Around the World in a Day at the New de Young, By: Marta Yamamoto

Friday January 06, 2006

When winter skies open up and drench the ground, thoughts of an outdoor weekend getaway pale. That’s the time for an indoor adventure—one that will take you places far removed from everyday life. Journey to other cultures, other times, while being awed by incredible architecture and outstanding art. In short, visit San Francisco’s de Young Museum. 

Aside from housing over 25,000 works of art, the museum complex is a work of art itself. Massive yet seemingly lightweight, it appears to have settled effortlessly, a part of the earth, with spiraled tower reaching above. Copper, wood, stone and glass combine to create outdoor canvases that will alter and patina with time, reflecting changes in the environment, as does nature. 

To reflect light filtering through trees, copper sheets have been perforated and extruded, a random series of variegated “pimples and dimples.” Windows shimmer in ribboned panels, stone anchors and wood forms a bond with the outdoor landscape. The angular 144-foot tower appears to have erupted from the ground soaring above the treescape of Golden Gate Park and the city of San Francisco, subtly reminding us of the urban environment in which the park exists.  

With nine permanent collections and several changing exhibits a wise move would be to prioritize your interests or plan to arrive at the 9:30 a.m. opening and be shoved out the door at the 5 p.m. closing. The museum fills quickly, so an early arrival time also insures a less crowded experience, especially for popular exhibits. 

I should have begun my recent visit with “Hatshepsut—From Queen To Pharaoh.” By 10:30 this exhibit was already crowded, but no less amazing. Hatshepsut seems to have begun the women’s movement, serving as king of Egypt for almost 20 years, from 1479 to 1458 B.C. On display is a collection of over 250 innovative works created during her reign. 

Dimly lit, with spotlights illuminating individual works, and walls a muted charcoal, entering the exhibit transported me back in time to pyramid passageways and chambers. Here the presentation is equal to the collection. 

Surrounded by massive sandstone heads, statues and reliefs, sharply delineated papyrus and exquisite artifacts, it’s almost impossible to accept how long they have been in existence. While today we amass throwaway goods, those of the exhibit serve to remind us of nature’s permanence. Hatshepsut ruled as king, so in most statuary she is depicted as a male. In the one exception her clothes and jewelry are understated; only her headdress and determined expression reflect her accomplishment. 

Linen-lined display cases showcase the delicate craft of Hatshepsut’s reign—cosmetic jars and cups of turquoise and gold; animal shape scarabs and rings carved in jasper; travertine ointment jars; beautiful jewelry in gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli; paper thin gold sheet sandals—artifacts worthy of any queen or king. 

Leaving the exhibit, a wall size photograph of Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut’s Funerary Temple, puts the size of the statuary and reliefs into perspective. Encompassing the entire side of a mountain, anything less than huge would be lost to sight. Unfortunately, lost to sight and mind was Hatshepsut’s legacy. Twenty years after her death, all traces of her reign as king were removed. 

The de Young’s permanent collections expanded my worldwide tour into the past. Dark muted walls and subdued lighting again set the scene for the Art of Oceania, a collection of over 400 artifacts of religious or magical significance. I marveled at the craftsmanship in New Guinea shields and masks, carved and painted in both scary and whimsical motifs featuring flat dish-shaped faces with saucer eyes. Wonderful wood and skin drums adorned with side carvings of lizards and other animals honored ancestors and spirits. 

The Art of Africa collection showcases both the contemporary and historical work of over 80 groups. Entering the gallery I was greeted by a wall-size textile-like sculpture by El Anatasui. Thousands of flattened aluminum bottle caps connected by copper wire are arranged in rows creating their own form, an eye-catching sharp-edged quilt. A six-foot ancestor figure from Mali, almost one thousand years old; a Nigerian Epa mask over four-feet tall, looking more like a sculpture of the Queen Mother and her encircled attendants than something to be worn on one’s head; bundled raffia and painted wood initiation masks from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Yaka people; intricate bead work in a Zulu wedding cape and apron—every piece bringing to life the history of the peoples represented. 

Moving from ancient art to the contemporary, not only the work changes, but the setting as well. Ceilings soar and white walls reflect the light. The big names in 20th century painting are well represented. Superman by Mel Ramos, Wayne Thiebaud’s gum ball dispensers, wonderful blue, yellow and brick blotches and spatters amid white negative space by Sam Francis, wall-size canvases by Diebenkorn, Motherwell and de Kooning—all hung at eye level with expansive white walls above. 

Equal billing is given to contemporary sculpture. Viola Frey’s glazed earthenware figure of a man, looming 10 feet high; the stoneware of Peter Voulkos resembling a rustic outdoor cooking vessel; a favorite of this science nerd, 20 lab specimen jars arranged on two glass shelves, each containing one labeled apple core soaking in vodka, the piece by Nayland Blake. 

In yet another gallery, like others named for a major donor, Jasper Johns’ forty-five years of master prints line the walls. The Seasons, a group of four intaglio prints, contains the same human shape amid changing muted colors and patterns. Gray Alphabets repeat the letters of the alphabet, in subtle tones, across a huge canvas. 

When your brain can’t squeeze in one more “piece of art,” there’s still more to do—eat, shop, stroll outside—the order is optional. The de Young Café carries Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto philosophy across the bay. Featuring the freshest products from local food artisans, the tastes created are as exciting as the artwork. Berkeley’s representatives include Acme Bakery and Peet’s coffee. Original salads, hearty soups and sandwiches—making a choice may be your hardest assignment. 

Even rainy mornings become sunny afternoons. Settle al fresco on the terrace below a cantilevered copper roof overlooking the Barbro Osher sculpture garden and original palm trees. While the redwoods might not compete with those in Muir Woods, the setting is peaceful and evocative. Take time to stroll the grounds, appreciating scattered ceramic apples, a giant safety pin and the Pool of Enchantment. 

At the de Young Store you’ll find artifacts representative of the permanent collections, like African baskets and masks, as well as the work of local artisans. If, like myself, you’re enchanted with the museum’s copper façade, you can take a piece of it home. Signature frames, bookmarks, jewelry and motifed t-shirts will keep your visit’s memories alive. 

When departure time looms you’ll realize that there are several collections you haven’t seen. Save them for the next time but the tower is a must. Ascend the elevator nine stories up to 360-degree views of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco. Look through perforations in the copper overhang and marvel at the arresting roof top design—I kept waiting for cars to appear in these rows of “lanes.” 

From Egypt, New Guinea, Africa to Mexico, the West Coast and California; from the secrets of the past to the innovations of the present—let your mind stretch, your feet tire and your taste buds tingle—plan a winter getaway to the de Young Museum.