Theater & art

Art Review

Wadsworth Atheneum assembles a first-rate installation

“Sunbather” by Duane Hanson.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Sunbather” by Duane Hanson.
Atheneum Museum of Art
“Early Colored Jackie” by Andy Warhol.

HARTFORD — You’re interested in postwar and contemporary art. You live in New England. You like the big names of the postwar American art boom — artists like Pollock and Krasner, Frankenthaler and Kelly, Rauschenberg and Warhol. But you’re just as into art of the past 30 years. Where do you go?

The answer is not immediately obvious. The two most important institutions dedicated to contemporary art in the region — the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — are obviously must-sees. But neither has a permanent collection to speak of. You can’t go to either place and get a sense of how art has unfolded over the past 70 years.

You look at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, at the Museum of Fine Arts, at the Worcester Art Museum, and the Harvard Art Museums: each with its virtues, but also its limitations. It turns out that the two best places to go are both in Connecticut. One is the Yale University Art Gallery, which has stupendous postwar and contemporary holdings, freshly re-installed in late 2012.

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The other is the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.

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As part of a five-year, $33 million renovation scheduled to be completed later this year, this great, undersung museum has just opened newly installed contemporary and postwar galleries, and the results are wonderful.

They’re so good, primarily, because the art is first-rate. In the contemporary galleries, work from about 1960 on is installed in a large, open space with only minor subdivisions, and it’s one great piece after another, with full-fledged masterpieces by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Duane Hanson, Carl Andre, and the little-known Vanessa German. (German’s “Tar Baby on Pig with ‘N’ ” is one of nine new acquisitions on view; 10 more works have not been shown in at least a decade.)

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Margie” by Alex Katz.

But the new display succeeds for other reasons, too. The large, open, light-filled gallery suits both paintings and sculptures. There’s enough space to avoid any sense of crowding, but also to allow for dialog between works that are across the room from one another.

Casual congregations of related works establish little pockets of rapport. They’re the equivalent of shared gossip after the dispersal of an oppressively formal meeting — a good way, perhaps, to think of the state of art history today.

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Fifteen works in total are by artists who have participated in the Atheneum’s groundbreaking MATRIX series of contemporary solo shows, now in its 40th year. That’s good. Not so good is that, across both the contemporary and postwar galleries, only 13 of the 70 works displayed are by women. Also odd is that only five are not listed as American, which strikes me as a little parochial.

Nonetheless the installation, organized by Patricia Hickson, is brilliant. It’s smart, for instance, to put a classic Kara Walker cut-paper silhouette drawing showing violent, lurid subject matter in hygienic white on black alongside a gray Andy Warhol electric chair, “Triple Silver Disaster,” from 1963. Two kinds of numbness in two very different registers, both sublimations of shocking content. (With a great Warhol like this, by the way, you don’t really need anything by Gerhard Richter.)

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Exclamation Point” by Richard Artschwager.

It’s smart, too, if only for the surprising formal rhyme, to have Hank Willis Thomas’s sardonic photograph, “Basketball and Chain” — a basketball hanging from a taut vertical string attached to the sneakered foot of a black basketball player — in the same eye-line as Richard Artschwager’s “Exclamation Point.”

But the indubitable high point is a snickering little conclave of works by Duane Hanson, Alex Katz, Warhol (a 1964 “Jackie”), Artschwager, Rauschenberg (featuring JFK and the moon landing, also from 1964), and Tom Wesselman (a “Great American Nude,” again from 1964).

It all amounts to a perfect Pop moment: the hygienic, bouncy, factory-grade stuff (Artschwager, Wesselman, and Warhol) meeting the down-at-heel, demotic imagination of Hanson and Katz, with Rauschenberg, as ever, falling somewhere in between. It’s the story of mainstream, postwar America in five works!

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The Hanson is a ferociously 3-D super-real “Sunbather” from 1971 — an overweight, over-tanned woman reclining in the sun, lavishly adorned with props, including cast-off flip-flops, a soda can, and a little array of magazines, including a Life magazine with a pungent cover: “The ‘Woman Problem’ — Then and Now.” The accompanying image has a full-size nude image of the biblical Eve next to a real (and clothed) woman holding a sign saying “EVE WAS FRAMED.”

The Katz, by contrast, is a free-standing cut-out portrait of Margarie Ellis, who worked as a registrar at the Wadsworth Atheneum for more than 50 years. A prim, elderly lady with short gray hair and a slightly too youthful blue dress, she is, given her professional experience and amusingly stiff demeanor, the gallery’s presiding genius. Is she in charge? Approving? Nonplussed? Who can say? But she feels like a friend who might take your hand.

Pop holds sway, but the more austere, formalist, but secretly heartfelt strain of postwar American art is not ignored. Look out for terrific works by Robert Ryman (“Winsor,” 1966), Richard Tuttle (“Formal Narration,” 1973/2013), Martin Puryear (his hoop-like sculpture, “Kiruna”), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (his two almost synchronized clocks, “Untitled (Perfect Lovers)”) and Carl Andre (an arrangement of rectilinear wooden forms he found on the street and called “The Maze and Snares of Minimalism.”)

About the latter, Andre said: “My idea of a perfect sculptural process would be to find a set of identical elements, discover their most just combination, and give the resulting work to someone I love, all in the span of one hour.” The piece has a pulse that beats unexpectedly in unison with Gonzalez-Torres’s “Perfect Lovers” across the room.

The second part of the contemporary installation delves into identity politics. And although it’s a little more hit and miss, there are great things by Kiki Smith (“Daisy Chain”), Ahmed Alsoudani (a ravishing untitled painting), Cindy Sherman (an untitled photograph), Romuald Hazoume (a red plastic can with steel hair resembling a tribal mask), and Romare Bearden (a 1970 collage called “She-ba”).

A short walk away takes us slightly back in time to works produced in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — overwhelmingly abstract paintings and a few abstract sculptures.

“In Orbit” by  Anni Albers.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“In Orbit” by Anni Albers.

These galleries, too, are magnificent, inducing a prolonged aesthetic hum, akin to Gregorian chants. After kicking off with a gallery containing a small masterpiece in poured metallic paints by Jackson Pollock, a Barnett Newman, and an early Rothko, the next, almost perfect room includes Anni Albers’s woolen tapestry, “In Orbit,” alongside her husband Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square (Yellow Echo).”

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Wall Sampler 1” by Kara Walker.

This in turn hangs opposite John McLaughlin’s larger, but strongly related “#17,” with Ellsworth Kelly’s “Red Orange (Maya)” mediating between them, and a gorgeous Alexander Calder mobile suspended above. At the other end of the room are Op Art works by Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely.

It’s all stunningly deft. You think it can’t be improved on, and you’re probably right — but who cares, because in the next gallery is a knockout 1969 Willem de Kooning, “Montauk I.” It twitches and trembles against the wall with its wobbly lines and ravishing splashes of pinks, reds, and yolky yellows. Near it are terrific works by Lee Krasner (a collage from the year before her husband, Jackson Pollock, died), Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, and Adolph Gottlieb.

It’s all just enough and not too much. And if you don’t love the art of recent times before you see it, I wager that you will when you have.

“Agbota” by Romuald Hazoumè.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Agbota” by Romuald Hazoumè.
“Shuttle II” by Bridget Riley.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
“Shuttle II” by Bridget Riley.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.