As the architectural configuration of the Cleveland Museum of Art expands and unfolds, hidden capabilities and new missions lunge into view. Much of the 1971 Marcel Breuer building remains quietly in place, but architect Rafael Viñoly's renovation transfigures the space, bringing new energies to the art on view. There's just no way not to feel slightly stunned by the scale and success of the project, even halfway through the projected construction.
Housing the museum's impressionist, modern, photography and contemporary collections, the part of the spacious newly opened east wing that holds the most surprises for long-time CMA fans is the domain of Paola Morsiani, hired late in 2007 as curator of contemporary art. New acquisitions have pride of place in the randomly divided 6,000-square-foot gallery, in some cases alongside paintings and sculptures well-known to several generations of Clevelanders. The little, almost timid-seeming Jackson Pollock painting is there; so is the small, masterful Lucian Freud study of his daughter. Then there's Andy Warhol's 1962 "Marilyn x 100," which at this late date seems neither hot nor cool, but almost classically elegiac.
But much of the older contemporary collection is eclipsed by exciting new kids on the block. Visitors entering through glass doors at the north end of the wing find themselves facing a room full of enigmatic objects. Strategically arranged by Morsiani, works by Luxembourg's Su-Mei Tse and China's Cai Guo-Qiang, the Argentinian painter Guillermo Kuitca and American painter Mark Tansey work together to generate landscape-like vistas and combinations.
In the middle is a three-foot-high, six-foot-long work by Los Angeles artist Liza Lou. Her 2006-2008 "Continuous Mile" appears at first like inch-thick black rope curled in circular tiers. A closer look reveals that each strand of the hollow, helical skein is made up of thousands of black glass beads. Lou's team of South African beaders (all 45 of whom are listed on a wall label) worked on "Continuous Mile" for two years, using traditional Zulu techniques. As with much contemporary art, the impressive duration of collective effort is built into the work — both the realized vision of an individual and a social investment of time, will and effort. What remains of all that in the gallery is a very peculiar and powerful object, something like a well or a pure abstraction of a given distance, as the title implies, rounded off to zero.
"I really decided that it was important to acquire 'Continuous Mile,'" says Morsiani. "I wanted to emphasize how artists have developed sculpture by utilizing unusual materials — ones that are forced into the realm of sculpture. Lou was inspired by artistic and feminist processes of the 1970s, but she went farther. It's intrinsically and organically the process that motivated it, giving it a different thrust." Another version of "Continuous Mile," made with white beads, is now on display at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond Lou's piece, a line of tall, bare trees, projected on a massive wall, moves majestically to the accompaniment of an electronically rendered cello concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich. As Su-Mei Tse's seven-minute, high-definition, computer-manipulated video installation "Mistelpartition" (2006) scrolls past a still panorama of trees, nest-like patches of mistletoe come into view. The parasitic plants are reminiscent of notes on a musical staff. As Shostokovich's score progresses, the mistletoe flares in time to the music.
Nearby Cai Guo-Qiang's "Pine Forest and Wolf" also includes sound, though only by implication. Made by exploding gunpowder on paper, the primarily abstract work invites the viewer to find an image in smudged tangles of lines and smoke. Scarred into the surface of paper mounted on panel, Cai Guo-Qiang's use of line, space and accident reflects deep affinities to traditional Chinese painting. On the opposite wall Mark Tansey's monumental oil on canvas "Soft Borders" (1997) shows a rust-colored canyon where radically different groups of people — Native Americans, settlers on horses, tourists, men in hazmat suits — occupy different planes, upside down or at a 90-degree angle in relation to each other. Tansey told The New York Times in 1997 that the painting is "a short history of the West." Next to it, Guillermo Kuitca's similarly large acrylic on canvas "Crown of Thorns (Songs on the Death of Children)" (1994) depicts a barbed-wire-like tangle of white thorns against a deep black background, interacting symbolically with Lou's black circle, and texturally with the scratchy burnt browns of "Pine Forest and Wolf."
Two works featuring specifically human things complete the room's powerful ensemble. One is American artist Keith Mayerson's oil-on-linen painting of Anne Frank, based on the famous photo. Larger than life, her open face is rendered in emphatic, confident strokes, inflected with madder and sienna. Inevitably we think about all the horror that the shy joy and hope of her expression implies. On the same wall, on the other side of the glass doors down near the floor, a human leg and foot thrust out, as if severed by the plaster. A gray trouser leg is hiked up to reveal dead pale flesh — wax with a sprinkling of human hair. A sock and a leather shoe complete American artist Robert Gober's 1989-90 untitled work, a very literal reminder of mortality inserted sardonically into the gallery's discourses about time and distance and labor.
All these works are found in half of one room. If you haven't visited the museum lately, stop by. There's nothing like it this side of New York.