Glenstone, the foundation founded by Mitchell and Emily Rales, now has a profile. The sprawling estate in Potomac, with its weeping willows, grassy fields and immaculately situated monumental sculpture, is hosting its first “monographic” exhibition, devoted solely to the work of the Swiss artistic duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. While previous exhibitions have showcased the breadth and depth of the Raleses’ astonishingly rich collection of contemporary art, the current one — the fourth — is focused on two artists who use humor and finesse to reinvigorate old artistic ideas. The show, one of the best to be seen anywhere in the region, is delightful, engaging and often moving, and that spirit carries over to the experience of Glenstone itself.
The old epithet “reclusive billionaire” doesn’t seem so accurate these days as Mitchell Rales, a co-founder of Danaher Corp. and world-class art collector, plays an increasingly prominent public role at Glenstone. Nor is Glenstone still the “best-kept secret” in the Washington area. Visitors can apply through Glenstone’s Web site to join tours of the museum, three days a week and every other Saturday. The estate is hosting an average of 250 guests a week.
On a recent visit, Mitchell Rales happily showed detailed renderings for a new, 150,000- square-foot museum building, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners. If everything goes right, the Raleses hope to open the low, land-hugging, sleek concrete structure by 2016, allowing room for a far more expansive display of their collection.
If the new building is designed and curated with the same fine, light, smart touch as the Fischli and Weiss exhibition, Glenstone will easily be one of the premiere art destinations in the country. On a recent cloudy, wet day, a long glass-walled gallery was filled with the Swiss artists’ wry and provocative series “Suddenly This Overview,” dozens of small, often roughly sculpted figurines made out of unfired clay. Begun in 1981, the series is meant to document an idiosyncratic list of “important and unimportant” things, touching on world history and the ephemera of daily life, according to Fischli. (Weiss died in 2012, but the series may yet continue to evolve.)
So “The Temptation of St. Anthony” rubs shoulders with “The Invention of the Miniskirt.” Droll and surreal moments have been plucked off the timeline and juxtaposed with an unnamed tsunami about to devour small, Monopoly-game-size buildings. Each one is mounted on its own white pedestal, highlighting the unfinished clay, which is worked up with a naive literalism that at first suggests a child’s sculpture, but always on further study surpasses anything produced by an amateur.
The style may recall crudely made clay ashtrays and other class projects that are stuffed away with forgotten toys and frayed dolls, but the work speaks to an entirely adult sensibility, to the taste for high comedy of Rabelais and Rossini, and other artists who know how to make the mind relaxed and receptive through humor. There is certainly an adolescent sense of transgression in many of the figures, but even the bawdy ones are surprisingly sad and knowing. “Mr. and Mrs. Einstein shortly after the conception of their son, the genius Albert,” shows two anonymous figures in bed, their bodies mere lumps under the cold clay covers. And yet you immediately sense the confines of a small shabby room, the exhaustion of two dutiful parents, and perhaps a small joke on the idea of malleable clay as a metaphor for the formation of the body and spirit.
There are many ways to be a great artist, but perhaps the most impressive is the creative ability to cover all the bases, to do one thing very well and then turn around, quickly, and dash off something else that proves your talent isn’t contained, limited or monomaniacal. Amid the pure zaniness of “Suddenly This Overview” are individual works that are highly polished, deft miniatures that prove Fischli and Weiss knew how not just to tweak the visitor but how also to bring an idea to completion.
From this first, light-filled gallery, the visitor enters into smaller, darker spaces and is greeted by a pair of creatures, one porcine, the other canine, the former a squat, white, blimp of a pig with an absurdly stupid expression, the other rendered (in polyurethane) as a cardboard box with a few strategically placed holes to suggest the basic orifices of the beast. They have a silly, totemic power, like gateway figures, a defanged Cerberus with a fat, dopey sidekick.
This gives way to an extended meditation on travel, dominated in one long, darkened gallery, by 2,800 small photographs, arranged in grids on an almost ridiculously long light table. Fischli says this work, “Visible World” (1986-2001), was made after another project that kept the artists in the studio, that “we needed to go out of the studio and have fresh air. We started to take days off. Let’s look at the world.”
It is a dizzying look, a super-size album of travel photographs, landscape views, sunsets, street scenes, seemingly without order, yet flowing from one scene to another, often with a strong sense of chromatic modulation. This project is also about lists and mental catalogues, and like other works in the show, it has an uncanny power to evoke a missing human presence. Who were these tourists, these globe-trotters, these obsessives who have been so many places you haven’t?
That missing sense of the human is even more powerfully present in a room full of rigorously reproduced clutter, a trompe l’oeil installation in polyurethane called “The Objects for Glenstone.” It seems to represent an artist’s studio, perhaps the studio of Fischli or Weiss, or perhaps merely a fantasy of a studio. It is filled with tools and garbage, old pizza boxes, cigarettes, ski boots, dog biscuits, toys and a gas pump nozzle. There are too many things to list, so many disposable and meaningless objects that one begins to lose sight of things. The map of the world is now the world itself, and the carefully manufactured artwork disappears into a seemingly haphazard but minutely constructed bricolage.
It feels like death, like a neutron bomb went off, like a neighborhood or house abandoned all of a sudden with no time to clean up. Visitors may very likely believe it is back-of-house space, that some forgetful guard neglected to shut off the lights and clean out the trash. This is, of course, what life is really like, messy and always tending to disorder, and there’s something absurd and horrifying about it.
More satisfying than any one work is the sense that each work dovetails with the next. A study of airports leads to a travelogue of photographs; an orderly march of photographs yields to the chaos of a room full of junk; the disorder of abandoned objects connects with photographs that show ordinary utensils, tools and kitchen items carefully arranged in fanciful and acrobatic displays of balance. The inner logic is simple and appealing, easily detected, and it functions as an invitation to explore further, not as an ostentatious display of curatorial smarty pants.
As Glenstone becomes more open to visitors, the Fischli and Weiss exhibit presents a welcoming face to the public, smart and entertaining, and with nothing to envy. And envy is the big danger of museums that display the treasures of wealthy art collectors: The visitor is invited to admire not so much the art as the ownership and the lifestyle of those who have amassed it.
Fischli and Weiss didn’t make gorgeous objects, things you covet for their sheer beauty. The substance of their art is in the ideas, the humor and sadness, and it’s a pleasure after this exhibition to feel you leave fully in possession of everything that matters.
is on display at Glenstone through February 2015. For more information, visit glenstone.org.