Pretty on the Inside

You've heard about the new de Young's design, but what about its art?

The newly remodeled de Young Museum is like the proverbial elephant in the room: You can't help but notice it, but you're not sure whether to bring it up in polite conversation. While the old Spanish-style incarnation was approachable and pleasant enough, this towering behemoth — a twisty edifice that many have compared to a large, crouching cat — has critics and supporters all aflutter. It's made up of more than 950,000 pounds of copper sitting pretty in a grove of eucalyptus, cypress, and pine. Over time, the exterior is expected to oxidize to a deep green patina that should meld with its surroundings; for now, however, the de Young demands attention.

But if the museum's outside has generated its share of controversy, the fine arts world seems positive about what's inside. The de Young's collections are primarily composed of paintings and decorative crafts from the Americas, Africa, and Oceania, a blend of both traditional and modern works. In concert with the outlandish rock pile it's housed in, the selection is predicted to shift San Francisco's center of cultural gravity — an effect particularly evinced in a couple of the museum's premiere attention-grabbing exhibitions.

“Jasper Johns: 45 Years of Master Prints” features iconic pieces from the early 1950s to 2004. Johns' paintings and mixed-media images of maps, flags, and targets marked the art world's movement away from abstract expressionism and set the groundwork for pop art and minimalism. He began incorporating paintbrushes, beer cans, and light bulbs into his paintings in the 1960s, creating a sculptural goulash of found objects. The exhibit includes Bushbaby (referring to the African nocturnal animal), a Picasso-esque 2003 piece that features a multihued harlequin motif flanked by strips of wood and string. Johns' resplendent prints are housed in the de Young's Anderson Gallery of Graphic Arts, which is devoted to contemporary works on paper.

“Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh” presents another medley of tactile (though not touchable) delights. Hatshepsut was the Egyptian queen who assumed the title of king when her husband and half-brother, Tuthmosis II, died in 1479 BCE. While most traces of Hatshepsut's name and image were obliterated after her death, the exhibition features standout objects from monumental sculptures to finely wrought scarabs that shed light on the enigmatic queen and her aesthetically copious reign. The show's space is as spectral as a tomb: Granite sphinxes featuring reliefs of Hatshepsut as king circle the gallery, which is also filled with ceremonial weapons encrusted with precious gems. Other pieces bespeak a more feminine touch, from wooden beds inlaid with sexy sheet-gold cobras to gold sandals that Manolo Blahnik would like just fine.

While some architectural purists might pooh-pooh the de Young's structure as clunky, the treats lurking within make the so-called “sleeping jaguar” seem almost de rigueur.

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