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Expanded Morgan Library Reopened
with Masterworks on Display
A Museum and Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the library and museum:

Manhattan's prestigious Morgan Library, shuttered for almost three years because of a massive renovation and expansion, reopened to the public on Saturday, April 29, 2006. In its latest incarnation, the new Morgan Library & Museum (reportedly renamed to attract more visitors) has united its sprawling campus' three landmark buildings (Italianate, Neoclassical and Victorian in architectural style) with a trio of sparkling new pavilions designed by accomplished Italian architect Renzo Piano (b. 1937). The Morgan's estimated $106 million (US) reinvention adds 75,000 square feet to the institution. It's Piano's first completed project in New York City. The visitor no longer enters through the Morgan's stately yet inviting East 36 Street entrance, still a symbol of grand opulence and charm.


The Morgan Library (East 36 Street Entrance)
© 2006 Robert Alan Espino



The ultramodern, wheelchair-accessible Madison Avenue entrance to the new JPMorgan Chase Lobby leads to the four-story, 50-foot-high Gilbert Court. Mr. Piano utilized high-transparency and low-iron panes of glass in his construction. They're connected by faceted steel panels, each coated in a rose-hued, off-white paint. The architect's expansion includes: brand new curatorial and administrative offices; four new galleries; the narrow 280-seat Gilder Lehrman Hall; the state-of-the art Sherman Fairchild Reading Room for researchers; a secure subterranean storage area for the Morgan Library's precious holdings; a singularly diminutive dining room and café; an expanded bookshop worth perusing for its new and remaindered titles; and a gift annex that mimics the Library & Museum's somewhat claustrophobic first-floor presentation of its medieval and Renaissance manuscripts.


Morgan Library & Museum
(New Renzo Piano Entrance)

© 2006 Robert Alan Espino



What is remarkable about the new Morgan Library & Museum is the restored study of its founder, J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913). It includes three paintings by Early Netherlandish artist Hans Memling (ca. 1435/40-1494). His portraits were recently the subject of a wildly successful special exhibition at New York's Frick Collection. These gems of fifteenth-century painting are well worth the trip to the Morgan Library & Museum.

Of course, a reopening of this magnitude is not without shortcomings that require fine-tuning. The lack of clearly visible signage makes the orchestration of Renzo Piano's design hit a distinctly sour note. Whether one is a habitué of the Morgan or a newcomer to its multitudinous treasures, entering the first of Piano's pristine pavilions is nothing less than jarringly disconcerting. Hopefully, a harmonious set of directional stanchions and detailed maps of the institution's expanded layout will correct this problem. Only time and experience will tell.

About the show:

The Morgan's approach to art collecting was, from the very beginning, eclectic. Its assemblage of artworks was never intended to be encyclopedic. Masterworks from the Morgan amply demonstrates that fact. Artifacts from the Fertile Crescent are followed rapidly by objets d'art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance through the Twentieth Century. The special exhibition is displayed on more than one floor of the Morgan's reinvigorated environs. While not historically comprehensive, the show spans the last three millennia of recorded human history. It starts in ancient Mesopotamia and climaxes with American songwriter Bob Dylan (b. 1941), reportedly the subject of an upcoming special exhibition.

The show begins chronologically in the Morgan Library's East 36 Street lobby. A solitary Sumerian copper alloy Foundation Figure of Ur-Namma Holding a Basket (ca. 2097-2080 B.C.) reigns majestically in a central, freestanding display case. This statue of a ruler from Ur's Third Dynasty is the gallery's focal point. Last exhibited publicly in Art of the First Cities, a 2003 monumental special exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, here Ur-Namma is surrounded by numerous Mesopotamian cylinder seals and their impressions, displayed in new hi-tech vitrines. The statue of Ur-Namma, depicted as bald, clean-shaven and nude from above his skirt, was originally a metal peg deposited in the foundation of a Mesopotamian building. The sculpture's cuneiform inscription confirms Ur-Namma's patronage of building works. He raises a basket of mud high above his head. The earthen mixture represents the material used for bricks to construct Sumerian ziggurats, massive stepped temples dedicated to a particular deity.


