Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art
While it may not be exactly what artist Olafur Eliasson had in mind, when I enter his kaleidoscopic Flower observatory, 2004, and look up at the complex arrangement of reflective triangles, I have a sensation similar to that of walking underneath the magnificent domes of old European churches. Undoubtedly, Eliasson looked to nature for inspiration, borrowing the form of a flower for his sculpture and allowing light to penetrate through openings within the network of polished metal plates. However, because the natural form is translated into an industrial material and blown up to such an enormous scale, the architectural qualities of the piece appear first and foremost to me. It is almost as if Eliasson’s piece operates as a 21st-century interpretation of the spectacular gold mosaic surfaces of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. In both structures, the edges of overhead elements seem to vanish because of the play of light and shadow, and the result is simultaneously one of soaring space and an enveloping sanctuary.
I also like to contrast Eliasson’s sculpture to another work in the BMA’s collection: Donald Judd’s unornamented and untitled box of 1976. The stark 3-foot high by 5-foot wide by 5-foot deep untreated plywood construction contains a single tilted plain within its interior. All of the piece’s borders and corners are clearly defined and visually legible. The piece is beautiful in its rigorous purity. To continue the spiritual analogy, it seems to relate to the austere architectural vernacular and attitudes of American Puritanism.
Another way to compare Eliasson’s and Judd’s sculptures is to apply terms elaborated by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945). Wölfflin assessed art and architectural form using two categories: Renaissance and Baroque. Although these words are typically associated with chronologically distinct historical periods, Wölfflin employed the terms more broadly to summarize stylistic strategies. The multi-faceted shape, dramatic effects of light, and disintegrating volume of Eliasson’s Flower observatory place it within a contemporary extension of Wölfflin’s Baroque, while the linear, highly rationalized composition of Judd’s sculpture connects it to the art historian’s notion of a Renaissance approach.
There are pitfalls to using dichotomies to analyze artworks. Eliasson’s and Judd’s pieces do not simply exist in opposition to one other. Both sculptures engage a viewer’s body and demand to be seen from multiple vantage points. One must walk underneath Eliasson’s observatory to discover it fully, and one must walk around Judd’s work to appreciate variations in the plywood and the different intersections of the interior plane and exterior box. These active spatial relationships with the viewer are an important commonality. However, contrasting artworks can encourage closer investigation of each piece in question. And, I’ve found that analogizing my experience of abstract works to feelings that I’ve had in other situations, like walking through a church, helps me find the words I need to communicate their emotional and psychological impact on me to others.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.