Our Visit to Glenstone

The Arrival

Our visit to Glenstone had an unreal quality to it. Following a drive down meandering country roads that wound about a woodland terrain populated by giant homes with even larger yards and intermittent packs of neon-spandexed cyclists, we arrived at the outer gate of the museum–or should I say compound? I had never been to an art museum where you had to wait outside of a perimeter gate before. Nor had I been to one so remote. An art museum way out here seemed out of place. We stopped outside the gate as two security guards approached our vehicle and asked the driver for our information. They took it down as their radios crackled and slowly walked back to the gatehouse. It was early morning, the sky overcast. 

Glenstone Museum security gatehouse, Potomac, Maryland.

Glenstone Museum security gatehouse, Potomac, Maryland.

We had been assigned Andrea Fraser’s “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” to read before our visit to Glenstone; more than a few of us were quickly wrapping up the final paragraphs of the essay, quietly speed-reading off our smartphone screens while we waited. After several minutes, the guards returned: we were admitted entry. The gate slid open and we made our way onto the art museum grounds. Immediately to our right as we entered stood one of Jeff Koons' giant floral puppies; staring off into the distance, its profile suggested to me a stoic Snoopy on steroids. Further down, a huge plastic tractor like an enlarged toy appeared. Then a spidery Tony Smith sculpture crept out from around the bend. One of Richard Serra's large walls of curved steel cut through the landscape to our left. It was a modern art safari.

The curved road leading to the museum-compound was more deliberate than the zigzagging roads of Potomac just outside the gate, which now slowly closed behind us. The combination of the road types–the crooked country roads and the gentle curve of the museum road–contributed to an ever increasing sense of disorientation, further accentuated by the bizarre structures assembled across the lawn. The curvature of the museum road was golden ratio-like, slowly winding us down an elegant spiral, ending in a tiled lot where Serra’s Sylvester stands, its cavernous opening intimating a continuation of the spiral. The overall effect of this approach to the museum is to make you feel as though you have arrived somewhere completely different, like something out of a dream. 

 

The Museum-Compound

A small phalanx of Glenstone security guards dressed in quasi-futurist black uniforms and dark sunglasses met us in the driveway as we got out of the van and stretched. Some of us wandered around a bit, peering into Serra’s massive weatherproof steel sculpture. There was something sort of sci-fi about the place; it had a “utopian” feel to it, like this was the last bastion of some advanced culture and every attempt to preserve it was tantamount to its survival. It felt like the television series Lost. The museum itself looked exactly as it did in the architectural renderings of itself: an elegant modernist bunker at the center of a well-groomed estate. I was surprised to find there wasn’t a transparent dome over the place. If ever there were a museum that perfectly embodied Foucault’s concept of a heterotopia, this was it.

We were told that food and drink were not allowed inside the museum, so we left our lunches on the bus. No photography was allowed inside either, but we could take photos of the outside sculptures on a walking tour of the grounds after viewing the museum. Glenstone’s interior galleries are devoted to one artist at a time. During our visit, work by Fred Sandback filled these interior spaces. Filled is an interesting word here. Sandback’s work consists of variations on basic forms and shapes entirely composed of colored thread. Through an extreme economy of means, Sandback succeeds in suggesting mass and weight where there is none. He fills his spaces–both physical and theoretical–with forms and ideas, or perhaps forms as ideas. Either way, he fills his spaces with both.

A view of the entrance to Glenstone with Richard Serra's  Sylvester  (2001) on the far left.

A view of the entrance to Glenstone with Richard Serra's Sylvester (2001) on the far left.

The galleries too wound around, in a counter-clockwise route, leading you through the building in yet another spiral. We were allowed to wander around on our own for the most part, but the galleries were clearly meant to be experienced in a specific order and wherever we went there were at least two guards nearby. We weren’t exactly rushed, but there was a clear procedure being followed here in terms of our museum experience. After completing the circuit of galleries, several of us were hanging around the lobby area, flipping through exhibition catalogues. In trying to find my way to the restrooms, I came across a large futuristic conference room with blueprints and strange photographs up on the wall; some of them appeared to be aerial images of alien landscapes. I hardly set foot into the room when one of the security guards came by and quickly closed the door, ushering me toward the restrooms. “This way, please.”

 

The Grounds

Some of us made our way outside to mill about at the front of the museum-compound. (Or was it the back? It was hard to tell.) We gathered around a Félix González-Torres sculpture. Untitled (1992-1995), consists of two large concave marble discs, each roughly twelve feet in diameter, standing about a foot-and-a-half off the ground. They touch at one end. Circular pools of water collect in each disc like giant birdbaths. When full, the water from each pool connects where the discs meet as if kissing: minimalist and poignant. The grounds of Glenstone were reflected in the circular pools of water, as was another building across the way. Equally futuristic and remote, this other building was not on the tour, nor was it ever mentioned during our visit to Glenstone. Perhaps this is where the board of trustees meets. Or perhaps it’s where they have their cult ceremonies. Who knows?

The guards then divided us into two groups and led us in different directions across the Glenstone estate. My group went back up the way we drove in. We passed the Tony Smith sculpture again, this time from the opposite direction. It’s called Smug (1973 / 2005), and it totally resembles a geometric spider, specifically a tarantula, but a kind of low-grade 8-bit version of one. There it sits in its circle of sand, a curious thing, able to draw your attention, but cannot be touched. Which is too bad, because Smug would make a great jungle gym. We then made our way past the plastic tractor and up to Koons’ Split-Rocker (2000). The over-sized pup stares off into the distance, towards a collection of homes upon a hill, all of which looked fake. The view reminded me of the opening sequence of Beetlejuice, when the camera slowly pans over a scale model of a town. The virtual world of Glenstone made even the outside world look unreal. 

Our guard then led us towards the Serra wall slicing through the earth, where we passed the other group going the other way. We walked through a swampy area with tons of flies and eventually came upon a series of small house-like structures partially embedded into the hillside. We were allowed to enter each house in small groups. The houses were part of Andy Goldsworthy’s site-specific commission for Glenstone, Clay Houses (Boulder-Room-Holes) (2007–08), one of the artist’s most ambitious works. Each house has a different secret inside. Clay Houses: Holes, for example, leads you into an enclosed dark space where the back wall of the room appears as a series of concentric circles, receding back into the hill. It was as if this unassuming cabin in the woods housed a secret portal to another dimension. Was this a way out or in? 

Andy Goldsworthy  Clay Houses: Hole , from the series  Clay Houses (Boulder-Room-Holes) , 2007–08

Andy Goldsworthy
Clay Houses: Hole, from the series Clay Houses (Boulder-Room-Holes), 2007–08

***

While none of the work at Glenstone–including Fred Sandback’s–made me cry, the overall experience of the museum did leave a profound impression on me, though probably not the intended one. Glenstone is basically a gated community for modern art. This did not sit well with me. Art should be accessible to all. Otherwise, it becomes simply a plaything for the super wealthy. As we drove back to the highway, slowing down now and then to pass schools of cyclists, I began to think about what such a museum means. Questions circled round my head. Why is Glenstone so remote? Who is the target audience? Why the tight security? And why the unreal quality of the place? Was this all part of the experience? And if so, for whom? For what purpose? I’m not sure I could answer any of these questions, then or now... But I still think about our visit to Glenstone.