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If you've visited any of South Florida's major museums in the past few years -- and if you haven't, I don't even know how to begin chastising you -- you've seen them. Maybe you haven't paid attention to them, but you've seen them. I call them "Incidental Pleasures"-- works of art that, on their own, probably don't draw people to museums but turn out to be lovely surprises when we notice them.
Take, for instance, Reclining Connected Forms. Has anyone ever made a special trip to the Museum of Art (MoA) in Fort Lauderdale to see this ubiquitous 1969 sculpture by Henry Moore? I doubt it. But for my part, I also can't imagine going to the museum without checking it out.
The piece, which consists of two interlocking components, one rounded, the other angular, is one of those signature reclining forms Moore created as early as the 1930s and returned to again and again before his long, productive career ended in 1986, when he died at 88. Moore often adapted the lines of the natural world to suggest the contours of the human body. For this piece and others like it, however, the great British sculptor was working in his celebrated abstract mode, and the result is a study in dramatic contrasts. The sculpture looks completely different depending upon where you stand -- from one side, it's dominated by its larger, rounded form; from the other, by the more angular piece that fits inside it. (Some Moore scholars have suggested that the sculptor's familiar mother-and-child theme is present even in these stylized figures.)
Moore made more-famous versions of the work in marble and bronze and in various sizes. From a distance, this modest rendition could pass for pale white marble, although it's cast in plaster, which, given its size, makes it more portable. This advantage is not lost on MoA, which keeps the piece in almost constant circulation. I always picture it occupying the space beneath the lower reaches of the soaring staircase that connects the museum's two levels. That spot is currently on loan to a piece in the group show "Nepotism: The Art of Friendship," a mixed-media installation by Karen Rifas called Larrabee's Echo (maybe a cryptic homage to MoA architect Edward Larrabee Barnes). Moore's sculpture has been relegated to a spot toward the rear of the first floor, where it lies on a big, white slab, awkwardly situated between the "Nepotism" show and selections from one of the museum's permanent collections. It might not have a spot that shows it off to best advantage at the moment, but at least it's there.
Moore's graceful sculpture is fluid enough to blend in regardless of its surroundings -- it's easy to overlook if you're not paying close attention. This is hardly the case with Mantegna's Edge, the massive mural that dominates the Grand Hall leading into the main galleries of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. This abstract acrylic, which measures a whopping 18 feet tall by 58 feet wide, so commands its space that you'd think it was designed to go there.
Quite the opposite. The Grand Hall was designed specifically to accommodate the 1983 painting, which was commissioned for and installed in a Dallas, Texas, building before the Boca Museum acquired it in 1994. When the museum moved into its new Mizner Park location in 2001, the piece had wall space worthy of its grandeur awaiting it, across from the huge windows looking out on the fountain and plaza beyond.
It's possible to see the mural from that outdoor plaza adjacent to the park's amphitheater, and it's pretty much impossible to miss from inside. It may well be the largest painting in South Florida. The piece is so overwhelming, paradoxically, that I suspect many people subconsciously filter it out and don't really see it, perceiving it indirectly more as décor than as a piece of monumental art that conveys the sense of being inside some sort of grand cosmic contraption.
That's a shame, because it's one of only half a dozen such gigantic murals by American artist Al Held, a New Yorker now in his mid-'70s. Held's work is often identified (a little misleadingly, I think) as an American descendant of constructivism, which originated in Russia in the early 20th Century and emphasized industrial materials and geometric forms. Held's work is better characterized as hard-edge painting, and Mantegna's Edge is a perfect example of the style, with its bold, crisply defined geometric forms painted in bright, saturated colors.
Among the joys such a big painting so beautifully executed offers are the opportunities to see it from many points of view. You can stand back a few feet or yards and drink in its larger-than-life symmetry, or you can get right up next to it and marvel at the clarity of its lines, the purity of its colors. Or you can go upstairs and peer down at it from the balcony -- it's something to behold.
The new kid on the block in my "Incidental Pleasures" tour is another mural: The Everglades -- A Relief Ceramic Tile Wall Mural, which earlier this year was installed on an outside wall of the Coral Springs Center for the Arts, home of the Coral Springs Museum of Art.
At 17 feet tall and 54 feet wide, the Coral Springs mural is almost identical in size to Mantegna's Edge, although it's made not of canvas but of tiles -- 7,000 of them, individually cast and glazed. The piece was developed for the museum as an artists-in-residence project by Jan Kolenda and John Foster, who worked with a large group of volunteers to coordinate the undertaking.
Like the Boca Museum's mural, this one takes on a different character whether you look at it from afar, so that the tiles work together to form a simple Everglades landscape, or from up-close, where the meticulous details of the individual tiles become evident. It's as deceptively simple-looking but really intricate and complex as the ecosystem it celebrates.
Another relative newcomer to the "Incidental Pleasures" circuit (and my current favorite) is Persian Sea-life Ceiling, an elaborate glass installation in the newest wing at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. It's by American artist Dale Chihuly, a superstar in the glass-art world if ever there were one. Chihuly's Norton ceiling is housed in its own little gallery that has the feel of a chapel of sorts. There are a few chairs, tables, and benches, and a thin sheet of waterfall cascades in front of the big windows that line the curving south wall of the space.
Go ahead: Loosen up and lie on your back on one of the benches -- it's the only way to get the full effect of the ceiling, which consists of 693 pieces of blown glass behind a large plate of glass that seems to radiate light. (The lighting is a bit harsh in isolated spots, but that's a minor quibble.) If you get the weird sensation of being a snorkeler or scuba diver exploring an exotic reef in which the colorful flora and fauna are made of shimmering glass, relax. That's the desired effect.
It's all too easy to take these aesthetic treasures for granted. Like the permanent collections and sculpture gardens of these and other museums (a topic for future exploration), they become so much a part of the cultural landscape that we may breeze past them, assuming we've taken them in before even if we've never really paused to pay close attention. That may be a common mistake, but it's one there's no acceptable excuse for making.