An Afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Take a trip into downtown Baltimore sometime, see the sights, brave the traffic, and dodge the ragtag collection of pedestrians and street cops that mob the crisscrossing byways.  Find your way over to Johns Hopkins University, and located on campus is the Baltimore Museum of Art—a somewhat impressive structure informed by the Roman-style panache of American architect John Russel Pope.  It’s not an unattractive building by any means, at least from certain angles, but step into its eastern shadow and it ceases to look Roman at all, verging more on brutalism than anything else.  But we’ll get to that later.

The museum sports a large collection of varying works and forms of art.  The first floor is dedicated to the various accoutrements of ancient and primitive civilizations, with a few paintings from early America thrown in for good measure.  Shards of pottery and vases from Ancient Greece are offered for inspection without explanation next to a shower curtain and a modern exhibit consisting of a toaster, hair dryer, and some kind of diatribe about women.  The map calls this room Special Exhibitions 1: Imagining Home, which presumably means that these works all corresponded to variations on the theme of home.  I guess it worked.

There was a variety of Asian and African art in the next couple of ground floor galleries, in which the demonic images of African headdresses were displayed next to Twentieth Century wedding beads.  The small Asian gallery included Islamic works from the near East and sculptures of various Buddhas from China.  Certainly worth a look, but aside from one large figure of Guan Yin, there was little of note.

Ah, but I’ve neglected to mention the very first room on our tour—Out of Actions: a room filled with small television screens replaying video from performance art exhibitions.  For George Orwell, the future consisted of a boot stomping on a human face, forever.  For contemporary artists, it consists instead of some bizarre, scatological reenactment of a depraved bachelor party.  Hired models, or actors, or maybe even the artists themselves, had stripped down and were displayed vomiting colored water into each other’s faces and spitting paint dye against glass, onlookers, and the open mouths of their neighbors.  There is a certain subset of Japanese pornography that caters specifically to this sort of mockery of the human form, but it at least has the decency to call itself exploitative; the art world shamelessly steals the subject matter but, in trying to keep itself important, loses track of whatever gave the fetish its appeal in the first place.

Additionally on the ground floor is an entire room dedicated to Intersections.  You can guess what’s on display: a single exhibit consisting of a collection of uniformly dimensioned colored columns.  It may be trash, but it’s merely a foreshadowing of what’s to come when the visitor unwittingly stumbles into the contemporary art wing of the museum a floor-and-a-half later!

There are a couple of stairways one could use to ascend to the second floor.  One of them is closed due to the construction of an art display that is due to open next weekend.  That’s the main one on the East Entrance; the display itself is visible from the second floor of the entrance foyer, but we’ll get to that.  The other staircases bring you up either in the middle of one wing of the American Art gallery or on the outer fringes of the Cone Collection Modern Art Gallery.

The second floor not only houses the bulk of the museum’s galleries, but also the bulk of the talent on display.  The American galleries span both sides of the Fox Court, an impressive hollow foyer that once served as the building’s main entrance—now called its Historic Entrance, likely because the parking lot is so far away from it.  Deeper into the museum, past the historic entryway, is the Antioch Court, a small exterior courtyard surrounded by glass windows and an indoor walk-around.  On display in this austere hallway are frescoes moved from areas of once-Roman Syria, the same region from which this court derives its name.  Various galleries are accessible off of the court: to the east is the historical European artwork, and to the West is the Cone Collection.

The American and European art galleries are worth the bulk of the time any visitor would spend in this museum.  They feature several impressive set pieces, a number of fascinating portraits and landscapes (on the American side) and religious works (on the European side), and troves of impressive woodworking and furniture.  As amusing as it sounds to remark that the furniture is the most impressive thing in the room, modern sensibilities have forgotten how impressive furniture once had the potential to be.  The tables, cabinets, writing desks, and couches on display showcased degrees of craftsmanship and precision that would leave anyone awestruck, were they inclined to step in for a closer look.  And more than that, these pieces are all historical pieces; they were made for those that could afford them, certainly, but they were always made to be used.  The stark contrast between the historical galleries and the contemporary galleries could not be more obvious than in the examination of such old furniture; beauty, although elitist, pervaded in the worldview encapsulated by these works of art.  As we shall find shortly, the contemporary world dispenses with the overt bravados of elitism and, by proxy, casts beauty aside altogether.

Walking westward, you’ll stumble into the Cone Collection: a modern art gallery consisting predominantly of abstract, surreal, and cubist works from the first half of the last century.  This gallery is larger than its European sister on the east side of the Antioch Court, but not as large as the American galleries.  There isn’t much that can be said about this gallery, except that it happens to put on display all the things you’d expect it to.

At this point in the tour, we have covered, abbreviated form, the width and breadth of the artistic world, from the primitive figurines and religious tools of Africa to the icons of Europe to the Hudson landscapes of America, and beyond.  You can imagine nearly any of these works hanging in a private foyer, or on a wall in a living room, or down a hall in a manor; even the ugly ones provide some sort of character which augments their surroundings.  Prepare to leave that acknowledgement behind, because now we step into the westernmost wing of the gallery: Contemporary Art.

