Dallas builds a generous new place for art

New art museums and museum annexes keep popping up like mushrooms all over the United States. No sooner did one new museum open in Portland, Maine, for instance, than others opened in Atlanta, Miami, and various other cities.

The most recent such event took place on Jan. 29, when the Dallas Museum of Art opened its new facilities to the public. It had been decided some years back that its original building was no longer adequate to encompass its expansion program, most especially in the light of forthcoming gifts and its ambition to become a truly major American museum.

For the citizens of Dallas, the occasion was a just reward for their faith in this institution and in the future of art in Dallas. They had demonstrated that faith in 1979 by approving a $24.8 million bond issue, the largest sum ever raised for a cultural project by public referendum in the US. When this figure was augmented by an additional $27.6 million raised from private sources, the museum's primary funding for its new home became the largest amount ever raised in Dallas for a cultural institution.

Museums need art as well as money, and an impressive number of paintings, sculpture, textiles, and works in other media valued in the millions of dollars have been forthcoming as gifts since 1979. In addition, collectors have lent outstanding pieces for varying lengths of time, and the museum itself has acquired other works through its expansion program.

Most of all, however, museums need buildings within which to house and display their art - and buildings, as we all know, require architects to design them.

For its building project the Dallas Museum chose Edward Larrabee Barnes, who had already designed the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Asia Society Gallery in New York, and the Wichita Art Museum.

In picking Barnes, Dallas chose well, for he gave it one of the finest and most sensibly designed museum facilities in the US.

It isn't an awe-inspiring structure, but then it wasn't intended to be impressive at the expense of the art on view. Barnes was primarily concerned that the architecture support rather than upstage the art, that it permit ''soft , indirect daylight and splashes of daylight from windows and garden courts and patios to enhance the works.''

With that in mind, he designed a low-rise, dramatically contemporary limestone building on an 8.9-acre site on the northern edge of Dallas's central business district, and provided it with just such garden courts and patios. He also provided it with top-lighting - both natural and incandescent - that illuminates without harsh spotlighting; three different flooring materials to lessen monotony and fatigue; and a three-tiered division of exhibition space that separates the museum's three main collections.

The visitor enters through one of the museum's three main entrances and proceeds along a ''spine'' hallway that runs the length of the building. ''Contemporary Art'' is housed on the lowest tier in a 12,000-square-foot area that features a 40-foot-high barrel vault and four smaller galleries. ''Traditional European and American Art'' occupies the second level, consisting of 15,300 square feet arranged around a central atrium. ''Non-Western Art' is installed on the top tier in an 18,400-square-foot area that encompasses another naturally lighted cental atrium. Other space has been set aside for an ''Expansion Gallery,'' and 21,725 square feet has been given over to the museum's ''Education Wing.''

In addition, there is a 1.2-acre Sculpture Garden that includes commissioned works by Ellsworth Kelly and Scott Burton. (Other commissioned pieces include a site-specific work for the Education Courtyard by Richard Fleischner, and a huge interior sculpture by Claes Oldenburg that is expected to be installed within a few months.)

All this space would be meaningless, of course, without art to occupy it, and the Dallas Museum is quite fortunate in its holdings. Of its roughly 10,000 works, only about 4,000 are currently on view - although these have been augmented by several pieces on loan from private collectors and foundations.

Most impressive, both for its installation and quality, is the grouping of collections brought together under the title ''Non-Western Art.'' Particularly strong are the museum's Pre-Columbian and African collections - both of which contain some of the most stunning examples of such art in the US - and a few Oceanic and American Indian items. On the other hand, the Classical, Near Eastern, and Oriental works on display tend to be interesting and good rather than truly outstanding.

Not much can be said about the museum's holdings of older European art, although it does own - or has been promised - good examples by such lesser artists as Mignard, Fabritius, Procaccini, and Beert the Elder.

The museum does much better in the area of 19th-century European art, with excellent works by Daumier, Courbet, Bazille, Monet, Rodin, and Gauguin. And it has every reason to be proud of its 19th-century American paintings, which include a superb Edward Hicks, the recently acquired ''The Icebergs,'' by Frederic Church, and outstanding examples by Inness, Bricher, Peto, Eakins, Sargent, Cassatt, and Hassam.

Also outstanding are its eight Mondrians, three Legers, Brancusi's ''Beginning of the World'' - and practically everything else in its galleries devoted to early modernist art. I was also taken by the broad range of art covered in the ''Traditional American Art'' section, and by such individual works as Andrew Wyeth's ''That Gentleman,'' Gerald Murphy's ''Watch,'' Alexander Calder's ''Flower,'' and Alexander Hogue's ''Drought Stricken Area.''

In terms of sheer size, color, and physical impact, however, nothing in this museum can match its collection of post-World War II American art. It is dominated by a huge and first-rate Rauschenberg (on loan from the artist) which presides over a large group of generally excellent Abstract Expressionist and later-period American paintings and sculptures. Pollock, Rothko, Gottlieb, Kline , Motherwell, Gorky, Francis, Held, Wesselmann, Diebenkorn, Wiley, David Smith, Andre, and Price are particularly well represented. And relative newcomer Richard Shaffer holds up very well with his huge canvas ''Platform With Stairs.''

Clyfford Still, on the other hand, does poorly. His 1964 ''Untitled'' is one of his weakest paintings, and should have been tucked away in a corner rather than given one of the prime locations in the museum.

I am more concerned, however, by the dramatic gaps in the contemporary collection. Viewing it, one gets the impression that little of interest or importance occurred between the end of Abstract Expressionism and the late 1970s except Minimalism; that Pop-Art was primarily a witty exercise in architectural space; that Photo-Realism never reared its head; that Conceptualism and its byproducts never existed; and most serious of all, that ''realism'' never returned to prominence in American art.

I bring this up less as a criticism than as a hint to collectors looking for an ultimate home for their collections of major contemporary art. The Dallas Museum now has the perfect space for a truly great collection of 20th-century - especially post-World War II American - art. It already has the makings of it in its Mondrians, Legers, Pollocks, Rothkos, and other important works. But it needs more, and the collection itself needs to be shaped according to the broadest and deepest possible reading of 20th-century art.

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