The 204,000-square-foot Pavilions are intriguing, and not without their own updated version of trompe l’oeil. The area is a cluster of eleven stark gray boxes rising from earth toward sky, and from any distance you can’t tell how large or small they are unless someone is walking alongside them. Yet if you think these buildings house the art, you are mostly mistaken.
They sit on the crest of a hill, a ridge, and the actual galleries are reached by way of a staircase down along the side, into a rough square of individual spaces connected by indoor and outdoor walkways streaked with bright sunlight.
In other words, when you think you’re seeing the galleries while passing along the ridge, you’re not. For century after century, artists painted and sculpted what was there. In the life these artists experienced and evoked after World War II, things were seldom what they seemed.
Nine of these galleries are now devoted to single-artist installations, yet newer devotees of contemporary art may like their introduction, their survey course, even better. Most of the best-known artists of the 20th century’s second half are represented by at least one work each, letting us “check off boxes” with the best of them.
This is where de Kooning and Duchamp turn up, the latter represented by his two most iconic forms, the bicycle wheel and the urinal. Donald Judd is here with a smallish painted red box, homaging the several larger expressions of outdoor concrete and indoor aluminum that draw crowds to the Chinati Foundation in remote Marfa, Texas, along with Judd’s buddy Dan Flavin with his signature neon. Rauschenberg and Johns are here, as are Giacometti, Gorky, Stella and Basquiat.
Of the individual-artist galleries, perhaps the most intriguing is known among the guides as “Room 4” – or, “the Gober,” after Robert’s surname. A guide stands outside an unfinished-looking industrial door, perhaps because most guests would simply walk past. After she closes that door behind you, you step through zones of darkness into one large room with sinks running water and faux newspaper bundles along the floor. The walls are painted as a woodland scene (shades of outside), with all the faucets joining voices to be one babbling brook.
“What does it mean?” is not a question the guides are encouraged to address, because of course that is ultimately up to each of us.
Though the Gallery and the outdoor installations mostly belong to the original Glenstone, it’s important that you visit – or even better, encounter – them as well. The Gallery currently features a richly layered, five-decade retrospective of Louise Bourgeois called “To Unravel a Torment.” And the outdoor pieces once again invite us to wrestle with our own scale against fields, forests and that very large sky. We’re told that the individual creators of these pieces walked the grounds extensively with the Raleses, discussing precisely where their idea would have the greatest impact. The effort shows.
There are, at Glenstone, wide public “roads” and smaller paths and grassy trails that lead off them. As you’re informed at the Arrival Hall, these last require a guide, and there are scheduled times when walking tours leave from the Gallery, the Pavilions or one of the museum’s two graceful cafes. Do try to join one of these, since you’ll get to visit the soaring Kelly monolith close to the residence, evoking both the not-far-away Washington Monument and the delicate flight of a bird against the sky. To be monumental and delicate at the same moment might seem impossible, but somehow Kelly pulls it off.
Equally interesting are the three Clay Houses by Andy Goldsworthy (the guides unlock them and let you peak inside) and the 27-minute sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller that you can hear over the treetops from various spots around the grounds. It’s intended, the guides explain, to fast-forward the sounds a single forest might have “heard” across a millennium, including explosions, gunfire and fighter planes that would make any World War II reenactor’s heart jump for joy.
In keeping with the Rales’ commitment to the Glenstone experience uber alles, the museum is free but available to only an online-registered, carefully controlled number of visitors Thursdays through Sundays.
If you think of the crowds moving like a tidal surge through the great museums of the world – the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, of course the Sistine Chapel – that is precisely what the Rales make every effort to avoid. They’d rather have too few visitors than too many. As long as those people truly encounter the art. As long as those people have an experience.