Artistically, galleries allow brilliant display THE NEW WING: INSIDE & OUT THE BALTIMORE MUSEUM AF ART


Don't judge this book by its cover.

The aluminum-clad exterior of the Baltimore Museum of Art's New Wing for Modern Art is controversial, to say the least. But inside this wing is a major success, a series of handsome spaces that open to one another imaginatively to produce vistas in which works of art communicate across galleries and across decades.

The galleries are understated, respectful spaces that allow the art within to look its best. And the BMA's collection of art of the last half century looks immensely better than it did where formerly installed, in the museum's original building. Several factors contribute to this:

* The design of the building allows individual works of art to be seen in more than one context.

* The collection has been beefed up in recent years. More than three dozen of the 157 works on view are recent acquisitions that have never been seen here before.

* Strategic loans help fill some gaps so that what's there is fuller than the collection itself.

* BMA deputy director for art Brenda Richardson has given the art a brilliant, illuminating installation.

During the eight-year period from the building's conception to its realization, Richardson and BMA director Arnold L. Lehman worked so closely with architect James Dart and others at the firm of Bower Lewis Thrower that responsibility for the wing is to a considerable degree theirs. If that means they share the blame for its unfortunate exterior, they are also due credit for the success of its interior.

The driving force behind the project was that art came first, says Richardson. That's evident almost everywhere. One exception is the concrete rotunda (considered a gallery by the museum) that serves as the entrance to the new wing from the Cone Wing in the museum's main building. As a linking device providing a transition to the wing, which sits at a 30-degree angle to the main building, it works. But as a space, it's dark, overbearing and heavy. Not even the presence of Henry Moore's red marble sculpture, "The Three Rings" (1966), can dispel the dungeon-like feel of this space.

A series of spaces

The gallery space is a different story. Occupying the main and upper floors of the building (the ground floor is devoted to non-public staff use), the galleries are a progression of 15 bright, commodious spaces, eight of them with 14 1/2 -foot ceilings and seven with 25-foot ceilings.

Respect for the art is everywhere -- from gallery sizes that feel right to handsome floors and reticent detailing. The two most revolutionary aspects of the design are the lighting and the gallery openings.

The lighting, fluorescent rather than incandescent, is a departure for an American museum building, though fluorescent lighting has been used in European museums in recent years. Lighting designer George Sexton calls the BMA design "unique from an aesthetic angle." It involves bouncing light off the ceilings and "washing" the walls with light rather than spotlighting, to achieve an even overall light. The effect is less warm than incandescent light, and after a time its evenness becomes somewhat monotonous. But it lights the pictures well.

Another especially successful departure is that the galleries open to one another with floor-to-ceiling corner "cuts" rather than with doorways. As soon as you enter the galleries, several advantages of this become apparent. There's more continuous wall space than one sees when walls are interrupted with doorways. Four galleries come together in one place, giving the visitor greater freedom of movement. It allows a person standing in any one gallery to see through to several other galleries and sense the plan of the entire floor, thus avoiding confusion.

And, most important for the art, it allows vistas into several

galleries at once, offering connections among works close by and at a distance.

This presented both an opportunity and a challenge to Richardson. As she installed the works, she not only had to make sure that those in each gallery live well with one another. She also had to see to it that pieces visible several galleries away "work" with those close at hand. Richardson has risen to this challenge. Her installation makes connections that resonate in the viewer's mind.

The first gallery

Stepping into the first gallery, one is confronted by two very different works: Bruce Nauman's "DEAF DUMB BLIND" (1989), a black granite slab in the floor with those words carved in it, and Susan Rothenberg's big painting, "Siena Dos Equis" (1975). The Nauman is a call to pay attention to the world, including art -- to avoid being deaf, dumb and blind to what's around us. The Rothenberg, in its luxurious expanse of color, reminds us that art can be a beautiful and joyous experience. Despite the outline of a horse as an organizing principle, the Rothenberg is essentially an abstract painting, appropriate for a collection of modern art primarily devoted to the abstract tradition.

