Sprawled on a rocky ledge, two muscular black guys stare right into the eyes of visitors strolling through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' baroque painting gallery.

Dressed in T-shirts and mod pants, they're contemporary urbanites, one with an earring, the other with dreadlocks. Figures in a painting 14 feet long and more than 7 feet tall, the men are so huge that if they were alive at that scale they'd stand nearly two stories tall. As it is, they dwarf everything around them, including suits of armor that seem by comparison designed for pygmies instead of medieval warriors. The black guys also set off a curious imaginary dialogue with the gallery's 17th-century depictions of white gods and goddesses, saints and sinners, and even Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

"They're the first thing that popped out in this gallery," said a recent visitor to the museum, Nancy Giles, a senior at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis. The painting's bold colors and dramatic realism fit the gallery, she said, "but it's so modern -- what they're wearing -- that it definitely made me want to look in."

Welcome to "Art ReMix," the museum's new way of shaking things up.

In recent months, the museum has been inserting contemporary art among its classics. Today, it takes a bigger step forward, opening a show of contemporary art spanning the past 50 years. "Until Now: Collecting the New" features more than 85 paintings, photos, sculptures, videos and installations by such widely known Americans as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Ed Ruscha, plus an impressive roster of international talents.

All this may seem a radical departure for a museum sometimes perceived as stodgy and traditional, but it's all part of a strategic plan, said museum director Kaywin Feldman. In 2006 the museum opened a $50 million addition designed primarily for 20th-century and contemporary art. Two years ago it hired its first curator of contemporary art, and now it's laying the groundwork for what that collection might become. Much of the art in "Until Now" is on loan from collectors, whom the museum hopes will donate the work, or from galleries where it could be purchased.

"With the exception of prints and photos, our collection largely peters out around 1960," Feldman said. "We need to stay current. We're a global museum, and not to show the art of today would leave the earlier works without continuity. Europe, Africa, China and the United States today are very different places than they were in the 16th or 17th or 18th centuries, and we need to reflect that."

The institute is not the only traditional art museum embracing contemporary art. The Louvre in Paris has recently begun commissioning installations from contemporary artists, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has a lively artist-in-residence program and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has long invited artists to design exhibitions from its collection.

None has mixed contemporary pieces into the galleries as the institute is doing, however.

'ReMix' Reactions

Like hip-hop DJs who swirl together tunes from different musicians and eras, "Art ReMix" makes connections across time and cultures.

In the African gallery, a 2009 sculpture made of high-heeled shoes depicts a mother-and-child who look very much like the traditional African carvings of women beside it.

Atmospheric images of Italian olive groves by internationally known Minnesota photographer JoAnn Verburg hang like an Oriental folding screen behind an 18th-century dragon jar in a Korean gallery.

Among the Renaissance portraits hangs a 1989 photo of American artist Cindy Sherman in a similar dress and pose, but looking haggard and worn rather than wealthy and pampered.

A ruffled dress made of gaudy "African" cotton is displayed in a gilded Parisian salon dating to 1735 that could have been furbished with slave-trade wealth.

By remixing the collection, the museum hopes to jolt people into really seeing and thinking about art that they might otherwise ignore as so much visual wallpaper. It also "makes manifest our collection philosophy, which is connecting contemporary and historical, bridging past and present," said Elizabeth Armstrong, the museum's curator of contemporary art.

Modernism moves in

In borrowing art for "Until Now," Armstrong drew on her previous experience as contemporary curator at museums in San Diego and Newport Beach, Calif., and at Walker Art Center, where she worked from 1982 to 1996. She divided the work loosely into five themes, and then sought representative pieces from those decades.

The "Poptical" section includes pop icons from the 1960s to the present, including edgy celebrations of consumer culture by Japanese sculptor Takashi Murakami and British artist Damien Hirst. "Recuperation" features recycled and collaged pieces by Jim Dine, John Chamberlain and a young New York street artist, Swoon.

The "New Poetics" section embraces abstractions and collages by Ross Bleckner, Richard Pousette-Dart, David Reed and a major sculpture by Mona Hatoum. "Reviving Realism" ranges from a vintage Michelangelo Pistoletto mirror piece to a mesmerizing 2006 Jennifer Steinkamp video of digitally synthesized "chrysanthemums."

And "Passages" launches the museum onto the international scene while simultaneously tapping deep roots in Minnesota. It includes Hmong migration images, an etching from the South African diaspora by William Kentridge, a gender-bending photo by Yasumasa Morimura, and the first video installation purchased by the museum, Doug Aitken's "Migration (empire)," mourning the end of the American wilderness.

The incursion of contemporary art into traditional galleries has been controversial to some, but welcomed by most visitors, according to comment books placed in the galleries. In either case, director Feldman welcomes the responses.

"I think museums really should be experimental think tanks," she said. "Anything that gets people to stop and really look at a piece of art is, to my mind, a success. Love it or hate it, but really care."

mabbe@startribune.com • 612-673-4431