This summer, two shows, "Infinite Spaces" and "SWARM." (the period is part of its title), are occupying most of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts' magnificent 1876 building.

Conceptually, the two, which keep crossing paths in the upper-floor galleries, could not be more different. "Infinite Spaces" is a deep dive into PAFA's permanent collection, mixing some familiar works with some that have not been out of storage in years. Others are recent acquisitions, the most prominent of which is Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada, a large 1875 canvas by Frederic Church.

"SWARM." by contrast, is aggressively of the moment. It presents the work of two artists: Didier William, a Haitian-born artist who teaches at PAFA, and Nestor Armando Gil, who grew up in Florida, the child of Cuban immigrants. Its title plays on the racist metaphor of immigrants as a kind of infestation — teeming masses of unwelcome creatures. According to its introductory panel, the show "beckons viewers, through the punctuation of a period, to physically and intellectually 'swarm' historical and contemporary manifestations of colonialism in order to disarm systems of political, economic and cultural control."

The two shows seem to represent contrasting visions of what people should expect from museums. Do we want them to be repositories of what generations of artists, collectors, and curators have valued over multiple generations? Or are we looking for a flash of novelty, an unexpected perspective on what's happening now?

The obvious answer is that we are looking for both, and that's why museums try to strike a balance, as with these two conjoined shows. Maybe, though, the answer is neither. What we're looking for is art — an unexpected moment of perception or pleasure that can be sparked by a work from any age.

Didier William’s “Bois Caiman,” at PAFA
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Didier William’s “Bois Caiman,” at PAFA

Curatorial bullying … and beyond

As an idea, "SWARM." bothers me. The unnecessary period in its title does not beckon me to storm the barricades. Indeed, the way in which the exhibition uses the word to mean many things it doesn't — such as question, challenge, or reject — seems to devalue language as a way of understanding things. Its text panels are an exercise in curatorial bullying.

But once I stopped reading and started looking, the show became much better. Gil is preoccupied with the act of moving from one place to another. Several of his works depict or are made from inner tubes of tires, of the kind some Cuban refugees used to swim to Florida. His work is intentionally rough and ugly.

William's work is finely and painstakingly wrought. While Gil's identity seems tied up with being a stranger in this country, William's art explores his Haitian culture, though at a distance. He carves into a wooden panel intricate and mysterious patterns made up of little eyes, then finishes them with paint and adds collage materials. They allude to the rites of voodoo, to his family, and to history.

Their intricate surfaces draw the viewer deep into the pictures. You may not entirely understand the images or what they represent, but you want to keep looking at them. They are, dare I say it, very beautiful.

Stairway to the heavenly

In designing the Academy's great entrance hall and stairway, the architect Frank Furness created the city's greatest interior in order to make visitors feel exhilarated by the possibility of climbing two long flights of stairs. With its short, piston-like columns, the building seems a beautiful sparking engine, full of potential energy.

In "Infinite Spaces," the payoff for the journey up and through the building is a corridor and transept hung with big American landscapes. PAFA has been making an effort to collect works related to the Hudson River school of the mid-19th century. The Hudson River from Fort Montgomery (1870), a huge painting by David Johnson acquired two years ago, hangs opposite the Church. Related paintings include Samuel Colman's memorable 1870 painting of a wagon train fording a creek in the midst of a vast wilderness.

PAFA hasn't really been able to mount such a knockout display of American landscapes before. All of them are from around the same time, and also contemporary with the Academy building. It seems a moment of consummation.

PAFA was able to buy the Church painting after it failed to sell at auction earlier this year. It was long part of the collection of the Berkshire Museum, in Pittsfield, Mass., whose board decided to change the institution's focus and get rid of most of its art, setting off a long-running controversy.

>> READ MORE: PAFA acquires major Hudson River School painting, invites all of Berkshire, Mass., to visit it free forever

It is based on drawings Church had made during a trip to the Andes three decades before. In the 1840s, it was much easier for an East Coast artist to sail to South America rather than make the overland journey to the Rockies. The sense of hot, hazy weather and the palm trees show we're not on the Hudson — which might have depressed the painting's value — but the canvas is a worthy example of Church's crowd-pleasing romanticism.

"Infinite Spaces" contains more than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures, in every genre, from the 18th century to the present. One of its best sections is the most intimate — a section on domesticity tucked into the low-ceilinged mezzanine gallery usually devoted to works on paper. They range from Peter Frederick Rothermel's The Virtuoso (1852), which shows an art collector amid serious clutter, to Judy Gelles's Bathroom May 23, 1978, a photograph of the artist on the toilet trying to attend to her toddlers.

Detail from Elizabeth Okie Paxton’s “Sick a-Bed,” a recent PAFA acquisition.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Detail from Elizabeth Okie Paxton’s “Sick a-Bed,” a recent PAFA acquisition.

Sick a-Bed (1916) by Elizabeth Okie Paxton takes a more sentimental view of motherhood, a quality that might once have kept it in storage, despite its Vermeer-inspired use of light. Actually, it is a recent acquisition, a reflection of PAFA's goal of acquiring more works by women.

It is an accomplished painting, but with a cloying quality unlikely to be embraced by those who swarm museums searching for what's next.

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ART EXHIBIT

'Infinite Spaces: Rediscovering PAFA's Permanent Collection' and 'SWARM.'

  • Through Sept. 9 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission: Adults, $15; seniors and students with IDs, $12; children ages 13-18, $8 (under 13 free). Information: 215-972-7600 or pafa.org.