Standing in a space scarcely larger than a dining room, I stared into the profoundly sad eyes of a 16th-century merchant painted by Hans Holbein.
After nine years and $135 million, the Yale Art Galleries on the university’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, have reopened to display the treasures you more typically find in a big-city museum. The project is the culmination of a campus-wide arts master plan that has taken 17 years and $500 million.
Steps away are the glinting gold, reds and blues of early Italian Renaissance paintings.
Many of these were collateral for a loan to collector James Jackson Jarves. When he couldn’t make good, Yale was able to purchase the collection for $22,000.
A short stroll takes you to a small but stunning selection of Impressionist masterpieces, highlighted by the burnt-yellow calm of Van Gogh’s “Night Cafe.”
Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott, principals at the Manhattan architectural firm Ennead, managed to add 30,000 square feet of display space to the existing 40,000 square feet.
They unite three buildings, each with its own demanding architectural personality without any of the new space being visible from the street.
This is a collection that has been largely hidden for so long that curators couldn’t resist jamming the walls with their eye-popping riches.
Hazard and Olcott chose not to add another assertive architectural voice to an aesthetic clamor that includes Street Hall, a rambling 1866 brownstone pile.
A bridge arches to a muscular 1928 Italian Gothic palace in biscuit-colored sandstone, now called the Old Yale Art Gallery.
The 1953 Kahn Building extends the Old Gallery with a deferential addition in a no-nonsense industrial style. It was architect Louis I. Kahn’s first important built work, commissioned when he was a little-known Yale professor.
Hazard and Olcott pushed and pulled the largely gutted interiors to get the existing structures to play nicely together -- a task at which they didn’t wholly succeed.
That’s not tragic. Consider how I got to the Holbein and the Van Gogh.
From the generous lobby in the Kahn building, I strolled through a stone-faced, gorgeously vaulted hall in the Old Gallery devoted to ancient Western Art, past a collection of coins and up a tightly curling wrought-iron stair.
The European galleries, tucked in a space that once housed faculty offices, verge on claustrophobic. The payoff is an intimate view of important works that’s almost impossible to get in a big-city public museum. There would be too many people.
But drawing on past experience, the university doesn’t expect swarms in New Haven.
There’s a nice rhythm between the small, intensely focused spaces (like rooms crammed with American decorative arts) and the few large, airier spaces, mainly reserved for American-painting collections from the late 19th century to the present.
American work is a particular strength, including a founding 1832 gift of history painter John Trumbell. Temporary galleries display a formidable collection of early-20th-century modern art, called the Societe Anonyme.
I hardly minded getting lost. There is a single wandering line that links the three buildings on each of several levels, but charming niches abound, and a rooftop study gallery opening to panoramas of Yale’s neo-Gothic campus rewards a detour.
A shaft of sun from a skylight bathes a glass-enclosed elevator and glass-floored stairway that navigates you through the obstreperously idiosyncratic Street building, which is offset by half a floor.
In this melange, Kahn’s assertive ceiling planes of concrete and walls of glass challenge the talents of curators as they always have. Much of the daylight has been obscured to protect spectacular Asian, Oceanic and African collections.
Kahn learned from the gallery’s shortcomings and went on to become the 20th century’s best museum architect, brilliantly mixing art lighting and daylight in master works like the Yale Center for British Art, across the street, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.
In the older Yale buildings, intriguing historical elements appear unexpectedly, like a stone-columned archway that beautifully frames a Sol Lewitt wall drawing. Mostly the renovated spaces provide much more hanging area at the price of a homogenized aesthetic of painted drywall.
All that wall space frees curators to hang the gallery’s numerous masterworks with enriching obscurities, thrillingly echoing academic and cultural debates.
In the end, it’s not easy to reconcile the Gallery’s embarrassment of architectural and art riches. With some 2,000 works on view, why should it? It is as if one of America’s greatest art collections has been conjured out of nowhere.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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