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Joseph C. Thompson, the only director Mass MoCA has had, hopes to renovate more buildings and to create an outdoor space for a music festival. (Stephen Rose for The Boston Globe)

For years, there’s been a big secret in this run-down former factory town. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, praised for bringing life to the region, was barely surviving.

Mass MoCA organizers found themselves scrambling every year for more than $1 million just to keep the lights on.

“We had no cash,” says director Joseph C. Thompson, sitting in a museum conference room on a recent afternoon. “We nearly went out of business 100 times.”

Thompson can talk about the crunch now. For the first time in its history, Mass MoCA is close to breaking even without a desperate round of fund-raising. This month, the museum celebrated an important milestone. It has been 10 years since the largest contemporary art museum in the world opened on the shuttered campus of the former Sprague Electric Co.

In that time, more than a million people have passed through the brick-walled galleries to gaze at exhibits that, in many cases, could not have been seen anyplace else – from Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang’s series of nine cars suspended from the ceiling, rods of pulsating light exploding from them, to Sol LeWitt’s colorful, detailed wall drawings, spread over three floors in an unprecedented 25-year exhib it. What’s more, Thompson, the only leader in Mass MoCA’s history, has plans to renovate more of the factory buildings on the museum’s site and to create an outdoor concert space for a summertime music festival.

It’s a stunning turnaround for a museum that, at one point, seemed unlikely even to be built.

The idea for Mass MoCA emerged almost a quarter-century ago. Thomas Krens, then a professor and director of the Williams College Museum of Art and later responsible for the Guggenheim Foundation’s massive museum growth worldwide, remembers exactly when the idea came to him: Nov. 15, 1985.

He had gone to see an exhibition space in Cologne, Germany. A couple of enterprising dealers staged a show by Austrian artist Marcus Lupertz in an old factory building. They didn’t bother cleaning up the space or changing a thing before installing the art. They just put up lights.

Krens thought of North Adams, just up the road from his museum in Williamstown. Unemployment was running high in North Adams, particularly with the Sprague plant closing. At one time more than 4,000 people had worked there. Krens pitched the idea for a contemporary-art museum to city leaders and brought two proteges in to work with him on the project: a former student, Joe Thompson, and a current student, Michael Govan.

The locals liked the concept, and Governor Michael Dukakis supported the plan. In 1988, the Legislature agreed to provide $35 million to renovate the site – providing Mass MoCA raised $15 million on its own. That same year, Krens left for the top job at the Guggenheim Foundation. He offered Thompson the deputy director job at the Guggenheim. Thompson declined, telling Krens he wanted to stay in North Adams. (Govan got the Guggenheim job.)

“If Joe hadn’t stayed,” Krens said in a recent interview, “Mass MoCA wouldn’t have happened.”

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Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

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Pawel Wojtasik’s ”Below Sea Level” is a long multichannel video of New Orleans scenes displayed, cyclorama-style, on screens that completely encircle the viewer.

If you’ve grown accustomed, resentfully or otherwise, to the frivolity and antics of the contemporary art world, the recent shift in mood toward elegy and soulfulness can be discombobulating, and even rather hard to take. Are we really to take seriously the Weltschmerz and despair of brutally ambitious young turks just out of art school, prospering denizens of Chelsea, or millionaire friends of Elton John?

Sam Taylor-Wood, one of the six artists in “These Days: Elegies for Modern Times” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, fits that last description. That she has also survived cancer and a recent divorce from her dealer, Jay Jopling, and that her art peddles in the fundamental themes of love and loss, doesn’t, unfortunately, change the fact that it has always been trite.

In almost everything Taylor-Wood does, you can feel her sniffing the winds of popular appeal, art-world cachet, and tabloid sensation, and pitching her work at the point where all three meet.

If clowns in art are suddenly all the rage again, Taylor-Wood will take photos of clowns (see here her photos of dejected clowns in “After Dark (with Flower)” and “After Dark (Trapdoor)”). If David Beckham has been caught sleeping around, she will make a video of him sleeping innocently like a god. And she will never a miss an opportunity to borrow gloss and gossip value from her many other celebrity friends, from Robert Downey Jr. to Woody Harrelson.

