Until now, Paul Allen never let his artworks out in public, and everyone who caught a glimpse of them—even houseguests, reportedly—had to sign a waiver vowing silence. It's no wonder that in their civic debut, they're a bit of a letdown, not to mention collared and leashed. It's not that there aren't glorious pieces here, or that the show isn't worth the affordable $8 admission price. Definitely go. But the truth is that the 28 works in DoubleTake range from great to just so-so, unless you are the type to perform ritual prostration at the sight of anything made by Renoir or Picasso, two artists with perfectly decent works in this show that are nonetheless nothing to shout about.
Then there is the disaster of the presentation. The art huddles in a windowless room at Experience Music Project where the black walls have been covered in the sort of beige linen found in department-store dressing rooms. Prim metal frames do their captives no favors. Every painting is protected by glass. But if this is a zoo, we're the animals, as evidenced by the gobsmackingly patronizing seven-minute film visitors see before they're shepherded into the gallery.
The selection reveals nothing about what drives Allen as a collector. Curator Paul Hayes Tucker's attempt to spark new connections by pairing works is hit-and-miss. A late de Kooning abstraction next to a fine green Monet Water Lilies demonstrates nicely the way the 20th century blew form to bits and then worried over the debris. Jasper Johns's unusual sculptural grid looks like an unopenable door to Monet's Rouen Cathedral. But other pairings are vexing, or so literal as to be feeble-minded—Gauguin's Tahitian women with Kenji Yanobe's travelers in space suits; girls by Renoir and Lichtenstein; Venetian canals by Canaletto, Turner, Manet, and Monet, hung in chronological order.
What makes the show worth seeing are individual treasures. Eric Fischl is at his brutal best here, and van Gogh's peach blossoms are painfully vulnerable, as only van Gogh blossoms could be. In Turner's magical Venice, everything and everyone is going up in smoke. There's a small, delicate study by Seurat, a witty rejoinder to the criticism that his pointillist scene of an afternoon in the park was cold. The painting-within-a-painting shows radiant nudes disrobing in the studio as Seurat's earlier canvas rests on the wall. A fun trompe l'oeil from Jan Brueghel the Younger, circa 1625, hasn't been seen in public in more than 100 years, I'm told.
It shouldn't be necessary to praise Allen for unlocking his vault. Hoarding objects that are valuable to entire societies is bad behavior. Still, art needs air, and Allen is trying to give it some. Why not take it to a real museum next time? In its six years, EMP has been more of an overpriced tourist attraction than a home for the exchange of ideas about rock music, and rock is something we know Allen loves. How does he really feel about art, and what is his vision for showing it? This show doesn't answer those questions. Instead, it relies on celebrity. Even in rock, that only goes so far. JEN GRAVES
In the hierarchy of learning, from simple knowledge to complex manipulation of ideas, tasks that ask you to compare and contrast rank relatively low. It's a fairly mechanical process—check off the qualities the items share, enumerate the characteristics that set them apart. At DoubleTake, the highly mediated debut of Paul Allen's art collection, paintings are arranged in pairs and sometimes threes and fours. If you don't immediately recognize the task that's set before you, the pushy video introduction will set you straight.
Curator Paul Hayes Tucker hopes that asking you to compare and contrast impressionist or postimpressionist paintings with 20th-century works will make you see the older paintings anew. But without any wall text to guide you, the natural inclination is to acknowledge and move quickly past superficial similarities. (I see, these compositions all have a pyramid at the center. Or, They're both pictures of Venice. Or, These both contain blocks of orangey red.) The rest of the time you spend with the paintings, you busily ferret out their differences. If one is forward, aggressive, modern in any way, the other will look backward, subdued—like dorm-room Monet. Even if the impressionists do represent a drastic leap forward in the history of art, at this point their revolt is about as domesticated as the musical version of Les Misérables.
Despite the condescending weirdness of the EMP show, there is something to recommend this curatorial model, at least in principle. Many art history courses at American colleges are taught with the aid of two slide projectors: Each artist and movement is introduced as one half of a pair. The compare-and-contrast model has obvious pedagogical advantages. You're not seeing the paintings or sculptures or cathedrals in person; you're seeing flattened slide projections, fluttering against a white screen halfway down a cavernous lecture hall. Resolution is degraded, you can't discern individual brushstrokes or chisel marks, and it's impossible to appreciate the way paint is layered on top of a canvas. So art history, as a discipline, has settled on teaching across examples instead of within works. (It isn't the only conceivable way of teaching art, and it's certainly not the only way of experiencing art. If students could confront each work up close, instructors might modify the "close reading" strategy popular among teachers of poetry and other exquisitely detailed short-form literature.)
But this accident of pedagogy, a way of compensating for distance from the work, informs the perspective of everyone who's ever taken an art history course—including critics and curators. No matter how simplistic compare-and-contrast thinking may be, it's the implicit structure behind the exhibitions you see and the reviews you read. For every painting that you encounter, there's an invisible network of associations and visual rhymes emanating in every conceivable direction. Museumgoers who haven't been inducted into the art history club usually miss out on all of this, and are left to fend for themselves before an individual painting's aura. What EMP has done, however inadvertently, is let loose a secret of the trade. ANNIE WAGNER