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'In the Still Epiphany' welcomes viewers as guests

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2012 - One of the finest places in the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is the little windowed alcove off the main gallery that leads to the elevator. If the Pulitzer were a house, this little pocket would be a child’s favorite hiding place: Tucked away from the main flow of traffic, it’s a perfect perch from which to peak around the corner or spy through the window, unseen, at visitors coming and going outside.

Artist Gedi Sibony, the curator of "In the Still Epiphany," seems to have sensed this, and he’s selected two precious artworks to inhabit this spot: Odilon Redon’s "The Wind" (c. 1890), a small, ghostly charcoal picture of a child’s face, issuing from the dark; and a tiny Peruvian plaque in the form of a funerary mask (c. 1100-1400), its inlaid turquoise eyes staring unblinkingly toward the child. It’s as if the two playmates have settled into their hidden station, ready to spring on unsuspecting passersby.

"In the Still Epiphany" is filled with such striking moments of accord between object and place. For this exhibition, which celebrates the Pulitzer’s 10th anniversary, Sibony culled from works collected by Emily and Joseph Pulitzer Jr., and arranged them throughout the building as if to take up residence there. And in doing so he’s cast the Pulitzer building in a more residential role than it’s ever played — the building feels like it’s literally housing the exhibition.

The entrance gallery is populated with portraits, like a foyer where visitors are greeted and begin to settle in. Right away, personalities emerge. Edouard Vuillard’s "Woman in a Green Hat" (Madame Hessel) (c. 1905) is elegant, if aloof, while Paul-César Helleu’s "Kate Davis Pulitzer" (c. 1905) and Max Beckmann’s "Louise Pulitzer" (1949) share a sense of knowing self-possession.

Joseph Pulitzer Sr. himself appears not once, but often — first, in an elegant 1905 portrait by John Singer Sargent, then in a 1907 Auguste Rodin bronze bust; and indirectly in portraits of other people, like Cezanne’s "Jules Peyron" (c. 1885-87), Amedeo Modigliani’s "Leopold Zborowski" (1917), and a 1892 self-portrait by Edouard Vuillard, all of whom share Pulitzer’s distinctively bearded, angular countenance.

A portrait bust of Mme. Line Aman-Jean (1925) by Charles Despiau directs visitors to the main gallery, where one encounters Picasso’s "The Fireplace" (1916-17), its mantel piled too high with instruments and music; and Pierre Bonnard’s 1940 painting "Still Life with Ham," a luscious arrangement of edibles, likewise tilted precariously on the picture plane, ready to slide right into our space. Roy Lichtenstein’s opaque painting of a window, "Curtains" (1962), faces a kitchen cabinet of sorts, containing seed jars, vessels and an array of functional objects, including an ancient North American boatstone of carved quartz, and a cast iron piece of Fang currency. Crowning this structure is Alberto Giacometti’s exquisite "Téte qui regarde" (1930), an abstracted facial profile in smoothly polished white marble, adorned ingeniously by a hammered metal headdress ornament from Colombia (c. 1000-1500).

Nearby, two female figures in Henri Matisse’s airy, sun-drenched "The Conservatory" (1938) echo the profile and gestures of Constantin Brancusi’s graceful bronze "Mademoiselle Pogany III" (1933), while the dappled sunlight on water in Paul Klee’s "Anchored" (1932) mimics the view of the reflecting pool through the building’s low window. Sibony has taken advantage of the cube gallery’s darkened, cave-like quality to stage a theater, using Lucio Fontana’s inky "Black Landscape (Concetto Spaziale Nero)" (1966) as a backdrop for two ancient figurines held aloft by arcing supports.

In the lower main gallery, Philip Guston’s "Room 112" (1957) hangs beside a woven Inca mantle (c. 1400-1532). Their colors and compositions are unexpectedly complementary, and both subtly engage the spare aesthetics of Ellsworth Kelly’s "Blue Black" (2000) hanging high on the adjacent wall. Beyond these works, the lower gallery has the distinct feel of a private sitting room. Here, Picasso’s "Woman in a Red Hat" (1934) writes letters, her eye reflected in an ornate mirror and appearing to stare across the gallery at another watchful eye in Maybelle Stamper’s surreal "Visions in the Night" (1938-39). Lucia Moholy’s intimate 1926 photograph of Walter and Ilse Gropius’s dressing room draws out the inherently abstract quality of the space, its intersecting lines, planes, masses and voids harkening back to Picasso’s cubist composition.

Sibony delights in such interplay between and among objects and spaces. In his own works, such as the installations in his 2009 exhibition "My Arms Are Tied Behind My Other Arms" at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Sibony installs tectonic arrangements in direct response to the spaces of exhibition. His works show a particular sensitivity to our use of and movement through spaces and the reciprocal nature that develops between objects and sites.

This sensitivity informs, for example, Sibony’s lyrical arrangement in the Pulitzer’s lower level hallway, where three Frank W. Benson prints of birds in flight accompany the visitor’s motion through the narrow space, culminating in an encounter with Vuillard’s "Woman in Green" (1909), who greets one as if upon the return from a considerable journey.

"In the Still Epiphany" also reveals Sibony’s keen understanding of the essence of materials. In past works, he’s combined basic building materials such as wooden planks, plastic sheeting and carpet swatches, causing us to understand their materiality in entirely new ways.

The works Sibony has selected from the Pulitzer collection are likewise striking in terms of material, like the 20th-century power object from Mali shown in the lower gallery, made of crusty organic material over a wood-and-nail support, or the bristled ceramic medicine pot from Burkina Faso. The installation of individual works in the exhibition often foregrounds their materials and processes of creation. We see this, for example, in the hanging of an early 20th-century Dutch woven textile with its front to the wall, revealing the obverse, normally invisible structural logic of the piece; or in the exhibition of Medardo Rosso’s "The Golden Age" (1886), a wax over plaster cast of a mother cradling her child, in a freestanding glass case, so that both the interior and the exterior of the sculpture are on view, and its manner of making is revealed.

In myriad ways, "In the Still Epiphany" is itself a revelation. More than a mere selection of works hung in a beautiful space, Sibony’s exhibition releases spirits latent in the Pulitzer collection and allows them to haunt benignly Tadao Ando’s building. These are marvelous artworks in any context, but as they share the Pulitzer building’s cultural DNA, they seem especially at home here, gregarious and alive, anxious to receive our visit.

The exhibition runs through Oct. 27 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Blvd.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer is a Beacon contributor.