I don’t mean I found myself; I don’t suspect that self-discovery is the hallmark of the Great Lakes region these days. But there was a celebration to attend, and our friends had invited us up many times over the years. So it was a good time to go.
Apart from the celebration, the best thing about Cleveland was undoubtedly the Cleveland Museum of Art. They’ve recently completed the addition of a new “wing”—a new building to be accurate—that joins to the old via a large, glass-roofed atrium that is almost a spectacular as some of the art with the museum’s walls. We were there when the promise of spring was believable; a thunderous morning has given way to intermittently sunny skies and the atrium felt warm and inviting. (I couldn’t help wondering what that glass ceiling would look like, and how the atrium would feel, under a couple of feet of snow.)
We headed straight for the modern art galleries, and were well rewarded. Almost the first painting we encountered was a large example of Monet’s Nymphéas. In recent years, viewing the Water Lilies has become sort of a hobby for us, wherever we find them. This was a lovely example, the perspective harder to read than in many others I’ve seen, the color handling subtle but spiked with the occasional burst of red or orange. Nearby a startling Pisarro hung that make me think of Cezanne (see below), which is not my usual reaction to Pisarro. There were lovely Cezannes that I didn’t photograph, and later on, many more masterpieces that I couldn’t photograph. The guard was extremely pleasant when she explained the museum’s concern to honor the copyright in the paintings as the reason for not allowing photography. She even suggested I go back and take pictures of the Monet, if I was really interested in photographing the art.
So you won’t see here the extraordinary Picasso Blue Period La Vie, or the equally striking Rose Period The Harem, a prototype of the Desmoiselles d’Avignon. I don’t have photos of the quirky Grant Wood composition of haystacks in the snow. The sombre Rothko that looks a first cousin to the Seagrams paintings in the Tate Modern, the glorious Morris Louis Floral, and the exquisitely subtle Jules Olitski in pinks and greens escaped my lens. But I hope I’ve convinced you by now that if you love modern art, the CMA is a destination.
The older building, fittingly, is home to older work: Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. There’s lots of early Christian art as well, much of it undistinguished. The selection of African art that occupies one gallery is a knockout. The masks and musical instruments are lovely examples of their types, but the installation is one of the most brilliant I’ve seen of any kind of art in any museum anywhere. I was so impressed that I didn’t even think to take a photograph. But I did capture (no surprise) a black-figure vase and a lovely drawing by Michelangelo, a study for the Sistene Chapel ceiling.
Cleveland is also home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Rock Hall, as it’s known around town, was to be my first stop on the Cleveland tour. I was psyched.
First of all, the architecture is a disaster; it’s ugly inside and out, and the slope of the pyramid makes all the space inside…well, the best adjective I can come up with is stupid. Nothing really works well. You enter on the ground floor, buy your ticket, and have to descend a level to the main exhibition space. When you’re done there, you ascend, past the entry level, to a series of ever smaller spaces that can display less and less. The effect is that the longer you’re there the less impressive each space seems.
I wasn’t expecting to be entertained by Michael Jackson’s glove, Van Halen’s drum kit, or David Bowie’s numerous stage outfits. But I had hopes for the music and video. Sadly, this is entertainment for the attention deficient. The Legends of Rock show, clips from performances at Rock Hall installation ceremonies, has some segments that top out at maybe 60 seconds. I don’t think anything else, audio or video, makes it past the 15-second mark. The nadir was an exhibit called “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Yeah, I remember that. But since each segment of early music video clips lasts about 5 seconds, barely enough time to identify the artist, you start to wonder how the Radio Star could have lost so easily.
The best part of the whole experience was the seven member rock band, obviously composed of local high school kids (three women! and four guys, all about 17 years old) who got to perform live on the entrance-level stage at lunch time. I’d been sequestered in a multiscreen theaterette for a while and managed to miss part of their act. But I saw them nail three numbers in a row: the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” and Led Zep’s “Good Times, Bad Times.” The were versatile, they were tight, they were a little nervous, and they were the best show in the Hall all day long. It’s kind of right, too, that live music by teenagers should redeem the Rock Hall. The kids were all right.
But the disappointment engendered by the Rock Hall was more than compensated for by the surprise of discovering an architectural marvel tucked away on a corner of the campus of the Case Western Reserve University. Who would have suspected that there was a Frank Gehry building on campus, and one that he was developing the designs for in the early 90s at around the same time he was working on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao? The top of the Peter B. Lewis Building, which houses the Weatherhead School of Management at CWRU, is just visible from the Glass Room in the Cleveland Museum of Art; from there it looks a bit like the top of a frozen custard serving—Gehry’s own simile. Up close, it’s very dramatic.
Lewis was a Cleveland insurance magnate and a lifelong friend of Gehry’s and the two had sought to place a commission for Gehry in Cleveland. Ground was broken in 1999, two years after the dedication of the Bilbao museum, and construction completed three years later. The swooping curves of the exterior (what Gehry describes as the “wiggly stuff”) were inspired by the forms of fish, which Gehry claims combine a childhood fascination with watching his grandmother prepare gefilte fish (!) and “the sense of movement that I saw in Greek sculptures.” That’s an amazing architectural pedigree. The red-brick elements in the exterior are designed to help the building fit into the surrounding campus architecture.
Inside, the resemblance to the Bilbao institution is apparent as well in the soaring atrium spaces, in the undulating walls, and in the liberal use of glass walls and skylights to allow light to play through the space. Gaehry has also offered as an influence on the design of the interior space the desert rock formation in the American Southwest, glacial crevasses shot through with sunbeams.
And just as I had wondered, while admiring the glassed-in atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art, about the effects of heavy snow falls, I began to think about the potential for avalanches in the vicinity of the Peter B. Lewis Building. And sure enough, a certain amount of urban landscaping had to occur in the surrounds of the building to make sure that sleepy students didn’t find themselves under an unwelcome cascade of snow on their way to classes of a winter’s morning.
So Cleveland turned out to be full of surprises, good and bad. The Rock Hall, the one thing I was really looking forward to, was a nearly complete bust. But the CMA and the Lewis Building more than made up for the disappointment, proof that if you can’t always get what you want, you just might get what you need.