‘Breath’ of fresh air

Inhaling fresh air, gazing at mountains, stretching your legs on a woodland path. This is certainly
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Inhaling fresh air, gazing at mountains, stretching your legs on a woodland path. This is certainly not your typical art museum experience.

This summer, the major exhibit at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute is “Like Breath on Glass,” 40 gently colored, meditative paintings by James McNeill Whistler, George Inness and American artists from around the 20th century. The exhibit, of course, is indoors, in the same space where we saw “The Unknown Monet” last year.

But after you’ve contemplated the evocative canvases, get ready to take an eight-minute walk to the new Stone Hill Center.

Designed by award-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the two-story, wood-and-glass building has a terrace and outdoor cafe with a stunning view of the Green Mountains and Taconic Range. Step into the 2,500-square-foot gallery, and a dozen of the Clark’s most admired paintings by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent are hung near a wall of windows that frame the oak and hemlock forest.

‘Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly’ and ‘Homer and Sargent from the Clark’

WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.

WHEN: Through Oct. 19. Galleries are open from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. daily in July and August.

HOW MUCH: $12.50 for adults, free for age 18 and younger.

MORE INFO: (413) 458-2303 or www.clarkart.edu.

The 32,000-square-foot building is also the new state-of-the-art home of the Williamstown Art Conservation Center. Although WACC is closed to the public, visitors are welcome to watch the conservators work through windows that sweep across one entire side of the building.

“It’s a chapel in the woods, a place to show beautiful art in the beauty of nature,” Clark director Michael Conforti said at a June press conference.

“We’re trying to make the nature part of our campus more accessible,” said Sally Morse Majewski, manager of public relations and marketing, as she led reporters through a misty rain to a trail just south of the parking lot.

On the stone-dust path, a sign points the way to other trails, including a one-hour round-trip hike to a stone bench and a magnificent mountain view of Williamstown. Locals have known about this trail for generations, but now it’s being revealed to museum visitors.

“It’s quintessential New England scenery,” said Morse Majewski.

Phase one

On the terrace, architect Ando looked toward the mountains. Speaking in Japanese, he recalled his first visit to the Clark 10 years ago, when the museum announced a long-term project to expand and reshape its bucolic 140-acre campus, and bring nature into the art experience. With the unveiling of Stone Hill Center and the demolition of the old WACC building, the Clark has completed the first phase of the project.

The Clark expansion is the first rural American project for Ando, who won architecture’s top award, the Pritzker Prize, in 1995. His other U.S. projects were the Pulitzer Foundation of the Arts in St. Louis and the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, Texas. Ando’s partner for landscape design at the Clark is Reed Hilderbrand Associates.

“We created this vision together,” Ando said through a translator. “People can see and appreciate art conservation, it shines a light on an honorable profession.”

A nonprofit organization founded in 1977, WACC is an “art hospital,” treating and analyzing historic artifacts, antiques, paintings, watercolors, drawings, photographs, sculpture and furniture from museums, historical societies, individuals and corporations.

Glorious laboratory

Stone Hill Center is the only free-standing American conservation center designed by a major architect, and the only one that allows viewing by the public.

“The staff is absolutely giddy,” says WACC director Thomas Branchick. “This is one of the most glorious painting laboratories in the country.”

In an ultra-pristine painting studio with high ceilings and a 72-foot-long floor-to-ceiling window, conservators sit at tall wooden easels, their backs to the glass and the mountain view, as the natural northern light, the same light in which the original artists worked, streams over their shoulders and onto the painting that is being conserved. Next to each easel, a Slinky-like hose dangling from the ceiling whisks potentially harmful solvent fumes away.

Leaning against the wall are Newark Airport paintings by abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky. Covered in house paint and varnish, the canvases were nearly destroyed until conservators removed the offending layers and repaired a hole that had been cut for an electrical outlet.

On the public side of Stone Hill Center, the gallery is divided into two sections, with seven Homer oil paintings on one side, and five Sargent paintings on the other.

Selected during a “people’s choice” vote in 2005, when the Clark celebrated its 50th anniversary, the sampling of favorite paintings from the collection include Homer’s “Sleigh Ride,” “Two Guides” and “West Point Prout’s Neck”; and Sargent’s “Fumée d’ambre gris,” depicting a mysterious white-robed woman from Tangiers immersed in ambergris incense.

Every summer, Stone Hill Center will host special exhibits of works from the collections or loaned artworks not usually seen at the Clark, like non-Western and 20th-century art.

“We have a blank canvas for these galleries,” said Morse Majewski.

The gallery will be open only in the summer, but winter visitors are welcome to snowshoe or ski up to the building. There’s a road and parking lot for nonwalkers.

Stone Hill Center is only the first step in an arduous and ambitious project that will intensify over the next few years.

Phase two, scheduled to be completed in 2013, includes construction of a new visitor/exhibit/conference center with large, loft-like flexible galleries. A reflecting pool spilling over 1.5 acres will become a skating pond in the winter. In the traditional museum known to visitors, space will be reconfigured and enhanced.

Last year, the Clark purchased Building 12 at MASS MoCA, with plans to renovate its 29,000 square feet for gallery and storage space.

After Stone Hill Center and the press conference, the reporters trudge down the hill and into the museum, where they are enveloped in the ethereal atmosphere of “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly.”

“ ‘Painting Softly’ is not a historical phrase,” said Marc Simpson, a Clark curator of American art. It comes from Whistler’s assertion that “paint should not be applied thick. It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.”

Simpson curated the show, exhibited only at the Clark, with the help of assistant curator Cody Hartley. Landscapes and portraits were borrowed from 34 institutions and private collectors, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, London’s Tate and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Whistler, Inness and the 13 other American artists in the show painted in a quiet and subtle way, hiding their brushstrokes during a time when an expressive brush, the motion and evidence of paint, were the marks of the modernist movement.

Connecting art, viewer

While the images may be elusive, the idea was to connect the viewer to the artist’s thoughts and impressions, not the making of the painting.

Each artist has a different interpretation of this osmosis between painter and viewer.

In Inness’ landscapes, the intent is spiritual and metaphysical, as in “Home of Heron,” a dark coppery canvas in which light filters through muted trees and marsh onto a single bird.

Young women float, as if in a dream, along the landscapes in Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “The Hermit Thrush,” “Summer” and “The White Birch.”

Four of Whistler’s dark, filmy “Nocturne” paintings are here, suggesting rippling water without visible brushstrokes. In Whistler’s “Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate,” a young violinist emerges ghostlike from an inky background.

Simpson hopes viewers will “experience and feel” these paintings, and he encourages them to stand several feet away from the artworks.

“Whistler was always pulling people away from the walls. He wanted them to see it from afar.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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