It's probably safe to say that neon is new to the Museum of Fine Arts. In the Mackey Gallery, a space that usually holds works luminous with paint, the glass wall panel by Paul Seide glows brighter. It is one of about 70 works from the museum's contemporary collection, supplemented by loans from local collectors, that will jolt visitors accustomed to the traditional delights of Impressionists and Renaissance masters found in some of the museum's other galleries.
Near the neon, an enormous glass wall piece by Ricky Bernstein is as refreshing as a swimming pool on a hot summer day, which is the subject of Irwin and Bob. Bernstein creates a three-dimensional landscape with pieces of glass fitted together like a puzzle. It is a witty and sly look at Floridians of a certain age, hanging around a pool, experiencing permanent bad hair and wardrobe days.
Most of the other works are less exuberant but just as provocative. Some we have seen before, such as Jimmy Ernst's Sea of Grass and Roy Lichtenstein's Roads Collar. Many are new to the museum. In Garlic, Spoon, Rice, a large, three-part photogravure, Cuban artist Liset Castillo infuses simple objects with import, dignity and a hint of Vermeer's enigmatic domestic interiors. And something of Robert Motherwell seems to drift through Hugh O'Donnell's print Sign of the Tiger, an eloquent slash of calligraphic lines.
The art has been divided into two shows, "Introducing the Contemporary Collection: The Artist as Guide" and "Interpreting the Figure and Landscape in Contemporary Art." They flow nicely into each other, having as their unifying principle an acknowledgement that many of us are uncomfortable with or confused by this kind of art. The organization and wall labels impart a lot of information and insight without being patronizing.
In "The Artist as Guide," assistant curator of education Patricia Buster included comments from the artists in the labels. Artists' statements are often pretentious or loopy, but most of these are helpful. Abstract artist William Pachner, who has three paintings on display, writes, "If I painted something that was just pretty, I would despair." Reclining and Window is a nude and a landscape that makes us viewers looking out and voyeurs looking in.
"Interpreting the Figure and Landscape in Contemporary Art" is spread through three galleries, one each for figure painting, landscapes and a combination of the two. It sounds contrived but isn't.
Jennifer Hardin, chief curator, includes cross-references that enrich the experience. Compare Theo Wujcik's intense portrait of artist Jasper Johns with Robert Rauschenberg's soft-focus photograph of Johns and his wife. A landscape by photographer Minor White prefigures one by Jerry Uelsmann, whose montages of human figures and landscapes have the same spirituality as White's but go further in exploring the relationship of man and nature and the integrity of the photographic image.
Nudes by abstract artist Robert De Niro Sr. (the actor's father) and realist painter Philip Pearlstein depersonalize the body in different ways. And Pearlstein's realistic treatment of the human figure is utterly different from that of photorealist William Whitaker, whose portrait of a (clothed) young couple hangs nearby.
Making associations and connections helps to understand the continuum in which art is created. Seide's glass tubes of gas seem a long way from Monet. When he writes "My work . . . uses technology that's available in the world today. But what it's really still about is form, color and light," you realize they are very close.
For those reeling from so much contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, an anodyne waits at the end. Twelve works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on loan from the Stephen A. Hansel Collection, are in the last gallery and complement the museum's European and American collection across the Great Hall in the Acheson Gallery.
Nude by Franz Verhas and Study for the Role by Alfred Stevens are charming genre paintings; Kaki's Roses and Mimosas by Theo van Rysselberghe seems to burst from the confines of its frame, a still life alive with color and movement. Descent from the Cross by Henri Fantin-Latour will be a surprise, having more in common with the mysticism of William Blake than the flower paintings for which Fantin-Latour is famous.
"Introducing the Contemporary Collection: The Artist as Guide," "Interpreting the Figure and Landscape in Contemporary Art" and works from the collection of Stephen A. Hansel, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, through Sept. 15. Also on view are "Ansel Adams: Nature and Art" through Sept. 15 and "West Meets East: 1000 Years of Decorative Arts" through Nov. 10. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6, with discounts for seniors and students. Sundays are free. (727) 896-2667.