HELEN Molesworth, the Baltimore Museum of Art's new curator of contemporary art, will make her formal debut at that institution with next month's "BodySpace," a much-anticipated exhibition of installation art. In the meantime, she has not exactly been sitting on her hands.

Molesworth's reinstallation of one-third to one-half of the art in the West Wing for Contemporary Art was unveiled this past fall, with what Molesworth describes as a more art-historical approach to the collection. Thematic rooms devoted to minimalism, early pop, contemporary use of the found object and art about identity, gender and sex have taken over much of what under former chief curator Brenda Richardson was a more visual organization. In other words, objects that looked alike hung together.

In another departure, Molesworth has installed "Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture," a small, one-man retrospective in the T. Rowe Price Associates Foundation and the James S. Riepe Family Gallery. It's the first in what she projects to be a sporadic series of bite-size "focus exhibitions."

Why Rauschenberg, you might ask, and why now?

As Molesworth explains it, the exhibit is partly meant to celebrate the presence of one of Rauschenberg's greatest works, a brooding, almost morbid piece from 1959 called "Canyon." That dark, mixed-media painting -- which features collaged elements, including a black-bordered photo of a young boy, as well as a stuffed eagle on a cardboard box jutting out of the canvas and a pillow hanging inches from the gallery floor -- is at the museum on long-term loan from the collection of Ileana and Michael Sonnabend. Commanding in its gloom, it forms the centerpiece of the show. Seven other pieces by Rauschenberg surround it, all of them examples of the artist's once-revolutionary but now quite taken for granted (some might say ho-hum) hybridization of 2-D and 3-D media. To Rauschenberg, these half-painting-half-sculptures were "combines."

Another reason for the show, Molesworth says, is its timeliness in light of the upcoming "BodySpace," which will feature works by Robert Gober, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cady Noland and Do-Ho Suh. "One could argue," she says, "that it was Rauschenberg who made installation art itself possible."

Citing a number of contemporary artists whom she believes are Rauschenberg's artistic heirs (found-object artists David Hammons and Rachel Harrison and Mike Kelley, one of whose sad-sack yarn dolls graces the cover of Sonic Youth's "Dirty" album), Molesworth singles out Gober -- not so much because of a physical resemblance to Rauschenberg's combines, but because of a shared spirit. Says Molesworth, Gober's moods are "lonely and melancholic," moods that echo those in Rauschenberg's art. The two artists also share an interest, Molesworth says, in "psychologically loaded everyday objects."

True enough. There are even elements that look like Gober's famous drains in a couple of Rauschenbergs: the 1962 "Johanson's Painting" and the 1975 "Lens." For Gober, the familiar icon can be a metaphoric portal of sorts, a symbol of transition from one state to another, as well as an evocation of stigmata. To Rauschenberg . . . well, it's not always clear how to interpret his combines.

Technically speaking, only four of the eight works on exhibit (those made between 1954 and 1962) were even called combines by the artist. With the exception of "Canyon," whose spread-winged bird of prey grabs your attention and holds it in its talons, the early pieces are more formally balanced, less hierarchical (and consequently even less easily "read") than the later works. Their tension derives in large part from spatial and material juxtapositioning of such architectural ornamentation as a mirror, a wooden post, an embossed wall panel and upholstery.

The emotional ante seems greater in the works from Rauschenberg's later period, particularly "Rose Condor (Scale)" from 1977 and "Honorarium (Spread)" from 1981, both of which, like "Canyon," make central use of the pillow, an object whose plumpness suggests flesh, among other things. In the first work, a pink pillow is pinned to the canvas beneath a small ladder rising from a Mylar platform beneath which glow several light bulbs. In the second, the pillow is clamped in a vise in an effective negation of the sense of rest and comfort we normally associate with the object. In both pieces, there is a strong sense of frustrated aspiration, tightness, constriction and pain.

Of all the works on view, the 1975 "Frigate (Jammer)" seems the most out of place. Not only is itvirtually all sculpture, consisting of a pole, a length of wire, red fabric and a glass of water (where's the painting component that makes it a "combine"?), it is the most literal and consequently the most disappointing.

Suggestive, albeit in an abstract way, of the marine frigate bird with its bright red throat pouch, but also of a frigate ship's rigging, the piece possesses very little of the cryptic, hermetic code that makes Rauschenberg's other works endlessly challenging. It feels clownish and sadly superficial.

Not so the rest of Molesworth's tiny, one-room exhibition, whose selections are by and large rich in mystery and the ineffable aura of the human condition. With an appetizer like this, one might be forgiven for starting to salivate over the chef's next course.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG COMBINES: PAINTINGS + SCULPTURE -- Through May 20 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410/396-7100. Web site: www.artbma.org. Open 11 to 5 Wednesdays through Fridays; first Thursday of every month until 9; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. Admission $6, seniors and students $4, 18 and under free. Free on Thursdays.

"Canyon" (1959) is the centerpiece of "Robert Rauschenberg Combines: Painting + Sculpture." "Honorarium (Spread)" (1981), below, is from Rauschenberg's later period but also uses pillow imagery.