Amazing Grace

Lewis Sharp, director of the Denver Art Museum, was in his typical ebullient mood when he addressed an assembled group of the media recently. The occasion was the unveiling of the model for the new wing being designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Berlin-based American architect who's one of the hottest contemporary architects on earth.

Sharp began by calling himself "the luckiest man in the world" -- a refrain he often repeats -- because he's getting the opportunity to work with Libeskind on an internationally significant building. But Sharp is wrong. We're the lucky ones. That's because it's our good fortune to have someone of Sharp's character, intelligence and skill at the helm of one of the most important cultural and architectural projects of our time. At every step of the way, he has acted with such brilliance and savoir faire that his approach should serve as a model for others involved in similar projects in which important institutions housed in significant buildings need to be expanded.

Let's look at the steps he took that have made the project exemplary.

The existing building (or "buildings," as Libeskind refers to them, since the tower is actually two joined structures) is a rare architectural gem. The gray-glass tile-clad building, completed in 1971, is the work of Italian modern master Gio Ponti, with on-site help from Denver's James Sudler. One of Ponti's largest commissions, it is his only building in North America. The DAM is the most substantial of a group of 1970s Ponti buildings to which it is stylistically related (the others are in Italy). These buildings represent Ponti's final mature design phase, expressed just before his death in 1978.

Right out of the chute -- actually, some years before there was a chute -- Sharp determined that any expansion would have to take this building into account. No architect, no matter how highfalutin, was even going be allowed to propose messing with it. This condition was laid out in the Request for Proposals that the DAM sent to interested architects. It means that the expansion, though a substantial one, won't affect the emblematic view of the Ponti building from 14th Avenue. The front of the building will be exactly the same when construction is completed as it is now. (The new wing will be located on the block south of the Ponti building, across West 13th Avenue, and will be subtly attached to the current museum via an elevated glass corridor attached at the second floor on the back side.)

Sharp's second smart move was to go for a superstar talent to design the new wing, thus guaranteeing it press and prestige. Libeskind was the unanimous choice in a couldn't-lose, closed competition; he beat out Thom Mayne of Los Angeles and Tokyo's Arata Isozaki.

Libeskind's model reveals the new wing as a visual tour de force that the architect himself describes as a "tectonic flower," made up of a cluster of spiky, angular forms that radiate up and out from around the main entrance. This entrance will be marked by a dramatic, atrium-like space in which a grand four-story staircase will be located. The building will be clad in gray granite -- "like the State Capitol Building," Libeskind noted -- and gray titanium panels. The titanium is the same material seen on the Guggenheim Bilbao, the standard by which all new museums are being measured today.

The use of gray makes a direct connection between the new building and the Ponti building. But as Libeskind pointed out, there will be more than just a superficial relationship; there is also a complicated formal dialogue. The theatrical roof of the Libeskind, for example, which he sees as the building's "fifth elevation," links up to the similar feature in the Ponti building. This is clearly revealed in the model: It is apparent that, when viewed from the high-rises to the north, the roofs of the seven-story Ponti and the four-story Libeskind will be visually connected.

Finally, Sharp's greatest triumph in all of this is that he has made program planning one of his last considerations. The ordinary practice in such situations is to hire some workman-like firm out of the Midwest and have it come up with a concept based solely on functional criteria. The results of this approach are typically insensitive, yet invariably become regarded as having been written in stone, a mindset that goes on to cripple the whole process. Had Sharp taken this well-trod path, it would have been guaranteed that the Ponti building would have been defaced and that the new one would have been a simple-minded shed. If architectural excellence doesn't come first, it winds up never coming in at all.

That's what's so great about Sharp: He did put architecture first. And believe me, we are the better -- and luckier -- for it.

Although specific programming decisions haven't been made concerning the new wing, some general ideas were identified from the start. One of these is that the new wing will house galleries dedicated to special exhibitions, the blockbuster shows -- many of them traveling -- that appear for limited runs.

That means that in the future, special exhibitions like IKAT: Splendid Silks of Central Asia From the Guido Goldman Collection, which opened last month in the Stanton rooms, will be in the new wing.

The exhibit has been on a national tour and is one of the most momentous textile displays ever presented in Denver. Guido Goldman, who loaned all the pieces in the show, is known to have the world's premier collection of a unique type of silk weaving done in the early to mid-nineteenth century, exclusively in what is now Uzbekistan.

Ikat is an Indonesian word that describes a variety of textiles done throughout Asia that can be most easily described as being tie-dyed. Clearly distinguishable from their textile cousins elsewhere in Asia, the threads in these Uzbekistani ikats are tie-dyed in specific patterns before the cloth is woven instead of the finished cloth being dyed, as is commonly done. (The DAM's textile art curator, Alice Zrebiec, has included simple, storyboard panels quietly slipped in here and there among the textiles that explain this.) It is hard to understand the process -- or at least to understand how the weavers figured it out.

"The more primitive technically, the more sophisticated the craftsman needs to be," observes Goldman, who lives in New York and New Hampshire.

When Goldman started in the 1970s, the ikats were very cheap, though they were never abundant. "You could take all the ikats in museums around the world, and you could not replicate this show," he says.

Goldman, who has been associated with Harvard University for more than a quarter-century, serving as the founding director of the Gunzburg Center for European Studies, is now retired, though he still maintains a relationship with the center. His expertise in European affairs is appropriate, since he was born in Switzerland to a wealthy family with a deep commitment to political change. "My father, Nahum Goldmann, lived in many different countries in Europe," he says. "He was the founder of the World Jewish Congress and so was instrumental in the creation of Israel."

Goldman inherited an interest in civic affairs from his father, and he now serves as the chairman of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. But his interest in art is all his own.

In addition to his Uzbekistani ikat collection, Goldman also collects welded metal sculpture -- "I have a lot of David Smiths and Anthony Caros," he says -- as well as the wildly colorful ceramics done by early-twentieth-century British artist Clarice Cliff. Given these widely varied interests, it's not surprising to find that the ikat's appeal for Goldman is purely visual. "My interest is only aesthetic and is neither historical nor ethnographic," he says. "I didn't bother to learn much about them until I had a collection. I bought most of them before I knew anything about them."

Given this aesthetic, non-historical approach, the DAM display has been presented to highlight the visual power, and not the functional features, of the ikats. "They look like abstract paintings, don't they?" Goldman asks rhetorically. And he's right, they do. But originally they were meant as bedding, wall-hangings and coats.

Central Asian silks may sound like an acquired taste or an arcane interest, which may be why the show's attendance has hit only modest numbers. But Goldman's unerring eye, his connoisseurship and his resources have guaranteed that this exhibit is a first-rate feast for the eyes, no matter what your artistic interests.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia