In the great jousting pit of the museum world, architecture — rather than art — is often the star of the show. (Think Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or Herzog & de Meuron’s Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2013.) West Palm Beach’s Norton Museum of Art has thrown down the design gauntlet: Earlier this month, it opened a $100 million expansion by the Pritzker Prize-winning starchitect Lord Norman Foster.
The original 1941 entrance faced east; in 1997, the entrance was reoriented to the south. The new museum entrance — and Foster’s 59,000-square-foot west wing — looks over West Dixie Highway. The entrance is shaded by a 43-foot-high aluminum canopy, with a crescent-shaped cut-out for an epic banyan tree. To the south, Foster’s first public garden is a 37,000-square-feet affair with a series of “garden rooms” and more than a dozen sculptures, created by such artists as Keith Haring and Mark di Suvero.
The Norton is ancient by South Florida standards, and has a permanent collection of more than 7,500 pieces of art. This is the kind of time-honored institution where regulars can revisit a favorite Edward Hopper painting and also take in a shock-of-the-new exhibition. Happily, the art on hand lives up to the hype of the architecture.
Founded in 1941 by Elizabeth and Ralph Norton, Palm Beach residents who hired Marion Sims Wyeth to create a series of graceful Art Deco-inspired pavilions surrounding a central courtyard, the Norton has become South Florida’s closest equivalent to the comprehensive museums in the north. Foster has done such provocative modernist towers as the Gherkin in London, but he’s also worked with venerable institutions like the British Museum. At heart, he’s a sober talent, and it makes a certain sense that the Norton would bring him in for the expansion.
At the new entrance, a reflecting pool contains Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s “Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, 1998-1999,” an enormous and joyful sculptural rendering of an eraser. Oldenburg, a Pop Art founder, has long been acclaimed for his devotion to everyday objects. The Norton’s exhibition “Oldenburg and van Bruggen: The Typewriter Eraser, A Favored Form” is a small display of sculpture and drawings by Oldenburg and van Bruggen, illustrating the creative alchemy that transmogrifies banal objects into art.
The museum centerpiece is the new 3,600-square-feet Great Hall: The room has a 44-foot-tall ceiling with an Oculus and a 30-foot-tall window. The Great Hall features “Eikon,” a 15-foot-by-40-foot hanging textile piece by Pae White, a permanent installation meant to create the illusion of reflecting the green in the banyan tree.
For White, the moment was all about the Great Hall, “I love how sunlight filters through this room — this is the perfect space for art.”
But for Cheryl Brutvan, the Norton’s director of curatorial affairs, the addition brings opportunities far beyond the Great Hall that will allow the Norton to showcase more of its permament collection. They include a dedicated gallery for collection of more than 4,500 photographs, spanning work by avant-garde photographer Man Ray, color pioneer William Eggleston and fashion icon Irving Penn.
The current show, “WHO? A Brief History of Photography through Portraiture” comprises about 60 works, from 19th century daguerreotypes to portraits utilizing 21st century technological trickery. The photographers in the show (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Cindy Sherman, among them) cover all the bases. It’s an illuminating experience to see Alexander Hesler’s somber 1860 portrait of Abraham Lincoln in close proximity to Lewis Hine’s 1910 “Untitled (Newsboys)” and Shirin Neshat’s 1993 self-portrait, “I Am Its Secret.” In the Neshat image, which is accomplished with ink on a resin-coated print, the Iranian photographer shows her face partially veiled; the skin uncovered is adorned with red-and-black Farsi script from the poem “I Will Greet the Sun Again” by Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad.
The exhibition “Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography” entails 50 artworks and some technically evolved efforts, including Jerry Burchfield’s 2007 “Asimina obovate (Pawpaw).” The image of plant leaves is created from the photogram process, placing an object on gelatin silver print paper and exposing the paper to the sun. A 2008 piece by Christopher Bucklow, “Tetrarch,” was created using a pierced and traced outline of a male figure on Cibachrome paper: The image is luminescent and eerie-cool.
