Smart Art


When Washington collector Duncan Phillips acquired his fourth painting by Mark Rothko in 1960, he had the group of them placed in a small room in his gallery of modern art, one to a wall. The windowless space was lighted by spotlights aimed at each of the monumental canvases of floating, soft-edged rectangles. The room's starkness was further emphasized by the presence of a single bench at its center, offering a place to linger, to peruse and to meditate on these works which cast a near-religious spell. The Phillips Collection had created a chapel.

Now the Baltimore Museum of Art's administration and architect have produced a cathedral. The New Wing for Modern Art is a masterful setting for the 138 post-1945 paintings and sculptures in its permanent collection. Light floods soaring open spaces, with the art replacing stained-glass windows as the didactic lesson of the day. (A 1938 book by Sartell Prentice, "The Voices of the Cathedral," argues that "it was the purpose of both priest and artist that all the people, lettered or unlearned, should be taught wisdom by the church's art."

But what if these post-Modern paintings and sculptures are akin to religious services held solely in Latin for a congregation that comprehends only English? Are they really speaking to the unlearned?

A recent trip to the BMA provided a second visit to the new wing, where reverence and whispered voices have replaced the boisterous frivolity of opening day. The comments overheard include these: "I don't get it." "I just shake my head and wonder." "The 21st century will laugh at us."

The grand, central Warhol Gallery seemed to draw the most visitors at any one time and to evoke the most derisive comments, many aimed at the artist's Brillo, Del Monte and Kellogg's boxes placed as a focal point in the middle of the room. "Do they consider that art?" one person asked another. "Evidently," came the unenthusiastic reply. As an elderly couple stood before the cartons, the woman instructed her male companion: "I'll tell you what, don't throw away any of your old soup boxes." Laughter.

"Just look, just ponder the works and they will speak to you," one might suggest. But some do not get the message.

The impulse at the BMA is to rush forward and shower the gallery-goers with explanations and enlightenment. After all, understanding should precede the decision to like or dislike a work of art. But here dislike, often reduced to ridicule, was expressed through a lack of comprehension for what the artist xTC intended, how the work fit into a life's work or why a particular piece represented an innovative artistic statement. Short of having a docent present continuously in each gallery, how can the public thirst for knowledge be satisfied?

The answer is to expand the "tombstone labels." The expression refers to wall cards that provide little more than the artist's birth and death dates. "I'm big on labels," a senior curator at one of Washington's museums recently told me. "It's a way of giving a person in entree into this world of universal ideas." Why are certain works placed together? What are their common bonds? Did one artist influence another?

The use of such extended labels does more than add insight, enjoyment and meaning to particular works of art. They also provide the layman with an ever-growing vocabulary of art terms, such as "minimal art," "wholeness," "presence;" and concepts, including visually bending the canvas, retaining the flatness of the picture plane, and de-emphasizing technical virtuosity.

Would it not help for the BMA to include a statement beside Ad (olph) Reinhardt's "Abstract Painting No. 19" (1954), for example, to the effect that, beginning the previous year, this leading minimalist confined himself to painting only near-black paintings as the culmination of purifying his art by omitting the extraneous? That his idea of "pure painting" involved uniting form and content into one, in a manner which Reinhardt felt went beyond that of Cubism and Piet Mondrian?

In the case of Warhol's boxes, visitors might be less likely to discount them if they understood his concept behind the silk-screened Campbell's Soup cans: How they brought the mass-production of the marketplace into the museum. And it might be helpful to know that when, in 1964, Warhol decided to turn his attention to sculpture, his first effort involved stenciling the tops, fronts and bottoms of 36 soup cans onto a wooden box. When that appeared to go counter to the logic motivating his art, he turned to silk-screening replicas of the boxes themselves.

The BMA's new wing does include extended wall labels on 6 of the 138 works displayed, but these are inconsistent at best. One includes the artist's photograph, the others do not. Another card is composed entirely of the artist's words. And ironically, all but one of the six are adjacent to works incorporating recognizable subject matter, the type the viewing public is less likely to pass by without supporting information.

Although the Museum of Art's lone Rothko in the new wing is without wall text, so are those in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection, but the latter is about to change. "With all of our shows that go up now, it is a given that we have them," a spokesperson for the Phillips revealed. "And it is a goal to do the same with our permanent collection."

When the BMA's New Wing marks its first anniversary next year, let's hope most, if not all, the works on display will be accompanied by additional wall labels. Otherwise it will continue to be a frustrating experience for many first-time visitors who may not be motivated to return. As one museum official in another city stated, failure to provide informative wall text "is like putting a person in a room full of French-speaking people."

Now that the BMA has unveiled its superb showcase for the post-modern art, it should, in its role as an educational institution, strive to aid gallery-goers in learning the language.

Bernard B. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and writer.

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