The Center for Asian Art in the Dr. Helga Wall-Apelt Gallery of Asian Art is a big name for a big project at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
It opened grandly in May with galleries for its permanent collection and notable loans — a study area that will serve both visiting scholars and a new Asian arts program for students at Florida State University, which owns the museum, and a lecture room that can accommodate an audience of 125.
The art will be of greatest interest to most visitors. Curator Fan Zhang has done a heroic job of compressing thousands of years of history and vast geographic and cultural territory using only about 400 works.
The center has issues. The museum is in the middle of a lawsuit brought by Helga Wall-Apelt, the donor whose gifts were the impetus for the addition. She has taken back her large Asian art collection, which was a promised gift, and sued for the return of a $4.2 million lead gift for construction costs, claiming breach of contract.
Ringling director Steven High maintains that the museum has fulfilled all contractual obligations and will prevail. A trial is scheduled for Feb. 16. Losing the choicest works in her collection was a blow, High said, but "we absolutely would have done the wing anyway." Loans from prestigious institutions such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Sackler Foundation in New York have helped fill the gaps.
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The center is made up of a wing, built in the 1960s, that was used for special exhibitions but closed after a new wing opened in 2007 on the north side of the museum. The old wing was renovated and a new addition, called the pavilion, was added. Because the center can be entered in several ways, it takes some orienting to get a sense of its layout. I found the best way to go is through the original walkway (called the loggia) that leads you to the main galleries.
You enter the Connecting Cultures corridor. It's a long hall providing an overview using large explanatory wall labels and art (mostly sculpture) in three chapters: ancient Cyprus, the Silk Road and maritime trade. The inclusion of Cypriot statuary seems odd, though I'm no scholar, and Zhang said the works are examples of boundaries that defined Asia in the late B.C. years. I think it's also because John Ringling bought them and the museum wants his contributions to be highlighted.
A noble glazed earthenware horse from the eighth century presides over the Silk Road section, and among objects represented in maritime trade are some unintentionally hilarious interpretations by Chinese craftsmen of European family life from a time when artisans had only descriptions and cobbled their modes of dress with those they understood to be Western.
The main gallery organizes works by geographic zones, sometimes grouping together objects, statues of Buddha, for example, from different countries for comparisons. Of that I would say I would have liked more wall labels explaining the differences between them.
Zhang has created some great arrangements, almost like tableaux, such as a large seated Buddha of gilt wood from 17th century Japan flanked by 19th century Japanese panels of painted wood that Ringling bought in the 1920s. Nearby is a recent museum purchase of painted panels from the 18th century with scenes from The Tale of Genji, an 11th century work considered to be the world's first novel. Another is created at the entry to the main gallery in which a large 19th century scholar's rock stands opposite a contemporary stainless steel sculpture by Zhan Wang that mimics the stone's weathered, gnarled surface.
Those two works foreshadow the ideas of connectedness or dissonance between the past and present we see in more detail in the modern and contemporary art gallery. A compelling example is Dying Slave in Chairman Mao Suit (1998) by Sui Jianguo. It is an interpretation, homage and, in a subtle way, a repudiation of Michelangelo's Dying Slave, a large 16th century sculpture that resides in the Louvre in Paris. The figure by Michelangelo is rendered as a noble individual. Clothing the figure in what was a uniform for all Chinese under Mao's dictatorship has robbed the person depicted of individuality.
The new pavilion, designed by the prestigious Boston-based architectural firm Machado Silvetti, is gorgeous. It is sheathed in 2,736 green-glazed, rippled terra-cotta tiles, all handmade, that cover its cube shape that is elevated on concrete legs. It is done no service by the way it has been connected to the renovated wing. The design would have worked best as a free-standing structure with space around it to lighten its density. Pragmatically, that couldn't have happened because it is only part of the center and needs to be in close proximity to the renovated wing, which houses much of the art. The way they are joined is unfortunate. They seem jammed together with no transition, creating a visually jarring exterior. And without some sort of transition, the vibrant jade of the tiles, so evocative of Asian architecture, fights with the pastel color of the rest of the museum.
Those are aesthetic judgments, however, and the more important point of this new addition is that it broadens the museum's reach into its future and honors its past. John Ringling is best known, rightfully so, for amassing a great collection of Baroque art.
"He wasn't just trying to focus on European art," High said. "He wanted to explore making (his museum) a more encyclopedic institution."
Ringling gathered hundreds of works of Asian art in just a few years. When many people were buying them for decorative purposes, he wanted his to be of museum quality. Many of them are. It's gratifying to see this part of his collection, which had never been properly organized, given its due.
Contact Lennie Bennett at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.