Stunning Stone Hill Center is home for Clark artwork

This past June, the Clark Art Institute opened its new Stone Hill Center, the first of two new additions to be fully completed in 2013. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the center provides two intimate galleries, a home for the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and an open terrace and café. Currently on display is ”Homer and Sargent” from the Clark, a selection of paintings drawn from the museum’s permanent collection to complement the exhibition “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly,” on display in the main building.

Architect Tadao Ando has made a name for himself as a clever manipulator of concrete and light into simple and elegant forms. The Center falls nicely into that tradition while also taking excellent advantage of its setting. It’s a thoughtful building with a spare beauty that seems distinctly at ease with the landscape rather than at odds with it.

Nestled in the woods above and behind the main building, both the location and limited gallery space induce a more contemplative experience than in the larger galleries. Standing in the intimate galleries, the building’s clean modernism provides a lovely counterpoint to the lushness of the landscape as seen through the expansive panes of glass. It’s spare, serene and splendid, effectively marrying a Japanese cleanliness to a more American sense of breadth and landscape.

Its location relative to the earlier 1955 building offers a welcome opportunity to explore some of the woods behind the Clark. A small network of paths is mapped out on signposts at either end, making it easy to spend as much time outside as in. The paths and small galleries create a more equivalent relationship between the art and the setting. The cleanly fragmented forms of the building are also conducive to exploration, each angle providing a different view of both the building itself and the nature that surrounds it.

The overall plan of the building remains elusive, making for an experience best enjoyed moment-to-moment and on a smaller scale. Ando’s elegant containment contrasts nicely with the larger, interconnected galleries of the 1955 building. And his softly understated concrete and glass planes provide a soothing counterpoint to the more playful brand of modernism of Paresky and the ’62 Center.

The current exhibition echoes this contrast, the works by Homer and Sargent evidencing a technique that lies far from the breathy delicacy of Whistler and his contemporaries on display in the Clark’s main building. Whistler’s quiet paintings of the Thames by night seem more in line with the ethos and aesthetic of the Stone Hill Center, further drawing the two disparate buildings together.

The planned addition for 2013 is even more ambitious, incorporating a glass pavilion for exhibitions and other events and a large reflecting pool. Homer and Sargent from the Clark will remain up until Oct. 26, while “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly” will come down on Oct. 19.

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