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A beacon among its contemporaries

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 11, 2011

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The Institute of Contemporary Art is celebrating its 75th anniversary this fall, and plans to do so in style. Anniversaries come and go. But for a gallery devoted to showing challenging new art by living artists, three quarters of a century is an impressive milestone.

As director Jill Medvedow asks: ‘‘What’s not to celebrate? Seventy-five years as a pioneering museum dedicated to contemporary art; 75 years of bravery and prescience in charting the course of contemporary art.’’

To mark the anniversary, the museum has lined up a bonanza of art and performance from September through December. The festivities will include a category-busting group show about the link between drawing and dance, as well as a poetic nine-screen film installation by Isaac Julien, a vast new work for the lobby by the street artist Swoon, and the first museum solo presentation of the collagist and sculptor Jessica Jackson Hutchins.

The ICA has had no fewer than 13 homes over the past 75 years. The sleek waterfront building that opened in 2006, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is only the latest. But its appearance signaled new ambition on the part of an institution that, though it had much in its past to boast about, had been languishing.

The ICA opened in 1936 as the Boston Museum of Modern Art, seeing itself as a ‘‘renegade offspring’’ of the Museum of Modern Art In New York. It opened with the first survey show of Paul Gauguin in the Boston area. Salvador and Gala Dalí turned up at the first fund-raiser dressed as sharks.

The following year — 1937 — it organized, together with the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred Barr, a groundbreaking survey of Dada. And in 1938, it was the first American museum to mount an exhibition pairing Henri Matisse with Pablo Picasso.

The ICA took a stand against Nazism in 1939, when it mounted a show of works by artists labeled as ‘‘degenerate’’ by Hitler, including Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, and Paul Klee. It severed ties that year with MoMA, but in 1940 it hosted MoMA’s Picasso exhibition ‘‘Picasso, Forty Years of His Art,’’ including the work ‘‘Guernica,’’ which went on to become the most famous painting of the 20th century.

The ICA mounted surveys of modern Mexican artists, of Boston Expressionists Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine, and of African - American artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. It was responsible for introducing the likes of George Braque, Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Laurie Anderson to local audiences.

By 1948, the museum had changed its name to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Its unique mission — to bring the world’s best living artists to the attention of local audiences — was gradually replicated all over the world. The effect of this international phenomenon was transformative, transferring much of the responsibility for uncovering new talent from commercial art dealers to forward-thinking museums.

In more recent times, the ICA has played a huge role in bringing to the world’s attention art by Tara Donovan, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Vanessa Beecroft, Kara Walker, Cildo Meireles, Ellen Gallagher, Tony Oursler, Cindy Sherman, Rachel Whiteread, and Cornelia Parker, among others.

From the outset, the ICA wanted to connect art with other areas of creativity — particularly dance and performance. In 1938, when it held its Picasso and Matisse show, part of the display was a set of dance costumes designed by those two artists for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

This year, ‘‘Dance/Draw,’’ the first exhibition at the ICA organized by its new chief curator, Helen Molesworth, provides a perfect opportunity to extend those links. The show will include 80 works — video, photography, drawings, sculptures, and performances — that will, according to the ICA , trace ‘‘the journey of the line from changes in drawing in the 1960s to its explosion off the page and into three-dimensional space — ultimately finding itself in the realm of dance.’’

The exhibition, explains Molesworth, ‘‘is an attempt to make sense of a handful of related trends: the renewed interest in post modern dance, particularly Judson Dance Theater; the new role dance and performance are playing in traditionally visual arts-based institutions; and the wonderful interconnections between dance and drawing that can now be seen because of this resurgent interest.’’

French choreographer Jérôme Bel will be represented in the show by a film of the ballet ‘‘Véronique Doisneau.’’ His documentary film about the dancer Cédric Andrieux will also be screened between Nov. 4 and 6, as part of a rich program of dance-related events.

Perhaps the most notable of these will take place over three days — Nov. 11-13 — when the Trisha Brown Dance Company performs a survey of dance pieces selected from its 40-year history.

A few days later (Nov. 18-20), the link between dance and art is strengthened by the world premiere of a collaboration between choreographer Trajal Harrell and the sculptor Sarah Sze. The project is the fruit of a residency at the ICA one year ago, and it’s the latest in an ongoing series called ‘‘Co Lab,’’ supported by the ICA and Summer Stages Dance at Concord Academy.

On Nov. 25, Liz Collins will stage the second of two live performances (the first is on Oct. 16) called ‘‘Knitting Nation.’’ Collins recruits volunteers who wear knitted costumes designed by her and; the volunteers will work in front of the public to create knitted installations. These latest episodes in her ‘‘Knitting Nation’’ project are subtitled ‘‘Phase 7: Darkness Descends’’ and ‘‘Phase 8: Under Construction.’’ Expect thrills and spills — or the knitting equivalent.

The ICA is, of course, using its 75th anniversary to attempt some heavy-duty fund - raising. In an initiative called ‘‘75 for 75,’’ it has invited an array of artists previously associated with the museum to donate works of art. They works will be put on sale after a 40-day viewing period (Sept. 26-Nov. 7), with the proceeds to benefit the ICA. Among those participating are Donovan, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Hirschhorn, Charles LeDray, Catherine Opie, Rachel Perry Welty, R.H. Quaytman, and Ugo Rondinone.

The big birthday bash itself will be held on Oct. 28, and will be a great opportunity for fundraising.

On Dec. 10, the 75th anniversary festivities will wind up with a Community Day. The public will have free access to the museum, and will be treated not just to the exhibits but to an array of special events, including musical performances, art and dance activities relating to ‘‘Dance/Draw,’’ and gallery talks about the art as well as the architecture.

The latter might be of particular interest, because December Dec. 10 is in fact the 5th fifth birthday of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro waterfront building that has done so much to give the ICA new life. ‘‘With this this milestone,’’ says Medvedow, ‘‘we celebrate the ICA’s transformation of the waterfront, the city, and the landscape for contemporary art and civic life in Boston.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

DANCE/DRAW Institute of Contemporary Art

Helen Molesworth, curator

Oct. 7-Jan. 16.

100 Northern Ave. 617-478-3100,