections of American, African and Oceanic art. Naturally lit modern-art galleries mix with dark, shimmering rooms full of Indonesian ancestor figures and glowering funerary masks from New Guinea.

Outside, the brooding, often fog-bound building is sheathed in an intricately perforated and embossed copper skin that dematerializes while you look at it. A nine-story observation tower twists and torques its way up through the park’s thicket of cypress trees to a 360-degree view of the city.

During a press conference marking the reopening, architect Pierre de Meuron called the new de Young a “museum of global cultural exchange” and said it was designed “for a different time.” At the hangar-sized building’s western end, a gigantic, sloping, cantilevered roof protects the museum’s outdoor café and creates what just might be the biggest Hawaiian-style lanai ever. From it, you can smell the Pacific—and feel the excitement of the 21st century.