"Beyond the Figure" Delves into the Norton Museum's Formidable Permanent Collection

Summer has long been the Season of the Sequel in Hollywood. Just look at this year, which has already seen the release of Iron Man 2, Shrek 4, Sex and the City 2, Toy Story 3, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. Lately, it seems, South Florida museums are getting in on the sequel act. Last month, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood opened "Nathan Sawaya: Replay," which is a follow-up to Lego artist Sawaya's hit 2008 show there. And now the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach gives us "Beyond the Figure: Abstract Sculpture in the Norton Museum Collection," a sequel of sorts to last year's successful "Off the Wall: The Human Form in Sculpture."

It makes sense. Summer is traditionally the offseason for museums, so why not try to entice visitors with another helping of what they've responded to previously? And at a time when most museums are struggling financially, it's economically prudent to turn to shows that take advantage of an institution's permanent collection. The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami has mined summer exhibitions from its collection for years, almost always to good effect.

These days, even the well-endowed Norton is feeling the pinch of the recessionary economy. Last year, the museum saw its budget go from $10 million to $9 million, and on October 1, it will shrink to $8.2 million. Museum Director Hope Alswang, who started in April, was faced with the unenviable task in June of laying off nearly a dozen employees, some of whom had worked at the museum for many years.

Behold Dale Chihuly's Macchia Forest.
Behold Dale Chihuly's Macchia Forest.

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"Beyond the Figure: Abstract Sculpture in the Norton Museum Collection"On display through September 5 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Call 561-832-5196, or click here.

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That, in a roundabout way, helps explain the presence of "Beyond the Figure" on the summer schedule. The good news is that it's an excellent little show and a good reminder, as if we needed one, that the Norton's permanent collection is the best in the area. There's nothing wrong with a sequel if it lives up to its predecessor.

The exhibition, which takes up two good-sized galleries, consists of only a dozen and a half pieces, some freestanding, some wall-mounted, all by American artists. They're all given just the right amount of space, so that the show never feels crowded or forced. A sense of simmering drama is established from the very start and carries all the way through, thanks to glass master Dale Chihuly's Macchia Forest (1994), a suite of seven large, undulating bowl-like forms lit so that they seem to glow from within.

In the center of the same space sits Ursula von Rydingsvard's imposing Bowl-in-a-Bowl (1999), which vaguely echoes the contours of the Chihuly. The two huge bowls are fashioned from chunks of cedar that have been smudged with graphite, so that when you peer from above, as you'll invariably be tempted to do, you'll catch a whiff of something distinctly reminiscent of freshly sharpened pencils.

The exhibition is loosely organized into three categories, with the Chihuly and von Rydingsvard falling under the designation "Vessels." The category also includes an appealingly stark minimalist glass and metal cube by Larry Bell and a merely passable bowl by the irresistibly named Toots Zynsky, who works in filet de verre, or fused and "thermoformed" color glass threads. Zynsky usually turns out much more arresting work than what's presented here.

The remaining two classifications are "Assemblages" and "Lines," with the majority of the best work falling into the latter. With the exception of a 17-by-18-inch all-black wall sculpture that Louise Nevelson erected in 1958, the assemblages tend to have a slapped-together feel. Even Path From the Wall (1970), a polychromed plaster maquette sculpture by the great James Rosenquist, lacks the grandeur normally associated with the artist's work.

That leaves us with "Lines," and in work after work, the lines are crisp, clean, and elegant. Howard Ben Tré's Dedicant 12 (1988) is little more than a large, thick wedge of opalescent cast glass, embellished with lead copper leaf and gold. The ridges along the sides present a texture that's hard to resist reaching out and touching. I had to fight the same impulse with one of the oldest pieces in the show, Harry Bertoia's 1968 Sunburst III, a spiky sphere of brass wires shimmering in the low light.

The show reaches a crescendo of wit and ingenuity with the Japanese-born Toshio Odate's Suspended Column Melting (1976), which handily transcends its prosaic if descriptive title. The seven-foot-tall column consists of two unlikely components: at the top, a dull-finished rectangular chunk of aluminum, below it a wooden expanse whose well-defined geometrical form appears to melt as it approaches the pedestal at its base. The joke is compounded by a how-did-he-do-that? illusion: The bottom column looks as if it's suspended by metal hooks from the top one, a physical impossibility, since the upper column is not connected to anything at its top.

Odate's sleight of hand, in fact, might be seen as summing up the show's more-than-meets-the-eye aesthetic. By bringing these disparate works together in a harmonious whole, the Norton demonstrates what's possible when a museum makes good use of a well-stocked permanent collection. It's a stone-soup aesthetic well-suited for these tough times.

 
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