Richardson chose to introduce her non-chronological installation with this opening gallery devoted largely to abstract paintings of several decades, including Tony Smith's "Untitled" (1962), Agnes Martin's "Flower in the Wind" (1963), Elizabeth Murray's "Pink Spiral Leap" (1975) and Ross Bleckner's "Hands and Faces" (1994).

What you can also see, standing in this gallery, are glimpses of other works by great abstract expressionist artists, forerunners of the artists here: Clyfford Still's "1957-G" (1957) in one gallery, Franz Kline's "Green Cross" (1956) in another, Helen Frankenthaler's "Madridscape" (1959) in yet a third.

Elsewhere, Frank Stella's "Club Onyx" (1959), one of his early black paintings, is placed in a gallery also inhabited by three works by Robert Rauschenberg. That's appropriate, since Stella and Rauschenberg came to the fore in the late 1950s as part of the generation that succeeded the abstract expressionists. But these works point in different directions: Rauschenberg's experiments led up to pop, whereas Stella's black paintings led in a more abstract direction.

Because of the way the galleries open to one another, viewers can see the Stella in the context of two other abstract paintings with which it has affinities, by Brice Marden and Ellsworth Kelly, in two other galleries.

Standing in the gallery devoted to the work of Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and other abstract expressionists, one can look into a gallery in the BMA's main building and see an earlier American painting by Stuart Davis, who influenced these artists.

The Warhol gallery

Another earlier American painting, Joseph Stella's "The Amazon" is hung so that in the background one sees the new wing's 50-by-50-foot gallery containing works by Andy Warhol. Warhol once owned the Stella painting.

The gallery devoted to Warhol is at the center of the new wing, and Richardson considers Warhol central to the art of the second half of the century. With 30 works on display -- half late works, recently acquired from the Warhol estate, and half earlier works on loan from the collections of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend of New York -- Warhol is better represented than any other artist in this building.

Too well represented, in fact. The works are crammed in, floor to ceiling. As a result, it's hard to concentrate on them individually.

In particular, "The Last Supper" (1986), previously shown to such advantage, is crushed by being hung beneath the even larger "Hearts" (1979), a huge painting that relates to Warhol's obsession with death (but surely will never rank as a major work). Let's hope this gallery gets thinned out before long.

A quartet of galleries on the upper or mezzanine level primarily contains recent works by artists including Barbara Kruger, Eric Fischl and Jeff Koons. In the final gallery, the installation is brought full circle in more than one sense with a recent painting by Grace Hartigan, "Ingres' Bath" (1993), which is rife with historical associations. It represents artist Ingres, whose earlier painting, "Interior, 'The Creeks' " (1957), hangs with the second generation of abstract expressionists downstairs. It was also inspired by an 1862-1863 painting by Ingres of a Turkish bath, and it also recalls both "The Blue Nude" (1907) and "The Pink Nude" (1935) by Matisse in the adjacent Cone Wing.

The collection itself

The new wing splendidly showcases the BMA's collection of art from the last half century, so what can be said of that collection? It contains some fine works by the abstract expressionists and the color field painters, virtually nothing by pop artists aside from Warhol, is strong in the works of the minimalists (though Richardson says she hates such labels) and includes more works from the second half of the period than from the first half.

Recent acquisitions, aside from the Warhols, include works by Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Franz Kline, Morris Louis, Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg and Dan Flavin (a neon sculpture commissioned for the new wing). The new wing installation is virtually all American work.

The installation is boosted by the loan of more than 30 works, including some of the most important names: 15 of the 30 Warhols (all of the more generally esteemed early ones); two of the three works by Robert Rauschenberg; both of the two by Roy Lichtenstein; one of the three by Ellsworth Kelly; one of two each by Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden and Kenneth Noland; and works by John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman, among others.

There is no guarantee that these loans will become gifts. Let's hope they do. A wing such as this is built specifically to attract potential donors with an inviting place to show their gifts. The museum has built itself a fine wing and has so far amassed a collection worthy of major additions.

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