Five opening shows of riches

Now visitors can at last appreciate the depth and range of several specialized collections, including photography, design, sculpture, and costume and textiles.

Posted: September 09, 2007

For the public, the new galleries and expanded library are the heart of the Art Museum's Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building. Now visitors can at last appreciate the depth and range of several specialized collections, including photography, design, sculpture, and costume and textiles.

They can do this through five inaugural exhibitions, which begin just inside the building's main entrance in the Exhibition Gallery, a large space ideally suited to displaying sculpture.

For the opening, the museum has stocked this window-lined room with about a dozen modern and contemporary pieces, from Pablo Picasso's bronze Man With a Lamb to Sol LeWitt's multicolored Splotch, in which the rigorous minimalist and conceptualist becomes uncharacteristically playful.

The sculpture show feels loosely installed for such a large space. I had expected a few more pieces, but perhaps the unobtrusive nature of several works placed against walls and in corners, such as Christopher Wilmarth's Clearing for a Standing Man, No. 6, a wall-mounted sandwich of steel and glass, helps to create that impression.

The majority of the sculpture is contemporary rather than modern, and the selection represents a wide range of strategies, from Mark di Suvero's freestanding assemblage of found objects to Martin Puryear's eloquently sinuous loop of red cedar.

There's more sculpture nearby in the Perelman's most dramatic space, a light-filled galleria that links the rear of the original building with a new two-story addition. Niches in one wall accommodate sculpture and large decorative objects.

The sculptures include John Chamberlain's Glossalia Adagio, an agglomeration of automobile body parts that I think would have looked better in the large gallery, and Joan Miro's commanding bronze Lunar Bird, perfectly placed to command the galleria's long vista.

Galleries for photography, costume and textiles, and design open off the galleria. The first is slightly smaller than the other two, but sufficient for the show of works by pioneering photographer and proselytizer for modern art Alfred Stieglitz. Thanks to his widow, Georgia O'Keeffe, and his confidante, acolyte and lover, Philadelphian Dorothy Norman, the museum owns a substantial body of Stieglitz's work.

This show of about 70 images comprises a cross section of the most active period of his long career, from the turn of the 20th century through the mid-1930s. Curator Katherine Ware has emphasized thematic series, particularly the many portraits Stieglitz made of O'Keeffe and Norman.

Besides portraits, other series include cloud studies Stieglitz called Equivalents, pictures made at his family's summer house on Lake George in Upstate New York, and studies of poplar trees that remind one of Monet's interest in the same subject.

Next door to Stieglitz, curator Dilys Blum has filled the new Spain Gallery for Costume and Textiles with about 50 examples of dresses and gowns designed by three native Philadelphians - James Galanos, Gustave "Gus" Tassell, and Ralph Rucci.

The garments are displayed on mannequins set against deep blue walls upon a low platform that sweeps around three sides of the room. Unlike the Elsa Schiaparelli exhibition in 2003, the dresses aren't behind Plexiglas but are open to close inspection - great for visitors who want to see every stitch, seam and sequin.

The costume and textiles gallery offers perhaps the clearest example of how the Perelman expansion has opened up the collection. While photography gained a dedicated space in the main building several years ago and design had a tiny gallery in the modern-contemporary wing, Blum has never been able to mount this sort of display.

One could almost say that about the Collab Gallery for modern and contemporary design next door, which has increased its display area sixfold. The gallery is named for a Philadelphia-area nonprofit organization of design professionals that supports the museum's collecting in this area.

Curator Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger has assembled a four-part sampler of functional and decorative objects that limn the history of design over the last century. The selection of furniture, appliances, ceramics, glass, metalware and lighting focuses on four stylistic initiatives - art deco and the Bauhaus (1920-40), American and Scandinavian modernism (1940-60), the new Italian "domestic landscape" (1960-80), and postmodernism (1980 to the present).

This show, which comprises nearly 140 objects from furniture to glassware, is the most variegated and visually energetic of the lot, a panoply of explosive color, seductive form and unconventional materials.

While the four sections define distinctive design philosophies, the transitions from one to another, not formally demarcated, are nearly seamless. This suggests that effective design based on creative imagination rather than commercial concerns usually transcends its zeitgeist.

In this single show, visitors can range from the eloquent art deco furniture of Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann through the clean functionality of Scandinavian furniture by Alvar Aalto through the spunkiness of Italian innovators such as Ettore Sottsass Jr. to the postmodern cheekiness of Robert Venturi.

Famous architects such as Marcel Breuer and Eero Saarinen bump shoulders with designers such as Donald Deskey, Russel Wright and George Nelson, of "marshmallow sofa" fame. This exhibition is continuous enjoyment, especially for anyone old enough to remember when the more radical designs were introduced.

Perelman has one more delightful surprise, a selection of items from the museum's library and archives. Rare and perhaps unique among American art museums, the library dates from the Art Museum's founding as the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in 1876, so it contains a lot of donated books and manuscripts from the 19th century and earlier.

The library and archive also has benefited enormously from moving to Perelman. With four times more space, it can invite the public in to use its extensive resources, including what must be the most comprehensive selection of art periodicals in the city.

To show off what has heretofore been hidden, the library has organized a three-part exhibition of representive books and archival materials that will run sequentially through the coming year. The first part, like all the inaugural shows, will be on view through February.

The first installment, called "From the Renaissance to the Surreal," covers the museum's history from 1876 to 1928, when it moved from Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park to its current neoclassical temple on Eakins Oval.

Some of the books and documents on view relate to art and design, while others are more peripheral to those disciplines or provide examples of the bookmaker's craft. The display includes pattern books, samples of splendiferous Indian textiles, a "genealogy of the gods" by Giovanni Boccaccio, a tiny and rare History of Little Goody Two-Shoes published in 1771, and a delightful group of embroideries on paper, so refined they look like watercolors - and done by a man, yet.

Just about every item in this display is fascinating in some way, from a minuscule book of engravings (views of Paris) not much larger than a postage stamp to a German book about witches to a volume designed by the children of Louis Comfort Tiffany that commemorates all his designs - everything, that is, except his lamps. Apparently in 1914, when this book was compiled, the lamps weren't considered sufficiently important to mention.

Five exhibitions is a lot to absorb in one visit, but the inaugural program makes a point - that the Perelman building is a small museum in itself that's easy to navigate. The galleries are comfortably scaled, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the quality of the art on view makes every one of these shows "special."

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or

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