It's extreme: Cantor's contemporary art gallery gets new look

From new art acquisitions to the daring green and blueberry-tinged gray walls, visitors to the Cantor Arts Center's newly renovated contemporary art gallery are in for a surprise.

Who would have guessed that an art degree would lead to hauling granite boulders on a bright winter afternoon? This is the kind of "heavy lifting" that goes beyond metaphor into the literal world of real rocks, real muscles.

So it was for a dozen volunteers and a few staff members at the Cantor Arts Center a few weeks ago as they loaded the rocks that compose Richard Long's Georgia Granite Circle (1990) into wheeled bins and rolled them into the basement of the museum. The work – it weighs 7.5 tons in all – will reemerge in a new setting Wednesday, when the museum's second-floor gallery reopens after the reinstallation called Extreme Makeover: A Fresh Look at the Cantor Art Center's Contemporary Collection.

This gallery is the most recent of Cantor's 24 galleries to get a makeover – the African and Asian collections are slated for a renovation in the next few years. To an outsider, the "extreme makeover" of the contemporary gallery (that is, including art from the 1950s onward) may not look like much of a change – but think again. One alteration that will make a big difference is the subtle blueberry-tinged gray wall that appears cool in window light and warmer with the quartz lights towards the far end. Also, as a spotlight color, a daring, rather assertive green makes a startling change from the standard off-white museum backdrop.

The work of choosing colors, organizing the exposition of works and supervising the countless changes has fallen to Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. She has been working on the makeover for more than a year.

Top-to-bottom makeover

Floors have been sanded and refinished. Moveable walls have been installed to make for a more flexible exhibition space. As a result, a number of impressive, large-scale works acquired since the 1989 earthquake – including Alice Neel's The Arab (1976) and John Cederquist's Space Age Wave Machine 1999 (1946) – will be shown for the first time. Hence, the makeover includes not only intensive labor but also years of thoughtful acquisition.

A few old friends have come out of hiding: "Dave," one of the museum's most popular works, leans against a wall nearby, apparently watching the commotion. Many people have wandered through the entire gallery without realizing that Dave is Duane Hanson's Slab Man (1976), made of vinyl resin and fiberglass and polychromed in oil.

Little will the visitor know of the complex system of bolts and mounts and springs that keep him standing, for the work must be secure enough to be viewed without a surrounding case. Minor damages have required complicated repair work; in this case, an elaborate new mount has been created.

"Yes, there are some favorites that are back on view – like the Duane Hanson Slab Man and the Diebenkorn and Oliveira paintings," said Faberman. "But in fact the installation is quite different, and not just the wall colors but the selection of works. The new installation places greater emphasis on sculpture and media such as clay, glass and wood.

"Quite a number of significant works are new acquisitions that have only been up briefly or not at all, such as the Alice Neel portrait, Noguchi sculpture, Al Held painting, Stella construction, Calder mobile. There are also a few new acquisitions of Bay Area works – particularly sculpture – including a delicious Neri plaster."

The makeover is, in part, choreography – for example, in the coordinated effort of moving a 16-foot circle of granite rocks. How to pick up, what to touch and not touch, the skill of moving display cases and navigating carpeted dollies for transport. In the basement, works aren't merely stored – one must know where to store them, and how, to protect them from light, moisture, air and earthquakes.

Wayne Thiebaud's cakes and desserts on framed canvas, protected by cardboard, lean against a wall. Modern paintings hang on steel racks alongside gilt-framed 18th-century ladies and gentlemen awaiting their debut into the 21st century.

A glimpse at the curator's vision

The extreme makeover gives visitors another angle to see the depth and holdings of the Cantor collection – and a little bit of the personality of the curator, too. It's a statement not only about Cantor's collection, but about Faberman's vision.

"All installations are a reflection of the curator's judgment, but a good curator learns very early on that what one acquires for the institution is very different than what you might acquire for your modest private collection.

"The institutional collection must always come first – that's a critical part of museum ethics," said Faberman. "And as for what is acquired, it depends on many factors including what is on the market, what is in your budget and price range, the nature of the art market, and what is relevant for your institution – in Stanford's case, what meshes with teaching goals and how do certain acquisitions fulfill the collection's development plan.

"Another factor was to find a collection development plan for Stanford that was unique and relevant for this place – and somewhat different than Berkeley or SFMOMA or the fine arts museums."