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Forming peace, grace

The new Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas is devoted exclusively to Modern and contemporary art in three dimensions.

October 17, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — The stereotype holds that this city represents the brash, showy, even vulgar half of the sprawling Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. If so, the tranquillity and understated restraint of the new Nasher Sculpture Center, opening Monday, plays dramatically against type.

The Nasher Sculpture Center is the first museum anywhere to be devoted exclusively to Modern and contemporary art in three dimensions. The inaugural survey exhibition -- "From Rodin to Calder: Masterworks of Modern Sculpture From the Nasher Collection" -- assembles about 70 examples in four indoor galleries, which provide a modest 10,000 square feet of exhibition space. An additional two dozen works are installed outdoors in a 1 1/2-acre formal garden. A lecture hall, a conservation center and a research facility, currently focused on the collection's roughly 300 works, complete the ensemble in a suite of basement rooms.

Over the years, shopping center developer Raymond Nasher incorporated sculptures by Mark di Suvero, Jonathan Borofsky, Beverly Pepper and other contemporary artists into various real estate projects, and examples of their work are now represented in the center's garden. His late wife, Patsy (she died in 1988), is generally regarded as having been the guiding light for the larger collection, which has no equal among private holdings of Modern sculpture.

Before Raymond decided to go it alone with the sculpture center, the Nashers were aggressively courted by numerous museums eager for their collection. The suitors included the National Gallery of Art, which contemplated a sculpture garden on Washington's Mall; New York's go-go Guggenheim Museum, which invited Nasher onto its board, and the Dallas Museum of Art, which opened its new building in 1987 with a show of the collection.

But the obvious source for the independent project that has now taken shape -- in the shadow of the DMA, right across the street -- is the Beyeler Foundation near Basel, Switzerland. In 1997, art dealers Ernst and Hildy Beyeler installed their impeccable personal collection of Modern masters in a graceful new pavilion designed by Renzo Piano. That same year, Nasher, a longtime friend of the Swiss gallerists, acquired a parcel of land in downtown Dallas and hired the Italian architect.

Sculpture can live indoors or outdoors, and Piano's Nasher building underscores that distinctive quality of the artistic form. His handsome pavilion emphasizes transparency.

The linear, parallel galleries end in glass walls, on one side facing the garden. At the center of the garden's far end (and not quite finished during a recent preview), a "sky space" built by artist James Turrell carries through the theme of transparency. A square, knife-edged hole in the ceiling of a 22-foot-square room, lined with gray Italian limestone walls and benches, opens the view to the shifting colors of the sky above.

The ambience at the Nasher Sculpture Center is both intimate and expansive. Emblematic is Constantin Brancusi's 1907-08 plaster sculpture "The Kiss," which ranks among the collection's most significant pieces. The foot-high block of cast and carved gray plaster sketches two heads and upper torsos locked in an inseparable embrace.

Streaked with white -- evidence of years of natural weathering, since it was once installed in an outdoor garden -- the sculpture now huddles beneath a vitrine inside the art museum, bulwark against the depredations of time.

Hanging nearby on an elegant stone wall is Pablo Picasso's 1969 "The Kiss," one of a few paintings in the collection. (They were chosen for their illuminating relationship to the sculpture holdings.) In contrast to Brancusi's tender, almost toy-like cube, Picasso's racy painting shows an old man (likely the artist) engaged in a furious lip-lock with a younger woman. All swelling curves and tumescent serpentines, the painting evokes a romantic tussle.

Stylistically, Picasso's invention of Cubism was the shocking pictorial equivalent to an intimate kiss.

How? When your eyes are open and your partner's face is pressed against yours, the visual experience dissolves into a blur of shifting planes -- all tilted noses with eyes akimbo. The gallery pairing of the Brancusi and Picasso "kisses" eloquently illuminates the sculptural dimension of the Cubist revolution that transformed 20th century art.

Another feature of the pairing is also instructive. Picasso's lush oil painting, like Brancusi's plaster sculpture, is rendered almost exclusively in shades of gray. With rare exception -- a Joan Miro here, a Jean Dubuffet there -- the Nasher collection is devoid of vivid color.

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