The Yale University Art Gallery has brought its 30 year-old decorative arts displays up-to-date, to good effect

Yes, you can show decorative arts and be interesting

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In its tercentenary year, Yale University is rethinking the American past.

Members of its History Faculty such as John Demos have redrawn the early history of the US, reconsidering the narratives established in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, the Yale University Art Gallery, one of the country’s most impressive collection of pictures (how many regional galleries in Britain have paintings by Gauguin, van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas, Pollock, Rothko as well as numerous early Italian works and American applied arts?) has reinstalled its American galleries. These have reopened now and are an intriguing example of how museums can contribute to the currently ubiquitous national self-assessment.

Yale University Art Gallery is the oldest university art gallery in the Americas, established in 1832 (beating Harvard by 50 years). The original marble temple in which the painter John Trumbull was interred has long been demolished and the current building is the third home of the collections—part Renaissance of the early 20th century., part Louis Kahn’s not altogether appealing 1950s extension.

The Gallery has a particularly strong decorative art collection and Yale’s Art History department is exceptional among American universities in including a Professor of Decorative Arts, a post endowed in 1979.

In 1973 the American decorative arts were reinstalled by two firms called the Cambridge Seven and Chermayeff and Geismar. This installation was revolutionary at the time. The exhibits were much more dramatically shown than they had been in any of the genteel line-up-the-objects-on-a-plinth displays current until then (and still prevalent in many large American and European museums).

At Yale the objects were arranged in a series of white spaces, forming a maze-like progress which concealed the fine proportions of the original galleries. The visual centrepiece was a gallery in which early American chairs were daringly hung on the walls, their legs protruding towards the visitor, demanding to be regarded as crafted works of art. For the first time this installation applied modernist techniques to the display of furniture and ceramics, an effect that has been widely admired and imitated.

By the 1990s, however, the galleries had grown tired and outdated. In the present scheme, carried out under the direction of Patricia Kane, curator of American decorative arts, and Helen Cooper, curator of American paintings and sculpture, with Stephen Saitas as designer, the long gallery (originally intended for pictures annexed for the 1973 display) has been rearranged as a showplace for the American painting.and the columns and cornices concealed in the 70s have ben restored to view.

On either side of this gallery and beyond it, a series of rooms show a sample of the decorative art holdings. While a subdued modernist approach is maintained with a reference in one bay to the hanging chair aesthetic, the new display examines a number of issues which were not high on the agenda in 1973.

The selection of exhibits favoured in both American art museums and house museums was established over a hundred years ago, under the influence of such books as Irving Lyon’s The Colonial Furniture of New England, of 1881. Lyon and his colleagues interpreted the history of American furniture through centres on the Eastern Seaboard strongly related to the colonial past, notably Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, New York and Philadelphia. Furniture and other objects that showed English influence or was shaped by the descendants of English settlers, was given the fullest treatment. Native American artefacts were relegated to the “inferior” category of ethnographic galleries and any connection between Native American and white art was suppressed. The influence of Dutch settlers in New Jersey, the French Huguenots in the north or the French Catholics in Louisiana, or of the Spanish, was also discounted. Nothing overtly Catholic (or indeed Jewish) was put on view in a society culturally dominated by Anglo-Saxon protestants. Objects of common usage, simple furniture or ceramics, were not included in museums displays dedicated to high art but relegated to re-created villages in rural settings such as Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts.

The aim of such displays was to illustrate the riches of American civilisation by showing its potential to create decorative art of high quality and workmanship. They also aimed to create an impression of the strength, the purity, the virtue of the (primarily) 18th- and early 19th-century society that created such objects.

Today new attitudes apply. The displays, organised on broadly chronological lines, explore the cultural diversity of early American culture and include an intriguing mixture of “ordinary” objects contrasted with luxurious productions.

The two period rooms from a house close to New Haven, installed with much imaginative reconstruction in the 1920s and now structurally (if not emotionally) immovable, have been theatrically lit so that they function as a backdrop to the showcases. For the first time, furniture, glass, silver and ceramics are shown close together, emphasising the visual relationships between them.

The story is brought up to date whereas the collection used to peter out around 1830. The 20th-century is vividly represented by a gallery that continues to acquire actively: from objects designed by Eames and Saarinen to a Utility Cart of 1985.

At a time when interest in the decorative arts seems to be on the wane, and when museums still have not altogether solved the difficult problem of displaying objects primarily intended for domestic use in the alien setting of a museum, the intelligent and sensitive approach applied in these galleries deserves as much applause, in its understated way, as its predecessor received in 1973.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Yes, you can show decorative arts and be interesting'

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