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ICA, Boston

At a time when cultural organizations struggle to hold onto their audiences, the ICA is Boston’s greatest success story. Since opening in December 2006, attendance has boomed, making it the second most visited museum in the region. And a string of recent high-profile shows has done more than create foot traffic. The shows have changed the way Bostonians, traditionally more attuned to Sargent and Monet, look at contemporary art.

“Maybe it just took that landmark building to make people wake up,’’ said Susan Stoops, curator of contemporary art at Worcester Art Museum.

No show has had more impact than the current 250-plus-piece exhibition of work by the controversial street artist Fairey. Just last month, attendance passed 105,000, making it the most popular show in the ICA’s 73-year history. That came on the heels of well-received exhibitions featuring Bombay-born sculptor Anish Kapoor and Tara Donovan, who crafts objects out of Scotch tape, plastic buttons, and pins.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love the Museum of Fine Arts, but if you go there, you won’t see any graffiti,’’ Sudbury’s Evan Berkowitz, 13, said after walking through the Fairey exhibition. “I like the ICA. It’s a nice break.’’

How has the ICA done it? By reaching out to the mainstream without alienating art world insiders. Chief Curator Nicholas Baume said the museum remains committed to giving attention to deserving artists who make important works. But he says he is also conscious of the need to build a new audience.

“Kapoor, Donovan, and Fairey are artists you don’t need to have a lot of experience going to museums and have an art history degree to really engage with and respond to,’’ he said.

Even some local gallery owners, critics, and curators who criticized the shows held just after the building’s opening in December 2006 have come around. They appreciated the work of Kapoor, known for his mirrored, bean-shaped installation, “Cloud Gate,’’ in Chicago’s Millennium Park. They also praised the solo exhibition featuring Donovan. In a fortuitous twist, two weeks before the show opened, Donovan was awarded a MacArthur genius grant.

“They’ve really hit their stride,’’ said Nick Capasso, senior curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.


Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe


From a review of Anish Kapoor’s new show at Boston’s ICA:

Mr. Kapoor shouldn’t be considered merely derivative. He combines too many disparate strands of art, thought and culture, and he does it seamlessly. He is a brilliant and unpredictable if sometimes ingratiating synthesizer who has simultaneously refined, repurposed and betrayed some of the dearest beliefs and most despised bêtes noires of late-20th-century sculpture.

It has probably aided this project that Mr. Kapoor, who is 54, did not begin life in a Western culture. He was born and grew up in Mumbai when it was still called Bombay, and in 1973 moved to London, where he studied art and then took up residence. He is a decade or so older than most of the Young British Artists, who took the art world by storm in the early 1990s, and his sensibility is markedly different: he greatly prefers gentle seduction to shock tactics.

His sculpture is in many ways one long ode to the modernist monochrome and its emphasis on purity and perception, enacted in three-dimensional space. It carves, colors and complicates space in different ways, adding interactive aspects and pushing that purity back and forth between votive and technological, East and West.

Mr. Kapoor has paid homage to Minimalism’s faith in weightless volumes, abstraction, specific materials, saturated color and simplicity of form. But he has also explored different materials’ capacities for visual illusion, the biggest of Minimalism’s no-nos and a tendency that encroaches on territory pioneered by installation artists like James Turrell. Mr. Kapoor’s use of dry pigments echoes Process artists like Alan Saret and Wolfgang Laib, although it has a long history in Hindu rituals.

And despite the high degree of abstraction in his art, living form, if only the viewer’s body, is always implied. Perhaps this is why Mr. Kapoor largely bypassed the immense installations and environments favored by so many sculptors of the last 30 years. Instead he has displayed a knack for compressing his various effects into reasonably portable if not exactly domestic-scale objects, even if they are temporarily set into walls or floors. Their scale can make them seem all the more magical, focused and intimate.

Roberta Smith
New York Times

Tara Donovan, “Untitled (Pins)”
(Image courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Tara Donovan’s pins are hard to miss. There are thousands of them upstairs at the new Institute of Contemporary Art. They’re smushed together almost as if dropped into a trash compactor, except instead of being bent, they form a 3½-foot-tall block of sinewy, shiny metal. This is art, and it sits in the center of a gallery at the ICA, one of the signature pieces of the museum’s collection.

