Nestled in about two hundred acres of gently rolling hills and dense woodlands in Potomac, Glenstone is a museum and sculpture park that aims to provide visitors with an integrated experience of landscape, architecture and modern and contemporary art. It is also the site of the home of Mitchell Rales who co-founded the institution with his wife Emily Wei Rales, who serves as its director.
Everything about Glenstone has a monastic feeling about it, something like a retreat that provides serenity and contemplation with art. As the gate slowly opens, you are met and checked in by a guard who communicates your arrival by radio to a greeter who will be waiting for you on the path, and directs you to parking. You are then accompanied to The Gallery, the current museum building, where you will be encouraged to take in the exhibit on view. The staff, outfitted in loose fitting black shirts and slacks, is very attentive and informed, but also watchful and tasked with enforcing rules such as leaving your bags and purses in a closet at the front and refraining from photography. The latter is certainly a pleasurable difference from most museums today where everyone seems occupied with taking pictures with cell phones instead of looking at the art.
The architecture of the building, designed by the late Charles Gwathmey, is strictly modernist with clean lines and neutral tones of stone, wood and zinc. The landscape architecture and the buildings, including the Rales’ residence and a pool complex, were conceived together. This has helped to establish a calm and interrelated atmosphere among the various aspects of the estate. Even the siting of two large outdoor sculptures by Richard Serra and another by Ellsworth Kelly were planned from the outset. One of the Serras, titled “Sylvester,” a piece in his “Torques Ellipses,” series from 2001, is located on the patio opposite the front entrance. From a side view, one can see the residence beyond the manmade pond between it and the Gallery, and the untitled Kelly pillar of stainless steel. The curve of the Serra is slightly echoed in the architecture of the Gallery front, linking these structures and art works in a seamless whole with the landscape. This kind of integration was exactly what the founders wanted to establish here, and they have very much succeeded in this aspect.
The Gallery is devoted to 18-month rotating exhibitions of artworks drawn from Glenstone’s impressive collection of works dating primarily from the post-World War II period. To celebrate the opening of the museum in 2006, the first such exhibit featured a cross section of objects from the collection, as documented in a handsome catalogue of that event. However, since then, the exhibits are focused on one artist at a time. The sheer size of the galleries within the museum, amounting to over 9,000 square feet of exhibition space, means that the Rales have tended to buy a significant number of works from each artist they have collected. At present, and through December of this year, the work of American artist Fred Sandback (1943-2003) occupies the Gallery in an exhibit titled “Fred Sandback: Light, Space, Facts,” his first solo showing in the metropolitan area that explores the full spectrum of his oeuvre. Included are line drawings, wood reliefs, steel sculpture and his signature yarn installations that are more like drawings in the air than sculpture in the ordinary sense.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sandback’s minimalism rejects the substance of the box preferring a radical simplification of form. The art of Donald Judd, Robert Morris or even Richard Serra intended to push the viewer’s experience beyond the purely visual or optical, towards a fully physical or somatic experience by forcing an encounter between their solidity and viewers’ bodies. Sandback wants to let them in. In his own words, he wanted to create “a sculpture which became less of a thing-in-itself, and more of a diffuse interface between myself, my environment, and others peopling that environment, built of thin lines that left enough room to move through and around [them…] A drawing that is habitable.” This effect is particularly evident in his very open “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (Sculptural Study, Twenty-Eight Part Vertical Construction), 1991/2006, in the main entrance gallery made with yarn in Mondrian’s red, yellow and blue, and in his black “Untitled” (Sculptural Study, Six Part Construction) that look like glass panels hanging from the ceiling. Thus, Sandback’s yarn installations, which create invisible volumes with an often disorienting sense of trompe l’oeil are the perfect thing for a place that aims to merge works of art with their environment. Here the light and the space around the work are made one with them.
Glenstone also offers guided tours of the sculpture park, which are carried out with informative but hushed explanations by the staff guides. While the setting feels and looks natural, the park was designed and planted by Peter Walker and Partners Landscape Architects, and is immaculately maintained. Walking on the path leading from the gallery, a graveled area on the left reveals Tony Smith’s “Smug.” Based on “Smoke,” Smith’s contribution to the Corcoran’s invitational series in the late 1960s, and “Snug,” a later similarly modular work, the Glenstone piece is “Smug,” but is not indifferent to the viewer. Installing the piece was, according to my guide, extremely difficult requiring a very small spelunker to wriggle around inside the steel modules to bolt them together. After Smith died in 1980, his wife Jane and their daughter, famed artist Kiki Smith, made sure his wood mockups were fabricated into steel and were personally involved in the Glenstone installation.
A bit further down the path to the right is Richard Serra’s “Contour 290”, a curved wall in his signature weatherproof steel, 15.5 feet high, nearly 225 feet wide, and 2 inches thick. It is site specific to this location, the title referring to the fact that it is 290 feet above sea level. Serra’s work of this kind usually represents an intervention into the space of the viewer, resting without bolting on a floor or in a cramped space as in Dia Beacon where the element of fear is part of the “abstract sublime” experience the viewer is intended to have. Here, however, the work is imbedded into the earth, becoming one with its shape and flow down a hill.
At this time, Glenstone is embarking on an ambitious expansion to create more exhibition space, particularly for permanent display of more of the collection. This new addition will consist of a group of discreet “pavilions” linked by walking paths and bridges around an 18,000 square foot central water garden with plantings that will change with the seasons. As opposed to the current Gallery’s 9,000 square feet, the new pavilions will offer 50,000 square feet of exhibition space, along with 12,000 square feet for offices, a Café and a bookstore. Nevertheless, great care is being taken to ensure no loss of the monastic atmosphere of the place, with special spaces giving out to framed views of the landscape for rest and meditation. The landscape component of the new area is nearly as ambitious as the architecture: 6,000 trees of 43 native species will be planted, plus approximately 33 acres of grassland converted into sustainable meadows with a range of indigenous flora, and accented with drystone walls sourced from a local quarry.
To continue this theme of unified land/art/architecture, the groundbreaking for this new undertaking in June, 2013, was marked by the installation of a major new acquisition on a hill just in front of the construction site. This is Jeff Koons’ towering “living sculpture” “Split-Rocker” that rises approximately 39 feet over its concrete base, with a bulk of almost the same dimensions. This colossal work, perhaps one of the more intriguing by this artist, features one half of a pony’s head to one half of a dinosaur’s head with both parts modeled on toy rocking- horses. The form is constructed with dark green garden putty fitted with holes laid over a stainless steel framework. Approximately 27,000 marigold plants are growing out of the holes. Despite the whimsical idea, the work is hardly amusing. Instead, it communicates an unusually menacing note into this idealized setting—like a monster that morphed out of a child’s toys and grew two heads. Perhaps once the box-like pavilions with their neutral colored stone and glass features are built behind it, the work may not seem so unsettling.
The overarching idea at the core of Glenstone’s conception was to create a space where the public could benefit from the inspiring art collection of its founder who, after a serious accident where he nearly lost his life, wanted to pay it forward to the public. For this reason, admission will remain free despite the added costs of the expansion, and the hours available for visits have been extended to Thursday through Sunday.
Visits to the Glenstone Museum, 12002 Glen Road, Potomac, are scheduled on the hour and must be reserved ahead. This can be done online at www.glenstone.org/visit.