Opening up to big changes at the MFA


By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Less than a year after the opening of the ambitious and highly successful Art of the Americas Wing, Team MFA has rolled up its sleeves yet again and opened a second wing, this one dedicated to contemporary art.

Exhausted, frazzled, and bleary-eyed they may be. But they have done a fine job.

In this case, the bricks and mortar were already there. The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, as it is now called, was originally designed by I.M. Pei, tacked on to the west side of the building in 1981 and used primarily for temporary exhibitions. But over the past 12 months or so, it has had a major overhaul.

Chief among the changes is the provision of a suite of large galleries for the display of contemporary art from the museum’s permanent collection.

This in itself is momentous.

The MFA has never been known for its interest in living artists. Internationally, it has a reputation for being one of the world’s greatest museums, but also one of the most aesthetically conservative. Even the MFA’s renowned Impressionist holdings are almost all innocuously rural. Its 20th-century holdings are feeble.

All this makes the opening of a contemporary art wing a very different project from the Art of the Americas Wing. American art is an area in which the MFA already had credibility. The museum could afford to take risks, the biggest of which was the conceptual leap from “American art’’ to “Art of the Americas.’’

If that wing was all about investing boldly in order to expand aggressively, the new Linde Family Wing is about setting up a savings account. The simple act of doing it feels good and full of hope.

The result is not likely to blow your socks off. It’s not the world’s greatest collection. But I believe it has been done well.

Above all, the new display feels original. It’s not a mail-order display of predictable names, orthodox layouts. Rather, it feels as if it has sprouted organically from inside the MFA - although with an eye on neighboring museums, such as the Institute of Contemporary Art - and is the product of its curators’ own intelligent thinking.

The works on show are not embarrassed about being in a universal museum, or about sharing space with great works of 19th-century art or Asian art, or with centuries of fashion, craft, and design.

On the contrary, many of the works have been chosen because they have real links with other parts of the collection. For instance, a dress from the fashion and textile department with a design based on Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can images is displayed here, in a gallery partly devoted to Pop Art. Smart.

The MFA’s great Monet painting “La Japonaise,’’ to cite another example, was hung beside appropriation artist Louise Lawler’s “Is She Ours?,’’ which is a 1990 photograph of “La Japonaise’’ alongside other works in the MFA’s Impressionist gallery. Bold.

Before we troop through the galleries one by one, a petty gripe: I fear the MFA has started from a dubious premise, which is that contemporary art is frightening to the public. It has concluded that it must try to be soothing, to speak in the most welcoming, mellifluous tones, to present everything in a context of smiling reassurance.

I certainly don’t begrudge the MFA’s not wanting to alienate people. But my own experience - as a critic, as a father - is that if you spend too much time patting people on the head, they will sooner or later tell you to buzz off.

The patting on the head comes in the form of wall texts that, while admirably clear and unpretentious, can err on the side of the fatuous: “There are no set rules here . . . It’s about triggering responses, forging a connection - with you,’’ we read at one point. And later: “Anything is fair game.’’ One gallery’s thematic title is: “What’s It About?’’ Another’s is: “Art can be . . .’’ It’s hard to shake off the feeling that whoever’s talking to you thinks you’re in second grade.

Open spaces The galleries have no fixed beginning or end. But the part of the display that most people will see first is the Eunice and Julian Cohen Galleria, a long, open atrium with two levels that doubles as a social space (bookshop, cafe, restaurant, education center). Most of the walls here were not previously available for displaying art. Now, a selection of text-based works, many utilizing neon, have been installed.

The two centerpiece works in the installation, called “Sparking Dialogue,’’ are Maurizio Nannucci’s neon sign spelling out “All art has been contemporary,’’ and Jeppe Hein’s wall sign, also in neon. Hein’s work starts with the word “Please’’ followed by “Enjoy, Relax, Dance, Touch, Flirt, Wonder, Feel,’’ and so on. (These words are interspersed with a few scattered naughty words, like “Steal,’’ “Smoke,’’ and “Flash,’’ that have been dutifully crossed out.)

Both pieces are so eager to please, so “museum-ready,’’ that the possibility they might unfurl in the imagination as art is zero. If the MFA so desperately wanted to convey these messages, it should have had its graphic designers simply inscribe them on the walls.

Nonetheless, the Galleria strikes me overall as a success. The theme of text and neon feels smart. The weaker works are compensated for by strong pieces by the likes of Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, Cerith Wyn Evans (a chandelier flashing in Morse code, with a TV monitor showing live translations), and the young School of the Museum of Fine Arts alum Wade Aaron.