The wing itself was, if I had to guess, a more recent addition to the original Museum.  Externally, it juts out at an awkward thirty-degree angle from the rest of the structure.  Inside, even more foreboding, concrete walls in the unfinished style give the first section of the wing the sort of welcoming vibes one would identify with a slaughterhouse or a military bunker.  Further in, the wing’s main foyer is a circular space with a staircase, half-hidden, that makes its rounds behind brutalist concrete, which evokes images of missile silos or blast furnaces.  Far from the feelings of warmth, belonging, or connection that beauty can inspire in people, the contemporary wing’s first impressions are those of isolation, confusion, and cold.

It’s not all brutalism and brushed concrete, however, as the rest of the wing consists of the stereotypical white-walled geometric caverns so popular among art galleries in the past forty years.  This gallery takes very little time to peruse as, perhaps to be expected, there’s very little there.  Indeed, as anyone who has attended a contemporary art museum could tell you, the only things that distinguish the art on the walls with the wastebasket in the corner is that one of them has a placard and the other does not.  But even here, the Baltimore museum is one step ahead of the example—the only place wastebaskets can be found are in the bathrooms.

The Contemporary Wing extends upward another floor, but this space is small in comparison to its main galleries on the second floor.  Up top, however, happens to house probably my favorite exhibit of the wing: Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1976: a plain plywood box whose top panel slants downward from one corner to its opposite.  In perhaps expert minimalist fashion, it is not particularly ugly nor could it remotely be confused for beautiful, except by those who would qualify beautiful with words like “interesting” or “thought provoking”.  It is the silliest thing I think I’ve ever seen.

The defense of the box, as far as I can tell, is that it is intended to teach the viewer a lesson in looking at things.  What more we’re supposed to see in the box defies my imagination, however.  I can only assume—based on the writings of the people who have gleefully observed it—that those who are mesmerized by the waves of plywood grain and the odd angle with which the top slants inward are people who have never been to a hardware store, much less a woodshop.  I can only assume, charitably, that they’ve never watched a woodworker turn a few pieces of lumber into a somewhat admirable piece of furniture.

Where the furniture of the historic galleries exemplified the impressive skill and talent that went into the creation of objects that were always intended for steady, regular use, the closest approximation to furniture in the Contemporary Wing was a box with no discernible purpose which, if given an hour or two in a family-member’s woodshop, anyone reading this post could reproduce without much of a hiccup.  The hardest part would be measuring the angle with which the top would have to be cut, but that’s just a bit of simple trigonometry.

Which leads me toward the conclusion of our tour.  The Contemporary Wing has one lesson for the visitor: it is not how well you do a thing that makes you an artist, but merely who you know.  You must exploit your contacts to get yourself famous for doing things no one would ever ask you to do, largely because no one would want you to do those things in the first place.  Like vomiting colored water, or stitching old fruit peels together, or constructing boxes out of plywood with a design that makes it impossible to use.

If you or I, unconnected with the art scene as we are, were to build a variation of Judd’s Untitled, we’d be laughed out of town.  Even as a work of art, outsiders to the scene are asked what it means, what it’s for, what we’re trying to say.  But if for that graduate student attending an art school, the only questions asked are ones their professors already know answers to.  What does it mean is simply a prompt for the artist to rail off a series of haphazardly connected farcical buzzwords ranging all over the various “intersecting” spectrums of gender, race, class, accessibility, and even weight.  Such dissertations bore the uninitiated, so naturally, the end results of Marxist tirades end up on display with even less to explain them than a title.  It’s sobering to consider how many pieces in the Contemporary Wing are titled merely a number, or worse, the word Untitled.  The alternative is an overly descriptive title that says nothing about the work it claims to refer to.  The world of contemporary art is, at face value, a world of nihilism; but it is also a world of irony, and ironic nihilism is merely exploitative self-interest.  It’s no coincidence that this sort of trash is displayed in art museums while the contemporaneous culture marches on into post-industrial capitalism.  Marxist dialectic may have given the humanities their field of critique, but capitalism gave it the market to thrive.

Our tour ends outside, through the East Entrance and past Gertrude’s, a lovely restaurant that serves a pretty good brunch.  Out here are the Sculpture Gardens, an exterior extension of the contemporary wing on the other side of the museum.  Here, twisted scrap medal is painted bright red and visitors pretend that it’s interesting, when really it’s just there to take up some space.  At least Alexander Calder, the artist of that particular work, bothered to paint it.  Strange geometric figures and blobs of metal hang around the garden like paperweights, or placeholders, giving the impression that the entire art scene of the last fifty years has simply been waiting itself out for the next thing to come along and replace it.  It’s a welcoming thought, since so little of it seems worth holding onto, except maybe to those high-end art market speculators who invest in this stuff as a form of money laundering.

I hope you enjoyed the tour.  The museum is indeed a wonderful place, and there is a lot here that I didn’t have time to cover.  In addition, there are still wings closed or under renovation that hopefully will see the light of day within the coming years.  If you’re ever in the area, definitely stop by.  Admission is free.

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