Imagine a sprawling, modern family home in the affluent Hottingen district. In the hall, a child hangs onto the neck of a cast bronze horse (a piece by Mario Marini who was awarded the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale) while another sits astride its back, urging it to gallop away.
The living room is a temple to midcentury modernity, with low-slung sofas by Robert Haussmann crouching on a Diego Giacometti rug. On the wall, in place of family photographs hangs a series of eight portraits in a Polaroid composition and graphic sensibility that immediately identifies them as Andy Warhols, the result of a 1973 commission.
For years, the Zurich home of Hans and Bessie Bechtler housed a collection of modern art. Now, that muscular Marini horse (nose shiny from affectionate pats) and the rest of this remarkable collection has found a new stable in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art opened in January 2010.
The museum is the first of its kind in the American southeast, and the building could not be more of a departure from the predominant architectural style in the hospitable, traditional city. The square, terracotta-clad structure by Swiss architect Mario Botta emanates vigour and modernity on a leafy street of granite office buildings. A cantilevered fourth storey flies over the entry plaza, supported by a sculptural, tumescent column.
“We consider the building to be the largest piece of art in the collection,” President and CEO John Boyer says.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s gleaming Firebird beckons passersby in. Once inside, an airy, light-filled atrium rises through four floors of marquee artworks. On the fourth and largest level, clever door-sized windows open onto a light well on all four sides, inviting alternative viewpoints and surprising glimpses of the artworks just across the exhibition floor. (This “happy accident” of architecture requires the gallery staff to clean fingerprints off the glass several times a day, says Director of Communications and Marketing Pam Davis.)
The artworks, though smaller than the sculpture of a building, are the true stars. From the first piece visitors’ encounter—a massive Sol LeWitt wall painting executed by a team of local artists—to the smallest Giacometti miniature, the list of artists reads like a who’s who of twentieth century art. Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Fernand Leger, Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Max Ernst and Edgar Degas are all represented. The modern marvel of a living room is in there too, via a surreal re-creation of the room that started it all, on an intimate mezzanine.
The Bechtlers amassed their 1,400-piece collection initially through gallery purchases, but later through direct acquisitions and gifts from artists who became family friends. The warmth of the connections are made clear by the exhibition of correspondence—friendly, personal letters—between Hans Bechtler and artists like British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whom Hans invited to visit the Bechtler home.
The collection came to Charlotte through the family business. Andreas, Hans & Bessie’s son, moved to Charlotte in the 1970’s to work in the family’s textile industry holdings. An artist himself, Andreas chose to settle in North Carolina rather than returning to Europe. After inheriting half of his parents’ collection in 2001, Andreas planned to add a museum to his Little Italy Peninsula Arts Centre in nearby Mount Holly.
City leaders exhorted him to build in downtown Charlotte instead and interestingly some of the most personal pieces in the museum stem from this quirk of geography. In 1991, Andreas invited Jean Tinguely to create a monumental three-story sculpture in Charlotte’s Carillon building. During the construction process, Tinguely dashed off an energetic paint ‘sketch’ on a salvaged piece of cardboard. He handed this visual interpretation of the sculpture-in-progress to Andreas, saying, “Here, do something with this,” and the sense of stewardship Andreas felt towards the work developed into a commitment to building the museum.
The museum is still settling into its new neighbourhood, a growing cultural campus of museums, theatres, and even the Nascar Hall of Fame. With only ten percent of the collection on show and most of the artworks on display for the first time since acquisition, there’s little academic work on most of the collection. A massive digitisation drive is in progress, and the museum is exploring collaborations with curatorial students.
Expect more gems as this museum, as a jewel-box of a space, shares its riches. Emily Cronin