Strokes of genius

Lots of folks are fairly familiar with Paul Cret’s hulking off-white 1927 marble structure fronting Woodward Avenue, a building known as the Detroit Institute of Arts. But many don’t know that inside the 600,000-square-foot structure resides one of the finest collections of art in the country; the museum’s permanent exhibit of American paintings alone is considered among the best in the nation (most of the American exhibit is currently on tour). Thanks to wealthy auto barons who’ve donated money and art to the DIA (which is actually owned by the city of Detroit) over the generations, the DIA possesses impressive collections of 13th to 16th century Italian masterpieces as well as African and Native American pieces and 20th century German expressionist works, not to mention that fabulous Gothic Chapel—all part of what was, at the beginning of this year, the fifth largest collection of fine art in the United States.

And even if you knew about all that, you might not know that the DIA has opened its new cafeteria, a place that might actually redefine the cafeteria as we know it. Chef Larry Duren received the Iron Chef of Detroit award in a contest hosted by WMXD-FM 92.5 and The Food Network. You can taste and smell Duren’s magic in DIA’s eatery—which features not only a great salad, hot-and-cold sandwich and soup bar, but offers such lunch treats as fish and chips, blackened salmon, steaks, pizza, burgers and onion rings. This place is good. Damn.

The new eatery qualifies the DIA to win “Best place to grab a veggie burger, onion rings and a Caesar salad after checking out the wicked ‘Nail Figure,’ sculpture from Central Africa, and taking a peek to compare the massive ‘Judith and the Head of Holofernes,’ by Italian master Titian to the one by the same name brushed by the female Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.” What more could you ask for?

Some will grouse that most of the DIA’s collection is not on view, or that it’s somewhat tacky that the museum has hung huge works of neon abstraction next to 17th century classics, or that you can hear jarring “rat-a-tat-tat” drilling while you’re viewing art. That’s because the museum is undergoing a $150 million renovation and 80,000-foot expansion that won’t be completed until 2007. In the meantime, curators have put their best works on display — all jumbled up — in the galleries around the main hall. But this brings us back to what we loved about the DIA in the first place. Even with the full collection on display, unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City or the insanely fantastic National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., or the Louvre in Paris, the DIA is manageable. It’s a place where you can go and see examples of the greatest art ever made from prehistory and antiquity to the 1990s, but there won’t be so much of it that your head is swimming after 20 minutes. It’s quintessential Detroit—not the biggest, not the best, but just a handful of some of the finest stuff anywhere.

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]