Connecticut Art Museums
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
For a sustained experience of cutting-edge art, head out to the luxe little village of Ridgefield on the New York border, where the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum is always a step or two ahead of popular taste. That’s a good thing. The Aldrich is a noncollecting institute of contemporary art, specializing in new works and emerging artists. Some 36,000 intrepid visitors a year venture out to see what the art world has been up to lately.
Founder Larry Aldrich (1906-2001) was a New York fashion designer and art collector with a summer home in Ridgefield, a lovely town where every day seems to be Sunday. Back in 1964, Aldrich purchased an 18th-century white clapboard building known as the “Old Hundred” and installed his own collection of contemporary works there. Since 2004, the Old Hundred has served as the museum’s administration building — 25,000 square feet of new exhibition space having been added through construction of a new museum building housing 12 galleries.
The Aldrich’s mission is to be provocative. As such, exhibitions are as apt to feature activities, installations, and environments as art objects. Earlier this year, for example, the Aldrich was emitting all sorts of strange noises from an exhibition of sound art titled “Voice & Void.” Among this summer’s offerings are a site-specific installation by Ester Partegas, The Invisible, which takes the form of an illuminated awning on the facade of the Old Hundred — a reference to its mercantile past — and Serge Spitzer’s Still Life, an installation of tens of thousands of camouflage-patterned tennis balls in the museum’s two-acre garden. Visitors with more conventional tastes will find photos by Elizabeth Peyton, a painter best known for her small portraits.
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
If the art at the Aldrich confuses or confounds, visit the Wadsworth Atheneum in downtown Hartford, the oldest public art museum in America. This year’s featured exhibition is “Pop to the Present” (January 19-November 9), a survey of contemporary art from the 1960s on, as evinced in some 40 works drawn from the Wadsworth’s own collection. Subtitled “New Questions, New Responses,” the survey, featuring works by the likes of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol (Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986), may provide clues as to how modern art evolved from a form of imitation to a form of inquiry — all true art essentially being a search for meaning.
If “Pop to the Present” isn’t your cup of tea, the Wadsworth offers a collection of more than 50,000 objects — including a wonderful little porcelain gallery filled with fetching figurines and odd curios. This turreted neo-Gothic castle on Main Street is a true treasure house that last year brought 118,000 visitors into the still heart of Hartford.
The museum’s pièce de résistance is the wildly colorful Whirls and Twirls, a geometric acrylic by Hartford native Sol LeWitt (1928-2007), enlivening the interior’s grand marble staircase. Although some visitors may find the artist’s bold, bright embellishment of these hallowed halls startling, even subversive, it is, in fact, a perfect marriage of abstract formalism with the architectural formality of Hartford’s public art palace.
This being genteel Connecticut, however, it’s always possible to retreat into the reassuring past. American Impressionism is loved because it’s so purely sensual and sincere. To return sentimentally to Old Lyme, simply seek out Willard Metcalf’s 1915 The Breath of Autumn, a lovely landscape confection painted in Waterford, not all that far from Miss Florence’s boardinghouse.
For a trip that combines an inn or hotel with a museum visit, see these 5 Art Trail travel packages.