In Baltimore — Max Weber, Sarah Oppenheimer, Raqs Media Collective and new contemporary galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Richard Caton Woodville at the Walters


The Baltimore Museum of Art  recently re-installed its contemporary galleries, which include Sarah Oppenheimer’s first U.S. commission.  This sounded like a good reason to plan a trip, especially since I could also see  a small, focused exhibition about Max Weber‘s transmission of advanced art from Paris to New York in the period before WWI.

Max Weber 'Figure Study' (1911) oil on canvas, Albright–Knox Art Gallery/Art Resource, NY. © Estate of Max Weber
Max Weber ‘Figure Study’ (1911)  Albright–Knox Art Gallery/Art Resource, NY. © Estate of Max Weber

Max Weber is given a well deserved place alongside his better known contemporaries

Weber should be better known than he is, but the same could be said of a number of American modernists who worked before the Second World War.

Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York (through June 29, 2013) makes it clear that Weber was in the thick of things in Paris, studying with Matisse, befriending Rousseau and Picasso, and bringing their work along with African sculpture (which was a novelty) when he returned home.

He was certainly the first American to embrace Cubism, and although his style ranges over his career, his work should be recognized beyond the single example of the Whitney’s Chinese Restaurant, which may actually be on view once the Whitney moves to larger quarters downtown. I am particularly fond of a series of tiny woodcuts which he sent to his friends, one of which is on view.

Contemporary Art wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art
Contemporary Art wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art

The Contemporary Galleries boasts an impressively broad collection

The contemporary galleries have been installed around a series of themes, such as The Poetry of the Everyday, Real Space, Figuration, Process, which strikes me as a good way to introduce work that ranges from Susan Rothenberg to Sarah Sze, Guyton/Walker, Andy Warhol (still contemporary after all these years), and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. One of the entrances begins with a hands-on space, The Big Table, which was hung with a variety of work incorporating language. Marginal notes on the walls discussed the variety of reasons that Ed Ruscha, Glen Ligon and others had used language, and visitors were offered a project where they could try it themselves. This is a low-tech, high concept interactive approach that is interesting across a range of ages and levels of sophistication. Bravo!

Felix Gonzalez‑Torres 'Untitled (Water)' (1995" Baltimore Museum of Art
Felix Gonzalez‑Torres ‘Untitled (Water)’ (1995″ Baltimore Museum of Art
Raqs Media Collective still from 'An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale' (2011) Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery
Raqs Media Collective still from ‘An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale’ (2011) Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery

The new contemporary wing includes a black box for video viewing. It currently houses two pieces by the Bombay-based Raqs Media Collective.

Both made subtle use of time and movement, and while they clearly referred to the political difficulties of India’s colonial past and rapidly, industrially developing present, both are strikingly, un-apologetically beautiful. Perhaps that’s to be expected from a culture where everything is polychrome and decorated, from farm equipment to shrines.

I think Indian style always makes the West look washed-out. But the aesthetic here was restrained and the imagery tended towards the understated.

Raqs Media Collective still from 'Sleepwalkers' Caravan' (2008) Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery
Raqs Media Collective still from ‘Sleepwalkers’ Caravan’ (2008) Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery

Sarah Oppenheimer‘s commission for the re-installation (her first in the U.S., and unfortunately, it doesn’t photograph well) consists of two, discrete works in separate spaces. Much the more ambitious and successful, titled W120301, opens a cavity between the staircase approach to the galleries, and one of those interior galleries. She’s created a sort of fun-house for museum-goers, complete with mirrors that invert the scene, so it takes a moment to figure out that one is looking at an upside-down view of the gallery’s floor (easier to understand if another visitor wanders into the view).

It’s a piece about looking, spacial uncertainty, the disorientation that close viewing can induce, and a sophisticated manipulation of negative space. It recalls a history of spacial, and occasionally auditory distortions (such as whispering rooms) that architects sometimes worked into their projects. Its ever-changing view of the museum’s own space should guarantee Oppenheim’s work a perennial appeal.

If you are the sort who wants to peek behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, you can study Oppenheimer’s maquette in a small area at the end of the contemporary galleries and study how the space is actually manipulated. Otherwise, you can simply enjoy her magic.

Sarah Oppenheimer, Installation view of 'W-120301 (2012) © Sarah Oppenheimer. Photo by James Ewing

An exhibit at Walters Art Museum explores the life and work of Richard Caton Woodville

I made an unanticipated visit to the Walters Art Museum  to see a delightful exhibition of the Baltimore artist, Richard Caton Woodville (1825-55). The fact that he died at thirty may account for his obscurity. He was a wonderful painter of portraits and genre scenes of very small size. Considering how much Woodville’s work resembles the 17th century Dutch finschilders, or painters of small, minutely-detailed works, it is no surprise that he was highly influenced by Dutch and Flemish painting of that period.

The exhibition, New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville (on view through June 2, 2013), is a reminder of how important 17th century Dutch art was to many artists during the 19th century, offering the only precedent for an art that emphasized the minor metiers of still life, portrait and genre painting, as opposed to history painting, which dominated the Academy.

Richard Caton Woodville ‘War News from Mexico’ (1848) oil on canvas, Crystal Bridges Museum
Richard Caton Woodville ‘War News from Mexico’ (1848) oil on canvas, Crystal Bridges Museum

Woodville was one of a group of Americans who studied in Dusseldorf, including George Caleb Bingham, Worthington Whittredge and Albert Bierstadt. The Walters did a splendid job of situating the artist within 19th-century Baltimore, among colleagues at the Dusseldorf Academy, and as a popular painter of narrative genre scenes whose most popular works circulated via many painted and engraved copies. They expanded Woodville’s small production with various, interesting didactic material, including a room full of reproductions of the toys he depicted, intended for visitors to handle. I’d guess this was done for children, but the guard confirmed my hunch that it was very popular with adults – especially the wooden toy consisting of a hoop attached by string to a stick. The guard said that the ever-popular toy had its origins in Ancient Greece. The fact that all the guards had clearly been trained to offer substantial information about the art on view was another feature that impressed me at the Walters. I’ve always thought guards were an under-utilized resource.

Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York is  on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through June 29, 2013.

Additional information about the museums new Contemporary Wing can be found here.

New Eyes on America: The Genius of Richard Caton Woodville is on display at the Walters Art Museum through June 2, 2013.



baltimore, baltimore museum of art, cubism, dusseldorf school, ed ruscha, felix gonzalea-torres, glen ligon, guyton/walker, interactive exhibition, max weber, raqs media collective, richard caton woodville, sarah oppenheimer, sarahsze, susan rothenberg, the big table, video, walters art museum



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