Tuesday, September 27, 2011

After Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I bumped into each other at the opening of the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, we began talking about it, both in person and online. The following three-part series is a distillation of that conversation. Discursive, circuitous, at time repetitious, we feel it nevertheless serves as an accurate introduction to the MFA's latest addition and the issues it both raises and addresses.  Below is the first part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): The opening of the Linde Wing is big news for contemporary art in Boston - in one fell swoop, the MFA has opened up a new exhibition space for contemporary art that's actually larger than the current galleries at the ICA. And as many local critics have pointed out, the renovated wing operates as both a kind of riposte to the ICA, as well as the potential kick-off to a high-stakes local competition in the arena of contemporary art.

Which is all to the good, of course. But the success of any competition depends on the talent of the competitors, doesn’t it; and so far I haven’t seen much actual great new art arrive in town as a result of this supposed curatorial cage battle.

 In fact, I felt a slightly sinking feeling as I toured the new Linde Family Wing at the MFA last week  . . . and I think I'll start with the architecture.

If ever there was a local piece of design crying out for some sort of transformative violation, it was I.M. Pei's elegantly dull West Wing (Pei himself didn’t like it that much). But the MFA hasn't made any such architectural gesture, and so much of the space now awkwardly maps to its new program. And the changes they HAVE made are sometimes puzzling - or don't feel like much of a change at all.

They've taken out the escalator, for instance - yet replaced it with a ceremonial stair (below) that hogs space and feels like a fifth wheel. This seems to have been their way of acknowledging the museum’s former front door as a new entry for school groups (a programming decision that makes sense) – and of course the loss of the escalator makes the space quieter (a bit). But the flow here is clumsy, the scale off, and the resulting spaces exist in some sort of limbo between gallery and mall.

The MFA has transformed a ceremonial stair into . . . a ceremonial stair.
Greg Cook (GC): Yeah, it strikes me as dull shopping mall architecture too. Partly I think it’s the glass galleria (the MFA’s term), and the way the middle of the building becomes a long, awkward hall taking you past the bookstore and, uh, food court. Which is why Michael Phelan’s 2009 neon “Bless You Taco Bell,” installed above the MFA’s Bravo restaurant, is amusing. Perhaps unintentionally, it teases this mall-ness that aspires to something more classy.

TG: Yes!! “Bless You Taco Bell” is funny – somebody at the MFA does have a sense of humor . . .

GC: I keep thinking of the idea of chi—or energy—in feng shui. There’s lots of bad chi here. As you note, the stairway sits awkwardly at the end of the hall — too tight at the top and bottom (the MFA doesn’t help things by shoehorning in art at both ends), and too big of a lobby around it. Which made more sense on the first floor when it actually was the building lobby. Meanwhile the extra space on the second floor was useful as a staging ground for the Gund Gallery special exhibits. But now these spaces feel baggy. And the renovation doesn’t fix the fact that the “flow” of the second floor encourages you to pass on through and not stop to look at the walls. It became really apparent to me when I saw the Kara Walker piece in the new main second floor galleries. Now it holds the wall, but when it previously was in the second floor lobby, it didn’t halt you.

TG: The new pieces up there halt you even less, I’d argue. The whole thing actually feels a little more amorphous than it did before, and the museum has chosen NOT to do what I think any talented architect would have been itching to do - that is, ditch the stacked double circulation and smash through the existing shop for direct contact with the courtyard next door. For some reason there's also a glass classroom set in the middle of everything instead. And if anything, the new finishes – save the welcome hardwood on the first floor - are perhaps even blander than they were before (barring, of course, the occasional retro-60's furnishing). To be fair, nothing feels positively bad; it just doesn't feel enhanced; the overwhelming impression is of a new program shoe-horned into an existing space - a huge missed opportunity.

GC: Let’s talk about the art. I’d argue the curators do manage to make something out of the limited resources of the MFA’s contemporary collection. To me, presenting the art by theme is an elegant solution that allows them to conceal some of the collection’s significant flaws. If only the themes were fresher, sharper.

It's a bird, it's a plane . . . it's Jonathan Borofsky!
TG: Okay, I’m half with you there; but I’d like to start with the art that’s integrated with the architecture – which is - well . . . . let's just say I really hope someday they take down those banal, flying Borofsky dudes (left), and while I chuckled at the “Taco Bell” piece, some of the neon and flashing signs really should read "GREETINGS FROM THE MILLENNIUM!” I know the works are more recent than that, but the technique feels dated. And the Cerith Wyn Evans blinking chandelier (below right) just looks too baroquely gay now that it has gone solo . . .

