William Drenttel | Essays

Meet Me in St. Louis: The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Exterior view, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Photograph by Robert Pettus, 2004.

Nine months ago I went to St. Louis and had a memorable art experience. In and of itself, such an event should not seem so special. This is, after all, one of the reasons I travel — to see new places and to encounter the wonderful variety of regional museums that define aspects of our culture. Yet, memorable experiences are increasingly rare as museums become larger and more homogeneous.

The ubiquity of the museum experience, both in the U.S. and in other countries, is a testament to the success of designers, and especially to collaborative cabals of architects, landscape artists, exhibition designers, retail planners and graphic designers. The very architectural renovation that follows from strategic planning, capital campaigns and a new concern for the user experience often leads to a sameness of artistic experience that is daunting. (Even museum gift shops suffer from this syndrome: note the new brand name and mission statement of the Huntington Library gift shop in Los Angeles, for example.)

The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, and its Tadao Ando building, is a singular exception.

The Pulitzer Foundation was conceived by Emily Rauh Pulitzer in the late 1980s. Her search for an architect started with recommendations from, among others, Richard Serra, Ellsworth Kelly and James Wood (then president of the Art Institute of Chicago). One architect emerged: Tadao Ando. Virtually unknown in the U.S. at the time, they saw in Ando a kindred spirit, an artist who uses "space in original and very powerful ways...with a quality of classical purity, of consummate proportion and balance that is enormously satisfying." No architectural competition was held: instead, a commission was offered based on the criteria that the patron found the work "satisfying."

The Pulitzer worked with Ando over a number of years, as the project conceptually changed from a renovation of a private space to a new building for a public foundation. A number of sites were considered, and each time the building evolved. This was a considered design conversation held over a long period of time. (The final location in the Grand Center neighborhood of St. Louis represents an "urban intervention," according to Emily Pulitzer. This was another layer in the story.) In the mid-1990s, Emily Pulitzer decided that significant works by Richard Serra and Ellsworth Kelly should be included in the design of the building, and the design conversation became even more complex. Richard Serra built his first torqued spiral sculpture, named "Joe" after Joseph Pulitzer (who died in 1993), specifically into a space negotiated with Ando. Meanwhile, Ellsworth Kelly designed a 28-foot high flat wall sculpture, "Blue Black," into the space of the main gallery.

"Joe" by Richard Serra. Photograph by Robert Pettus, 2004.

The final building, with only 6700 square feet of exhibition space, is an oasis in an urban setting that celebrates both nature and natural light. Ando is well known for his artistic casting of concrete, and the walls are sublime in their monochromatic richness of color and texture. The spaces are not neutral, objective zones for the viewing of art. They are personal spaces, where light and sky and water are ever-present. They change in the course of a visit, taking the art with them on a journey in time. The viewer's space is temporal, and a single hour at the Pulitzer Foundation does not end as it began.

The very idea of a dialogue between art and architecture is one of the important critical discourses of our time. The modernist notion of the neutral white viewing cube has been challenged, but seldom improved upon. And, as museums get larger and larger, managing thousands of viewers and expansive collections, the experience is often of herds moving through an artistic subway system — with audio explanations provided.

"Nothing and nobody stands between us and the art," was the reaction of The New York Times' art critic John Russell in 2001 upon first viewing the Pulitzer Foundation building. This stands in contrast to the redevelopment of the Museum of Modern Art, which Jed Perl recently attacked in The New Republic as a museum where "the only work of art is the one for which a trustee can be persuaded to cough up a few million dollars — or one that a tourist will plunk down the $20 admission fee to see." Rupert Christiansen has complained about MoMA in the Telegraph: "Art is aggressively presented as entertainment, housed in friendly and accessible public thoroughfares where a request for quiet would be considered snootily exclusive. If you don't come with a friend to chat to, you can always hire an audio guide to be your companion." He adds, "But the downside is that we are losing the ability to commune personally and directly with a work of art; we aren't allowed the space or the silence to let it speak to us without mediation and then engage it in a private conversation."

During a visit to the Pulitzer Foundation, one can feel the dialogue between architect and patron, artist and architect. Because one can sense this dialogue, a visitor, too, can enter into the conversation. Under the curatorship of Matthias Waschek (the current director), this dialogue continues. A few works of art are carefully presented in a limited space, offering the visitor a unique art-viewing experience. The museum is only open two days a week. Admission is free. The FAQ at the museum's site even asks, "Is the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts a 'museum?'" and "Why are there no labels or wall texts?" (Frequently Asked Questions suggests that, in fact, these are frequently asked questions.)

