NEW HAVEN — Harvard, look out! After years of upheaval, the Yale University Art Gallery has reopened on an expanded and renovated site. The result is wonderful. For breadth, depth, and that crucial ingredient (call it the "umami" of gallery-going), a sense of delectation and surprise, there can't be many museum-going experiences anywhere in the country to rival it.
The collection, like many other college art galleries (but with greater claim to success than most), aims at universality. Yale's justly famous collections of American, European old master, and modern and contemporary art are complemented by more than respectable holdings in Indo-Pacific, African, Ancient American, Ancient Mediterranean, and Asian art, each of which have dedicated galleries. Photography, prints, drawings, Islamic art, and coins and medals also get a look-in. The American decorative arts displays are a knockout.
Under the stewardship of director Jock Reynolds, the collection has grown by more than 57,000 works since 1998. The gallery, which is free to the public, is self-funded, debt-free, and evidently a magnet for gifts.
Where before the Yale gallery occupied a 1953 Louis Kahn building (a runty sibling to Kahn's Yale Center for British Art across the road) and half of the 1928 Old Yale Art Gallery, it is now spread across three contiguous buildings on Chapel Street: those two, and the adjacent 1866 Street Hall. All three are connected by sensitive architectural interventions and restorations, carried out by Duncan Hazard and Richard Olcott, of New York's Ennead Architects.
Aside from the restoration work, the project's most notable features are a sleek stairway and elevator connecting the Old Yale Art Gallery and the Street Hall building, and a zinc-and-glass-clad rooftop structure adding substantial new exhibition space and a sculpture terrace.
What stands out?
The 19th-century American paintings and sculpture galleries in the Street Hall building are a stately extravagance; more quality pictures by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, for starters, than any one museum deserves. An Eakins portrait, of the Civil War veteran George Reynolds, is a coruscating depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder before the condition had a name. Reynolds is clearly still on the battlefield. His eyes, milky and absent, like those of a snake shedding skin, give it away.
Two smaller pictures by Eakins — a charged rendering of two friends, one black and one white, on a shooting trip in the marshes south of Philadelphia, and his ardent portrait of a young woman called Maud Cook, dressed in torridly rumpled pink — were for me more impressive than "Taking the Count," his stiff and oversized picture of a Philadelphia boxing match.
Among an array of fine Homers is his watercolor of a deer slumped over a fallen tree as it drinks from a river. Superb. And look out in these galleries for George Inness's "Moonrise," John Singer Sargent's unusually clear-eyed "Mrs. Frederick Meade," Childe Hassam's "The West Wind, Isles of Shoals," and William Rimmer's transfixing "Sunset."
In the large airy gallery, partitioned by white walls, for post-World War II American art, a section containing two Rothkos, a painting and a sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly, and a terrific small abstract painting by Myron Stout induces aesthetic trembles. Around the corner is a lineup of Lichtensteins, including the superb early "Washing Machine," and a great Philip Guston.
There's a room for super-cool minimalism — lots of Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Robert Mangold, and company. But what Philip Roth called the "indigenous American berserk" and his mentor Saul Bellow dubbed "the moronic inferno" is also addressed — above all, in works by West Coast artists such as Robert Arneson (a ceramic sculpture called "Last Gasp"), Lari Pittman, and Wayne Thiebaud (paintings from his first commercial show).
If much of the hang feels a tad crowded, forgiveness flows easily into this critic's heart: The urge to put out as many works as possible feels right in what is fundamentally a teaching gallery. What's more, for the most part the placement of works is terrifically sensitive. A Thiebaud painting of a row of syrup dispensers, for instance, has an arrangement of blue and gray diagonals that echoes the much bigger — and abstract — Richard Diebenkorn painting next to it.
A large gallery in the Kahn building is given over to Yale's stupendous collection of Indo-Pacific art. Much of it is from the collection of Yale alumnus Thomas Jaffe. Highlights include ravishing Indonesian ceremonial cloths and a generous display of gold, given by Valerie and Hunter Thompson. A funeral mask made from thin beaten gold engrosses.
The galleries given over to African and Asian art are just as good. The African gallery, drawing heavily on objects given by Charles Benenson in 2004 and SusAnna and Joel Grae in 2010, is scattered with blown-up color photographs of masks and headdresses in use in actual rituals and festivities.
These do not steal from the objects' magnetism, much but not all of which derives from their sculptural inventiveness: A helmet mask from Sierra Leone, with eyes painted white and raffia for hair and beard, stares out at us with head cocked to the side. A Bembe mask from Congo has a small conical mouth and vast ovoid eyes with half-shut lids. A Nigerian headdress in the form of a female head has spectacularly spiraling chignons. If there is one pity amid so many glories, it is that the indigenous cultures of North America and Australia are barely represented.