Aaron has created a field of light bulbs on a wall. The lighted ones form the word “INTENT.’’ Over the course of two years, one by one, the bulbs will die. It’s a brilliant riff on a concept - “intention’’ - that rules ruthlessly over our lives, even as it constantly fails. And of course, it articulates something inherent in the work itself, which we are free to interpret as we please, without recourse to the artist’s intentions.

The first room in the run of galleries is a bit of a mess. But as such it nicely illustrates its stated theme, which is that art can be anything. It kicks off with Piero Manzoni’s neat little “Declaration of Authenticity,’’ a framed certificate that declares itself “as an aesthetic work for all intents’’ (that word again!) “and purposes, as of the date below.’’

Picasso’s 1963 “Rape of the Sabine Women’’ looks as anomalous as everything else here. But it, too, demonstrates that art can be anything, and that even in 1963, artists were looking both to history and to contemporary world events (it’s thought the painting was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis) and still trying to get to grips with it all in the medium of paint.

Nearby, Lynda Benglis’s frozen gush of aluminum jutting out from the wall is superb. The Richard Tuttle sculptural assemblage - a recent acquisition - looks quizzically commanding. And the beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres leading into the second gallery is a nicely theatrical gesture.

Brilliant touches It’s only as you get further into the galleries that you see touches you would never find in museums of contemporary art, but which feel apt at the MFA.

First comes a small display of jewelry by Giampaolo Babetto and some brightly painted ceramic cups by Ken Price. In both displays, the emphasis on geometry and color chimes with other works in the room by Ellsworth Kelly, Anne Truitt, and Tony Smith.

Then comes a deliberate mash-up of art and design, encompassing everything from toile wallpaper (by the contemporary Scottish duo “The Timorous Beasties’’) to Korean ceramics, a tea set, a violin, a Wedgwood potpourri jar, various examples of contemporary appropriation art, and Monet’s “La Japonaise.’’

It sounds disastrous. I think it’s brilliant.

The tea set is by Cindy Sherman, an artist deeply engaged with aspects of female psychology and identity throughout history. It inserts Sherman’s own face, replete with slovenly makeup, for the expected rosy cheeks of Madame de Pompadour.

It chimes not only with a nearby photograph by Sherman, but with other theatrical portraits of diva-like women in the vicinity - by Yasumasa Morimura (a double self-portrait as Frida Kahlo), by Monet (“La Japonaise’’), and by Doug and Mike Starn (“Double Mona Lisa With Self-Portrait’’).

This whole section, which is focused on historical quotation and pastiche, suggests a rich dialogue not only between contemporary art and the art of the past, but between art and design. Few other museums have the resources to do this kind of thing convincingly. I hope that the MFA pushes further into this territory in the future.

The next section struck me as the weakest. The theme (I paraphrase) is making familiar things strange; there is also a political subtext to much of the work. Some works - notably the sculpture by Doris Salcedo, a crib turned into a cage - are excellent. But the majority come across as second-rate.

Better was the nearby video gallery. The curators, Edward Saywell and Jen Mergel, have chosen well. There are only three works, and one is by Israel’s Sigalit Landau. It shows the artist, naked, floating upright in the Dead Sea, balancing on a watermelon. As an image combining the surreally poetic with the political - Landau’s naked, vulnerable, spiritually imploring pose, the attempt to find equilibrium - it seems exemplary.

These galleries culminate in a miscellany of collage-related work, along with robust pieces by Matthew Day Jackson, Gerhard Richter, Josiah McIlheney, Charles LeDray, Donald Judd, and Mark Bradford. It’s a great climax, although one’s sense that the MFA is trying to imitate and perhaps outdo the ICA is hard to dispel: The ICA has recently hosted shows by Bradford and LeDray, as well as Roni Horn, whose work appears earlier in the galleries.

From here, one turns into a beautiful gallery, full of natural light, that has been set aside for contemporary decorative arts. The opening display is a selection of works from the Daphne and Peter Farago Collection. Many of them are in glass or ceramic, and they’re intensely seductive.

You can’t help but notice subtle connections between these pieces and some of the more abstract works in the earlier galleries. Why, one wonders, do we think of one kind of object as art, and another as “decorative art’’? And what is it about the word “decorative’’ that tends to consign objects in the latter category to inferior status?

It’s one of many things to think about in the new Linde Family Wing, which, all in all, is an auspicious opening gambit in the MFA’s long overdue effort to get with the times.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

CORRECTION: An earlier versions of this story contained an incomplete thematic title for one of the galleries in the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts. The title is “Art can be…”

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