One could say that this is part of the Pulitzer Foundation's charm. But the Pulitzer is far too radical to speak of in these terms. It has no need to define itself by traditional criteria — neither in attracting large audiences nor in fulfilling the quarterly exhibition requirements of a curatorial program. It exists as architecture, and as a place to experience a few works of art within a specific context. This is not a well-designed user experience: instead it's the ultimate user experience — unique, distinctive, personal. New exhibitions are infrequent, but they are both provocative and thought-provoking. For the current exhibition on minimalism, poems have been included in the exhibition brochure, with no explanation or didactic correlation to specific works of art: in a space for thought, why wouldn't one suggest alternative ways of viewing through another medium? Isn't this an alternative to the audio tour which tells us what art means? (Another form of dialogue is in the works: an artist book with photography of Serra's "Joe" by Hiroshi Sugimoto and text by Jonathan Safran Foer.)

The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts makes the radical assumption that the experience of art is about contemplation. Take your time. You are alone here. The light will change if you stay long enough.

"Blue Black" at 1:24pm by Ellsworth Kelly. Photograph by Robert Pettus, 2004.

"Blue Black" at 2:13pm by Ellsworth Kelly. Photograph by Robert Pettus, 2004.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [7]

Historically, there has always been a concerted effort to be absolutly hands off when displaying works to ensure they are viewed as intended without curators adding their two cents to the meaning. The almalgamation of both architecture and permanent masterworks in St. Louis is a testament to how all design can synergistically flow together.

Curators should take note. This is a means by which the meaning of the work can be amplified and elevated, resulting in a total experience for all senses - not just visually. Beautiful stuff.
James D Nesbitt

I once had a similar experience in a very different setting.

On my first visit to Rome in the mid 80s, after a long day fighting the crowds in the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, I found myself in the modest Santa Maria del Popolo. My guidebook said there were some Caravaggios there.

Sure enough, in the dark Cerasi Chapel, there were a couple of coin-operated lights. I was all alone. I dropped a 5-lira coin into the box, and it appeared before me: The Conversion of St. Paul, Plate 15-2 from my college art history textbook (Janson, sixth edition.) A few feet away, same thing: the Crucifixion of St. Peter.

What a pleasure to just look at a painting with no crowds, no turnstyles, no labels, no audio tours. It is what I remember most from that summer twenty years ago.
Michael Bierut

That's what is missing from most museum/gallery experiences: intimacy. To interact with the piece, to take it all in and experience for yourself. It seems that so many curators are concerned with the show. Its all about how the show will bring in the crowd, how the show will wow the press. The art, the meaning, and the intimacy get left behind far too often.

Thanks Mr. Bierut. Now I HAVE to go to Rome!
James D. Nesbitt

I had a similar epiphany/experience when I saw the Ecstasy of St. Teresa (Bernini) in Rome. My heart dropped, it was almost as if I was submerged underwater, no sound could distract my concentration.
Haynes Riley

The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, (although not as sleekly as the Pulitzer) is a museum that has tried to continue its practice of presenting works in an a home-like setting. And the works are hung, not by period or theme, but instead to dialogue with each other. It's the legacy of building on the idiosyncratic tastes and presentation of the museum's founding family.
The marketing text calls it America's First Museum of Modern Art, although there is some debate about when you go from a public gallery in your home to being a "museum".
The setting of Phillips mansion has always been integral to the presentation of the art, even with subsequent additions. Galleries are small, furniture is found throughout the space, even non-working fireplaces. Sunday afternoon concerts fill the grand music room.
The Rothko room, not much bigger than a walk in closet, is especially powerful in this intimate setting. Ellsworth Kelly was recently commissioned for a piece for the Phillips Collection's new outdoor courtyard.

Santa Maria del Popolo is as busy on sunday after services. I like the idea better that art bring about a dialogue between poeple, rather than exalting the role of art. There is no greater masterpiece than the body, and nature. So I find it very fuzzy to socialize at galleries, there are times when it's not busy and people can contemplate art 'alone'.

Very clever use of the sun, very quick

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