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

October 02, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

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.

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