Friday, November 12, 2010

The MFA's new wing

Photos by Chuck Choi
I got my first peek into the new MFA American wing (at left) this morning – along with all the bigwigs – so of course I’m dying to tell you all about it.

Ok - first, the bad news: the “architecture” itself, though always elegant, and realized with superb technical élan, is in the end undistinguished. The sun-drenched café courtyard (above), the clean lines, the impeccably tailored finishes – we’ve seen all this glass and granite and travertine marble before. Of course it works; it’s lovely. It just doesn’t surprise.

But this is perhaps tied to what counts as the better news: schematically, the new wing does “make sense.” It grows organically out of the original plan, with a clear intent to honor the vision of Guy Lowell (the original architect), and his sense of proportion and decoration. On the whole, this is a far subtler response to the existing building than I.M. Pei’s boxy arcade of the early 80’s – and architect Foster + Partners makes the connection explicit, by using the exterior façade of the old building as the interior face of the Shapiro Courtyard.

This is only one of many nice, sensitive touches. But the great news is that the galleries themselves are often fantastic, better than you dreamt they could be - in particular the floors devoted to the Revolutionary period and the nineteenth century are sheer heaven. The spaces have been decorated in rich, deep colors, with striking carpets and wallpapers, and Malcolm Rogers’s feel for combining decorative with fine art pays off in spades with several rooms that superbly conjure their periods as a whole, and thus serve as striking “extended” frames for the art on the walls. Several paintings – such as “The Peaceable Kingdom” – benefit enormously from this kind of setting (and yes, those wonderful vases are back on either side of “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” above).

And I have to say the lighting is simply incomparable – the Luminist room alone is lit more beautifully than I think any museum space I’ve ever encountered; the glare that afflicts so many paintings in so many settings seems to have been simply eliminated (and the subtlety of the illumination allows the display of a few delicacies, like watercolors by Sargent and Homer, that we’ve rarely seen before). I’ve questioned whether the MFA actually had a collection to fill the galleries it was building, but in at least these two periods the answer is a definite “yes.” Where we before we got a taste of Copley, Stuart and Sully, now we get a smorgasbord – and most of the unfamiliar works are surprisingly tasty, while the ones that aren’t, still have value in their historicity. And while of course the new galleries offer a warm re-introduction to old friends like Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam, they’re also stuffed with surprises, such as a bust of Thomas Jefferson by (wait for it) Houdon – I didn’t know the museum owned such a gem! Nor did I know that Edward Steichen once painted, or that the Museum owned chairs by Frank Lloyd Wright – these two floors sometimes feel like a treasure hunt.

Alas, on the modern and contemporary floor, one does bump one’s head against the limits of the collection. For more than half a century, the MFA did not collect well, and there’s no easy way to paper over that gap. (This is why I dreamt for a while that the museum might acquire much of the Rose collection – but silly me! We’re all much better with that stuff being in storage at Brandeis while this stuff is on the walls at the MFA!) There are, of course, some worthy works of art here, but some of the best pieces on display turn out to be loans (like a remarkable Rothko I hadn’t seen before). Which makes one wonder – if the works from the big names on tap are comparatively weak, why isn’t the MFA showcasing more regional art instead? Of course back in the Revolutionary day, “regional” and “American” art largely overlapped – but as the modern era dawned, the MFA seems to have dropped regional art from its collection and focused on also-rans from New York and elsewhere. With the opening of this grand new wing, let’s hope that begins to change.

But for now, congratulations to Malcolm Rogers and the entire MFA are in order, for a job spectacularly well done.

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