Great halls of fire

At long last, the San Antonio Museum of Art has ripped out the nasty carpet, created more wall space, and put a bright coat of paint in the Contemporary Galleries. Remember them? The two dingy rooms upstairs that always felt like you had accidentally stumbled into either a storage area or a mausoleum? And what a change it has made: EUREKA! There’s art in there! Exhibited, for a change, with a refreshing sense of purpose.

It actually starts in the Great Hall with a stunning 10-by-20-foot Al Held painting on loan from the artist’s estate. “Eagle Rock III” was completed in 2000, when the artist was in his ’70s, and exemplifies where SAMA’s contemporary curator, David Rubin, would like the collection to go. “If anyone wants to know what a contemporary masterpiece looks like, just walk into the Great Hall,” he says. The painting’s rich, saturated colors form a geometrically constructed model of an organic, expanding and contracting space, and the scale makes it all the more convincing.

Held is a master who, according to Rubin, worked his way through Modernism and all the shifts of the 20th century, maintaining a freshness and relevance well into the new millennium, although these late works have not been as widely collected by museums. One might say this is Rubin’s touchstone. “Why duplicate what other museums in the state already have?” he asks. “Let’s give people a reason to come to San Antonio. We have the opportunity to build a collection for the 21st Century, to set the standard.”

More subtle is the installation by Stuart Allen, titled “29Þ 26’ 14” N ~ 98Þ 28’ 55” W.,” a rather conceptual yet effective alteration of the empty space in the lofty upper reaches of the Great Hall. The long-term loan was in motion before Rubin’s hire, but it fits in nicely with his contemporary agenda. Primarily a photographer, Allen is interested in the actions and effects of light. Long strips of white, semi-translucent sailcloth are installed across the width of the hall’s ceiling, filling the space from front to back, with a simple, elegant twist in the middle. Playing with the light coming from the skylights and the museum’s glass front, the piece is both theatrical scrim and sundial. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it somehow humanizes the space, subtly manipulating the atmosphere. A temporary exhibit of Allen’s conceptual photographs, “Mapping Daylight,” is also on display.

Upstairs, contemporary art has laid claim to the landing and walkway off the grand staircase with works by Jose Luis Rivera Barrera, Terrence La Noue, Constance Lowe, and James Surls. The reclaimed Arcade Gallery just beyond the auditorium’s upper exits features contemporary portraiture, including works by local artists James Cobb, Angel Rodriguez-Diaz, and Rolando Briseño, making for a smooth transition into the main rooms.

The Contemporary Galleries are, on the whole, well-planned. The rooms look and feel better than they have for a very long time. Rubin’s choices are clearly based on aesthetic and historical relevance, and the installation has been handled with taste and an eye for visual and conceptual correspondence. Rubin has created substantial, informative wall labels for each piece that include both a quote from the artist and his own explanation, in clear prose, of who the artist is, how they fit into the larger picture, and why their work is in the museum.

The simple renovations have made vast improvements to the overall feel of the space, giving it a much cleaner, brighter, more contemporary feel. But to be fair, it’s the same space, and many of the works in the new scheme have been on display for years because they form the core of the Museum’s collection: Hoffman, Stella, Guston, Frankenthaler, Diebenkorn, DiSuvero, Neri, and other mid-century masters are simply too important to put in storage. New acquisitions by Dario Robleto, Linda Pace, Faith Ringgold, Andrew Young, and Cynthia Carlson make their debut with varying degrees of success. Works borrowed from local collectors Chris and Georgia Erck complement the permanent collection, and Rubin’s roughly thematic and chronological layout provides a general context for the collection.

There are, of course, some problems. The second gallery is particularly cramped, in part from low ceilings and in part by the amount of work. While there are some exceptionally good pieces throughout, not every artist is represented by their best work.

Although Rubin claims to integrate the Texas artists with the “big boys,” most of them are still relegated to the back room, with plenty more in storage. More exhibition space would help, which Rubin is eager to assert. Yet his biases are obvious: social commentary, AIDS, gender and racial inequality, and the plight of the marginalized dominate his choices and his interpretations — relevant issues, but not all-encompassing. Still, at least he’s made a choice, and he’s put together a responsible, coherent group of works.

It may take a while to earn the trust of the jaded art community. SAMA’s support for contemporary art has been sporadic at best. But Rubin’s reinstallation is a breath of fresh air, as are his energy and his capacity to engage the community. Attendance and debate were high at the opening, and the dialogue continues with a series of artist talks throughout the month. The question is, where to go from here. 

The San Antonio Museum of Art
10am-8pm Tue, 10am-5pm Wed-Sat, noon-6pm Sun
$8 adult; $7 senior; $5 student, military; $3 children 4+
200 W. Jones


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