Strolling again in galleries at once so familiar, so unique

April 21, 2001|By JACQUES KELLY

AS THE CELEBRATED Cone Collection reopens this weekend, my thoughts turned to all the times I've walked through those rooms, past the pictures that have worked their way into memory and the status of exalted Baltimore legends.

It occurs to me that I've lived here long enough to have been through three Cone Collection installations ever since the Baltimore Museum of Art wing that houses the painting, prints and sculptures made its 1957 debut.

In the Baltimore I recall from the 1950s, that first Cone permanent installation made a pretty striking impression.

In a town of old rowhouses, sooty railway stations and a bustling, though not conventionally pretty harbor, the 1957 Cone Collection was a sleek, clean, cool setting. I recalled the slender, tall windows that admitted a stark, white light, illuminating blond wood trim, travertine stone accents, burnished stainless steel, cork tile floors and modern type face that told you where you stood.

Maybe I was half the height I am today, but the 1957 Cone room also seemed high and angular - the kind of place where a king or queen received you.

And, in keeping with its very modern ethos, nothing was out of place. Order and rationality ruled - unlike the constantly misbehaving city outside the museum walls.

The Cone precincts within the museum were indeed different. By contrast, we Charles Village neighborhood children got a kick out of the period rooms reconstructed from Colonial Maryland and the reproduction Gothic (or was it early Renaissance?) hall. Could the art museum's cafeteria have been staffed by volunteers? I remember being able to afford a Coke and not much more. That was fine, I lived so close we could walk over all the time, and did.

The rather imperial modern setting of the Cone Collection helped underscore that this was a very-big-deal selection of paintings.

As I walked through the newly installed pictures the other day, I couldn't help but consider the passage of time. It didn't take too long for some of that 1950s steel and travertine to melt. By the 1970s, there was a small reproduction room that approximated the elegant clutter of the Cone Sisters' apartments at the old Marlborough on Eutaw Place.

Then, I recalled a night in the middle 1980s when I walked through the museum and looked at the paintings, only to see their familiar and delightful gilt frames yanked off in favor of stainless steel enclosures. And I realized that the passage of time is not always easy.

Maybe because we've cleaned up some of Baltimore in the past 50 years, there seems to be less of a requirement to straitjacket the Cones' pretty things.

And while we were always told that the museum lacked the space to display everything the sisters bought, what a pleasure it was to see a picture from my old friends Herman Maril and Florence Austrian hanging in a room with the dignity and honor those wonderful Baltimore treasures deserve?

So, too, Baltimore's puckish Aaron Sopher - an artist who liked nothing better than to sketch bettors at Pimlico - whose pictures now hang in the Cone Wing. And there is a wood sculpture by Simone Brangier Boas, the woman who once lived in the St. Paul Street house where I now live.

My friends, go and enjoy these pictures and thank those women from Eutaw Place for their gift to Baltimore.

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