Glenstone: A Modernist Vision


The development of Modernism during the late 19th century was, at its core, a series of extravagant experiments: experiments in philosophy and design, in constructions both social and physical, in living consciously amid a society rendered nearly incomprehensible by its sudden industrial complexity.

At its inception, Modernism embraced art and philosophy unbounded by religion, nationalism, politics or patronage — even by its own formal laws of construction and technique. A generation of artists were on a search for new forms that took their creativity on journeys beyond the studio and into many aspects of private and public life.

The tools of the Industrial Revolution enabled artists to realize their visions on grander scales than ever before. With this newfound material control, early 20th-century artists developed a strangely rigid philosophy that, in contrast to their political egalitarianism, was aesthetically sort of fascist.

They wanted everything to be the work of one mind, providing designs for typography, posters, metalwork, jewelry and ceramics, as well as everything to do with furnishing, from wallpaper to light fixtures.

On the one hand, it’s intriguing to imagine the house that Joan Miró might have built. However, it’s a complicated proposition. To live in a world designed entirely in the mind of one artist is to live an existence with no room for personal identity.

In an interview with a daughter of Truus Schröder-Schräder, who in 1924 built the famous Schröder House — a masterpiece of the Dutch Modernist offshoot De Stijl — she said that growing up she was relegated a single shoebox-sized container for all her personal

belongings. Anything more would have impeded the systematic philosophies that guidedthe home’s design.

Granted, this is an idea taken to neurotically orthodox extremes. Other efforts by artists over the next half-century succeeded more palatably in realizing this vision of Modernist purity.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Talies in West in the Arizona desert was the architect’s winter homeand school from 1937 until his death in 1959. Donald Judd acquired a defunct army base in Marfa, Texas, in the 1970s and effectively created a laboratory for his own creative output.

Each of these estates is a wonder in its own right, with a mass cult following. But in the wake of their founders’ deaths, they have become curiosities and period pieces — not models for future design.

This is Glenstone’s rare success. It is a private museum that exists in service to theunification of art, architecture and environment, with a Modernist sensibility. Guided by monumental ambition and facilitated by inconceivable financial resources, it is indeed an extravagant experiment, but its results are laudable and hopefully long-term.

There are other art spaces in the world that have dealt successfully with similar constructions. Dia:Beacon, in upstate New York, is a paradigmatic example. What makes Glenstone so remarkable in this context is the particularity of its vision. Rather than a museum or an artists’ compound, Glenstone was designed and built by collectors as an uncompromising site for art and landscape in the 21st century.

Glenstone has existed on the periphery of the Washington arts scene since opening in 2006. A private museum about 30 minutes away in Potomac, Maryland, its original 9,000-square- foot gallery houses exhibitions from the jaw-dropping collection of owners and founders Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales. Mitchell is a co-founder and a director of a Fortune 500

conglomerate headquartered here in D.C. Emily, who acts as Glenstone’s director, is an art historian and a curator.

On Oct. 4, Glenstone will open its new building, the Pavilions, and the surrounding grounds to the public. I am confident that it will become a museum to reckon with — not just in Washington, but internationally.

The Pavilions building is made up of subterranean galleries connected by a glassed-in passage that encloses a vast sunken water court glistening with water lilies and irises. The new galleries add 50,000 square feet of exhibition space. To put that in perspective, the Hirshhorn has 60,000. And the quality of Glenstone’s collection is also on par.

There are 11 distinct rooms of artworks from Glenstone’s collection, with several spacescurrently dedicated to single-artist installations, including major works by Cy Twombly, Brice Marden and Lygia Pape, along with mesmerizing installations by Michael Heizer.

A gallery of 52 artists occupies the largest room in the Pavilions, a labyrinthine, column-free space that features an extensive selection of masterworks from 1943 to 1989. It is a collection of keen taste and staggering depth.

