Art Matters

A dinner party celebrating the installation of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s sculpture at the entrance to the new Andlinger Center took place in the fall of 2015. My invitation had nothing to do with any association with the Princeton art scene. Rather, I had a connection to Ms. von Rydingsvard’s husband, a chemist. Seating was assigned, and to my left was Bart Thurber, the Art Museum’s associate director for collections and exhibitions. After exchanging niceties, we spent two hours discussing our very different jobs. I left thrilled by Bart’s fascinating depiction of the inner workings of our museum.

The next day, Bart wrote this e-mail: “You’d be very proud to hear that I described—poorly I’m sure—'quorum sensing' to my wife this morning! Meanwhile, since I can talk with somewhat greater confidence about art, I just wanted to follow up to say that it would be a pleasure to give a tour of the Museum to you and your team.”

Three weeks later, sixteen of us set off from the Lewis Thomas Lab for a tour of the Pearlman Collection. About ten feet from our building, the group stopped and asked me, “Which way?” The Lewis Thomas Lab is four buildings away from the Art Museum. I see every exhibit, and the Museum is a mandatory stop whenever company comes to town. It never occurred to me that the lab members were not similarly taking advantage of this University gem.

We had an intimate and insightful tour, guided by Bart together with Veronica White, curator of academic programs. No one but me asked questions of our guides. I was dismayed. My gang is not passive. They are highly opinionated and maddeningly vocal when discussing science. I interpreted their timidity as disinterest. However, on the walk back to our building, the lab members were exuberant. They loved the tour! Winding our way down the hill past Prospect House, they asked me question after question about the art and the artists. I remarked that rather than asking me, their science mentor, possibly a better strategy would have been to ask the experts during the tour. Several lab members said they were afraid that their questions would be thought naïve.

Before the day was over, I was instructed to relay a request to Bart and Veronica that the Bassler lab would appreciate a tour of “modern art.” More specifically, the lab would like to understand why, say, a pile of rubble or a canvas painted completely black is “art.” Here’s what has happened, so far: a tour of the Willem de Kooning installation (aka, modern art) with Bart; caricature and studies of expression with Veronica; the Berlin Painter exhibition with Michael Padgett; a study room visit to discuss selected woodcuts, etchings, and lithographs with Veronica; two tours of the ancient Americas gallery complete with behind-the-scenes storeroom visits with Bryan Just; and a tour of the Clarence White exhibition with Anne McCauley.

The number of questions and the number of lab members asking questions increased with each tour. Slowly the dynamic began to resemble the one I know from lab. On the walks back to the lab, there were always lively conversations about the art, the meaning, the craftsmanship, and our guides’ passion. I made a point of eavesdropping. Snippets include, “They feel the same way about their work as we do about ours,” “I love when people who love something explain it to me,” “Our guide said that ten thousand objects in the ancient Americas collection are not on display. I now feel the need to see and learn about every one of those ten thousand objects.” One of the Museum tours occurred on a brand-new lab member’s third day of work. During the walk back, he commented on the oddity of scientists visiting an art museum. A longtime lab member replied, “Oh yes, the Bassler lab has wide-ranging interests in art, and these tours are a standing lab activity.”

Recently, again on our way to the Museum, as the gang tromped down the three flights of stairs toward the front door of Lewis Thomas, a colleague whom the pack had wedged into a corner of the staircase landing stopped me and said, “They seem excited but I don’t understand how this helps your science.” I shrugged.

I don’t know where inspiration comes from, but it is essential for scientific discovery, and we will take it wherever we can find it. The first time the lab visited the Museum, we learned that a Chaïm Soutine painting inspired Mr. Pearlman, who made refrigerators, to see the world differently, forever changing the course of his life. When my lab visits the Museum, we make discoveries that on the surface seem wholly disconnected from those we make in lab. I’m not so sure. . . .

Bonnie L. Bassler
Squibb Professor of Molecular Biology and Chair, Department of Molecular Biology