Stare at “Untitled (Pins),” and you’re likely to have questions. How does this cube stick together? Is it solid or a kind of pin shell? And what of the artist? Did Donovan get pricked as she manipulated the piece? Was she wearing protective gloves? What kind of care and persistence did it require for her to turn these thousands of glittering pins into such a perfect square?

One thing you might not expect: Donovan didn’t put “Untitled (Pins)” together at all. The New York City artist figured out how to shape a mass of pins and sent instructions to the museum; the work was assembled in July, and again in August, entirely by the hands of ICA employees.

Surprised? Don’t be. Like any museum of contemporary art, the ICA is full of works built by somebody other than the artist, from Kelly Sherman’s Foster Prize-winning “Wish Lists,” a collection of personal wish lists gathered from the Internet, to “Cell (Hand and Mirror),” a mysterious Louise Bourgeois piece featuring a pair of carved marble hands in the center of miniature room.
In Cambridge, Harvard’s Carpenter Center was recently home to an installation piece of cellophane-wrapped candies laid in a golden carpet across the ground floor of the center. The work is credited to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, but was actually built by curator Helen Molesworth. (Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996.) At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, several pieces in the Spencer Finch exhibit – including a majestic stained-glass wall – were simply assembled according to the artist’s specs. And last September, when the Boston Center for the Arts hosted “Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off” by Scottish artist Martin Creed, in which the gallery’s 67 track lights illuminated the white walls and then flicked off every five seconds, not only did Creed not set up the exhibition, he didn’t even fly to Boston while it was up.

As contemporary art becomes more mainstream, and successful artists become “brands” that draw huge sale prices and big museum crowds, legions of art viewers are now finding themselves confronting “original” works created by someone other than the person listed on the wall label.

What qualifies such artwork as original, and whether it should matter whether the artist physically created the work, is a debate that has occupied academic corners of the art world for years. But if museumgoers believe – reasonably – that the point of seeing original art is to connect intimately with the artist who crafted the piece before them, they are opening themselves up to a rude surprise. In a contemporary art museum, it’s now fair to expect that chunks of a collection were never touched by the artist at all.

Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

Tomorrow: Part 2 from Edgers’ excellent article.

David Muller at work, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

It took the Los Angeles artist [David Muller] a week to install the sprawling rock ‘n’ roll-inspired mural “As Below, So Above” in the ICA’s lobby. Filled with text, watercolor brushstrokes, and framed portraits of record-sleeve spines, the piece is a departure from the previous mural in the lobby, Chiho Aoshima’s playful anime-inspired “The Divine Gas.” Muller’s installation, commissioned by the ICA, comes with a soundtrack, a constantly playing rotation of 136,125 songs. The playlist put together by the onetime DJ – he still does a wedding here or there – is designed to run for 399 days without repeating a tune…

A central component of the mural is not Muller’s creation. It is a chart chronicling the advance of rock ‘n’ roll over two decades starting in 1955. Reebee Garofalo, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, created the text by studying record sales charts and translating them into the swirling design, which traces how the Kingston Trio led to Bob Dylan, how Fats Domino paved the way for Stevie Wonder. The chart was published in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry,” a now out-of-print book Garofalo coauthored with Steve Chapple in 1977. (A poster of Garofalo’s chart can be purchased in the ICA store and online.)

To illustrate his view that rock history is an organic living entity, Muller has painted Garofalo’s chart in black watercolor and surrounded it with a kind of rock garden on the ICA wall. It’s a landscape seen in cross-section, with trees, grass, and autumn leaves, as well as an underground area in which Muller has placed a tribute to Sun Ra.

“Somehow, I’m just trying to relate that all the different kinds of music are connected somehow, the same way an ecosphere is connected,” Muller says. “I’m also trying to figure out how you deal with history and the future.”

Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

The will will be on display at the ICA for one year.