With a gala air, the Gardner Museum prepares its sparkling Renzo Piano wing for “In the Company of Artists: 25 Years of Artists-in- Residence.” Laura Owens’s giant gold-and-magenta banner winks with a smiley face on the museum’s façade: “ShowTime.” In the Hostetter Gallery, photographers complete their shots of newly installed works by the seven returning resident artists. Lee Mingwei, creator of the museum’s Living Room, hovers near its door in a floor-length robe of charcoal silk, protecting the artists being interviewed within. In the distance, Lee’s “Sonic Blossom” singers are practicing Schubert’s Lieder with which to surprise gallery guests. In the garden, the mobile artist Charmaine Wheatley chats with a guard while sketching his portrait.
Pieranna Cavalchini, the Gardner’s curator of contemporary art and director of the residency program, glides along the stairways and calms nerves, much like the charismatic cleric and his supplicants depicted in “L’Éminence Grise,” Jean-Léon Gérôme’s famed painting of the Vatican that hangs in a nearby museum. One imagines, floating above the bustle, the spirit of Isabella herself, preening and pleased.
Since 1992, 100 contemporary artists have been let loose for a month in Mrs. Gardner’s palace to indulge their thoughts and senses in the company of some of Europe’s greatest artists. The museum later shows the works these sojourns have inspired.
A previous exhibition off the Fountain Court was closing as this one opens. Joan Jonas, after being feted at the 2015 Venice Biennale, arrived to hunt down fabulous beasts throughout the palace’s gardens, stone archways and collection of Flemish lace. She lightened the weight of the past with airy contour drawings of animals and birds scratched in colored ink on handmade paper. In a charming, personal touch, she added her own 2004 video of her trained dog jumping through a hoop.
Back in 1990, more than a light touch was demanded after armed robbers stole 13 of the Gardner’s finest works. In an inspired moment of healing, former Director Anne Hawley initiated the Artist-in- Residence Program, turning the museum’s face toward the present without abandoning its gilded past. In the following two decades under Cavalchini’s generous stewardship, the museum’s commitment to living artists has only deepened.
For the current exhibition, Cavalchini invited seven of her graduates, all women, to exhibit later works. Works from their residencies are documented alongside in artists’ books produced in collaboration with Cavalchini and her colleagues.
The show opens with Sophie Calle’s “What Do You See? (Vermeer, The Concert).” Her return engagement echoes “Last Seen,” a nervy intervention that had mourned the Dutch Room heist. In the earlier work, Calle had rehung the discarded ornate frames, accompanied by poignant recollections by guards and visitors of the missing works. Her 2013 photographs show later viewers from the back contemplating the figured wallpaper and black velvet behind still-empty frames. The texts presenting their comments reveal an audience that has aged and changed, often lacking any inkling of these walls’ tormented past.
During her month-long residency, Rachel Perry spent an hour each day scrutinizing a different work of art. On a later visit, she again found herself transfixed, this time by the nearly transparent halos of Sandro Botticelli’s “Virgin and Child.” She counted and catalogued each of the museum’s 455 halos and then began embossing each shape in Braille on gray sheets of paper. Transformed, the abstract works are delicate flows of tiny dots, tipped in gold leaf and individually numbered. She has 250 works, each with 455 dots, still to go.
Luisa Lambri’s photographs of domestic interiors become more abstract over the years. She shows here three nearly monochromatic close-ups of Donald Judd’s brushed aluminum boxes from the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Judd’s cloudy interiors resist identification. Are these flat surfaces or concave depths, monumental architecture or touchable shelving? The works of brilliantly diffused Texas sunlight counterbalance an incongruous darker image. In a moment of obscure intimacy, Lambri shows us a corner of Mrs. Gardner’s private bedroom where now-tarnished silvered walls converge. Lambri’s lens may not help in guiding us through space, but it reaches another dimension in the recesses of body and soul.