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Holiday viewing at the Walters, BMA

Art museums always come in handy during the holidays, when so many people are looking for enjoyable ways to while away the hours with friends and family — or to escape from friends and family.

This weekend, consider checking out the Baltimore Museum of Art and Walters Art Museum. Both esteemed venues have much to offer first-time and veteran visitors alike.

The big draw at the BMA this season is the newly restored Contemporary Wing, which provides more than enough diversion and elucidation to compensate for those portions of the museum that have recently been closed off for their turn at restoration.

The attractions of the Contemporary Wing start with the installations that Sarah Oppenheimer designed specifically for the site. When you peer into these fascinating pieces of aluminum and reflective glass, inserted right into the walls, you get glimpses of the galleries ahead and above you, along with anyone passing through them.

You also see yourself, a cool way of beckoning you into the spaces. And those spaces, greatly enhanced during the renovation, yield room after room of rewards from the BMA's substantive collection of modern art.

That collection looks terrific here. Huge Andy Warhol works seem to vibrate on the walls. Robert Rauschenberg's "Honorarium (Spread)" provokes delectably, with its jutting pillow in a vise conjuring up sly and not-so-sly meanings.

Alison Saar's "Strange Fruit" provokes in a totally different, stop-in-your-tracks manner — the sculpture, created from rusted tin ceilings, is of a black woman bound and hanging upside down. Everything about the confrontational work is worth a close look.

Lighter pieces include large, fun sculptures by Franz West that break the do-not-touch rule; the massive Olafur Eliasson "Flower observatory" that invites you in; and the great beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres that provides a tactile experience traveling between galleries.

Things are lively and rewarding upstairs in the Contemporary Wing, thanks especially to a group of 1950s abstract paintings by Mark Rothko, William DeKooning, Frank Stella and others. The pieces seem to talk to each other in this intimate space, and that "conversation" is electric, especially from the proximity of Grace Hartigan's "Interior: The Creeks" and Clyfford Still's "1957-G," each in dark, deep colors.

Also upstairs is a new, light-controlled gallery, which provides a setting where more of the museum's vast holdings of works on paper can be displayed. Currently on view are fascinating items by Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns and others.

All in all, a great deal of diversion at an unbeatable price — free.

At the Walters Art Museum, there is also much to savor at no cost, but it is well worth paying for the admission fee for the current special exhibit, "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe." This gem of a show, which includes about 75 works from the Walters' collections and those of other American and European museums, has understandably generated buzz beyond Baltimore.

Thoughtfully organized and displayed, the show provides a rare glimpse into an era we think we already know very well from all the rich art created during it. Here, we get a chance to see what we've been missing — black faces among the white. And not just slaves.

Identified only as a Moor (the common term from that era for anyone of African descent), the man who stares out from a portrait from around 1600 by Tintoretto exudes social significance and economic success. There is pride and security in this handsome face.

The painting of a Lisbon waterfront reveals many Africans very much a part of the scene, engaged in trade or discourse. There's something reassuring about the sight of the races mingling in such an ordinary fashion, just as there is in the images of the Adoration of the Kings in the exhibit — the inclusion of an African king in Nativity scenes emerged in the Renaissance.

In the early Flemish painting of the Adoration that begins the exhibit, two Africans are included: a king and, most strikingly, his attendant, who gazes at the viewer with a gaze that seems at once wise and worried.

If the black king is an expected image, the black man among the apostles in a depiction of the Supper at Emmaus — not a servant, but someone dining alongside them — surprises and fascinates.

The works in the exhibit that raise the subject of slavery pack considerable emotional power, starting with a 1620 scene of a slave market where both blacks and whites are for sale.

In what seems like a kind of poetic justice, a painting by Annibale Carracci offers a striking portrait of a female slave with haunting and haunted eyes — but only part of the arm of her owner. Somewhere along the way, the rest of the painting was lost. Only the slave remains.

Visitors are likely to linger long over that portrait and many of the other works here, including those by such notable artists as Durer, Veronese and Rubens. Each has a powerful story to tell.

If you go

Both museums are open Wednesday through Sundays. The Baltimore Museum of Art is at 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. Call 443-573-1700 or go to The Walters Art Museum is at 600 N. Charles St. "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe" runs through Jan. 21. Admission is $6 to $10 (the rest of the museum is free). Call 410-547-9000 or go to the

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