The Glenstone Museum’s Aseptic Aesthetic

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BmoreArt’s Picks: September 22-28

The Glenstone Museum in Potomac, Maryland was poised for pandemic operations before “coronavirus” entered our vocabulary. Committed from its beginnings in 2006 to an almost militantly contemplative art-viewing experience, the museum has always allowed only a limited number of visitors through staggered entry times to discourage crowding. Everything from its sleek architectural design to the attendants’ minimalist gray uniforms—which wouldn’t look totally out of place in a hospital—emanate a posh kind of sterility. Nestled into an expanse of rolling hills adjacent to the billionaire founders’ estate, Glenstone feels at once made for this virus-ruled world and, at the same time, far removed from it. The effect is somewhere between that of a day spa and a lunar colony, plus art.

In preparing for my first museum visit since March, I was comforted knowing from past experience that I would face no obstacles in keeping six feet away from other visitors (while wearing a mask, of course), not having to contend with that distracting cloud of anxiety while trying to engage with the work. A collection of primarily postwar art made freely accessible to the public by its founders, Mitchell and Emily Rales, Glenstone reopened the larger of its two gallery buildings located on its nearly 300-acre grounds—once the location for a foxhunting club—in late July after a period of outdoors-only visitation hours. 

Approach to the Pavilions (Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Glenstone Museum)
I anticipated a cathartic return to an experience I’d missed for over five months. Our time apart, I figured, would make the reunion all the more powerful. I instead left the museum feeling overwhelmed by its uncanny undercurrent, and yet underwhelmed by my own engagement with the art.
Maura Callahan

In 2018, the Pavilions, a cluster of connected gallery rooms surrounding a lilypad-spotted water court, joined the preexisting Gallery building (which normally hosts changing exhibitions but is now closed) and a woodland trail connecting thirteen outdoor installations. The addition increased the museum’s originally 9,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space to 59,000 square feet. It has, however, remained under the radar compared to institutions of a similar scale, thanks to the Raleses’ apparent disinterest in courting media attention and their devotion to quiet looking. Photography is forbidden inside the museum buildings, and so only the exteriors, outdoor installations, and lush landscape make the social media rounds. Even the WiFi connection is weak, which, I wonder, could be deliberate.

The Raleses’ vision to center direct, introspective art engagement is refreshing in our increasingly oversaturated, overwhelming world. In many ways, Glenstone is a welcome complement to the entertainment-driven, fanfare-baiting spectacles that characterize much of the West’s most prominent museums, such as the recently renovated MoMA. And, while far too many museums impose lengthy interpretive contextualizations that often manage to say very little of value, Glenstone’s omission of curatorial text—beyond the essential wall label bearing the artist’s name, date, title, and medium—demonstrates a confidence in the visitors’ capability to form their own readings of the work. (Visitors are invited, however, to bring any questions they might have to the grey-clad museum attendants, who act as both guards and knowledgeable guides.) 

But in my experiences of Glenstone both prior to and during the pandemic, I have found that the museum falls short of its mission, and that the intention itself is somewhat misguided. When I booked my visit more than a month in advance, I anticipated a cathartic return to an experience I’d missed for over five months. Our time apart, I figured, would make the reunion all the more powerful. I instead left the museum feeling overwhelmed by its uncanny undercurrent, and yet underwhelmed by my own engagement with the art. My experience of the hyper-bodily sculptures of Eva Hesse and Yayoi Kusama, or Brice Marden’s enveloping five-panel painting “Moss Sutra with the Seasons,” or the penetrating blue that veils Lorna Simpson’s mixed-media canvas “Specific Notation”—all work that might otherwise emphasize the power of physicality—felt no more remarkable than it had before these months of all-virtual art engagement. In one room that offered the seductive banality of an Agnes Martin canvas and the vivid glare of a Dan Flavin light sculpture, I was instead, to my own surprise, drawn to the large gallery window looking out onto the landscape, framing the diverse flora like one of those life-size dioramas found in natural history museums (here, even nature feels artificial). It occurs to me now as I write this that I feel little need to describe the collection at length because it was pushed to the margins of my experience. 