One of the most moving works in the whole collection, for me, is a Chinese Buddhist Guanyin, or bodhisattva, carved from a block of gray limestone in the 11th or 12th century. The block forms a supporting rock ledge on which the bodhisattva sits in the traditional pose, one knee raised, one grounded, at once insouciant and self-contained. Ledges on the back support beautiful animals.
There is a quality of restraint, and of visionary presence in a distilled landscape, that connects this work with paintings created hundreds of years later in 14th- and 15th-century Italy. One of the finest of these is a painting of St. Anthony Abbot tormented by demons by Sano di Pietro. A marvel of pictorial torque, it hangs in the galleries devoted to Italian paintings, built around the collection of Boston native James Jackson Jarves.
These galleries, overseen by curator Laurence Kanter, are sprinkled gaily with recent rediscoveries and reattributions, including works freshly ascribed to Donatello and Pontormo. (Two paintings, reattributed to Titian and Velazquez, the greatest European painters in history, remain coyly offstage, in conservation.) Look out in these densely packed galleries for a small but stunning "Crucifixion" by Annibale Carracci, and for masterpieces by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Hieronymus Bosch, and Frans Hals.
My favorite painting in the whole collection — and the sexiest by far — is Édouard Manet's "Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume." I've come to like it even better than Manet's more famous "Olympia," which it predates by a year. In just a few square feet, it manages to convey all the best things about being alive. Manet was good at that.
The 19th-century galleries also include beautiful paintings by Corot (look out especially for "Forest Landscape"), Baron Gerard, Ary Scheffer, Monet, Courbet, Seurat, Redon, and van Gogh, who is represented by "The Night Café," the gallery's most famous painting. There is a little cluster of gems by Vuillard, too, which has the effect of slowing everything down, like colored confetti descending on an amphetamine-fueled orgy.
Did I mention that Yale has more than 100 works by Picasso? Which to display?! Which to single out? Take your pick.
The 20th-century European galleries contain key works in abundance. Among them is Kurt Schwitters's "Merz Picture With Rainbow," a painted assemblage without which it is difficult to imagine the combines and assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
Marcel Duchamp, that other seminal figure, maintains a strong presence, not only in the permanent galleries but in an exhibition that fills out the gallery's generous temporary exhibition spaces. That show, drawn from the collection, is "Société Anonyme: Modernism for America" (through July 14, 2013).
The Société Anonyme, conceived as an "experimental museum" for modern art, was founded in New York in 1920 by Katherine Dreier, Duchamp, and Man Ray, with the goal of promoting contemporary art in America. Underpinned by the belief that artists were best placed to narrate their own story, it assembled a superb collection of 20th-century art from Europe and America, including works by Brancusi, Braque, de Chirico, Klee, Kandinsky, Lipchitz, Leger, Arp, and Mondrian, as well as Americans such as John Graham, Joseph Stella, and Marsden Hartley — roughly 1,200 works in total.
The collection was given to Yale in 1941. It transformed the museum, which up until then had shown little commitment to modern art.
It's fitting that artists played such a critical role in its formation, for Yale's art gallery has always been seeded and stimulated into growth by living artists. It was George Washington's former aide-de-camp John Trumbull, after all, who established the university's first gallery with the gift of his own Revolutionary War paintings in 1832.
Those pictures, and a towering portrait of Washington himself, remain the cornerstone of the American collection. (Trumbull is buried with his wife in a stone tomb below the gallery.)
Much later, the former Bauhaus teacher Josef Albers reigned as the preeminent pedagogue of modernism at Yale in the '60s. Despite his own airlessly methodical approach, he had a huge impact on a generation of artists who feature prominently in the collection today: Brice Marden, Chuck Close, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Richard Serra, and Sol LeWitt, among others.
Those artists have, for the most part, remained engaged with the museum themselves, as prominent wall drawings by LeWitt and sculptures by Serra attest. Artists continue to influence the direction of the museum. (Reynolds, the director, himself is an artist; he studied under Thiebaud.)
Of course, this long awaited reopening will surely stoke the rivalry between Harvard and Yale, home to the world's two finest university art collections.
Harvard Art Museums is in the midst of its own renovation and expansion of its museum complex on Quincy Street. The new structure, set to open in 2014 after a five-year closure, is costing more than twice as much as the Yale makeover ($350 million compared with $135 million) but will provide less than two-thirds the exhibition space now at Yale. (Despite the recent rapid expansion of Yale's collection, Harvard's is still larger.)
The two museums have always had, and will no doubt continue to have, very different characters: Harvard has enviable strengths in many areas, but its modern and contemporary collections don't compare to Yale's.
If nothing else, this recent surge in activity is a reminder that, when it comes to art, New Englanders don't know how lucky they are.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.