The challenge of the Katzen space is most obvious in this exhibition, which presents an extensive selection of mild-mannered 20th-century still lifes, landscapes, portraits and abstractions that the new art museum inherited from its predecessor, the Watkins Gallery, which long housed the university's teaching collection. Pictures cover almost every stretch of wall, with hardly a break between. That would be too tight a hang in even the plainest of white boxes. At the Katzen, however, the very worst move is to pretend that it's a normal space, and that viewers can go from picture to picture as though each one lived in a vacuum. In a building with so much going on, the only hope for any subtle work of art is to let it float in as much white space as you can find for it. It's hardly news that small pictures get more power, not less, by sitting all alone.
There is some pretty negligible art in the Watkins Collection (including some of the work by alumni and ex-profs). If more of that had been left out, the fair number of good pictures -- an elegant little 1946 oil by British artist Ben Nicholson, an eccentric 1920s seascape by neglected modern master David Burliuk, a vibrant Milton Avery landscape from 1945, a surprising, very early Kenneth Noland abstraction in a kind of Jackson Pollock mode but with bold color -- might have really sung. As things stand, that Nicholson is elbowed aside by a hulking oil by Karl Knaths. The Burliuk is done no favors by being paired with a terribly weak watercolor by John Marin, whose bigger name is likely to attract more eyes. And the unusual Noland becomes just the last in a string of mostly indifferent examples of abstract expressionism.