Where the Inconceivable is Absurdly Beautiful: The BMA’s New Contemporary Art Wing

When viewers pass through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s (BMA) Modern Art galleries to enter the newly renovated Contemporary Wing, which just opened on November 18 after a year-long closing, it feels as if they have walked into a different museum. This stark architectural change owes partly to the fact that the wing wasn’t originally part of the museum; it was only added in 1994, eighty years after the museum first opened. Even so, it seems as if the feeling of being transported into a new realm was the intention of the curators behind the wing, because the difference in style between the older art galleries and the entryway on to the contemporary wing seems too pronounced to be coincidental. But this is fitting; just as modernism was such a jarring departure from its artistic predecessors, contemporary art draws an even more acute contrast with its early 20th and 19th century forefathers.

Upon entering the Contemporary Wing, viewers are greeted with a monolithic, dark grey stone spiral staircase, with adjoining galleries beyond it. In this entryway are two sculptures, The Three Rings (1966) by Henry Moore in red soroya marble and Magic Mask (1990) by Elizabeth Catlett in Mexican onyx. The Three Rings is an emblem of Henry Moore’s style of organic sculpture, in which he uses basic geometric shapes to constitute forms and focus on their fundamental essences. As you walk around this deceptively simple sculpture, it seems to change before your eyes, and your perspective and perhaps even your opinion of the piece changes. It’s a surprisingly mesmerizing work that, it turns out, quite accurately foreshadows the enigmatic and energetic character of the rest of the Contemporary galleries.

The same can be said for Magic Mask. It raises numerous questions based on its style reminiscent of African masks and nature as a mask. Why did the artist choose to craft it in Mexican onyx? With its mouth and eyes wide open, what emotion is it supposed to convey? Who, or what, is it masking?

Departing from these pieces, we have several choices of galleries to enter next. Kind of like those Choose Your Own Adventure books, your path through the whole wing will inform your perception of the collection. I chose to go off to the gallery on the right, which contains a random assortment of pieces that seem to have virtually no connections to each other, other than that they are fascinating. This somewhat small space contains a 2012 site-specific installation by Sarah Oppenheimer titled P-010100 and made of aluminum, glass, and the “existing architecture.” Words cannot do justice to its appearance, but it looks like a piece of the wall was cut out and glass and a mirror was inserted in its place. It allows you to peek into an adjacent gallery that is part of the Modern Art collection, and it also allows you to see yourself peeking. Since visiting art museums is usually a very personal experience in which you really don’t focus on the other visitors because you attention is directed towards the art, it’s illuminating to think about watching yourself, watching other people, and watching art simultaneously.

Also in this gallery is a Robert Rauschenberg combine with a fun story behind it. Titled Johanson’s Painting, when it was first on view in a show in Stockholm, Sweden, a viewer scathingly remarked that Ingemar Johansson, a Swedish professional boxer, could have made the painting. When Rauschenberg overheard her, he immediately took a pen and wrote “This is Johanson’s [sic] Painting” directly on the canvas.

Although there are wall captions that categorize the gallery by theme, the cohesion brought by this theme is too loose to be considered and is unnecessary; it’s better to simply view the collection piece by piece instead of group by group. And each piece is unique enough, with a different thought process behind each one of them and a vast diversity of qualities shared among them, that individual consideration of each work never becomes cumbersome. As I traveled from room to room, I constantly came across works that impressed or surprised me even more and in different ways than the previous artworks had.

Several pieces from the collection stood out in my mind. One of them was Dan Flavin’s 1993-1994 Untitled (To Barnett Newman for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’). There’s no way to put a descriptive label on what it consists of in concise terms, other than that it’s a site-specific installation. The work is constructed of three groups of fluorescent tubes that are mounted on a vertical steel bar. The steel bar is wedged between the vertex of two walls. The fluorescent tube groups are each lit up with a single color: the group at the top of the bar is red, the middle group is blue, and the lowest group is yellow. There are lights behind these fluorescent tubes that project light onto the wall as well, creating the effect of a cascading rainbow waterfall onto the wall. Flavin, an admirer of Barnett Newman, made the piece to evoke the solid color paintings with one line of another color that Newman was most known for. The work is quite simple in its construction, but the finished product has a dazzling effect that greatly exceeds its humble conception. It redefines what it means to paint, as the colored lights mix on the wall just like artists mix paint on a canvas.

Another work that is unlike anything I have ever seen and surpasses precise labeling is Sarah Sze’s 2011 Random Walk Drawing (Eye Chart). To put it bluntly, it’s a huge combination of random objects that are intentionally arranged on the wall and on the floor. Influenced by Asian landscape scroll painting, Sze creates a modern interpretation of that non-western tradition using myriad materials that constantly give the eye something new to come across. She used digitally cut paper to mimic clouds and rocky terrain, thin blue strings that meander along the floor to evoke rivers, and a colorful feather duster that leans against the wall to resemble a rainbow that shines over the landscape. An electric fan that sits at the bottom of the installation blows air onto it to create a sense of wind, literally adding motion to the work. The piece is one of those great artworks that just make you marvel at the minds of artists; how in the world do they come up with ideas that are so bizarre and yet so brilliant?

Countless more surprises await visitors to the BMA’s Contemporary Art Wing. The museum is less than two hours away from Swarthmore, but it completely transports you into another world, another reality where the uncomplicated becomes the inconceivable, and the inconceivable is absurdly, breathtakingly, beautiful.

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