“Going Public: Florida Collectors Celebrate the Norton” incorporates work by about 50 artists (the sweet painting of Mary Cassatt, somber installation by Anselm Kiefer, pop art by Roy Lichtenstein, etc.); the pieces on view were loaned by an array of collectors, including Karl and Teryn Weintz of Jupiter. The artwork is integrated into inaugural displays within galleries devoted to the museum’s collections of American, Chinese, Contemporary and European art.
“Going Public” provides some jarring moments through juxtapositions that serve to highlight the work. One of the best “Going Public” pieces is a 2003 Hank Willis Thomas examination of modern slavery to corporations, “Branded Head.” The photograph, owned by noted collector and part-time West Palm Beach resident Beth Rudin DeWoody, captures a Nike “Swoosh” symbol branded into the shaved head of a young African-American man.
On a gentler note, the exhibition “Modern Spontaneity: Ralph Norton’s Watercolor Collection” includes beautiful pieces by Winslow Homer and Fernand Leger. “Spotlight: Ralston Crawford Across Media” mixes Crawford’s paintings of the 1940s and 1950s — such pieces as the starkly geometric “Box Car” and “New Orleans No. 8” — with his photographs, including 1949’s stark black-and-white “Girders, where beams seem to stretch into infinity.
“Spotlight” examines connections between Crawford’s photographs and his precise and beautiful paintings, artwork that abstracts and transforms the real world documented by his photography.
The Norton has long been recognized for its Chinese art collection; currently, 446 pieces of Chinese art are on view. “Good Fortune to All: A Chinese Lantern Festival in 16th-Century Nanjing” is a lively six-panel piece with acrobats, musicians and other figures grouped around a mountain built of lanterns.
In 2011, the Norton launched its annual RAW (Recognition of Art by Women) exhibition series, featuring the work of a living female painter or sculptor. This year’s RAW artist is Nina Chanel Abney: Her exhibition, “Nina Chanel Abney: Neon” deals with the issues of America’s rampant violence and the fault lines of racism. In her work, Abney uses doses of old-school abstraction that smack of Stuart Davis’ colorful canvases from the 1930s, with fields of disembodied iconic imagery. Abney has created angry depictions of cities on fire and sexual debasement, accented by floating dollar signs and cocktail glasses.
The gamut of opening exhibitions is impressive. But the Norton’s future rides on the eternal chimera that rules museums, a staunch belief in the transformative power of blockbuster architecture. For Hope Alswang — who has served as director and CEO of the Norton since 2010 — the Foster expansion is the culmination of a long dream. (On March 1, 2019, Alswang will retire and be succeeded by Elliot Bostwick Davis, formerly with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)
For Alswang, the new Norton is pure possibility.
“Norman Foster’s work here has completely exceeded every expectation,” she said. “This building is going to attract donations and art collections. As the expression goes, build it and they will come.”
IF YOU GO
Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach; www.norton.org; 561-832-5196. Free Fridays and Saturdays; other days $18 adults, $15 seniors; $5 for students with valid school ID; under 12 free. Closed Wednesdays.
Current exhibitions: “WHO? A Brief History of Photography through Portraiture” is on view through Nov. 26; “Modern Spontaneity: Ralph Norton’s Watercolor Collection” through May 7; “Spotlight: Ralston Crawford Across Media” through May 14; “Out of the Box: Camera-less Photography” through June 18; “Nina Chanel Abney: Neon” through June 25. The shows “Going Public: Florida Collectors Celebrate the Norton,” “Oldenburg and van Bruggen: The Typewriter Eraser, A Favored Form,” and “Good Fortune to All: A Chinese Lantern Festival in 16th-Century Nanjing” are on display through June 4.
Friday evenings: The Norton’s free weekly “Art After Dark” program presents a wide variety of cultural programming, from artist talks (Nick Cave and Teresita Fernández, among others) to studiously non-commercial art films. In the coming months, a Contemporary Dance Series will feature such companies as the Pioneer Winter Collective.