Reinventing the BMA
Old meets new in ambitious Contemporary Wing
Published: November 21, 2012
The evocative melody of a recently acquired sound piece, “The Shallow Sea” by Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, sets a lilting tone that lingers in the artfully arranged galleries of the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Contemporary Wing, reopened after a nearly two years and $24.5 million restoration.
Reworked interiors and new lighting create an environment that encourages immersion in the 16 galleries, which contain perennial favorites and exciting new acquisitions. Spatial changes highlight the strengths of the museum’s well-known holdings—like Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful and imposing “Flower observatory”—while underscoring its curatorial momentum with innovative works like Sarah Sze’s complex mixed-media work “Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart).”
The BMA took several risks in the construction and rearrangement, the most ambitious and successful of which were executed by New York-based Sarah Oppenheimer. Her two-part, site-specific architectural work “W-120301,” made of aluminum and reflective glass, erodes the barriers between genres and eras. A floor-to-ceiling incision in the wall between the Cone Collection and the Contemporary Wing casts Matisses in the glow of the present and tints newer holdings with the patina of the past. A second architectural rift connects the second and third floors of the Contemporary Wing, allowing visitors a telescopic view of one another. On the third floor, the new Open Studio gallery—intended to explore the ideas and inspirations of a single artist featured in the wing—offers a fascinating look into Oppenheimer’s process.
The galleries containing the permanent collection have been carefully re-choreographed into thematic groupings. Curator Kristen Hileman re-energizes the museum’s star holdings with recent acquisitions. In the gallery Poetry of the Everyday, a tactile Nari Ward piece, “Live Ball,” made from shoelaces drilled into the wall, calls out across the room to David Hammons’ “Traveling,” which was created by dribbling a basketball covered in Harlem dirt on paper.
In the Figuration gallery, “Siena dos Equis,” a fleshy expanse of canvas by Susan Rothenberg, flirts, squabbles, and confides in “The Oracle,” by Philip Guston, situated across the room. They share a flushed, carnal palette and candid line quality, yet Guston produces an air of anxiety and violence where Rothenberg hits a note both solemn and contemplative.
Hileman did well in reinstalling some of the collection’s biggest personalities to frame more recent work. Newer trends in art-making can be a hard sell for both audiences and museum boards alike, and contextualization is key. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled (bicycle shower)” is a highly conceptual and not particularly aesthetic object, but it works perfectly in concert with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ baptismal beaded curtain, “Untitled (Water).”
The reworking of an enormous, cathedral-like gallery housing a selection of the museum’s impressive Andy Warhol collection is successful on multiple levels. While monumental in scale, it illustrates the minute nuances of Warhol’s influences and practice. Upstairs in the galleries dedicated to Abstract Expressionism and earlier contemporary genres, a thick, red line draws the viewer from Clyfford Still to Grace Hartigan to Mark Rothko, a gesture at once painterly and calculated. A small, rotating room for works on paper currently holds drawings from the Benesch Collection, including a pious Claudio Bravo and another stellar work from Guston.
Entering the wing from the modernist galleries, the visitor traverses the rotunda—anchored by Henry Moore’s monumental marble sculpture “The Three Rings”—leading into two rotating galleries and a project space. To the left is an interactive gallery called the Big Table, designed by local duo Post Typography. The room acts as an introduction to contemporary art that allows visitors of all ages to experience big-picture concepts through hands-on activities. Though scheduled to evolve, the gallery currently focuses on text in art, introducing the visitor to works like Ed Ruscha’s ironically pretty “Won’t” or Christopher Wool’s assertive “Untitled.”
Baltimore-based street artist Gaia fills the hall leading toward the Front Room with a floor-to-ceiling, site-specific installation composed of portraits of Remington residents. One wall is dominated by a large-scale portrait of a woman whose pose references Gauguin’s “Woman of the Mango,” one of several direct dialogues between work in the new wing and other areas of the museum. Though the work has an interesting, socially engaged skeleton wrapped in the skin of art history, it’s a slightly flat note. Bringing street art into the museum saps the last vestiges of rawness the popular art form has been clinging to.
In the Front Room, an installation of works by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa simmers like heat-induced hallucinations. Vivid and striking, with an otherworldly saturation of color, the subjects of Mthethwa’s works confront the viewer with a direct and curious gaze. The culturally diverse details of these grand photographs speak to the mechanisms of globalization, and make the world feel surprisingly small. Their classic, dignified postures draw forth the humanity of the subjects as they engage the long and varied history of traditional portraiture. It is a fitting choice, resting solidly on the pulse of contemporary practice while nodding gracefully to the museum’s collection as a whole.
Coordination between the curatorial and educational departments at the BMA has allowed the remodel to shine in both an aesthetic and didactic fashion. By utilizing tools like interpretive galleries and a new digital platform, BMA Go Mobile, a personalized, portable art guide, the museum offers diverse audiences the ability to navigate contemporary art with ease. If future iterations of the rotating galleries can remain bold and timely, the museum will have an opportunity to showcase its extraordinary collection to new and existing audiences, and evolve into an institution on the forefront of institutional experimentation.
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