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From defeat to de Young

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SAN FRANCISCO Try this for a new axiom: Nothing succeeds like defeat.

That's the feeling shared by the well-heeled folks who presided over creation of the new and audaciously modern de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which has opened to choruses of cheers and a scattering of brickbats.

Sheathed in copper and glass, and surmounted by an observation tower that overlooks the park, the city and the Golden Gate Bridge, the structure replaces a cultural landmark that was severely damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and razed five years ago.

"The best thing that ever happened to us was losing the bond-issue elections," board President Diane Wilsey told a heavily attended preview several days ago.

The defeats in 1996 and '98 led the energetic and determined Wilsey to take matters into her own hands, and freed those hands from the constraints of municipal bureaucracy and compromise. Although the city owned the de Young's land, building and extensive holdings of art, she and her backers effectively received carte blanche to create the new museum if they could raise the money to build it.

For Wilsey, that kind of challenge is roughly equivalent to asking Barry Bonds to hit a ball out of the infield. At recent count, contributions have topped $188million, of which $135million has been spent on the building's construction. The project's total cost is expected to run slightly over $200million, and Wilsey has no doubts that she can twist the right arms and dip into the right pockets to raise the remainder, and more.

In the view of architect Pierre deMeuron, what that wealth has bought is a building conceived for this moment in the history of architecture but designed for the ages. He and partner Jacques Herzog direct the Swiss firm that did the design.

Asked about the expected life span of the copper panels that enclose the building, deMeuron replied, "Eternal."

Some viewers evidently find no joy in that prospect: detractors have likened the building and its coiling tower to an aircraft carrier and a serpent in the park, among other things.

The architect's assertion is obviously hyperbole, but a walk through almost any European city will find copper roofing that has survived centuries of climates far more extreme than San Francisco's.

The material was chosen in large part because of the sponsors' determination to erect a building that would blend with its surroundings: an urban forest. The copper plates which are either dimpled or perforated in computer-generated patterns were shiny when they were installed. Today, their surface is dull and slightly streaked. In a few years, perhaps 15 or 20, they will begin to show copper's traditional green patina, which presumably will merge visually with the redwoods and eucalyptuses and oaks nearby.

Whether that will fully integrate the de Young into the park is another question, though. Seen from its front on Tea Garden Drive, the building is long and low, with sharply angled corners and two distinctive features that are at once hard-edged and translucent: at the west end, a massive cantilever that extends over a broad patio and shades the adjacent cafe from the afternoon sun; at the east end, a nine-story tower in the shape of a twisting, leaning, tapered rectangle.

The tower is eye-catching, to say the least. Functionally, it contains offices and educational facilities a major part of the museum's civic mission and an observation platform that is certain to be as crowded as the two elevators' monitors allow.

The view can be awesome. It encompasses the entire park, most of this beautiful city and much of the bay, plus the Marin headlands and more.

I assume you could see from the Pacific to Mount Diablo on a perfect day. I had to settle for less, because fog was rolling in from the ocean and haze was hanging over the bay.

It also can be awesome in another way when fog makes it impossible to see even the nearby trees or the ground barely 150 feet below.

A curator described her experience: "It was heaven."

Although the museum's shell is likely to be Exhibit A for months if not years, the interior also offers a unique array of experiences, even without thinking about the art it contains.

The permanent collection's huge variety of works fills two stories of galleries of varying shapes, sizes, hues and lighting configurations. Temporary exhibitions will be housed in the basement's spacious quarters. The European works owned by the museum's parent organization, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, will stay in the Legion of Honor museum.

In creating the structure's interiors, deMeuron and Herzog were immensely successful at integrating indoor and outdoor elements of the building and its site.

For starters, they discarded the traditional notion that art galleries must be rectangular spaces shielded from the intrusion or distraction of the world outside.

Some of the galleries are rectangular, it's true, and some have ceiling heights that might be considered normal. But others have unusual shapes or qualities: there are tall rooms essentially lit by daylight pouring through insulated skylights; there are walls pierced by windows that open onto the new sculpture garden or the park's Music Concourse or courtyards shaped by the building itself; there are atriums filled with dwarf trees and other greenery.

Among the display spaces, the most distinctive and inviting is a large, wedge-shaped room dominated by newly acquired works from New Guinea, reputedly the Western world's finest collection of its kind. The fragile sculptures and other pieces are surrounded by the warm hues of wood, from floor to ceiling. It's a gallery that suggests tranquility and invites contemplation.

I can't begin to go into detail about the museum's contents, save to note that it surveys American art from Colonial days to the present, devotes major spaces to pre-Columbian Mexico and other cultures in Central and South America, and offers the region's best look at historic and contemporary textile art. There also are galleries dedicated to photography and to varied crafts, including glass, which have gotten short shrift from museums until recent years.

The current headline show contains some 300 pieces of Egyptian sculpture, ceramics, jewelry and other antiquities revolving around the reign of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1479-1458 B.C.), a queen who assumed the title and prerogatives of king. It runs through Feb.5.

Another temporary exhibition is "Jasper Johns: 45 Years of Master Prints," with some 35 works by one of the most important American artists of the late 20th century. It continues through Feb.12.

Central Valley visitors who light up at the sight of pictures of their home region should be tickled to encounter two large rural scenes by Wayne Thiebaud near the heart of the museum, where just about every viewer will see them. They are in the huge Wilsey Court, so named because of a $10million gift from Diane Wilsey and her late husband. It's near the cafe. Enjoy, and bon appétit!

Leo Stutzin is The Bee's former arts editor, now retired.

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©2004 The Modesto Bee. All Rights Reserved.

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