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The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts focuses on all things contemporary this spring.

A Major Modern Moment


Come April 4, the first thing visitors to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts may be reminded of as they enter the building is their laundry. In conjunction with the grand reopening of the Sydney and Lewis Galleries of Modern and Contemporary Art, Claes Oldenburg's "Clothespin Ten Foot" (1974) will be on view smack dab in the middle of the museum's lobby. Previously tucked away in the gallery upstairs, the clothespin will serve as a beacon and guide to rediscovering the museum's collection of modern art.

"We want this to be a major moment for contemporary art at the museum," says John Ravenal, the museum's curator of art after 1900.

This major moment will be composed of three exhibitions that will all open April 4. First, the Lewis Galleries, closed for the last year during "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" show, will be reopened and transformed — the first time since 1993. Ravenal describes the new galleries as reconfigured in several ways. Cosmetically, the large marble hall section has been redesigned with new walls, refinished floors and fresh paint. The additional wall space will provide more room to exhibit not only favorites from the permanent collection, but also important works that have been in storage for the last 20 years. The galleries will further welcome between eight and 10 new acquisitions, including a large, multipart wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, painted directly onto the walls at the entry to the Lewis Galleries.

Perhaps most significant is the layout of the collection. The revamping of the galleries has afforded Ravenal the chance to assert his personal philosophy in regard to the works and their greater context in the history of art.

"Art history is not a linear development," he explains. "I wanted to show how different styles and movements overlapped and interplayed with one another. There was a type of cross-fertilization between artists that this new layout will make clearer, opening up a real dialogue between individual works." The galleries will feature art by Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Anselm Keifer, Duane Hanson, Chuck Close and Andy Warhol, to name a few.

Opening at the same time as the new Lewis Galleries are two other exhibitions that continue the theme of transformation. "Vanitas: Meditations on Life and Death in Contemporary Art" will feature such cutting-edge artists as Mona Hatoum, Robert Gober, Jim Hodges, Rachel Whiteread and Felix Gonzales-Torres — none of whom have been seen in this area, Ravenal says. "Vanitas," a Latin term describing the transitory nature of life, has a long history in traditional art. This exhibition will offer fresh explorations of the theme of beauty and loss as translated through contemporary artists and their often-unconventional media (rotting oranges, human skulls, plastic entrails and a real live ant farm, for starters).

For photography buffs, a third exhibition of 19th- and 20th-century photographs from the museum's permanent collection will be on display as well. The works will span 140 years and feature transformations in the landscape by such artists as Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Lee Friedlander and Sally Mann.

Reinstallations, reconfigurations, new variations on old themes, new art — what better way to usher in a new

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