The gallery's current exhibit is forgettable. Victoria Martin, a Gardner artist-in-residence in 2009, makes half-assed knockoffs of Jasper Johns paintings and Robert Rauschenberg's Combines and performance props. For example, an old paint-stained wooden ladder stands before a large abstract painting of slashing, scribbled lines atop patches of brown, blue, orange, and green. The paintings work best as accents to the architecture.
A central function of Piano's building is to provide a new entrance to the old palace. His achievements here are mixed. As you walk through the new building, the corridor to the palace is initially hidden by stairways up to the second floor. Even as you face the corridor head on, its importance is obscured. The passage is unmarked, and the upward angles of the stairs on both sides silhouetted against windows direct your attention up and away. The corridor's glass walls and ceiling are set between metal ribs. It's drab and corporate, more functional than magical, like an airbridge that you walk down from an airport terminal to your plane. But the glass allows you to gaze up at the palace. And the effect should become more impressive with time as the lacebark pines and ironwood flanking the end of the corridor arch over it and leaf out, giving an impression of walking through a bit of forest.
The final transition into the palace is a major improvement on the old entrance at the Fenway and Evans Way corner of the building. That path, which had been used for decades, was cluttered and confusing, with a number of turns before you arrived at the palace's garden courtyard. Gardner's original design had guests entering at the front center of the building along the Fenway, passing through a dark brick corridor, and emerging directly at the courtyard, with sunlight beaming down from the skylight above.
>> PHOTOS: Renzo Piano's new wing at the Gardner Museum by Joshi Radin <<
Piano's glass pathway leads to a brick corridor in the back of the building, which could have been a problem, since the courtyard is oriented toward the front. The journey is a series of rapid and dramatic transitions, from the sunlight of the antiseptic, modern glass corridor to the darkness of the ancient-seeming brick hall (which imitates the proportions of Gardner's original entrance), then emerging back into the sunlight, right beside the garden in the pink-walled courtyard with its aroma of flowers and humidity. It comes as a revelation — and feels like the old Gardner magic.
Moving the theater, special exhibitions gallery, café, shop, and administrative spaces into the new building improves the old palace. The restoration of the Chinese loggia on the east side of the building returns some sculptures to where Gardner set them. "These objects that were scattered all over the museum, we can return them to their original place for the first time," says Oliver Tostmann, the curator of the collection. And a mirror that had been at the end of the hall has been replaced, creating an illusion that the hall is twice as long.