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Eva Rothschild at Hepworth Wakefield

Hepworth Wakefield; Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

On the banks of the Calder stands our newest museum, its foundations deep in the river. Its patinated surfaces shift from lead to purple to silver-grey according to the altering light. From a certain angle – and it has many – the building looks like an islanded keep, fortified against the enemy and ringed by water. There seems to be no back or front. Even the means of entry appears, initially, secret.

The Hepworth Wakefield (as opposed to the Hepworth St Ives) is not just Britain's newest art museum. That wouldn't be much of a claim given that we have had so many in recent years, from Gateshead's Baltic to the New Art Gallery Walsall to the Turner Contemporary in Margate, also designed by David Chipperfield Architects, which opened only last month.

Nor is it necessarily much of a boast that this is the largest purpose-built gallery since the Hayward, with 5,000 square metres of space, for it looks as if you could put the whole thing into the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, more or less. What really matters is this building's sense of purpose. The Hepworth could be the smallest of our museums and still count as one of Britain's greatest, for the simple reason that it is so well designed for the presentation of art.

Outside, the building is an agglomeration of irregular boxes. The roofs slope, the walls are high and compellingly stark. The windows are of different sizes and so intriguingly distributed they might make you think of a medieval castle. But of course the aesthetic is essentially modernist, all cubist stacking and flattening, with nuances of Picasso's houses at Horta and those geometric cities dreamed up by Paul Klee.

The colour of the exterior is irreconcilably controversial. Nobody has quite found a term for the peculiar mix of grey, brown and bluish-purple (the architects are calling it, simply, "Hepworth brown") with which the concrete is pigmented. But there are plenty of derogatory words in the air: dour, depressing, industrial, dirty. Some of the local people I met genuinely believed that the walls had not yet been painted.

But Hepworth brown changes all the time (and the concrete will presumably mellow). In any case it gives the museum far more gravitas than the glassy sheen of Chipperfield's Turner Contemporary, which suits its different status as a museum with a permanent collection. For the entire contents of the original Wakefield Art Gallery – including works by Giacometti, Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska, as well as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and the eponymous Barbara Hepworth – are here, along with a large group of Hepworth's plaster models, all amplified by additional loans from Tate and the British Council.

In Wakefield it is now possible to see Hepworth and her British peers in the context of European modernist sculpture as almost nowhere else outside Tate Modern – and in better viewing conditions. With its chasmic galleries and high-rise escalators, Tate Modern is all drama and onward thrust. Everything about its design, and very often its orchestration, runs against quiet and steady viewing. It is not always possible even to see the sculptures in the round, given the pressing throng of visitors.

The 10 galleries of the Hepworth are gracious, calm and scaled to human proportions. They rise up for a prototype of Hepworth's enormous Winged Figure, with its clattering anatomy of metal feathers, looking far better here than the original nailed to John Lewis on Oxford Street, and they subside to an intimate size for her more tactile works.

The opening gallery sets the tone with its spacious array of marble ovoids, totems and quasi-human forms. Waist-height, on low pedestals, they seem altogether more approachable in this setting, especially the polished white works, which can appear depilated and sterile.

At a distance, for instance, a hollowed egg such as Spring reveals very little other than Hepworth's signature pierced hole and strings. But up close, with nature through the window beyond, it lives up to its promise of bright new music and when you look inside there is an intimation of fresh blue skies.

Hepworth as carver and caster, working these forms by hand, is the subject of a gallery of tools and prototypes. This is complicated, since she did not regard them as art and there are too few finished works on show by comparison. But anyone who prefers her drawings, as I do, will be delighted to see several of her sensitive and super-fluent images of bodies in motion and at rest.

They express more naturally than the sculptures a characteristic tension between figuration and abstraction, between wings, strings and apertures suggestive of sight and speech, and those strenuous and elliptical solids that block interpretation. But all the works get strength from their proximity, here, to Brancusi's Danaide, for instance, an exquisite golden egg of a head. Or Naum Gabo's marvellous Stone with a Collar that brings together the stone, some cellulose acetate and a whiplash tail in an assemblage that somehow suggests a shoreline of waves, sea creatures, shells and helter-skelters shifting in perpetual motion.

Four galleries of the Hepworth are devoted to contemporary art, so that the museum looks forwards as well as backwards. The inaugural one-woman show is apt, since Eva Rothschild is always taking sidelong glances at modernist sculpture with her own cool and quirky works. Here she shows some humorously apposite pieces – a little Wakefield cloud, scribbled in white wire; a gleaming black doughnut echoing the museum's ring of galleries; and a whole string of works that take Hepworth's art to a contemporary conclusion, involving pebbles, nuts, moons and surfaces of black and gold that bring a nightclub glamour to these comically helpless and eccentric works.

At the gateway between old and new, Rothschild has one of her levitating hoops – a giant circle from which scarlet ribbons descend, apparently held up by nothing whatsoever. It is beautifully conceived, and titled: Sunrise. The gradually sloping angles of each gallery appear as suited to contemporary art as to the balanced geometry of Mondrian or Ben Nicholson's pale reliefs. Partly this is to do with keeping the eye moving, but also because of the superlative use of daylight, which waterfalls down from the edges of suspended ceilings, bathing rather than striking the works of art.

And here and there the windows of the Hepworth show you real water, damming and cascading outside. This is one of the museum's most striking virtues. Rather than hermetically sealed, like so many galleries, it frames occasional images of the world beyond: 19th-century warehouses, the spire of the Chantry Chapel, the magnificent willow that weeps by the river. And each view brings you back to the art once more, to see what it makes of life.

Not 15 minutes away by car, Yorkshire Sculpture Park is showing monumental works by the Catalan sculptor Jaume Plensa: a loosely connected family of what he calls his "souls". Large bronze figures, each clutching a cherry tree that rises like a thought, or a prayer; enormous heads, some in translucent resin, lit from within and lettered with anxious ideas, others formed of open lattices spelling out half-caught phrases. A beautiful curtain of capital letters, when gently strung, articulates music out of broken poems.

But best of all is a gallery of vast haunting heads, carved from white alabaster, that seem to be struggling from the rock like Michelangelo's Slaves. Each face is elongated, almost anamorphic and yet at the same time conjuring holograms and computer distortions. Conflating ancient and modern, they are unforgettably strange: new beings half-alive, it seems, in the world.

It is not so far from here to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, or to his open gardens and studio. Indeed, anyone wishing to steep themselves in European sculpture of the 20th and 21st centuries should go to see it at its most condensed, outdoors and in, in a few square miles of Yorkshire. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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