Still, precisely because she has the knack of keeping things simple, Taylor-Wood occasionally hits the mark, and one of her works in “These Days,” a video filmed in time lapse called “A Little Death,” has rightly become a modest sort of classic. It shows a hare and a peach in a still life arrangement reminiscent of paintings by Chardin, the hare’s leg nailed to the wall, its head slumping on a table. Over the period of just a few minutes, we see the hare efficiently disassembled by maggots, while the peach remains absolutely the same.

The sight is at once incredible (how systematic these maggots are!), banal (you die, and this is what happens; get used to it), and mysterious (how to explain the immunity of that peach? Is it somehow a metaphor for the death-defying powers of eros, bolstered by the sexual reference in the work’s title, which in French refers to orgasm?). It’s as pithy an updating of the still life tradition of the “vanitas” as you could ask for.

In spirit, “These Days” relates most closely to the mood of late Romanticism. The artist is seen as a sort of mournful outside observer of various catastrophes, his or her capacity for poetic expression providing but a fragile bulwark against the great debacle at large.

It’s apt, then, that the Con necticut-based artist Robert Taplin has taken as his inspiration Dante’s “Inferno,” from “The Divine Comedy.” Taplin’s series of sculptures and dioramas made from wood, polychromed resin, lights, plaster, and Plexiglas take their cues from scenes in “Inferno,” updating them as allegories of contemporary strife.
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THESE DAYS: Elegies for Modern Times At: Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, through Feb. 28. 413-664-4481, http://www.massmoca.org

The series begins with quiet scenes in familiar-looking interiors: Dante, a portly everyman figure based on Taplin himself, rising from bed, or sitting at a table, his head down, being summoned by two figures, Virgil, his guide, and Beatrice, his love.

Each subsequent work in the series takes us to another of the circles of hell: the smoky aftermath of a roadside bomb in what could be Baghdad; gathering crowds of refugees trying to cross the River Styx; a cave populated with refugees, many of whom meet our gaze; and so on.

The interpretations are sufficiently offbeat and unexpected to escape the dangers of kitschy illustration. The best one, I thought, was No. 5, “I Saw Shadows Carried on That Wind,” which has us looking through a window out over a courtyard in the gloaming. The ravishing sky is streaked with clouds and punctuated by two airplanes. The intimate courtyard below, its depth enhanced by Taplin’s stage-set-style tricks with perspective, seems forlornly abandoned, yet freighted with significance. The only evidence of life is a man disappearing behind a wall.

The show’s curator, Denise Markonish, has taken the first part of her title from a Jackson Browne song covered by Nico (these elegiac shows tend to have abstruse origins – see, for instance, the New Museum’s recent “After Nature,” which took its name from a poem by the late German writer W.G. Sebald and its inspiration from a diverse array of literary sources).

Markonish has been inspired by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and, wanting to temper the show’s overriding mournfulness with glimmers of hope, she adorns the small exhibition brochure with some lines from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus”: “And all things/hushed. Yet even/in that silence/a new beginning,/beckoning,/change appeared.”

Is it change we can believe in? Up to a point yes. Like almost all such shows, “These Days” is hit and miss. But it has haunting moments, and, impressively, it complements several other displays currently at Mass MoCA, including a huge room devoted to somber but thrilling works by the German artists Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer and a group show offering a wistful take on the state of the environment called “Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape.”

The cumulative effect is not exactly uplifting, but it has a real emotional pull, like a complex chord that echoes in the chest and threatens to constrict the throat.

To go from Taplin’s haunting worlds within worlds to Micah Silver’s concocted environment inspired by Yves Saint Laurent’s Safari Jacket, or Chris Doyle’s lame video animation riffing on various artistic representations of the apocalypse, is inevitably to be disappointed. But the show has other high points, including a series of works by George Bolster, an artist in his mid-30s who was born in Ireland and lives in San Diego.

Bolster riffs on the morbid ecstasies of religious experience. His contribution comes in two forms: One is a dramatic installation featuring a narwhal suspended by red strings from a ceiling. The room is lined with mirrors. Its ceiling is decorated with scenes from the Day of Judgment. A song by Radiohead, “Reckoner,” plays from speakers. It’s a bizarre but very singular scenario.

Bolster’s second contribution, in a neighboring room, is a series of drawings in pencil, silver, and pen on Maplewood veneer, each of them very private and evocative versions of well-worn religious subjects, with contemporary detailing and flickering sexual undercurrents. “La Vierge Et L’enfant Et Son Dior,” for instance, shows a short-haired woman – the Virgin Mary – with a unicorn on her lap in a pose recalling the Pietá. Bizarrely, a Christian Dior handbag dangles from her arm.