GC: Yeah, those terrible Borofsky sculptures definitely heighten the mall effect. The MFA says he’s based in Ogunquit, Maine. As someone who’d like to see more locally made art in the MFA’s mix, it’s galling when curators seem determined to find lousy local art. The wall label says they were “made especially for the wide open spaces for the Linde Family Wing.” So the problem may be that the MFA commissioned these, and got the Foster family to pay for it, and so can’t back away from the bad decision.

TG: Yikes, if they were indeed a commission, then I guess we’re stuck with them! Thank God the collection in the new galleries is better - and certainly better than the ICA's - but isn't that rather a low bar?

Is Marie Antoinette sending us messages through this chandelier?
GC: It’s hard to fairly compare the MFA contemporary collection to the ICA’s because the ICA only began collecting in the past several years. It’s a bit apples-and-oranges. The ICA has picked up two strong Louise Bourgeois sculptures, the MFA seems to have none. The ICA’s Paul Chan “1st Light” projection is considered one of the major artworks of the past decade—and one of the most thoughtful high art elegies to Sept. 11. Though personally, right now, I’d put it more in the quite good category. The MFA doesn’t have anything by him—or pretty much by anyone who does tech art beyond basic video and neon. Well, after Chan, the ICA doesn’t really either. The MFA’s collection may pull ahead, though, with its works from the past decade by Walker, Mark Bradford, El Anatsui and the like, none of whom are in the ICA collection.

As an aside, you can’t help noting that the new MFA wing presents a number of artists who’ve been featured at the ICA in recent years—Bradford, Charles LeDray, Roni Horn, Kader Attia. But except for Attia, the MFA acquired these works before their ICA surveys. I mean, the MFA got the Horn in 1992 and LeDray in 1994, more than a decade and a half before their 2010 ICA surveys.

But I’d say the more telling comparisons are with Harvard or Andover or the Rose. The other day I paged through the 2009 catalogue of the Rose Art Museum collection. Look at any handful of pages and it’s apparent how terrific the Rose’s post-War collection is, and how thin the MFA’s is. If you compare what the Rose has by each artist with what the MFA has, there’s about one time the MFA bests the Rose: that Warhol electric chair painting.

TG: Well, maybe I’m just not all that crazy about the ICA collection, or its ethos, either; to me the ICA relies too often on a kind of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” quality (to be fair, a lot of contemporary art, does too). What people seem to remember about the ICA’s art is how the cube was made entirely of pins, or that the whole room was filled with scotch tape, or the yellow powder formed a perfect cone! Uh-huh. I’m not against quirky technical perfection, but people never seem to have any opinions about the content beyond the quirk. As for Louise Bourgeois, I’m not a fan, so I’m fine with the MFA not having anything by her! And like you, I think the Paul Chan is quite strong, but hardly one of the major works of the last decade (something tells me Chan got 9/11 completely wrong); and at any rate, the MFA’s haunting new video by Sigalit Landau is nearly as good.

But I agree with you about that Warhol – it may be the most striking thing in the whole wing. And I do admit it’s unfair to compare the ICA with the MFA, because the ICA hasn’t been collecting for very long, and with nothing like the MFA’s resources. You’re also right about the gap between the MFA and the Rose – which is why I always used to forlornly wonder why the MFA couldn’t just buy the Rose collection - or at least show some of it on loan! But that’s a discussion for another day . . . literally; Greg and I will continue our chat on the Linde Family Wing over the coming week here at the Hub Review.

The MFA's one postmodern masterpiece?  Warhol's Red Disaster


  1. As someone who grew up in Washington, D.C. with both the Smithsonian and the National Gallery, and still visits regularly, I have long been frustrated with the largely inferior collection of the MFA-- both in terms of spotty collections of classic work, and the ill-attention to modern and contemporary work. The MFA always struck me as strangely parochial.

    It has gotten to a point that I often don't bother to find out what's showing and miss the occasional strong show while doing all my museum hoping in D.C.

  2. No, it's not the National Gallery or the Met - but those are the two greatest collections in the country. I suppose it's not even the Frick. But the MFA is still a major metropolitan collection - visit the Getty if you doubt me! - and if you've missed the traveling shows, you've missed some stellar exhibitions, including masterpieces by Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Durer, El Greco and Velazquez. Frankly I always enjoy going there; I know it's not the Louvre, but it's ours, and it's often wonderful. Right now there are two shows up no one should miss: the juxtaposition of the Monet Rouen Cathedrals with the Lichtenstein ones (well, I guess that's HALF a show no one should miss!), and the Bresdin-Redon show, which is absolutely stunning.

  3. P.S. I'll be writing about the Redon show shortly.

  4. Oh, I have realized over the last year that I have been doing the MFA a severe disservice (I'm going tomorrow for the third time this year!)

    My attitudes were formed as a snooty 20-something graduate student who had been spoilt by a youth spent wandering around the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, Freer, Sackler, and Museum of American Art.