Jeff Koons, Split-Rocker, 2000, stainless steel, soil, geotextile fabric, internal irrigation system, and live flowering plants, 37 x 39 x 36 feet, © Jeff Koons, courtesy Glenstone Museum
Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation on Cabinet No. 1, 1963, sewn and stuffed fabric, wooden cabinet, cups, glasses, wire mesh, decanter, tea kettle, and paint, 60 1/2 x 42 1/2 x 17 3/4 inches, © 2018 Yayoi Kusama. (Photo by Ron Amstutz, courtesy Glenstone Museum)

The collection itself is not at fault here. Starting with a vaguely boilerplate narrative of modern and contemporary art (among the first works you see in the Pavilions are Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, and other textbook names—not to mention the blooming biosculpture “Split Rocker,” by artworld rockstar Jeff Koons, perched atop a hill overlooking the museum campus), the galleries eventually reveal a robust collection of challenging artworks and installations. The problem is that in the museum’s effort to foreground experience over spectacle, the pendulum swings too far. The aseptic aesthetic becomes a performance in its own right, a pristine utopia so foreign to real life that it’s hard to pay attention to the objects the space is intended to support.

But even if Glenstone were a space that really put art front and center (which I have a harder time visualizing, the more museums I visit), I question decontextualization as a strategy. I don’t believe museums should be overtly pedagogical, or worse, that they should impose meaning or function where it doesn’t exist. Museums should be wary of overcontextualizing their artworks. I don’t look forward to the reemergence of those all-too-frequent exhibitions that depend on contrived curatorial twists in a crusade for relevance. But art is made in a specific environment in a specific time and is received by a specific audience. Glenstone’s apparent attempt to reposition art away from our noisy world ignores the reality that our lived experiences shape how we experience art in the first place. The museum’s quasi-religious treatment of art objects implies that they are best suited to a kind of vacuum, too good for this world. In an op-ed for Artnet News, Emily Rales, who serves as the museum’s director, even suggested the museum could conjure “a place of worship or a patron’s private gallery.” 

No matter how sublime or transformed an artwork makes me feel, I cringe at any association of holiness with modern and contemporary art. That romantic kind of object-worship detracts from our ability to think critically and register nuance in our experience with the work, and often it contradicts the very point of the artwork. (Yes, Glenstone does have Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.) As John Dewey writes in Art as Experience, “when an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experiences.”

Aerial of Pavilions (Photo by Iwan Baan, courtesy Glenstone Museum)

To her credit, Emily Rales recognizes that her curatorial philosophy should not be universally embraced: “For many, a museum is a site of communal gathering filled with the pulsing energy of social activity, a cultural crossroads where ideas collide,” she writes. “I don’t disagree, but I believe there is room for both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, because audiences deserve a diverse range of art experiences.” 

The works in Glenstone’s collection that are most effective in the space are those created for it, or those that at least put the environment to use. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s “FOREST (for a thousand years…)” is unique in its direct engagement of the museum grounds, and its deliberate upending of time and space. One of Glenstone’s outdoor installations, the piece consists of twenty-two loudspeakers placed inconspicuously around a small clearing in the woods, where museumgoers can sit on tree stumps and listen. The speakers play a 28-minute loop of what soon becomes clear to be a sonic history of war. The carefully orchestrated surround sound places the audience in convincing proximity to earth-shaking explosions, blasting machine guns, the hum of airplanes and possibly drones, whistling projectiles, and a Revolutionary army regiment complete with a fife and drum. Hearing but not seeing the action suggests that the sounds are echoes of combat and terror. On top of this temporal manipulation, the intimation of international warfare and the difficulty of distinguishing between artificial and real sound collapses our sense of space, too. The dissonance subverts the very problem of Glenstone’s void-ness, intentionally rendering the grounds as a stage for disorientation. The sense of being yanked from the here and now doesn’t detract from the experience; it is the experience.

In truth, I am drawn to Glenstone for the same reasons I question its efficacy. I’m enamored with this bizarro world tucked into the backwoods of Southwest Maryland. I want to be a part of the performance. I’m here for that contrast. My visit to Glenstone did not provide me with the emotional release I had hoped for. Instead, my relationship to the museum experience became further complicated. But it’s untangling those knots that makes going to any museum worthwhile—and to do so now in relative safety is a rare luxury.


Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the Raleses’ relationship to the museum and its collection (the Raleses founded Glenstone as a 501(c)3 private operating foundation, not a private museum) and to correct the number of site-specific outdoor installations, the number of speakers present in FOREST (for a thousand years…), and the property’s acreage. 

Photos courtesy of Glenstone Museum

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