Visual Arts

Fort Lauderdale Art Museum turns 30 with exhibits of Mendieta, Italian design

NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale
NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale

Standing in the lobby of the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and looking heavenward, Frank Stella observed the soaring atrium and mused, “It’s the Pantheon of America.”

“That’s how he felt,” says Bonnie Clearwater, who has served as the museum’s director since 2013. One of America’s greatest living artists, Stella — known for his minimalism and latter-day sculptures of coiled metal — drew the connection between one of Rome’s most memorable structures and the museum’s dramatic interior. “He says he loves our space,” Clearwater said. “I said, ‘Of course you do, it’s a spiral.’ 

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the distinctive building designed by the master of modern architecture, Edward Larrabee Barnes. In many ways, the building Barnes erected in 1986 has both influenced and enhanced the exhibitions featured at the Fort Lauderdale museum. According to Clearwater, Barnes created a broad expanse of interior space that is ideally suited to exhibit both monumental and miniature works of art. The space also greatly adds to the museum’s mission both as a base of learning through its affiliation with Nova Southeastern University and as a repository of post-World War II art, Clearwater says.

It was not the first time that Barnes would awe the art world. According to his New York Times obituary in 2004, “Many believed that Mr. Barnes attained his reputation as a world-class architect with his highly-acclaimed Walker Art Center in 1971, which is still considered one of the most appealing environments for contemporary art in the United States.”

The Barnes building in Fort Lauderdale, although roughly half the size of the original Walker museum in Minneapolis, is equally stunning. A compact 83,000 square feet — providing 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 256-seat auditorium, a museum store and café — the Fort Lauderdale museum appears much larger because its interior embodies a sense of lightness, both visually and spiritually.

“The atrium — with that skylight, which is blocked for UV — creates a sense of grandeur and lightness that a lot of new museum construction has forgotten or is not doing,” Clearwater says. “A lot of the new construction is just so heavy, and I think almost oppressive. I think their main concern is how do you get masses of people in and out. This was about really giving you an uplift.”

The museum was founded in 1958. During its three decades in its current location, the building has undergone many changes, with walls added and removed. In an effort to return to the museum’s minimalist roots, Clearwater began restoring the interior to its original design, which included showcasing the staircase in the museum’s lobby.

“I took down a lot of walls that were obscuring that gorgeous staircase,” Clearwater says. That is a masterpiece right there. When I had arrived, there was this long, curving wall that blocked most of it. I took that down this summer to expose that grand staircase because that’s very sculptural on its own.”

The staircase with its 39 steps could easily be featured in a Hitchcock film. It also serves to heighten the anticipation of visitors who seek out the second-floor exhibits — such as previous shows that featured Pablo Picasso’s ceramics or Lee Millers black-and-white photographs, as well as the current showing of Ana Mendieta films — that reveal the artist’s vulnerability as she seeks the essence of life in its most elemental forms of earth, wind, water, fire and blood.

The short climb to the second floor serves to whet the appetite of those who sign up for the occasional tea party or black-tie event, such as last month’s Bellissima Gala — a celebration of both the building’s 30th anniversary and the opening of Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968. Stefano Tonchi, editor-in-chief of W Magazine, chaired the event. Patrons paid $2,500 a head to attend and support the museum’s ongoing exhibition and education programs.

In keeping with the minimalist tone, the gala dinner, with its king’s tables laden with boxes of the sweetest red grapes (a gift from Whole Foods), used subtle means to connect to the exhibit downstairs. The curators established the link by painting the back wall a Tuscany gold and silk-screening the dinner napkins in a pattern reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum.

The crumbling Colosseum, where gladiators once fought, helped to focus the exhibit, both in terms of what was presented and the space in which the works could be exhibited in Fort Lauderdale. “We created a round amphitheater with a Fornasetti/Gio Ponti look,” Tonchi says, adding, “We only used three colors: black and white, alluding to Neorealism and cinema; and gold, to suggest the idea of couture.”

While unable to replicate the elevated catwalk created for the opening exhibition of Bellissima at the MAXXI Museum in Rome, Fort Lauderdale relied upon its curved back wall to give the show a sense of place. “We knew — we tried to do this catwalk, and it just wasn’t going to work,” Clearwater says.

Instead, the curators decided to create a sense of suspense, using an entrance wall to shield the show from casual observers and create the illusion of entering the colossal Roman amphitheater.

“One of the curators said, ‘Why don’t we just use this idea of the Forum?’ ” Clearwater says. “It became this group project, and the curators realized they could create the colonnade on the wall. I realized we could do it with vinyl and create a trompe l’oeil effect so that it actually looks like there’s depth there, and it created a sense of the curve of the Colosseum.”

To set the scene outside the exhibit, they relied upon a super-enlarged photograph that Federico Garolla took of a model in a modern cocktail dress standing amid the rubble of the Colosseum. The image in the floor-to-ceiling photograph is immediately recognizable as post-war Italy. Only after walking past the photograph and through a portal does one feel the full impact of the exhibition, with its phalanx of mannequins dressed in the most exquisite outfits, most of which would still make a fashion statement today.