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Review: Masterful display at the Pulitzer

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2009 - Where to begin with "Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer"? It's a world-class exhibition of Old Master artworks, to be sure. But given its setting -- Tadao Ando's simple, yet richly nuanced exhibition space -- it's so much more than "just" that.

But let's begin there anyway, because that's the easy part. "Ideal (Dis-) Placements" brings together stunning Old Master drawings and paintings from Harvard's Fogg Art Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum that are rarely shown in such innovative configurations. Several are shown in relative isolation, as with the group of larger Italian Baroque works in the Entrance Gallery, the Jean-Baptiste Greuze in the Elevator Alcove, and the wonderful "Saint Jerome" by Jusepe de Ribera, which has the Lower Corridor all to itself.

The generous space around these works allows for some close study and intimate encounters. In the Cube Gallery, this is taken to the extreme: Only four works inhabit the space, all of them paintings with gold backgrounds on panel.

At the exhibition's other extreme are the large groupings of works, the "medallions" that dominate the large wall of the Main Gallery and the eclectic collection of drawings that fills the Lower Gallery. Such patchwork groupings are anathema to contemporary exhibition practices, in which evenly spaced works are hung on eye level. Medallion groupings harken back to centuries-old royal display conventions, and they allow for imaginative juxtapositions of themes and formats.

If this were all that "Ideal (Dis-) Placements" offered us, it would be more than enough. But what makes this exhibition truly extraordinary is that most of the works are exhibited under natural light. This single curatorial decision results in profoundly complex encounters with the works. In the Entrance Gallery, where the building's light is muted on the brightest days, one has to spend extra time allowing for the eyes to adjust to the subtleties in the canvases. (Making this experience richer is the fact that these paintings, like many Baroque works, employ themes of visibility and invisibility, darkness and light.)

In the Main Gallery and the Cube Gallery, the flickering light from the courtyard's reflecting pool creates an ever-changing ambience in which to study the works. To say the least, weather and light conditions outside will affect your viewing of the paintings inside.

Bonus presentation

Through May 2, people can also see a very special theatrical production: 'Staging Old Masters: Former Prisoners Perform at the Pulitzer.' 

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And this is precisely what makes this exhibition worth visiting again and again and again. We've all become accustomed to regular, consistent and controlled viewing conditions. We get this from visiting galleries that employ strictly artificial lighting, not to mention from watching too much TV and staring for too long at computer screens.

"Ideal (Dis-) Placements" is a reminder that the world hasn't always been that way. Visibility was once tied more closely to the vagaries of nature, and artists and collectors took this into account. A visit to this exhibition is therefore a lesson in historical display practices and the brilliance of Old Master artists; but above all it's a primer in light that lets us relearn how to see.

Ivy Cooper is an artist and professor of art history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

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