Baltimoreans who have logged enough miles walking through local art galleries over the years will wear smiles of recognition as they walk through an exhibit at Maryland Art Place, "Back From the Future: Maryland Artists 1950s-1980s." But younger Baltimoreans for whom some of these names may be unfamiliar will come away none the wiser after seeing a show that represents a great missed curatorial opportunity.
The delightful basic idea behind "Back From the Future" is to present the work of 34 artists with long-standing ties to the local art community. Some are now deceased, but most are still working away in what has not always been a hospitable climate for artistic survival. And so this exhibit has a roll call of distinguished area artists including Reuben Kramer, Anne Truitt, Keith Martin, Jacob Glushakow, Selma Oppenheimer, Amalie Rothschild, James Lewis, Herman Maril, Joe Sheppard, Liz Whitney Quisgard, Glenn Walker, Joan Erbe, Norris Embry, Jacob Kainen, Gladys Goldstein, Bennard Perlman and Jane Frank.
The changing art scene in Baltimore from the '50s on is suggested through a time line located just inside the front door. Events such as the outdoor art shows at Druid Hill Park, the bohemian salons of mid-town restaurateur Morris Martick, the "Life of Baltimore" shows at the Peale Museum all are evoked in the time line, if too briefly. More evocative is a second floor installation by Eric Miller that in tongue-in-cheek fashion emulates a hip '50s living room, right down to a Miro knockoff design rug and a Noguchi-like glass-topped coffee table. The reproductions of newspaper clippings and photographs incorporated in Miller's installation help bring the art world of that era to life again.
But these evocative touches suggest an instructive element that for the most part is sadly lacking in this show. For starters, one could quibble with exhibition curator John Blair Mitchell, an art professor at Towson State University, for some of the particular artworks selected. One could also carp about some of the artists not included in the roll call. The venerable Baltimore artist Aaron Sopher, for goodness sakes, is represented in this exhibit only by way of a sketchy reference in Miller's installation piece.
One wishes the exhibit made a cogent attempt to showcase the artistic styles of the '50s and how they changed over time. Gladys Goldstein's 1957 "Celebration Night," for instance, is a fine example of action painting, but there is nothing about the overall exhibit installation to make us think about the local art world in which she made that painting, much less how that artistic climate has changed.
The installation unfortunately amounts to a hodgepodge of what fits well where. There are two quite different installation strategies that might have proven more effective. The first, an art history-oriented strategy, would have been to group the earlier work in the first-floor gallery and the more recent work in the second-floor gallery. The second, more style-oriented approach would have been to follow through more thoroughly on Mitchell's sound decision to pick early and late works by most of the artists.
Only occasionally is the show's installation potential realized. Harry Evans' 1959 cassein on black paper, "St. Mary's Street," for instance, depicts a scruffy city block in a realistic manner. Hanging below it is Evans' 1989 acrylic on board "Baltimore Skyline East," in which not only has the city undergone a renaissance, but Evans' technique has become more abstract and colorful.
Mike Giuliano's art column appears Thursdays in the Accent Plus fTC section of The Evening Sun.