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BMA's contemporary wing keeps up with the times

Museums are popular destinations during the holiday season. After people have opened presents, eaten more than they should and otherwise spent quantity time and hopefully quality time with family and friends, they may develop cabin fever. Most people will rush out to big box retailers in order to use their gift cards, while the cultural consumers among them also will find that a museum visit is in order.

If you haven't been to the Baltimore Museum of Art for a while, you'll want to check out its recently renovated contemporary wing. Originally constructed in 1994, this wing's 16 galleries have been rethought and reinstalled. You'll be seeing the contemporary collection in a new light, because the lighting has been improved. Also, the view corridors from one gallery into the next have been improved.

Approaching the BMA's contemporary wing from the adjacent Cone wing, you immediately realize that the revamped wing has been opened up in various ways. Indeed, artist Sarah Oppenheimer was commissioned to cut a narrow diagonal slice into the wall separating these two wings. This aluminum-and-glass opening enables you to make a visual connection between the early modern art displayed in the Cone wing and the more recent art in the contemporary wing. And while we're opening up on this matter, the existing doorway between wings is now a more visually open passage between those spaces.

Keeping up with the times is an important aspect of any contemporary art collection, so one new component of the contemporary wing is that it better facilitates the growing interest in time-based works of art.

A new Black Box space currently serves as a mini-movie theater for a New Orleans-themed 2008 video by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Also new and actually heard throughout the contemporary wing is a sound installation by Susan Philipsz in which she sings a haunting song from the 1961 movie "The Innocents."

There also is a new gallery devoted to temporary exhibits of prints, drawings and photographs. And you can contribute to the wing's aura of newness in a new workshop area in which there are artist talks and hands-on art-making activities.

Although most of the contemporary art installed in the wing's 16 galleries already will be familiar to regular museum-goers, the reinstallation provides juxtapositions to make you consider these familiar pieces anew.

There also are some brand-new pieces especially made for this space, such as two pieces by the 24-year-old Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who goes by the name Gaia. One of his pieces, "12 Portraits of Remington Residents," covers a gallery wall with printed wallpaper depicting a dozen residents of a north Baltimore neighborhood posing against rowhouse facades.

And the reopened contemporary wing also provides a home for somewhat older works of art that recently have been acquired by the BMA.

One of the most impressive pieces currently on view was given as a gift to the BMA in 2011. It's an untitled 1956 acrylic-and-oil painting by the late abstract painter Morris Louis. His trademark style involved pouring and staining paint in thin layers on canvas, but there was a brief period in the mid-1950s when he experimented with other approaches to abstraction.

The exhibited Louis painting has splattered drips and rough-edged zones of black, red, yellow, purple and other colors that are more thickly applied and colorful than one expects from this artist.

Not only is it an exciting painting, but it's a rare one. Louis evidently came to regret this approach and destroyed most of the 300 paintings he made this way. The BMA painting is one of around 12 such paintings that survive.

Lous was among the abstract painters who became prominent in American art in the 1940s and '50s. One of the strengths of the contemporary wing remains its abstract paintings by artists including Clyfford Still, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella.

The contemporary wing also does a fine job of showing how figuration gradually started to work its way back into an art world that had been critically dominated by abstraction. One of the old abstractionists, Philip Guston, turned to bluntly schematic figuration with the light bulb, shoes and one-eyed watchful figure depicted in his pink-hued oil painting "The Oracle" (1974); and hanging nearby is a pink-hued acrylic and tempera painting by a younger artist, Susan Rothenberg's "Siena dos Equis" (1975), whose outlined depiction of a horse is so schematic that it could pass for cave art.

Of course, figuration was a definitional attribute for the pop artists who came on the scene in the 1960s and ironically made abstraction suddenly seem old-fashioned.

Andy Warhol always has claimed more wall space in the contemporary wing than any other artist. The multiple examples demonstrate that he was more versatile than he's sometimes given credit for. Sure, there is an iconic figurative Warhol painting of a "Campbell's Soup Can (Turkey Noodle)" (1962), which remains close to its advertising art origins; but his varied stylistic ventures also include the synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen ink painting "Camouflage" (1986), whose green and brown pattern evokes both military references and abstract art methods.

Warhol isn't the only artist offering food for thought in the contemporary wing. The numerous stylistic offerings even include an untitled 1999-2000 artwork by Zoe Leonard that she made by letting banana, orange and grapefruit skins shrivel and rot.

Leonard has sewn stitches through each of these fruit skins, as if to remind us that such attempts at stabilization and preservation are doomed to fail. As she observes in an accompanying artist statement: "The very essence of the piece is to decompose."

It's therefore a contemporary compliment to say there is something rotten about Zoe Leonard's art.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is located at 10 Art Museum Drive in Baltimore. Admission is free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to http://www.artbma.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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