Greatest hits

RISD shows off its new and renovated galleries
By GREG COOK  |  June 4, 2008

Morrisoninside.jpg
RIVETING: Paul Morrison’s Exine.

The RISD Museum continues its top to bottom renovation and expansion. This week the institution premieres several exhibits in new and renovated galleries in the museum’s existing buildings. And things are shaping up well.

The main event is the long-term exhibit “Subject to Change: Art and Design of the 20th Century,” in two new galleries in the renovated third floor of the 1926 Radeke Building, in a space cleared out as offices and storage move into the new Chace Center, which is scheduled to open in September. But there are also new adjoining galleries for photography, works on paper, and new media art. Two rooms are rehung with 19th- and early 20th-century American painting.

The exhibitions draw on greatest hits in the museum’s collection, a good number of which will be familiar to RISD devotees. But a new education room offers Paul Morrison’s smashing, brand new black-and-white mural that resembles a giant blow-up of an old wood engraving. A pair of giant flowers explode across the walls and, if you manage to take your eyes off them, farm buildings stand in the background.

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SWEEPING LINES Margaret Bourke-White’s
George Washington Bridge.
But back to “Subject to Change.” Here gorgeous art nouveau confections like William Christmas Codman’s spectacular silvery 1903 lady’s writing table give way to Pablo Picasso’s cracked-up cubist portrait of a woman, the calligraphic abstractions of a Henri Matisse still life, and the geometric simplicity of a Frank Lloyd Wright library table. Ideas ripple out, combine with surrealism in Wilfredo Lam’s spiky monsters, and bring us to Jackson Pollock’s wild dancing drips and Cy Twombly’s graffiti scrawls. The less-is-more aesthetic produces Mark Rothko’s humming floating blocks of color, Ad Reinhardt’s woven blue-and-black bars, and Agnes Martin’s hovering minimal rectangles. And on to Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Philip Guston, and many other notables.

In the main gallery, 20th-century sculptures, clothing, and furniture are dramatically arrayed on two cantilevered platforms, while paintings occupy the walls. The dense, loosely chronological arrangement feels a bit jumbled, but obviously there’s a lot of ground to cover. The point is the stylistic and ideological links between artists that are made apparent just by looking across the room. And beautiful moments rise to the surface: the gnarled hands of a man in an Oskar Kokoschka portrait; the radiant colors of Tiffany glass vases; Charles and Ray Eames-designed molded plywood splints for the Navy’s medical use in World War II, which inspire their sleek spare post-war chairs; Bernice Abbott’s nighttime Manhattan panorama seen from the newly built Empire State Building; Ettore Sottsass Jr. and Perry King’s cute-as-a-button red Valentine portable typewriter; and the sweeping lines in Margaret Bourke-White’s photo of the George Washington Bridge.

Next door is “From Durer to Van Gogh: Gifts from Eliza Greene Radeke and Helen Metcalf Danforth,” on view through October 26, which features drawings and prints donated to RISD by Radeke and her niece Danforth, who served as RISD  board presidents in the first half of the 20th century. The works mostly date from the 19th century — though a few, including an Albrecht Durer engraving of a horse, reach back to the 16th and 17th centuries.

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