Foundation Figure of Ur-Namma Holding a Basket
Mesopotamian, Third Dynasty of Ur (ca. 2097-2080 B.C.)
Copper alloy
H. 13 1/4 in. (33.5 cm), W. 5 1/8 in. (13 cm)
© The Pierpont Morgan Library



To the left of the marble lobby that houses Ur-Namma's effigy is a former special exhibition gallery. A selection of the Morgan Library's delicate medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, overcrowded at points, is currently on display. One case features a remarkable collection of 35 telling tarot cards. Illustrated by the Italian Renaissance artist Bonifacio Bembo or members of his family (ca. 1450), the Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards, dispersed among three collections, were used as a means of divination. Draped in a white gown and comfortably occupying a narrow vertical space, the woman in Bembo's Queen of Swords is seated against a gold background that resembles the elaborate cover of a manuscript. Facing right with her forearms clad in silver armor, she rests a sword diagonally against her right shoulder while gently gesturing forward with her left hand. This particular tarot card has traditionally been associated with research and inner thought. The Queen of Swords represents the objective and analytical side of one's personality. The cold and calculating rivalry of the Visconti and Sforza Families over political control of Renaissance Milan, resulting in a despotism (intellectually enlightened as it was), possibly influenced this card's imagery.


Bonifacio Bembo or Family (Italian, ca. 1450)
Queen of Swords from the Visconti-Sforza
Tarot Cards

Milan
173 x 87 mm
MS M.630 (No. 23)
© The Pierpont Morgan Library



The esteemed Croatian illuminator Giulio Clovio (1498-1578) took a reported nine years to produce the Farnese Hours, a book of devotional prayers for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589). In this manuscript, the artist ingeniously juxtaposed works from the New and Old Testaments. As seen in his Adoration of the Shepherds and Fall of Man (1546), each successive page reveals the artist's Mannerist style. The lush vibrant colors and sinuous figura serpentinata remind one of the works of the mature Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Italian High Renaissance sculptor, painter and architect.


Giulio Clovio (Italian, 1498-1578)
Adoration of the Shepherds and Fall of Man (1546)
Farnese Hours (in Latin)
Rome
173 x 110 mm
MS M.69 (fols. 26v-27r)
© The Pierpont Morgan Library



In the Morgan's former Reading Room, rare drawings by Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520), Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) are joined by extraordinary works on paper by the likes of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

For those who are so inclined, literary and musical manuscripts are worth visiting in the Morgan's new second-floor gallery. Their historical range is astonishing.

In the case of Masterworks from the Morgan, less most certainly would have been more. This elementary design concept eclipsed the Morgan's curators. They should have taken a lead from the simplicity of Renzo Piano's three stark pavilions, Gramercy Park's newest upscale neighbors.

Upcoming special exhibitions at the Morgan Library & Museum include Celebrating Rembrandt: Etchings in the Morgan, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch master's birth and From Rembrandt to van Gogh: Three Centuries of Dutch Drawings.

Click here for an image gallery of additional works of art in the Masterworks from the Morgan special exhibition.

For further reading:

Aruz, Joan (ed.). Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003.

The Morgan Library: An American Masterpiece.
New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 2000.

"Masterworks from the Morgan" opened on April 29, 2006. Individual facets of the special exhibition will close according to the following schedule: drawings on July 2; musical manuscripts on September 3; other manuscripts and printed books on September 10; and ancient Near Eastern cylinder seals on November 12, 2006. The Morgan Library & Museum is located at 225 Madison Avenue at East 36 Street, New York, NY 10016 (Telephone: 212-685-0008; Website: www.themorgan.org). The facility is open Tuesday through Thursday from 10:30 AM to 5:00 PM, Friday from 10:30 AM to 9:00 PM, Saturday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Admission is $12.00 for adults, $8.00 for senior citizens (65 years of age and over), $8.00 for students with a current school identification card and $8.00 for children under 16 years of age). Admission is free on Friday evenings from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. Admittance to the Museum Shop is without charge.

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From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.


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