The elegy here seems to be for the loss of religious belief – but it is all a little too cool and savvy for us to feel carried away by a sense of conviction.

The other strong piece, “Below Sea Level,” is a long multichannel video displayed, cyclorama-style, on screens that completely encircle the viewer. It’s by Pawel Wojtasik, a Polish artist living in Brooklyn, and it’s a kind of collage of scenes from New Orleans, adding up to both a tribute and a lament.

It has its longueurs, but that is in the nature of elegies, is it not? One can mourn only so long before life leaks back in.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

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The Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, who died last year, was our Fra Angelico. And the three-story 19th-century mill here, housing a survey of his panoramic wall drawings, is our Museo di San Marco: a building full of art conceived by one artist, executed by many hands, devoted to big ideas. So it will be for the next quarter century, which is how long “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” is scheduled to run.

The setting is close to perfect. The space, with its generous windows, is large and flexible enough to accommodate more than a hundred of the ink-painting murals LeWitt designed between 1969 and 2007. On the campus of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, set amid stony hills in a working-class New England town, the site suits the stringently sensuous, anyone-can-make-it spirit of his art.
The show’s timing is as ideal as it is regrettable. It is a pity that LeWitt, who conceived this project in collaboration with the Yale University Art Gallery and worked closely with Mass MoCA and the Williams College Museum of Art on its realization, couldn’t have seen the results, which look organic and embracing in a way that his 2000 traveling museum survey did not. He often said that beauty was not the point of his art, but the Mass MoCA installation is pretty gorgeous.

And no art, we suddenly see, is better suited to meet hard economic times. Most of the materials used in the wall drawings are five-and-dime simple: pencils, colored ink, crayons, brushes, paper. You could tote them around in a shopping bag, ready to tackle the first empty wall you found.

Not that these drawings are street art. They aren’t populist in that way; they were meant for the great indoors. But neither do they depend on elite settings — museums or galleries — to make sense. They are abstract, not arcane. Their visual effects can be complex, but their language is plain: lines, colors, clean surfaces, the basics of grade-school art class. No wonder they feel welcoming; they take us back to the past before they take us somewhere else.

Within those essential elements there’s diversity. The lines come straight and curved; vertical, diagonal, horizontal. They resolve into geometric shapes (cubes, grids, bulls’-eyes); they splinter and fight; they gather in doodly squiggles like metal shavings to a magnet. In many cases they simply stream on, parallel and continuous, from floor to ceiling and wall edge to wall edge, like some crazy, destinationless Bruckner scherzo that expresses high joy by running in place.

Most of the surfaces are matte and dry like frescos, though in one piece, first done in Germany in 1999, vertical bands of saturated colors are interrupted by a glossy black splat of thick acrylic. And within matte surfaces visual textures subtly vary depending on whether color has been drawn, brushed, washed or dabbed on.

The color range is dramatic. Early drawings from the 1970s are diagrammatic patterns of blue or black lines on white ground connecting corners of walls with door jambs and the odd fire-alarm unit. They might look mathematical or scientific, expressions of an American mania for measuring and surveying, if their logic wasn’t so batty. As it is, they turn the very idea of calculation into a game. They connect dots, but to no purpose. They turn space into a walk-in cat’s cradle.

By the 1980s, though, color had replaced or equaled line as a primary element. And the entire chromatic spectrum was brought into play. Sometimes hues were tamped down, but just as often they were high-keyed and brash, giving certain drawings — I’m thinking of a composition of snaking orange and green bands — the retinal hilarity of Op Art.

Lusciousness and austerity alternated over 40 years, but through all the blossomings and thinnings, this art remains, at a fundamental level, ordinary, modest, graspable, doable. It also stays resolutely impersonal, never sticking for long with any single graphic style, never showcasing a distinctive touch, never carrying a signature.

Although LeWitt came up with the initial designs, his relationship to the work was otherwise hands-off. He wrote instructions for how the work should be done — firm but easy-to-follow recipes with occasional sweeten-to-taste allowances — but hired other artists to do it. Some he trained, with the expectation that they would train others, who would in turn train still others, stretching on through generations.
To help assure smooth continuity, he devised art that didn’t require virtuosic talent, just straightforward artisan skills and patient attention. If a drawing was done correctly that was enough.

