Friday, September 30, 2011

The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art.

This week Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I have been engaged in an extended conversation on the newly opened Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA.  Below is the third and final part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): So, Greg . . . we've spent two articles diagnosing the many issues with the new Linde Family Wing at the MFA. What's our prescription?

Greg Cook (GC): Well, I think the MFA should look at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. They’ve done a great job of mixing high art from around the world, with fashion, folk art, design and so on. They’ve done this in group exhibitions as well as in their mix of programming. They’ve also been able to do a bunch of sharp shows of Mayan art, 17th century Dutch masters, 20th century Surrealism, Joseph Cornell (!) without having hardly any examples of this stuff in their collection. But still dovetailing with the museum’s idiosyncratic past.

TG: I totally agree about the Peabody Essex; they rock. In fact I’ve been meaning to write about their current Man Ray/Lee Miller survey; it’s one of the best shows in town.

GC: Agreed. In contrast, I think the MFA has decided that its unique brand is that it’s encyclopedic. What they mean by that is that they’re comprehensive, they’ve got everything from all time. It’s not about a special vision, or highlighting your institution’s idiosyncratic strengths. It’s about acting like you’ve got everything. So maybe the contemporary collection is based on the standard history because to do otherwise would somehow say that the MFA is not truly comprehensive, not truly encyclopedic.

Donald Judd, Untitled
TG: Good point. But at the same time – the collection obviously isn’t encyclopedic, is it, so the curatorial cart is before the horse. But why not just own up to that fact? And devote yourself to filling the gaps in your backstory before spending big bucks on the latest trend? Or, if the MFA does want to compete in that arena, as you point out, the Peabody Essex and the ICA offer great lessons in how you can pull together a hot, up-to-the-minute show without having to invest in a collection to back it up.  Although personally, I think it's fine to leave the very latest fashion to others; I'd be happy with more of a coherent version of the last fifty years.

Of course, in a way the Linde Wing often feels like a first, if un-admitted, step toward that curatorial project. And as a sketch of a developing collection within that framework, it's not bad; there are striking pictures and objects on display, and it’s wrong to pretend otherwise. The Tansey actually isn't great, but the Richter and the Nevelson are very good, and the Warhol, Red Disaster, as we've mentioned, is among his most powerful. The El Anatsui is likewise terrific; meanwhile the Ellsworth Kelly is nice (below), lovely and pure, but like most Kelly, is it much more than that? The Donald Judd (at left) is better - pleasingly sleek and mysterious. But neither addresses the path from minimalism to post-minimalism, which to my mind should be key to any ongoing survey leading up to the present day.  As with the pretty-good Morris Louis on display, we can't quite feel how the Judd and the Kelly might fit together as pieces in a larger history.  So part of the back-fill project would involve a systematic curatorial approach and installation philosophy.  No more muddying the waters with pap like "Art Can Be Anything"!

Ellsworth Kelly, Blue Green Yellow Orange Red - pretty, pure, but . . .

GC: When the MFA opened the Americas Wing last November, they had a little lunch for the press in a back room in there. My recollection is that there was an even better Morris Louis painting hiding in there than the one they’ve put on the wall in the contemporary wing. I've never much cared for his art, but when I saw it, I thought: "Oh, wow, THIS is why people thought he was great." The MFA seems embarrassed by the institution's past devotion to Louis. But the museum’s online collection archive says they’ve got 34 works by him, a majority of them paintings, enough to do a decent retrospective of his work any time they feel like it. And one could make a case that it’s time for him to be rediscovered—particularly with the revival of striped abstraction and poured paint these days.

TG: Yes, I know the MFA invested heavily in color field painting - which is now thought of as an embarrassing dead end.  Which only means it will come back!  There's no reason why the focus of these galleries shouldn't shift over time.

GC: So instead of all the contemporary galleries basically being the same size, why not put in a few small rooms for single artist focuses? The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago have used this technique well. Here, one could be a micro Louis survey, including wall text summarizing the formalist art theories and influence of Louis’s champion, critic Clement Greenberg. It would help explain how we came to minimalism and a good amount of other art since 1960. And done right, it would immediately be the definitive place to see Louis.

TG:  In other words, fashions do change, so play to your strengths.  And why ignore so much of what you spent so much time collecting?

GC: In general, I keep wanting to re-curate the galleries with additional or different works from the MFA's vaults. I’d incorporate more fashion and design. Why not fill another small focus gallery with all the MFA’s significant Warhols (mourning Jackie O, a Mick Jagger, a piss painting) plus its rich trove of ‘60s rock posters and Richard Avedon’s psychedelic photos of the Beatles? It would indicate the span of Warhol’s work, and suggest his prescience or influence. And put him into a historical context in a way that people could recognize without having to talk down to them. And it would just look cool.

Michael Eden, Blue Bloom
TG: I’m not sure about Avedon and the urine samples, but I have to admit, that kind of gallery would pull in the public.  And I agree that one of the museum's major strengths - which should be more often noted of the MFA - is its collection of crafts and decorative arts. Honestly, sometimes I think MFA Director Malcolm Rogers is a decorator at heart – the museum’s installations always kick things up a notch when they juxtapose the art of a period with its d├ęcor.

There’s one little "decorated" nook of the Linde Wing, for instance, (with wall paper by the “Timorous Beasties”) that comes together for that very reason – it even includes a porcelain tea set by Cindy Sherman that’s quite a bit better than the photo by her on a nearby wall. And elsewhere there are equally intriguing objets d'art by Michael Eden, Brent Kee Young, and many others. I'd like to see more prime gallery space given over to whoever has been collecting this stuff; at the very least, they have a sensual power that conceptual art struggles to match. Indeed, elsewhere there's a placidity to the place that almost makes you wish for something more irritating, like a Shepard Fairey album cover or a Jeff Koons balloon dog. And would Banksy please spray paint something on the exterior of this gray-on-gray barn? Or maybe on one of the flying Borofskys?

GC: Um, well, how about saying instead: The MFA could use a more idiosyncratic vision, and it might help to turn to outside help? I’d like to believe that the Linde Wing, despite its flaws, is the beginning of something, an opportunity.

TG: You’re right. Even when you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, you should remember it IS a gift horse! The Linde Wing is a good thing, with many good things in it.  The glass could be half full.

GC: I guess I can’t tell how much the flaws of the wing are indicators of where the MFA wants to go. Are the status quo version of history and the Art for Dummies signs positions the MFA is staking out and plans to stick to? Or are they a way to get this thing off the ground, and the Linde Wing will get more interesting as the curators develop it? During the era covered in the Linde Wing, which corresponds almost exactly with the founding of the MFA’s contemporary department 40 years ago, the MFA has trumpeted with each new contemporary curator that now it’s finally committed itself to contemporary art, only to have the program fizzle. I’m really hoping that the MFA is following through this time, now that they’ve got a contemporary curator who seems to be a decent fit with Malcolm, and they’ve re-done this building, and there seems to be some money behind the project, and new donations of art too (like the Tuttle).

TG: I know, I know! A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step; hope springs eternal, etc. And when you’re looking at the best of the Linde Family Wing, it’s easy to believe in the thing with feathers . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment