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A Celebration Of Reflections At The Pulitzer

Left: Blue Black, 2000, Ellsworth Kelly, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Right: Standing Buddha Śākyamuni (Shijiamouni), late 6th century, China, Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 182:1919. photograph by Sam Fentress (click for larger version)
November 16, 2011
This has been one of the most challenging reviews I've written, and I've been puzzling over why that should be. I've decided it's because of my totally immersive experience in visiting the current exhibition at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts.

Everything about "Reflections of the Buddha" seems perfect, and it leaves me wondering what there is left to say. I left the show, after returning for a fourth time, in a state of exhilaration. There was nothing in my experience there that was not just right.

For starters, one after another, the 22 works of Buddhist art from many countries — India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan, dating from the second century CE to the 18th century — all seem the finest, in the world of Asian art.

Even more importantly, and more basic than the extraordinarily fine quality of these works, is the conception of the exhibition itself. It is the genius of curator Francesca Herndon-Consagra, who has assembled these extraordinary works (along with the Pulitzer and Harvard University scholars) and displayed them, such that one cannot imagine a more perfect Zen-like setting.

The Tadao Ando architecture of the Pulitzer is among a handful of the most beautiful buildings in America — arguably, in the world. To my mind, this exhibition and this building complement each other flawlessly. The conversation between the artwork and the architecture is in perfect balance, speaking eloquently a language of space and light.

That brings me to why I have paid four visits to this exhibition, on four different days. It is the Pulitzer's policy to leave artificial lights turned off, except on impossibly dark days. Under different skies, one experiences the galleries, and the works themselves, in wonderfully dissimilar ways, as the light wraps itself around the space of the art.

A commanding presence in the long narrow Main Gallery is a statue of the standing Buddha. His head is framed by the incredibly rich cerulean blue of the Ellsworth Kelly, and reflections of light caress his face. Ripples of reflected sunlight from the shallow exterior pool on the other side of the glass — from what Ando calls his Water Garden — play across the statue.

This beautiful work of white marble is from China and is on loan from the Saint Louis Art Museum. The Buddha wears a simple robe and is looking downward, in a deeply meditative state, with half-opened eyes. The movement of natural light on his face and torso emphasize a material world in constant change, contrasted with his inner calm.

One of the great Buddhist metaphors is that of the lotus, the seed that grows up from the mud of the phenomenal world, to become a blossom in the sunshine, an image of enlightenment or awakening. An emerging lotus bud at the feet of the statue and a blossom on the honorific tassel of his monk's robe reinforce this pivotal Buddhist theme.

Mounted above eye level on the west wall of the same Main Gallery is a large head of the Buddha, carved in the 4th century. His remarkably peaceful gaze is irresistible, as it falls ever so gently on the viewer. The face is so serenely beautiful, it simply took my breath away.

In the Lower Gallery, gilded sculptures and gold-painted images with Buddhist related themes are on display. Don't miss walking about 75 paces down the nearby hallway, where Herndon-Consagra adds a brilliant final touch to the exhibition — an Oscar Munoz video captures a cupped hand holding water, upon which a composited face morphs into changing forms and then fades, as the water evaporates from the palm of the hand. The video provides a powerful allusion to the individual journey of each person in the life process of change.

The serene openness of Ando's architecture gives the viewer a profound experience of light and space, in and around the artworks and the building itself. A leisurely and meditative visit to this exhibit provides a rare encounter with tranquility and quiet beauty. This opening event in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is one of the most extraordinary museum happenings anywhere.

"Reflections of the Buddha" is on display through March 10 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Blvd., www.pulitzerarts.org.

Dickson Beall videos, including "Reflections of the Buddha," can be seen at www.StLouisan.com and www.westendword.com.

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Barbara Balossi - KW

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