By ALEX BOZIKOVIC
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
POTOMAC, M.D. -- Three of us were walking a cedar bridge over a creek in the hills of Maryland, passing between copses of trees, when cicadas raised a crescendo of humming. The man to my left looked around sharply, and asked: "Is that a sound installation?" No; it was bugs.
But this was a reasonable question. Art was everywhere. We were making our way across the 93-hectare site of the Glenstone Museum, a private gallery that places a first-rank collection of modern and contemporary art into a rural setting. As we rounded the next bend, we looked off to the left to see a flowery clump in the distance; this was not nature, but a Jeff Koons sculpture.
You had to look hard to see it. We paused.
And to pause, to slow down, is what the Glenstone's proprietors Mitchell Rales and Emily Rales are hoping their visitors will do.
On Oct. 4, the couple marked the opening of a new 204,000square-foot building, dubbed The Pavilions, which houses a carefully spaced selection of paintings, sculpture and installations.
And the gallery reflects the values of a growing movement that's been dubbed "slow art," a deliberate pushback against the busyness of large art museums.
"We designed the visitor experience so that people can meander at their own pace," Emily Rales told me. "We encourage slow encounters with the art, and the space really allows for that."
This is an era when the most popular art exhibitions - such as Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors - are cattle calls and selfie scrambles. The Glenstone's great distinction is that there are no crowds. Attendance (which is free) is strictly limited to a few hundred people a day. And give up on your selfies; photography is discouraged.
The trade-off is that seeing the Raleses' artworks takes work.
You must book ahead, travel to this slightly out-of-the-way location and be willing to walk half a kilometre just to reach the first indoor gallery. The Pavilions building, designed by architects Thomas Phifer and Partners, greets you with a largely opaque face: It rises out of a hilly meadow as a cluster of pale concrete monoliths.
Inside is another story. You encounter a text by Lawrence Weiner that hints at the alchemy of the place; it begins, "MATTER SO SHAKEN TO ITS CORE/TO LEAD TO A CHANGE IN INHERENT FORM." Then you descend a stair (or an elevator) to the heart of the place, a ring of galleries placed around a pond scattered with water lilies and reeds.
The galleries hold treasure.
Mitchell Rales, after building a fortune with his brother in industrial and manufacturing businesses, began collecting modern art in the 1990s, "because I had a house and empty walls to fill," he told me. He moved into collecting contemporary artists, working with Emily, a curator who became his wife about a decade ago.
They now have one of the great collections of modern art in private hands, and what's on display here is a remarkable sampling.
In one sequence of rooms, a fine Clyfford Still hangs alongside a cluster of hanging sculptures by the recently rediscovered sculptor Ruth Asawa. Stroll through the next few rooms and you'll encounter a few surprises (Emily Rales has a strong interest in Brazilian painting) amid a parade of postwar American art: Rothko, de Kooning, Serra, Basquiat.
But why hurry? The Glenstone is designed for you to do the opposite. Nine of the "pavilions" hold work by a single artist: five Cy Twombly sculptures here; a triptych by On Kawara there. An incredible, perception-scrambling work by the Land Art pioneer Michael Heizer occupies its own walled courtyard. ("It seemed right to take the roof off," Emily Rales joked.)
An epic five-panel painting by Brice Marden occupies its own room, which the architects designed together with the artist to provide the ideal proportions and the right sort of indirect sunlight. And throughout, the walls are lined by the same hunks of silky, precast concrete, whose rhythmic precision makes them almost disappear. "We wanted to provide an atmosphere that you would get lost in the work," Phifer, the architect, told me.
You can. And should you have questions, there are no wall texts; instead each room has a young guide, dressed in a uniform of grey smock and black sneakers and ready to chat. "We want people to come to their own conclusions," Emily Rales said, "or have a conversation with our guides, who are eager to talk with our visitors. It's important that people are not intimidated by the contemporary art that they see here; they have to feel heard."
Certainly this place isn't for everyone. Unlike the national museums on the Mall in nearby Washington - free, central, easily accessible by public transit - the Glenstone seems unlikely to attract casual visitors.
It is free, but not democratic in the way that public museums generally are. On the other hand, if you've made it here, if you love art enough to run the gauntlet, you will find a singular gallerygoing experience, in which every detail is considered.
And that doesn't end at the door. The expansive grounds, quietly and beautifully remade by landscape architects Peter Walker and Partners, blend native meadow and woodlands with a sculpture park. The Koons is joined by a scattering of Serras, a monolith by Ellsworth Kelly, and the Glenstone's original building (which, by the way, has a whole, excellent Louise Bourgeois show). The Raleses have created a space where anything seems possible. "All the pressures of daily life drop away," Emily Rales said. And that's worth working for.
The author was a guest of the Glenstone Museum. It did not review or approve this article.
For more information, or to make a reservation, see glenstone.org.
Installation artworks created in the 1960s by Eva Hesse and Richard Serra are displayed in an intentionally sparse gallery at the Glenstone Museum, left. The museum also invites guests to take some time to sit in the Water Court, right, a pond contained within a series of structures called The Pavilions.
LEFT: RON AMSTUTZ, RIGHT: IWAN BAAN/THE GLENSTONE MUSEUM
The Glenstone's collection includes Louise Bourgeois's 1974 installation Destruction of the Father, above left, as well as hanging sculptures created in the 1950s by Ruth Asawa, above right. Below, the Glenstone's sprawling 93-hectare property in Maryland.
ABOVE LEFT, RIGHT: RON AMSTUTZ; BELOW: IWAN BAAN/THE GLENSTONE MUSEUM