Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University

Edification value 3/5
Entertainment value
Should you go? 3/5
Time spent 68 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned A set of prints by Julie Mehretu and Jessica Rankin titled “Struggling With Words That Count, 2014-2016.” Less abstract than I’m used to from Mehretu, they combined mostly serene and spacey images with obscure texts in a way I really liked.

Julie Mehretu, Wallach Art Gallery

I started this project a bit over a year ago fully aware that things would change — I’d discover new museums to add to my list, and remove ones that didn’t fit my evolving definition of “museum.” Sure enough, one museum I’ve reviewed, the terrific Fisher-Landau Center in Queens, has shut down.

And another museum, Columbia University’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, has moved to spiffy new digs.  I recently edited my review of the Jewish Museum, based on the terrific reinstallation of its permanent collection.  That makes this my second re-review of an institution.  (Check out my review of Wallach 1.0 here.)

Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia
Wallach 2.0’s Sweeping Hudson Views

Out With the Old, In With the New

I visited the new Wallach while ago, and I confess it’s taken me a while to get around to writing this. Better late than never, though, and today’s Wallach is very different from its predecessor. Ever since I was a Columbia student, the Wallach Art Gallery has occupied undistinguished space in Schermerhorn Hall, on the upper part of Columbia’s classical, symmetrical, McKim Mead and White-designed campus.

The old Wallach Gallery was rather hermetic, consisting of a series of smallish, old-fashioned rooms. You definitely needed to want to go there. The new one could not be more different. Flooded with light, the space soars — and it’s high up, too, with beautiful, wide-open views extending south toward Riverside Church and west to the Hudson and the green New Jersey cliffs beyond. The new Wallach also breaks with the typical Manhattan gallery space; no highly polished, scruffy wood floors or columns here (though it does feature exposed ceiling ductwork).

Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia

Wallach 2.0 is located inside Columbia’s Lenfest Center for the Arts, a fancy and decidedly asymmetrical new building designed by Renzo Piano, making this the third of his New York museums, after the Whitney Museum and his graceful contemporary interventions to the Morgan Library. It’s particularly interesting to compare the Lenfest Center with the Whitney building; it’s immediately obvious they are siblings. Their cladding is similar, as is their tendency toward showy elevators. The ones in the Lenfest Center are a particularly vibrant orange.

Lenfest Center for the Arts, Columbia
New Home of the Wallach Art Gallery

The “Uptown Triennial”

The show I saw there was Wallach’s first ever “Uptown Triennial,” a celebration of art made by artists based above 99th Street. It’s a tenuous connection (there’s a lot of the City north of 99th Street), and the art and artists represented were suitably diverse. There were bright translucent plastic sculptures, slide shows presented on old-school carousel projectors, paintings, black and white photographic portraits… even by contemporary art standards, it was excitingly varied.

Wallach Art Gallery, ColumbiaI liked quite a bit of this show, and some of it I downright loved. I’m not sure I understood the meaning behind Nari Ward’s odd, tipped over neon-sign-turned-planter, which read LIQUORS in one direction but lit up to read SOUL in the other. Both have to do with “spirits,” I suppose. But it was both fun and intriguing.

Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia
Tomas Vu, “Dark Side of the Moon,” Mixed media on acrylic panels, 2017

Should You Visit the Wallach Art Gallery (2.0)?

I’m really curious what a transformation like Wallach’s does to an institution. How does a museum’s space affect its approach to installing art, or even to picking what art to show? If function follows form at all, Wallach’s programming will get more adventuresome. And it’s got space to show much larger works, and ones that thrive in bright light. It’s no longer hidden away in an obscure corner of campus (although it’s not nearly as easy to stumble onto as say the Hunter College Art Galleries. You still have to really want to go there).

Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia

I’m more inclined to visit the New Wallach than the old, even though it’s a bit farther away from me. At least, I’m more inclined to keep up with what’s on. Just like Wallach 1.0, the value of a visit will vary greatly with the exhibition. Still, as a top-notch space by a top-notch architect, I’m also more inclined to recommend a visit, too.

Anyone with a strong interest in contemporary art and architecture should go see the Wallach Art Gallery 2.0.

If you visit Columbia North, General Grant National Memorial (aka Grant’s Tomb) would make a very different double feature. Or if you are hungry, I heartily recommend Jin Ramen. Also, its less crowded next-door sister restaurant Kissaten Jin is a great Japanese cafe–and it serves a mean donburi, too.

For Reference:

Address  Lenfest Center for the Arts
Columbia University
615 West 129th Street
(Note:  the entrance is on 125th Street, a bit west of Broadway)
Website wallach.columbia.edu
Cost  General Admission:  Free
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