“a.k.a” by Roni Horn (2008)
“a.k.a” by Roni Horn (2008)

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“Ant Farm,” Roni Horn’s 1974 thesis for the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, is one of the craftiest drawings in contemporary art. The title gives it away: It’s an ant farm, 70 inches wide and nearly four feet tall—an organic, evolving drawing conducted in soil by tiny machines. The piece is mesmerizing.

So is “Pink Tons” (2008–2011), a four-foot cube of solid cast glass. The frosted sides of the cube get their rough-shorn appearance from the casting process; the top, though, is smooth and transparent, a liquid surface. Peering in over the sides is dizzying, the way the mass refracts light.

“Pink Tons” and “Ant Farm” work like stop signs in Roni Horn, a taut survey of the artist’s wry work on view at Glenstone. They demand that viewers stop and pay attention. Glenstone works that way, too: The region’s most exclusive museum features massive steel curtains by Richard Serra and a colossal flowering bust by Jeff Koons. But Horn’s survey, which the artist assembled herself, offers deep quiet amid all the greatest hits.

The standouts in the show are a series of drawings from the last few years titled “Or” and “Else.” Horn begins these pieces as two separate drawings, which she refers to as “plates.” The artist takes these plates and cuts them into ribbons, which she then reassembles as one. The resulting drawings look like shredded paper carefully but incorrectly reconstructed. Over these fractured forms, she scribbles words, free-associating as she builds the piece.

Wordplay is important to Horn; her work is a reader’s delight. The Glenstone show includes several of the artist’s “White Dickinson” sculptures, aluminum and cast plastic poles onto which she’s inscribed snippets of text in bold lettering, for example, “White Dickinson I THINK OF YOUR FOREST AND SEA AS A FAR OFF SHERBET” (2006). For “Still Water (The River Thames, for Example)” (1999), Horn took photos of the Thames and annotated them. Numbered points along the river indicate footnotes, which point to erratic anecdotes or poetic fragments.

Horn’s textuality is most intimate in her “Or” and “Else” drawings. The process of drawing these forms (which start as simple geometric bands of color), disassembling and stitching them back together, takes time, and her marginalia on these drawings change as she works from one end of the picture plane to the other. Most of them take the form of wordplay, words that rhyme or sound alike, repeating words like “dream” and “roam” and “scum” in pairs: “dream—dream,” “roam—roam,” “scum—scum.” Sometimes they are artists’ names: “Holiday,” “Ella,” “Etta James.” And a lot more is nonsense, mere figures and letters.

A friend observed that these cryptic drawings were self-portraits, maps of whatever the artist was doing as she made painstaking work. Horn’s show includes photographic self-portraits, too: “a.k.a.” (2008–2009), pictures of the artist from different stages of her life, almost like found art. But as self-portraits, the drawings work even better. Horn made difficult work for herself not to finish a form, but to draw out time, to put down feelings and ideas without thinking—to sketch. These drawings slow down the clock.

Roni Horn might have benefited from a curator. There are some nonsequiturs, like a series of blurry portraits of clowns, and there may be too much work all told, especially in one gallery filled with the artist’s paintings of words. Binaries are critical to the artist’s work, and there’s a tighter show to suss out in her use of paired texts and photographs.

Glenstone is a museum built for big, over-the-top experiences. It looks like it was custom built specifically for Roni Horn, a jewelbox designed to showcase works like “Gold Field” (1982/2003), a sheet of crinkled annealed pure gold installed on the floor. The wow factor is easy to come by at Glenstone and in Horn’s works. Finding time is harder. Horn’s drawings give viewers a precious opportunity: to slow things down, to think things over, to dwell. That’s an experience that is hard to forget.

At Glenstone to Jan. 2018. 12002 Glen Road, Potomac. Free. (301) 983-5001. glenstone.org.