Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Yesterday, Greg Cook of the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research and I began an extended conversation on the newly opened Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA. What follows is the second part of our discussion:

Thomas Garvey (TG): At the close of the first part of this series, Greg and I had just begun to talk about our favorite pieces within the new Linde Family Wing; I'd like to continue that debate now. But I have to say right up front that as I toured the galleries, I was slightly startled to realize that in the past fifty years or so the MFA hasn't picked up a single masterpiece, and only a few truly major works. They certainly have major artists on the walls, but those artists are rarely represented by their best stuff . . .

Greg Cook (GC): I’m with you that the contemporary collection does give off the feeling that the MFA hasn’t been able to recognize and acquire masterpieces over the past couple of generations. But I’d argue that the Warhol electric chair painting, Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouette mural, and Kiki Smith’s bronze spiderwoman are among the best things these artists ever made.

TG: Ok, I agree on the Warhol - it may well be a masterpiece - but less so on the Walker and the Smith. I love Walker’s central idea of subverting the silhouette to critique stereotype, but the execution of the racially-charged poop and sex jokes in The Rich Soil Down There (below) seems rather ironic and academic to me; it reads a bit more as a lecture than a painting.  To be fair to Walker, the work is actually a second-generation image from her original cut-outs - which may be why the enormous canvas seems slightly unfocused (I agree with you that it couldn't hold its own in the hall where it was previously hung).  So while it's certainly a worthy (and long overdue!) political statement, is it really a masterpiece? I wish it were, but I doubt it is.

Kara Walker, The Rich Soil Down There

And why be ironic or academic about racism, anyway?  Sometimes I confess I’d like to see a little unbridled horror on the walls of the MFA - American history is full of terrible things, after all.  But where’s the American Goya to honestly document our racial history? Of course Walker has earned her place in any serious contemporary collection - as I said, her concept is brilliant, and The Rich Soil Down There is certainly a solid introduction to her work . . .

Robert Freeman, Black Tie
But by way of contrast, I want to mention Robert Freeman’s Black Tie (at left), on the first floor. It's not as conceptually sophisticated as the Walker, but it's punchier - it does halt you. Plus it has a local provenance; it’s not some sardonic, ambiguous argument on how racism is constructed but rather a view of the thing itself, as it was (and is) lived in Boston. Freeman's wary faces tell you everything you need to know about the injustices his subjects have suffered; there's no theory or exegesis required.

As for Kiki Smith, I confess she often leaves me a little cold - her stuff is too psychologically in-bred for my taste; but I admit some of it is indelible. Still, you only get a hint of her bristling weirdness from the piece in the Linde Wing.  So even though I'm not crazy about her, I also simply don't agree that the MFA has a major Smith.

GC: But I’d also say the MFA’s selections from Mark Bradford, El Anatsui, Matthew Day Jackson, Doris Salcedo, Fred Wilson, Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Lynda Benglis and Morris Louis are all strong works for these artists. Though we can debate whether these artists are worth paying attention to.

El Anatsui, Black River
TG: I'm certainly with you on the El Anatsui; I thought Black River (at right) was great - really gorgeous and exciting - and the Richter (below) was quite strong;  but the others, less so. The Nevelson is very good, the Kelly and Louis are solid, representative choices - but the Starn Twins piece is only so-so, and the Jackson and the Polke are blunt and obvious; as for the rest, well, I suppose they might feel stronger in a more cohesively curated setting . .

GC: Which leads me to another topic—it’s curious that despite the MFA’s talk of trying to link the contemporary collection to its historical, international collections, these galleries pretty much tell the conventional New York-centric version of the past five decades of art history. This decision makes apparent many of the collection’s limitations. But it’s also a sort of daring declaration that the MFA wants to compete in the contemporary art big leagues (and backfill gaps) despite the collection’s present weaknesses.

TG: I know what you mean about the installation being New York-centric; this is most obvious in its political content. We get Auschwitz, Nagasaki, capital punishment, the antebellum South, all in quick succession - the perspective is always progressive, but it's also so provincial that it’s like that New Yorker cartoon of the world seen from Manhattan, only this time with "Nagasaki" and "Nazis" replacing "Jersey" and "Japan" . . .  
As for back-filling gaps, well, that's the key issue, isn't it – but will the MFA do it?  Perhaps. But in the meantime, the collection’s lacunae make it feel scrambled, and the Linde Wing installation doesn’t help the problem.

Because I'm afraid I disagree with you about the gallery "themes;” their Sesame-Street-level articulation (with wall text like "Art can be . . ." and "What's it about?") turned me off, way off. Is the MFA aiming for the philistine pandering of, say, PBS or Harvard’s A.R.T.? We need less of that around here, not more. Or - to put your point another way, Greg - are the dumbed-down questions deliberately designed to camouflage the fact that a sustained, thoughtful program has been missing from the museum's collecting? (Hence, perhaps, the persistent sense of an imported New York rationale pock-marked with curatorial holes?) At any rate, with both timelines and chronology of influence thrown out the window - and the very definition of "contemporary" seeming to stretch back fifty years - the galleries feel over-familiar yet conceptually messy.