But the fact that LeWitt asked teams to do the work was significant. On a strictly practical level, this meant each piece could be expeditiously recreated. At the same time the collaborative model offered an alternative to a star-obsessed market. And, like a kind of mini private-sector version of the Works Progress Administration, it gave artists paying jobs doing what they liked to do.

Finally, he understood, as every teacher does, that doing preset tasks could stimulate creativity. Many of his drawings were done by supervised groups of art students — those at Mass MoCA included — in a learning-on-the-job tradition very similar to Renaissance workshop practice. A master artist provides the overarching concept; senior artists oversee production; apprentices do the grunt work and in the process discover and develop ideas of their own.

LeWitt’s work is, famously, about ideas before all else. He was one of the first artists to formally define — in a 1967 Artforum article — Conceptual Art. And he was among the first to make work that fit the definition: work that played down the unique art object, with its associations of individual genius, exchange value and physical permanence, in favor of utopian proposals, collective visions, objects that existed first and last as ideas. (“The wall drawing is a permanent installation, until destroyed,” LeWitt wrote in 1970.)

A small show called “The ABCDs of Sol LeWitt” at the Williams College Museum of Art, near Mass MoCA, zeroes in on that watershed 1960s moment with an archival display of his manuscripts and drawings, including a draft of the Artforum article with the words that put LeWitt’s career on the map: “When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand, and execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” The wall drawings are prime examples of this definition in action.

Historically speaking, a visit to Mass MoCA should come after a look at the Williams College show, which has been organized by Lisa Corrin, the museum’s director, and Erica DiBenedetto, an art history student. (LeWitt would have appreciated the leveling.) But there is something to be said for seeing the wall drawings first: for just walking straight into the grand apparatus of concept and color, and letting it sing and shout and whisper around you.

After all, do you need to know the theological ideas behind the virgins and angels painted on the walls of San Marco by Fra Angelico and his anonymous assistants in order to be entranced? No. You will eventually want to know about those ideas 0f salvation and eternity, just as you will want to learn about the ideas — collaboration, generosity, the embrace of ephemerality — that underpin LeWitt’s art and make it, now more than ever, exemplary.

The ideas in Fra Angelico’s frescos are demanding and unworldly. The ideas in LeWitt’s drawings — in the monumental, abstract annunciations and visitations and sacred conversations at Mass MoCA — are exhilarating and of this moment on earth. So are we talking about Conceptual Art or spiritual art? I’d say both.

Holland Cotter
New York Times

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Sol LeWitt was at the forefront of two of the 20th century’s most esoteric and alienating art movements, Minimalism and Conceptualism, yet he somehow managed to keep his own work as crowd-pleasing and hypoallergenic as a Goldendoodle.

From the process of making art, he removed the traits to which many people attach the most value – instinct, skill, personal expression – without forfeiting popular appeal. He even dared to take up one of the 20th century’s most pernicious ideas – “irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically,” he said, echoing the thinking of many a crazed dictator – and converted it to purposes at once sunny and civic-minded.
How he managed all this is not easy to explain: Most attempts at describing LeWitt’s work make it sound more or less lunatic.
So let me start by stating simply that the massive, three-story installation of LeWitt wall drawings that opens today at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is as wonderful as anything I’ve seen in years. It will be staying in place for at least a quarter-century, over which period it is sure to become a site of pilgrimage for all those susceptible to the proposition that life can be beautiful as well as absurd.

I traversed the 30,000 square feet of Mass MoCA’s Building 7, which has been converted for “Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective” by the Boston architectural firm Bruner/Cott & Associates, over more than an hour, delighting in LeWitt’s hands-free, deadpan humor and basking in optical delights. I felt like a little boy watching a mile-long freight train rattle past, each car holding some new, un-guessed-at enchantment. I went back with my family a week later.

The wall drawings were executed over the best part of a year by a team of artists following LeWitt’s casual-sounding directions (“Four-part line drawing with a different line direction in each part,” for instance). Many of the early works on the ground floor are in fine pencil; they feel as austere and otherworldly as distant galaxies. Others, in ink wash or acrylic paints, are so big, bold, and emphatically present they virtually snap their heels and salute.

LeWitt, who died last year, may have straddled the divide between Minimalism and Conceptualism, but he was typical of neither.

