In politically disturbed times such as ours, museums can provide welcome distraction. Berkeley Art Museum is located on Bancroft Way across the street from the university campus, a short walk from the city center, making it easy for town as well as gown to refresh themselves therein.
The current exhibit of Byron Kim’s paintings, “Threshold,” can advantageously be approached by starting at the top level of the museum, in Gallery 6. This takes one past a side gallery of ancient Asian bronzes and ceramics. In this small area two tiny vessels of prehistoric origin make the detour worth the trip. Their dark-patina’d eggshell-thin forms, each with tiny handles and faint engravings, speak of delicate fingers, female surely, working in harmony with the agrarian cycle of seasons that so conveniently lends itself to creativity in both clay and field.
One flight of stairs above, Gallery 6 has a few large canvases that represent adequately enough the painting world of the mid-20th century, starting with Clyfford Still’s large Untitled of 1955. Also an abstract color field, Mark Rothko’s 1961 Number 207 is however more mesmerizing, as he achieved a saturation of hue that has not been exceeded since. The works of Richard Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler and Willem de Kooning echo some aspects of these expanses of color and little to no form, yet at the same time with much less spiritual resonance than Rothko’s.
Leaving Gallery 6 one is brought up short by a Jay DeFeo painting hung where one can not fail to see it, on the right side of the way out. Resembling in style her masterpiece The Rose, which hung here a few years ago, this huge canvas, Origin, painted in 1956, is equally masterly. As in The Rose, mystery pulses from the canvas surface, as though a god of painting had dipped fat fingers into lush pigments of subtly varied grays and creams, with touches of black and ochre and hints of green, and trailed them in a cosmic, compelling, utterly sublime fashion across celestial space.
After this knockout blow to the psyche, one expects Byron Kim to be an anticlimax. Instead, as one makes one’s way down through the lower galleries, his cool blues and pale terracottas spring gently from the walls to refresh and comfort the eye. With help in interpretation from curatorial text, this feast completes a comprehensible progression of 20th century style and ushers in the 21st. Gone are the hyperactivity of Abstract Expressionism, the dryness of Minimalism, the dizzyness of Op and Pop, and post Modern inclusion. Something is here that is as yet unnamed, that derives its essence direct from the fount of all art, nature, that makes it look as though the future does after all contain hope, and clear-sightedness, and surprisingly, given the turmoil of the times, serenity.
If it is now time to feed body as well as soul, for looking at art can whip up an appetite, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. the museum’s Café Muse on the ground floor produces fresh, savory dishes at moderate prices. The stairway down is flanked by Ragamala paintings selected from Jean and Francis Marshall’s extensive donated collection. These tiny jewels, exquisitely rendered and imaginatively conceived—from horses that have stood in fields for so long that their legs are stained with scarlet and their flanks etched with minuscule meadow flowers, to many-headed deities or blue faced ones—were painted in the second half of the last millennium to give visual form to music, a genre said to have been particularly popular with Hindu royalty.
These miniatures bring us back to the beginning of our tour, for they were painted by the same person who made the tiny Asian vessels, surely the most beguiling artist of all time: Unknown.