Gerhard Richter, Vase
Which is frustrating given that what could truly differentiate the MFA from the contemporary-art pack is the chronological connection between art of the present day and the art that has come before. Right now the MFA seems to be making the statement that “contemporary” art begins around 1960 (I’d agree), and you can half-discern in the collection the rough outlines of two or three major (and, yes, NY-centric) streams in artistic thinking since then: minimalism and then post-minimalism, and – well, whatever you want to call the ironic pop mode that Warhol introduced. Under minimalism you could group artists like Kelly, Judd and Richard Tuttle; under the Warhol banner people like Richter, Cindy Sherman, and the “appropriation” crowd.

The cross currents between these modes are of course complex, and no installation could limn them completely. Still, the MFA doesn’t even try. Indeed, the Linde Wing's "themes" may give such connections lip service, but at the same time actually obscure the dialogue that has played out between these artists.  By hanging a Morris Louis near a Lynda Benglis, for instance, the museum seems to be saying, "See?  They're both poured," which I guess they are, but surely that's where the similarity between Louis and Benglis ends.  Elsewhere, the real aesthetic issues behind various works are left hanging.  What does Gerhard Richter's deconstruction of abstraction (above left) "mean," for instance? You can't tell from these galleries that it’s a dead-pan application of Warholian style to a “heroic” mode. And what exactly was Mark Tansey parodying about Marcel Duchamp in The Enunciation? Again, the satiric riposte of a pictorial tradition to a conceptual one simply feels opaque. Instead of being illuminated on these issues, you get to ask yourself over and over, "What does art mean to ME?" It’s like listening to Marlo Thomas lecture on The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even.

GC: Well, yeah, the MFA is making a mistake by underestimating its audience with its "Art for Dummies" wall texts and gallery themes. This stuff even underestimates philistines.

And I think the MFA’s talk of contemporary art set in the context of the museum’s historic, encyclopedic collection remains — to be generous — aspirational at this point. It’s much like the MFA calling the other new wing the "Art of the Americas" wing, but presenting hardly any art from outside the U.S. One of the few historical connections the contemporary curators make is pairing Louise Lawler’s photo of an MFA gallery with a lousy Monet painting from that gallery. Can you be more literal and simplistic? As an aside, Monet was a great painter, but why keep emphasizing his lousy painting of his wife pretending to be Japanese, which has sour racial overtones and has nothing to do with his genius?

TG: Man, I hate that Monet, too, I’m glad to hear you call it out. I guess the MFA thinks its little “kimono samurai” counts as an early instance of “appropriation” or something. But today it’s burdened by a cutesiness that reads as colonialist – and makes you feel the curators don’t really understand the Kara Walker they’ve hung only twenty feet away! And the Lawler photograph is just funny. Frankly, anything titled “Is She Ours?” plays like an in-joke at a museum that has recently had to return so much art with a dubious provenance to its country of origin. That these two misfired gambits should occupy prime real estate in the Linde Wing speaks volumes, I think, about the issues besetting the museum's new initiative in contemporary art. Greg and I will talk more about possible paths out of those conceptual straits in the final part of this conversation.

Louise Lawler's Is She Ours?  Uh . . . . given the MFA's recent track record, maybe not!


  1. My own reflections on my recent visit to the Linde Family Wing:

    It's not clear to me as to the intended audience for the text on the wall about art and artists: it reminds me of the posters that hang in the art room in elementary schools, but would not children that age be in the company of parents or a guided school tour? As someone who is no stranger to art galleries and museums, it's rather condescending.

    Unlike either Tom or Greg, I happen to enjoy the Monet on a technical and formal level (especially the way that the samurai appears posed to lunge out of the kimono) and I'm not bothered by the "colonialist" implications, if for no other reason than I've seen plenty of Japanese ukiyo-e prints from that same era portraying exotic Americans and exotic Europeans-- and it's certainly more interesting compositionally and conceptually than the vacuous appropriation of Frieda Kahlo by Morimura. However, like Picasso's Rape of the Sabine Women it is out of place in the Linde, and should be restored to its original gallery. The Lawler piece, is, outside the snarky title, is a promotional photo fit for a brochure or official website, not a museum wall.

    The Nick Cave costume is visually interesting, but considering that it was designed for a dance performance, isn't it a curatorial error to not display it with documentation of the dance for which it was created?

    I've seen far stronger works by Tansey (hanging on the walls of the MFA, no less!) and it doesn't seem to fit very well with the surrounding work-- in fact, this is a huge problem to me: the work seems to be grouped with the most superficial logic-- so even when I came upon a strong piece that deserved greater contemplation, it was often with an air of annoyance at what I had seen in the previous gallery.

  2. I agree about the Morimura, by the way; it's worse than the Monet. In fact it's terrible. But I'm not a fan of this artist generally, and so didn't even want to discuss it or him. You're also right that the Picasso is in the wrong gallery - plus I'd argue it muddles the Tuttle it's next to, too. (How's THAT for alliteration?) The Nick Cave piece is pretty good, but I've seen better by him; I agree documentation of the dance it was meant for, if it exists, would have made it more interesting. I also agree that it does seem strange that out of that great Tansey show at the MFA several years ago, this is the canvas they decided to buy!