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Galleries

Honoring Maud Morgan

New space and exhibit celebrate legendary local artist

Maud Morgan’s “Dawn, S VIII’’ at the Art Institute of Boston Gallery in Porter Square. Maud Morgan’s “Dawn, S VIII’’ at the Art Institute of Boston Gallery in Porter Square.
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 6, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — After 10 years of planning, legal battles, and construction, Maud Morgan Arts holds its grand opening this evening, from 5 to 7 p.m.

“We wanted a building by and for artists,’’ says Terry DeLancey, executive director of Agassiz Baldwin Community, the Cambridge community center of which Maud Morgan Arts is a part. The 3,200 square-foot building, named for the legendary Cambridge artist, houses four studios, where classes are already offered in printmaking, clay, painting and drawing, and 3-D work. Local artists can also work independently in the space. The building sits behind the community center on a large plot of land in the Agassiz neighborhood, between Harvard Square and Porter Square.

The process was slowed, DeLancey says, in part because of some neighbors’ objections to the project. “We were in court for six years and had two appeals,’’ she says. But about a year ago, the legal opposition came to an end, and efforts shifted toward creating the new center.

The handsome building, designed by architect Wendy Prellwitz of Prellwitz Chilinski Associates, takes after the carriage house that was torn down to make room for it. Nine prominent Cambridge artists have made works permanently installed in and around the arts center, including arcing benches with botanically inspired wrought iron backs by furniture maker Mitch Ryerson, and a fluid, busy round mural, titled “Drawing Class,’’ by painter John Devaney, which includes an image of Maud Morgan holding a paintbrush.

The arts center’s gallery has been around for years, on the first floor of Agassiz Baldwin Community. But it’s been rechristened the Fay Chandler Gallery, honoring the 88-year-old artist, Cambridge resident, and community activist. Chandler, founder of the Art Connection, which facilitates the placement of original art by local artists in nonprofit agencies, is having a big year. In September, she had a retrospective exhibit at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. Now she inaugurates the newly named gallery with a charming exhibit.

Most of the works are constructions of found objects. Many unexpectedly coalesce into odd characters. “I Made It’’ features a proud fellow whose torso is a rectangular wooden block. He has blue plastic bottle caps for feet, and his head is an oven dial.

Chandler is an old-school surrealist, pairing unlikely objects in individual works to provoke strange associations. She also has a feminist slant and a distinctly wry sense of humor. Louise Bourgeois and Meret Oppenheim come to mind, seeing pieces such as “Shoe Series: Spider,’’ which sports a plastic spider upon a gridded platter amid a variety of geometric forms, backed by a framed picture of a pink pump crawling with beaded arachnids, and “Jump Higher,’’ a featureless cloth doll bidding a lumpy white dog to leap under a poker chip moon. But Chandler has a lighter touch than those artists. These works evince an imagination in constant motion, but not a tortured one.

Maud Morgan, who lived from 1903 to 1999, made a fast start of her career, studying with the legendary painter and teacher Hans Hofmann, showing at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York in 1938, and exhibiting alongside Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Then she moved to Andover, where her husband, artist Patrick Morgan, got a teaching gig at Phillips Academy, and she mentored a student named Frank Stella. Ultimately, she landed in Cambridge.

As a woman living in the suburbs of Boston, Morgan found her career muffled, but she kept working, making abstract paintings and prints, self-portraits, and in her final years, collages. The Maud Morgan Purchase Prize for under-appreciated, mid-career Massachusetts women artists was permanently endowed at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1997, though it hasn’t been awarded since 2006. (An MFA spokeswoman said the prize “is currently being evaluated.’’)

An exhibition of Morgan’s silkscreen prints from the 1960s and 1970s at the Art Institute of Boston at University Hall in Porter Square demonstrates how masterful she was with form and color. The works are giddily chromatic, formally flat, and economical. They pounce off the walls and ravish the eye.

“Dawn, S VIII’’ features two blue overlapping humps, creating a central, gray, pregnant almond shape. A triangular sliver of lavender shoots up the center, like the needle on a compass. “Omega, S II’’ riffs on a figure eight, with two stacked, swollen O’s — the top one in cool periwinkle with a burnt orange circle in the middle, the other in orange, peaked like a fat water drop, with a periwinkle circle inside.

Sometimes Morgan takes her cue from landscape, distilling recognizable structures into clean abstractions. The simmering “Arizona, S XX’’ sports a warm brown hill against a yellow sky, with a thin orange cloud floating in from the left. A liquid gray shadow gently cups the bottom of the hill.

In the piece “Lock, S XVI,’’ Morgan foregoes her romance with tone to focus exclusively on form — it’s all in black, white, and gray. The central image resembles a black star putting a headlock on a white one; the two are sharp edged, struggling, or in fierce embrace.

The show is a delight, packed with keen visual wit and color combinations that can make you swoon. Imagine if Morgan had stayed in New York, or had just been a man. What a career she could have had.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cmcq@speakeasy.net.

FAY CHANDLER:

The Object as Subject At: Fay Chandler Gallery,

20 Sacramento St., Cambridge, through Oct. 8. 617-349-6287, www.maudmorganarts.org

MAUD MORGAN:

The Prints: 1969-1976 At: Art Institute of Boston

Gallery, University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Oct. 16. 617-585-6656, www.lesley.edu/aib/events/events.html