New Glenstone, Part 1

The century-long journey from museum as exposition to museum as experience finds its ultimate expression, for now and the foreseeable future, at Glenstone – the newly and vastly expanded museum of contemporary art in the rolling, altogether monied hills of Maryland.

While the spotlight here is on the likes of Rothko, Twombly, Pollock, Calder, Warhol & Friends, the lessons learned from the journey are borrowed from Disney World and Jurassic Park. Happily, with a nod to Jeff Goldblum, the pirates, which in this case would have to mean the artists, don’t eat the tourists.

At Glenstone, the goal isn’t merely looking at art but absolutely encountering it. From its often-stark, monochromatic architecture to its acreage of dramatic mid-Atlantic landscaping, walking from one installation, one experience, to the next provides the space and time to let what you’ve just encountered sink in and start to make room for what you will encounter next.

Like Walt Disney’s original theme park and Michael Crichton’s island of prehistoric life, Glenstone was born of one dazzling vision. Among the gray-shirted young women and occasional young men who serve as guides, ushers and never-fail good-attitude dispensers, Emily Wei Rales and Mitchell R. Rales are known as “our founders.” Their original museum (now known as the Gallery) stands on the site of their original home on this property, facing across water past a towering installation by Ellsworth Kelly to their current residence.

The couple “lives” at Glenstone in more ways than one. It was their inspiration and investment that opened here in 2006. And it was their $200 million that created the new Glenmore that welcomed the public after a five-year expansion the first weekend in October. The project had as its goal to make art, architecture and landscape a “seamless” experience. Based on several hours of walking the current 230 acres (up from 100), all the work has been worth it.

The suggestive mythology of The Journey is alive and well at the new Glenstone. After arriving at the aptly named Arrival Hall (where bar-coded tickets get scanned and helpful people talk you through a folded map), you are sent forth to – absolutely nowhere. There is a road twisting across a grassy hillside bordered by trees – yes, autumn is a lovely time to visit – and as in life, you set out along the path. At Disney, there’s a boat ride; Jurassic Park has a helicopter. Most people will, at some point, also flash back to the Yellow Brick Road, though this particular road lopes up and around in unbroken gray to let the colors in nature be the stars.

For most visitors since the re-opening, Glenstone’s most important destination is called The Pavilions. It’s designed by Thomas Phifer of Thomas Phifer and Partners, though the outdoors pulled together with mostly native plants by Adam Greenspan and Peter Walker of PWP Landscape Architecture makes going there every bit as memorable as getting there. Vast expanses of interlocking hills stretch off toward forest, with only the barest hint of stream, creek or pond. The sky is huge and open above this land, a fascination of several artists featured in both the new and the “old” Glenstone collections. We are meant to feel small, to take our proper place, to discover our appropriate scale.

And there’s nobody and nothing to tell us exactly how. The Rales clearly despise signage. This makes the insights from guides encountered along your route (seemingly by accident, but of course not) all the more welcome. But it also means there are no signs in this landscape saying where you’re supposed to be looking or what you’re looking at, any more than there are signs offering narrative beyond artist name, title and materials in small print among the art itself. Not a word is written about where the artist was born or studied, where he was living in 1957 or what he might or might not have been going through when he created this piece.

The Rales are making a bold statement, even beyond the obvious minimalism. This art was created to stand on its own. And even if entire books have been written about the artist or the individual piece, it waits for each of us like that Appointment in Samarra, one pair of eyes at a time.

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