Ordinary people take in the new wing and its art BEMUSED AT THE BMA

October 17, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Karen Footner wanders into the Andy Warhol room in the Baltimore Museum of Art's $10 million new wing and stares at Warhol's nine boxes labeled Brillo Soap Pads, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and DelMonte.

What do they say to her?

"Nothing."

The 40-year-old Roland Park woman thinks about it some more. Stares some more. Her hands struggle to help her explain what she means.

"It's not what you'd expect to see in a museum," says Ms. Footner, a marketing coordinator for a law firm. "You'd expect to see it at the Giant."

On a weather-perfect Sunday, hundreds of people came to the (( public unveiling of the BMA's New Wing for Modern Art to poke through its vast, rich rooms. The crowd included the young and the old, the connoisseurs and the curious.

Many wore the blank gray pins that were dished out by the museum to mark the occasion. The pins were as deliberately obscure as some of the art, which doesn't go out of its way to explain itself.

For about four hours yesterday, people saw for themselves just how difficult, wonderful and exasperating modern art can be. Their encounters with the exhibits were portraits in themselves:

"Two Older Women at the Brillo Pads"

1994

Baltimore Museum of Art

Delores Hutson and Norma Svejda, both of Highlandtown, sit on the black sofa in front of Warhol's Brillo pads. Boxes draw crowds; if you stare at something long enough, others will come and stare, too.

"Did Warhol do those boxes? He has more sense than that!" says Miss Svejda, who was a commercial artist some years back. "Not enough variety!"

"It's interesting," says Miss Hutson, "to see that children can come here and see that they can accomplish the same thing at home."

While folks gawk at Warhol's "Most Wanted No. 13," "Jackie O," and "The Last Supper," a 3-year-old boy stumbles in on the hip of his sister.

"What's a Warhol?" the boy asks.

*

"Walking the Plank"

1994

Baltimore Museum of Art

On the second level of the new wing, a tall piece of "Light PTC Chromium Yellow Plank" rests against the wall. It stands alone. It is, as much of the work here, untitled.

What does it say? It says vertical, very vertical! Sightseers mumble about finding better stuff in their garages.

Three middle-aged folks from Towson corner the plank and assess it intently.

"It's yellow," says Tom Davies.

"It certainly is yellow," says Allie Davies.

"It's very yellow," says Sylvia Lukemire.

They leave the room.

Next to the yellow plank, an untitled box of plywood hogs the middle of a connecting room. A man, an art lover, gingerly touches the plywood to see for himself whether in fact it was plywood. "PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE ART," scolds a museum security officer.

To get their bearings, people scour the identification markers next to the artworks, sometimes spending more time reading the titles -- or, rather, untitles -- than looking at the pieces. One sign reads: CAMERA SURVEILLANCE IS USED IN ALL OUR MUSEUM GALLERIES. Some people actually look for the accompanying canvas.

Near the plank and plywood is a piece of art called "Drawing of a Table." It's not a drawing, but a table of sorts. Made of rubberized horse hair, to be exact.

Luckily, guide Louise MacDonald is working this room. Visitors look to her for some sort of Cliffs Notes for the art-impaired. Please help us with the horse hair.

"Remember," she tells the hovering group, "all these minimalists are getting away from expressionism. They don't want to express themselves. There's always an ambivalence with these contemporary artists.

"There's always a little joke in there," she says. Her audience listens politely.

*

"He Says, She Says."

1994

Baltimore Museum of Art

Robert Motherwell's acrylic "Africa" dominates one wall of the new wing. Large black and white forms living together, meaning something, meaning nothing.

Harry and Marilyn McDonald of Baltimore stand before the art, flicking their hands at it to make sense of "Africa." He is a 56-year-old detective with the Baltimore City Police Department. She is a 55-year-old assistant principal at Lakeland Elementary/Middle School.

They are pleasantly stalled at this spot. They love this work because it gives them choices. Dessert for the imagination.

He says: "I see a man sitting on his side, on a hill, looking out. He's just back from hiking, and he's taking a rest."

She says: "It's just a trunk of a tree. Yes, a close-up. The white is the snow. The black is the trunk. And that's the last leaf, hanging on for dear life."

*

"Oh Please!"

1994

Baltimore Museum of Art

"Oh please!" says Linda Rivelis, a 42-year-old campaign consultant from Charles Village. She stands maybe 25 paces away from the towering "Hands and Faces." This art is a series of blurred white images on a black background. Ms. Rivelis is fielding the very sophisticated notion that says: Anybody can draw this stuff.

"People say 'I could do that.' But they don't do it! Artists do," she says. By the way, she sees headlights in "Hands and Faces." Very soothing and no shadows to distract her, she adds.

Erin Flannery, an 18-year-old student, loves all these hands and faces. "If you look long enough at it, you see expressions," she says, looking longer at it. If you look long enough, could you go blind?

She smiles and nods.

*

Bird in the Wing

1994

Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Orioles mascot, of all creations, suddenly appears and joins the crowd in the new wing. The Bird is subdued out of respect for the setting and occasion. He prowls around the exhibit and stops at artist Donald Judd's copper work.

The copper is a little something Mr. Judd calls "Untitled." The copper juts from the wall near the plywood, do-not-touch box and the yellow plank. The Bird studies the copper art work.

Then he throws up his wings.

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