The thoughtfully landscaped meadows and spacious galleries prime the viewer for an open-minded approach to modern art.
The collectors Mitchell and Emily Rales have done something magnificent for the country. Glenstone is the new museum in Potomac in Maryland they’ve built to display the superlative art they’ve acquired over the years. It’s a gift to the public of rare size and consequence.
For a few years, the Raleses have provided a lovely, 9,000-square-foot gallery space designed by Charles Gwathmey to show a portion of their collection by artists I would call modern masters, mostly from the 1950s to today. Working with the architect Thomas Phifer and the firm PWP Landscape Architecture, the couple expanded the exhibition space to 59,000 square feet. The centerpiece complex is called the Pavilions, a cluster of rooms varying in scale and propositions embedded in a rise in the land. There’s a water court, an arrival hall, a cafe, and the back-of-house space that a proper museum needs. The total building space is now about 200,000 square feet. Glenstone is located on 230 landscaped acres.
Glenstone, first of all, is a sensitive, complex amalgam of nature, architecture, and art. It’s a total experience drawn from each. This is the project’s most amazing feature and a radical one that some museums have sought, with more or less commitment, but none in America has completely achieved. The landscape integrates walking paths, bridges, meadows, and woods, with about 8,000 trees and sustainable meadows with local flora. The Pavilions’ water court is beautifully and colorfully planted. This and the landscape will change with the seasons. The water court, by the way, is no puny thing. It’s 18,000 square feet and integral to everything.
There’s an all-encompassing philosophy behind this. As a practical matter, getting people out of their cars for the long walk to the exhibition spaces creates a time of orientation and decompression. Few museums can even try this because they don’t have the land. In Los Angeles, the Getty aims at this, and to some extent achieves it, but the Getty’s builders a generation or more ago focused more on the building than the landscape. The Getty’s lovely landscaping and views are optional. They are settings. The buildings of the Huntington, just outside Los Angeles, might as well be anywhere, as nice as they are. The gardens are separate, aesthetically, intellectually, administratively, and most visitors focus on one or the other. Museums in park settings rarely integrate open space and closed, opaque space. Some museums have used “art in nature” rhetoric in their new building projects but never pull it off, for lack of vision, money, or nerve.
There’s plenty of mood lighting in most museums, but the landscaped path at Glenstone allows mood walking. It’s choreographed without seeming to control. After escaping Washington and passing miles of 1980s and 1990s faux-mansions, it’s therapeutic to hear the crunch of gravel on the winding road that leads to lots where visitors leave their cars, start to walk, and see big, great sculptures set in rolling hills, tall grass, meadows with flowers, and trees that will grow into managed forests. It doesn’t have a landscape-as-boutique feeling, either. The outdoor sculpture is fabulous and part of the total experience. Its highlight for me was Split-Rocker, the only art made by Jeff Koons that I actually like, Tony Smith’s Smug, realized by Glenstone in the painted aluminum version Smith always wanted, and Richard Serra’s Contour, commissioned by the museum.
The landscape serves to slow us down. The Raleses often use the term “slow art” for an aesthetic but also a pedagogical reason. Glenstone is a huge success on many levels, but among its triumphs is fashioning a mood and space to look intently and even to fall in love with art that most will be disposed to find difficult, forbidding, or inscrutable. It’s an immersive experience. The key movements are abstract expressionism and minimalism, with offshoots and sidebars. There are works by many artists, among them Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti, Eva Hesse, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. They are the best of their kind, each from a pivotal moment in the artist’s career.
A great landscape, whether beautiful or sublime, wild or sculpted, dry, wet, hot, or cold absorbs us and lets us “imagine into” new worlds or possibilities. Almost all the art is what most people would call abstract, and it seems to me the goal of abstraction is to invite us to see or think new things, things a step beyond our material, tangible reality. Once you enter the building, blood pressure a bit lowered, you walk down stairs to spaces that open up, you may appreciate the genius of the design — the many measures taken to open our minds. We’re not looking at a thing, a fact of life, painted on a canvas. We’re looking for what Prosper Mallarmé called “the effect which it produces.”
Some of the art is cool and impersonal. A lot isn’t. The Pollock is a jolt. The Rothko and the de Kooning are great, too, but the art on view is as various in style and philosophy as the world itself. A gorgeous gallery with serene natural lighting is dedicated to Brice Marden’s work. The museum collection — everything belongs to a not-for-profit foundation now — is on the small side, about 1,300 objects, but a good eye for quality would find that everything is strong. The museum will rotate art in the galleries.
One of the great beauties of Glenstone is the blissful absence of forced interpretation. The viewer needs both to bring an open mind and to muster confidence, however sublimated, in his or her own taste. Just getting there probably means you are a sensate, intelligent being. You’re invited to make of the art what you will. The standard museum pedagogy is to impose meaning, usually a single meaning, on the hapless, silent object that probably has many meanings, if it’s any good. Glenstone liberates us to think on our own. In that sense, it’s the most democratic of spaces.
The only quibble I have on this point is the too-minimal interpretation in the temporary exhibition on Louise Bourgeois in the gallery, the original museum space. It’s a small, sublime retrospective drawn from the museum collection. Since it’s a focused show, I would suggest giving the viewer a storyline on the artist’s development, why the objects on view are significant, and why they are juxtaposed against one another. The permanent collection doesn’t need a story. The objects are there because the museum as a collective thinks the viewer should see them, and that’s ample. A temporary show has a narrative and needs to say what it is, without beating people over the head.
Now, the architecture. The patrons and the architect originally thought about travertine, a form of limestone, as a material, but I believe Cy Twombly advised them to look elsewhere. Travertine, they concluded, looked too precious and too chic. They chose an unorthodox material — poured concrete — that’s counterintuitive since it’s so quotidian and commercial. It’s thought of as the stuff of cheap construction from the 1960s and 1970s. Tadeo Ando’s Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art introduced me years ago to the true nature of concrete. Treated like the queen of materials that it can be, concrete offers a tapestry effect, as evocative as the best picture by Helen Frankenthaler. The concrete blocks are six feet long — human scale — and a foot wide. They’re cool, discreet, minimalist in themselves. The concrete setting doesn’t interfere. The goal is quiet contemplation. Phifer is a great architect, and it’s a joy to see him subtly take himself out of the picture. The galleries are proportioned differently, but each has a human scale. As art comes and goes, everything will look good. There’s a nice processional feel as visitors move from gallery to gallery, too. The spaces are elegant, calm, measured, and unintrusive. It’s new architecture, but it’s classicism at its best.
It’s clear that the Raleses and the architects took the time to develop an informed museum aesthetic. There are some clear inspirations, such as the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen, where art and nature join in seamless, reinforcing unity. The campus-like setting of the Menil in Houston inspired them. When I looked at the Glenstone pavilions from a distance, I thought of the ebb and flow of building profiles in tiny hill towns in Italy. I’m delighted to know that the Raleses and the architects looked at the Brion tomb and sanctuary near Treviso in Italy. It’s the underappreciated Carlo Scarpa masterpiece and itself the translation of palladianism into a rigorous modern language. Scarpa wanted to design a place “to feel and talk to your soul.” He got it right, as does Glenstone.