Here are some of the artists’ names I jotted down, in no particular order, after my tour of this gallery: Pollock, de Kooning, Giacometti, Calder, Rothko, Gorky, Duchamp, Flavin, Basquiat, Warhol, Kline, Stella, Reinhardt, Rauschenberg, Johns, Oldenburg, Haring, Kruger, Nauman, Truitt, LeWitt, Beuys, Hesse.

These are all major pieces. The de Kooning on view, “January 1st” (1956), is a mid-century masterwork, maybe his best painting on view anywhere in Washington (“Asheville,” at the Phillips Collection, is a contender). Painted in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and at the height of the artist’s power, it is a bold and roiling lattice of color and brushwork.

But the artwork now on display, albeit a treasure for our city, is only a small piece of the new Glenstone.

There was a reason for the fustian rant about Modernism in my opening passage. In its new expansion, Glenstone is the achievement of a vision that until now has only ever felt to me, through years of exploring museums and art spaces, like a wishful discussion (or maybe a pleasant delusion).

It is unbelievably beautiful and exceedingly modern in its execution. It elevates the natural world in the context of art.

Glenstone is the realization of a new form in the true Modernist sense. It offers a blueprint for the future of art in the fabric of private and public life.

The galleries employ natural lighting through a network of frosted windows that diffuses sunlight in every direction from a sort of inverted trench. Built into the landscape, the low- lying glass-and-concrete structure is like the distillation of an Italian hill town, cubic forms scattered about as if out of a Cézanne. From the outside, they do not even look connected.

Architect Tom Phifer designed it this way after studying the sun’s movement across the landscape. The way that light and shadows undulate throughout the galleries and across the architecture both inside and out is enveloping, like walking underwater.

A reading room is located halfway through, featuring a boat-like bench designed by Martin Puryear. From a full-wall window, it overlooks a distant cluster of honey locust trees on a hill, fruiting trees that attract wildlife. You sit and look out at perfect nature, contained within the vast frame of the window like a giant canvas, which eliminates sound and weather. You experience it only visually. It is surreal, and it should feel sterile or at least dystopian in a Huxleyan sense. But instead it is transcendental, sensorially expansive, reconfiguring nature to the experience of art.

This is not to say that Glenstone removes nature from its context. Quite the contrary. Glenstone almost demands communion with nature. The new parking lots (also beautiful, by the way) are a quarter-mile outdoor walk to the galleries, along a gravel path cut through a meadow of wildflowers, tall grasses and native trees. If it’s raining or particularly hot, the welcome center will offer you an umbrella.

All 230 acres are organically maintained, using cutting-edge composting and fertilizer. An environmental center at the edge of the property will be open for visitors to learn about Glen-stone’s sustainability efforts. Eroded streambeds are being restored and 8,000 native trees have been planted. Copper beech trees can be seen scattered about from windows throughout the galleries — they are some of Mitch Rales’s favorites.

A new patio overlooks a grassy knoll and woodlands — converted from the Raleses’ old pool house — offering an outdoor seating area that will serve lighter fare than the current café. All food is of course seasonal, locally sourced and organic.

Glenstone also fosters a collection of entrancing outdoor sculpture that includes site- specific works by Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Serra. Existing somewhere between the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden and David Smith’s Storm King, the sculptures are woven throughout the expansive grounds.

One sculpture fully embodies the mission and wonder of Glenstone: Jeff Koons’s “Split- Rocker” (2013). The monumental work peaks over an empty horizon, the head of a half- puppy, half-dinosaur rocking horse made entirely of flowers. Geraniums and marigolds are coaxed into a fantastical, colossal form. From a distance, their colors blend to create the features of a toy rocker, but up close they dissolve into a riotous display of thousands of individual blossoms.

This shift between representation and abstraction, between art and nature, greets you upon arrival and ushers you upon departure back into the maddening world. It is a perfect vision of Modernism, and a model for the transformative power of art in the 21st century.

Glenstone, 12100 Glen Road in Potomac, Maryland, is free and open to the public by appointment Thursday through Sunday starting Oct. 4. For details, visit glenstone.org.

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