New Havenʼs Art Scene: Always Excellent, and Now Reopening

Brett Sokol, The New York Times, May 20, 2021

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Call her mood one of anxious joy.


As the Yale Center for British Art prepares to reopen June 4, its director, Courtney J. Martin, said she is thrilled to finally flip the lights back on. Recalling that somber moment in March 2020 when the center joined art institutions across the country in abruptly closing, she said, “We left to an unknown — we didn’t know what we were going home to, we didn’t know when we would return.”


Seeing art in person may not have seemed vital then, but its absence has since become palpable. “I’m so excited to be able to offer that again,” Martin continued, “as a place just to go and be for the summer.”


Now, with infections waning and Connecticut’s vaccination rate one of the highest in the country, Yale is joining a second wave of institutions resuming public access, from the Smithsonian Institutions to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.


The Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven’s other cultural flagship, reopened last week. Both museums are putting strict limits on visitors, with free, timed tickets online, and mandatory masking with one-way traffic inside their buildings. They joined several of the city’s smaller independently run art spaces in embracing the new normal: showing ambitious exhibitions while maintaining virusminded health measures.


If there was an upside to being closed for so long, Martin said, it was being able to rethink the Yale Center for British Art’s new shows, including “Love, Life, Death, and Desire,” which pairs London-based artist Damien Hirst’s 1991 breakout installation “In and Out of Love (Butterfly Paintings and Ashtrays)” with kindred works spanning the breadth of the center’s own collection — the largest vault of British art outside of Britain. The featured works stretch across four centuries, from Angelica Kauffman’s 1771 portrait “Rinaldo and Armida” to Christopher Le Brun’s vibrant 2015 abstraction, “Kingdom.”


Martin noted her desire to continue broadening the lens of the center to spotlight more women, particularly artists of color from the Commonwealth, and write back these key figures into British art history. Kauffman, for example, was the first woman to enter the Royal Academy in the 18th century. “She’s definitely an unrecognized figure — but unrecognized in our time, not in her time,” Martin said. “Art history lost her along the way.”


Turning to the modern era, she pointed out how Hirst’s rock-star profile and tabloid headlines — embalmed sharks! diamondencrusted skulls! — have often eclipsed the art itself. Much of the British reception of “In and Out of Love” heatedly focused on its use of actual butterflies embedded in a series of canvases, as well as an accompanying room full of live butterflies left to flutter around until they died. Three decades later, “people coming to Hirst for the first time will be able to see it for what it really was,” Martin said. “These are incredibly beautiful paintings that talk about the life cycle.”


Across the street, the Yale University Art Gallery’s imposing exterior — joining neo-Gothic faux palaces with a Louis Kahn-designed wall of glass and steel — signals its heavyweight aspirations and the no less monumental permanent collection within. Don’t be fooled by the word “gallery” — this is a museum in everything but name.


"You can see the big guns again,” laughed Stephanie Wiles, its director, referring to massive Abstract Expressionist canvases by Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko, as well as no less dazzling contemporary creations by Jean-Michel Basquiat and El Anatsui. Antiquities are also receiving renewed attention: The entire African art collection has been rehung, and now features large-scale photographic projections of rock art, much of it dating back tens of thousands of years.


But leave time for the gallery’s more intimately scaled rooms, which hold a slew of iconic Modernist works, including Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café.” There’s no substitute for beholding the real thing, Wiles insisted. “People stand in front of it all the time and talk about the surface, how it shocks them,” she said. “They can’t believe how much impasto there is. ‘Look at the texture! Look at the grooves on the floor! Look at the circles around the light!’”