College art museums present special challenges for the art museum junkie because so often they’re hard to get to. True, at the Yale University Art Gallery, in New Haven, you can just pull into a parking garage and walk a block to the museum. But others are buried in the middle of impenetrable university complexes where there’s no parking at any price (think Harvard and Princeton). And many of the others are on campuses a long way from metropolitan areas that you might be visiting anyway (think Williams College, in the mountains of western Massachusetts, or Bowdoin College, way up in Maine). You have to make a special trip.
The art museum at Cornell University discourages visitors in every possible way. The campus is a goodly drive from almost anywhere (two hours from Rochester), and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is in the middle of a maze of a campus with practically nowhere to park — especially right now, with street reconstruction and museum expansion going on. Like so many other college art museums, it simply doesn’t take the general art-loving public into account. It doesn’t even charge admission! We made the drive a couple of weeks ago on one of the finest fall days we can remember, pausing on the way there and back to take pictures of fall foliage, century-old churches, and fantastic falling-down barns and and rusting farm equipment.
What other art museum in New York is housed in such an aesthetically interesting building as the Johnson Museum — other than the Guggenheim (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) and the Met itself? This is a 1973 building designed by I. M. Pei, ideally situated on top of a hill overlooking all of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake. We liked it right away.
We weren’t blown away by any particular part of the Johnson Museum collection, but there was still a lot to enjoy. The European art goes back 500 years, but 500 years is a lot to cover in just three galleries or so. We spent time pondering over an elaborate vanitas still life from 1650 by the Dutch artist David Bailly (just above), in which every item symbolizes some passing worldly preoccupation of men, and we admired several eighteenth-century portraits by George Romney and other Englishmen of his day. The Johnson museum has only a few minor pieces by the French impressionists, including a Monet that’s on loan and not part of the permanent collection; the jewel of its nineteenth-century gallery is a large though not especially lively landscape by the major French Barbizon painter Charles-Francois Daubigny, titled “Fields in the Month of June” (just above) — surely one of the artist’s finest accomplishments. Twentieth-century European art was better represented with major pieces; we were delighted to find a six-foot-tall sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, who is a favorite of ours, entitled “Walking Man II.”
The American collection was somewhat meatier, with a satisfying gallery of paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Asher Durand, and others of the Hudson River School, and another gallery with mostly American impressionist pieces. But the Johnson Museum’s twentieth-century American art — mostly abstract, with fine pieces by Hans Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, and Philip Guston — is really worth going out of your way to see.
And so is the Museum’s unique contemporary sculpture garden, for which the architect reserved a pleasant, uncrowded, open-air balcony off an upper floor. It has a spectacular view of the Cornell University campus and Cayuga Lake. The highest floor of the museum is devoted to Asian art (we don’t know enough about it to comment, but it’s an impressive collection); this floor is surrounded by large windows with views in all four directions.
When we visited, the Johnson Museum was hosting a fascinating traveling exhibition of the works of Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and other artists of the Bloomsbury school that surrounded Virginia Woolf. If this is the caliber of exhibitions that the Johnson Museum attracts, we’ll have to pay closer attention.
We stopped to see the overlook at Taughannock Falls, just a few miles north of Ithaca, and made a mental note to come back someday to hike the path down to the gorge. In Trumansburg, we dropped more money than we should have at Green Horse Books, an excellent used bookstore that we spotted as we were driving through. We took some more pictures of decrepit old farm structures, and helped the wife of our bosom to pick out a pumpkin for the Halloween and Thanksgiving seasons.