I witnessed the Herbert F. Johnson Museum being built on the Cornell University campus in the early 1970’s and now I was back to see a new wing being added to this famous edifice designed by I.M.Pei. Upstairs, I found the outdoor sculpture court so agreeable on a stunning spring day, but ultimately it is underutilized. In the near term the collection will be shifted as renovations occur and the fifth floor, which houses Asian art, will be the first to see major changes. Panoramic windows offer a view up Lake Cayuga (still spectacular), and now the art will be given more room to breathe.
On the lower floors new acquisitions are given prominent placement, chief among them are works like Leger”s “Composition With Two Figures” which is marvelously wacky: two flying nudes up in the clouds encounter a Russian Constructivist painting or is that a manual for building your own radio?
Going back to see the Herbert F. Johnson Museum is like visiting an old friend, but one with a few surprises in store. In a basement gallery, artwork from James Siena (Cornell grad from 1979) was on display. His paintings were described as the ones he couldn’t part with, but there were also some real oddities like the flattened gilded mouse, and a collection of unusual typewriters. His show “From The Studio” also has some art that Siena collected, including drawings by the irascible Alan Saret ( also a Cornell grad), a wonderful Alfred Jensen painting, and some obscure aerial surveillance photos from World War l.
James Siena has a mathematical mind: precise, calculated, methodical and a bit obsessive. The surfaces of this art are rarely out of control, so the paintings can engage you on several levels and are reassuring in their completeness.
But maybe your taste is for something not so compulsive? Well, in the next room see Michael Ashkin’s photographs – set up like old stereoscopic prints with one image next to another. His remarkably mundane textures of construction sites bring to mind the truly historic exhibitions of Robert Smithson’s ( creator of “Spiral Jetty”) art held at Cornell in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Smithson’s “Non Sites” are the progenitors of Michael Ashkin’s photos. The power of entropy, a favored function in Robert Smithson’s universe, details a measure of disorder or randomness in a system and the gradual apparent loss of energy that ensues. Ashkin documents the fall out from a developer”s voracious appetite in historic Long Branch, New Jersey. Will greed overpower entropy? It is not a pretty picture.