Space is power.
That's the revelation of "Ringling Retro: Modern and Contemporary Art from the Permanent Collection," one of the best advertisements for the merits of the new wing at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
We have seen several exhibitions since it opened in 2007, with most of its 30,000 square feet devoted to traveling shows. They were ambitious and big, packing the galleries with art we generally had not seen before.
Now we find familiar favorites from the Ringling vaults that have been rotated in and out over the years. And suddenly, in this new setting of double-height ceilings and long stretches of wall, they look fresh and new. They breathe.
Senior curator Stephen Borys had hundreds of works to choose from in storage. It's an unintentional secret that the Ringling has a large collection of modern art, begun in the late 1940s when Chick Austin became its first director. Pragmatics have kept it mostly out of sight: The museum's primary mission is to promote its magnificent baroque collection amassed by John Ringling and to use additional space for temporary shows that generate interest and publicity. "Phantasmagoria" is an example of the latter, opening May 24, but because it didn't require the entire wing, three galleries have been given over to the permanent collection.
Borys selected only 25 pieces, mostly large-scale paintings and sculptures. That draconian editing gave him an extravagant amount of space for placement and dramatic impact. Their dates range from the 1960s to the 1990s and reflect the broad currents of post-World War II art.
Rich palette of colors
Trevor Bell's double-canvas Light Trap sets the tone, the eye-catching first impression as you enter the gallery, more significant because it shares wall space with two visceral metal sculptures by John Chamberlain and Robert Rauschenberg. Light Trap looks like a giant floating landscape, with washes of color invoking sunlight in its many resplendences, like an abstract expressionist work but more joyous than that movement is in most cases. It's bracketed by Chamberlain's Added Pleasure, an alpha-male compression of compressed car parts, and Dutch-Roll Glut, Rauschenberg's lyrical (despite its droll title) construction of mobile home siding that looks as if it had been through a hurricane, the metal crimped into flower and ribbon shapes.
Op Art is represented by one of its greatest masters, Richard Anuszkiewicz, in the largest single canvas he has created. His use of color is far different from Bell's and invites that comparison. He contains it in a strict geometry, the background red pulsating, seeming to change as our eyes shift from the grids of blue and green. A smaller painting by Gene Davis has a related rhythmic effect, with black and gray strips punctuated by colors that build into a crescendo, then end on a final note of luscious peach.
Frank Stella has reinvented himself many times over a distinguished 50-year career, so he's difficult to categorize even broadly. The Ringling's Stella, Jablonow I, is from his Polish Village series of the early 1970s, when he was stretching canvas over shaped wooden forms to make intricate, puzzlelike paintings. The Stella most of us know is a multicolor proponent. Here the colors are muted and somber in honor of the synagogue destroyed in World War II that he references in the work.
A variety of formats
A second gallery contains instantly recognizable works: Thomas Struth's ironic photograph of museumgoers unconsciously emulating the art from his famous Museum series; a Chuck Close photorealist portrait composed of his signature fingerprints; a Philip Guston nude; a Louise Nevelson cast wall sculpture; and a Richard Serra drawing of his dark, curving forms that he has interpreted on a grand scale in metal.
The Mystery of the Blind Lemon is a provocative title for a Larry Bell painting that has its own elements of mystery, technically. It refers to Blind Lemon Jefferson, a well-known blues musician of the early 20th century whose life was something of a cypher. Bell incorporates his trademark fascination of reflective surfaces with subtly embedded metallic particles that cast an eerie glow, more so when combined with an airbrush effect.
Sculptures are scattered throughout. Seymour Lipton, a dentist turned artist, channeled his abstract expressionist angst into Bed. It resembles a dental chair, leveraged at an angle and looking mighty uncomfortable but humorous in the elegant but unforgiving "pillow" and the spiky rods that resemble bent legs. Leonard Baskin's Hephaestus (Vulcan in Roman mythology) is a psychological portrait of the god of fire and metal. Traditionally he is depicted as a grotesque figure, sometimes lame or crippled. Here he stands about 4 feet tall, barrel-chested, with huge hands and feet, his face blank. His bulging, misshapen muscles indicate his tortuous inner life.
Fun final scene
The oh-wow surprise waits in a smaller gallery: Izhar Patkin's life-sized painted aluminum sculpture of Don Quixote sitting on his old horse Rocinante, peering at himself in a looking glass, dripping and dropping books from his saddle, a bouquet of roses on Rocinante's rear, presumably for Dulcinea.
It's an over-the-top work, a modern complement to the museum's baroque collection. It certainly isn't great art, but it's absolutely fun and ennobled by its elevation on a platform and its bountiful area of gallery real estate. It's the final lesson of this exhibition, the idea that how we see art is as important as what we see.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or [email protected]