On the Minimalist side, he whittled art down to its bare essentials, exploring the rudiments of line, color, shape, and surface with the kind of steady-hammer intensity that Minimalist composers brought to rhythm, melody, and harmony.

He aimed, like other Minimalists, to make the experience of the viewer before the artwork as unencumbered as possible, dispensing with outworn vestiges of symbolism and rhetoric. In the same vein, he rid artworks of their aura of preciousness and singularity by emphasizing the importance of the idea behind a work over its execution.

This last, oft-repeated claim, however, needs closer scrutiny. It’s true, LeWitt was in thrall to the symmetries and permutations of mathematics, and he didn’t especially care who executed his works. But when you see his works in situ, it’s hard to hold onto the notion that the idea overrides all. These works give too much pleasure. They may begin with ideas, but eventually those ideas are reduced to a background hum.

So how does the show look? In a word, vast. Most people will enter on the second floor of Building 7, which focuses on the middle of LeWitt’s career. The best thing to do is cross the floor and walk downstairs to the ground level. The first work you will confront there is “Wall Drawing 305,” which has, as part of its subtitle, “The location of 100 random specific points.”

Dated 1977, the work reveals LeWitt with his best poker face on. One hundred numbered points are scattered across the wall, and alongside each point the instructions determining its location are written. The second point, for instance, “is located halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the right side.”

The 12th point is harder to follow: It “is located as far as I can reach toward the center of the wall with my right hand while holding my left index finger at a point halfway between a point halfway between the upper left corner and a point halfway between the midpoint of the left side and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the upper left corner and a point halfway between the center of the wall and the midpoint of the left side.”

See what I mean by lunatic?

Don’t balk. This lower floor, dedicated mainly to early works in pencil, also includes some of the most exquisite things LeWitt ever conceived. A few of them experiment with lines that run in four directions (vertical, horizontal, and two diagonals). Superimposed in all possible combinations, the lines create effects of impossible delicacy against the subtly textured wall, and yet the clarity and unbendingness of the idea makes them as robust and inevitable as quadratic equations.

In other works LeWitt combines lead and colored pencil lines according to strictly logical rules. One whole wall, for instance, is covered with small squares covered in lines of one color only (red, yellow, blue, or gray). The opposite wall superimposes these primaries in different combinations, creating an overall effect that is, surprisingly, orange, brown, and light blue.

Upstairs, on the second floor, LeWitt goes to town with colored ink wash, a medium that combines intense levels of color saturation with an impression of cloudy ethereality. One work, “Wall Drawing 422,” is simply a series of vertical bands of color along a long wall. The first four bands are light gray, yellow, red, and blue. The fifth combines gray and yellow to get a darker yellow, the sixth gray and red, and the seventh gray and blue. The eighth combines red and yellow (to give us orange), the ninth combines blue and yellow (green), and the 10th red and blue (it’s purple). And on it goes, until every possible combination has been exhausted.

If it all sounds crushingly dull, the miracle is that it’s not. It’s as light and airy and joyous as can be.
On the third floor, color is intensified even further as LeWitt shifts from ink wash to acrylic paints. Almost methodically, we see him moving through all the rudiments of color, shape, line, and surface. We see glossy paint contrasted with matte. We see wavy lines combined with straight ones. We see arrangements of shape and color that imply three-dimensionality set against those that are adamantly flat. We see primary and secondary colors in various predetermined combinations. And we see strict geometrical shapes set against random “blobs” and “splats” (there is even a wall drawing called “Loopy Doopy”).

One late series of ravishing works uses nothing more than scribble lines to build up shapes and illusions of space with subtle gradations of tone. Part of you marvels at the amount of skilled, concentrated work required to execute such drawings; another part remains cognizant that, for LeWitt, skill was beside the point.

LeWitt’s great contribution was to lighten the burden of expectation artworks had to carry. In this, irony became his ally. He relished various contradictions: between, for instance, the simplicity of his own “ideas” and the (in many cases) devilish complexity of their execution. I think he also enjoyed the tension between the cold inflexibility of the logic he employed and the emotional experience it could give rise to.

Janet Malcolm once wrote that “the spell of any work of art can be shattered by the sound of the nasty little voice saying, ‘But this is ridiculous.’ ” Sol LeWitt was honest enough to embrace this vulnerability – every idea he had courted silliness – but he trumped the voice with rolling waves of beauty.

Sebastian Smee
Boston Globe

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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.