I’m of several minds when it comes to the oft-argued place that museums should/could/would claim in the cultural milieu of contemporary life. Beyond the obvious tensions—high brow vs low brow (in a world that is increasingly no brow), elitism vs art for the common man—it is daunting to create a meaningful experience of contemporary art. Unwieldy and uncategorizable, it is bit like herding cats and not a job I would want. No matter what you do, some of your stakeholders are going to be unhappy.
So yes, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA in Boston that opened last weekend pleases some and irritates others. As has been pointed out, the collection is not a comprehensive one. (Not surprising given how many years the MFA was not actively expanding their contemporary holdings.) The thematic approach to the galleries—each room of eclectic work is held together by titles such as “What’s it about?,” “Quote? Copy? Update?,” or “What’s going on here?”—is the increasingly common Art For Dummies approach to complex visual traditions. But to focus on listing the important contemporary artists whose works are missing or to roll one’s eyes at commentaries written for middle school level reading comprehension is to overlook what is extraordinary about a new and updated museum wing devoted to contemporary art and its issues. I’m for celebrating the rising tide that raises all boats, for increased exposure, visibility and comfort with contemporary art memes.
I grew up near San Francisco, and the only museum that showed contemporary work, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was housed on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center. While paltry and small, the SFMOMA still gave the adolescent version of me a chance to sit with a Rothko in person, to see Stellas and Motherwells and Diebenkorns. I didn’t visit New York City or Europe until I was 18 so this was my art world as a child.
That space was dinky and dingy when compared to Mario Botta‘s iconic five story museum that now holds a city block just south of Market Street. The new structure offers twenty times the viewing venues of its earlier incarnation, and the face of contemporary art in the Bay Area today in general is substantially improved. But thank god for its earlier incarnation. It changed my life.
It is a different world now of course. My kids grew up with the MFA just a 20 minute walk away and with frequent trips to New York City, Europe and Asia. The Boston area is now museum rich with new and improved versions of the ICA, the Fogg, Peabody Essex, de Cordova and the Gardner. But in a political landscape increasingly dividing haves from have nots, I have a heightened appreciation for institutions that are committed to universal access and to the common weal. During dark times like these, I just can’t be overly critical when gratitude is the more appropriate response.
One reason to visit the museum soon: Christian Marclay‘s The Clock. I have read—as have you no doubt—all the hype about this 24 hour long montage. I was curious but a bit skeptical. Well. I was and am completely intoxicated. I walked in and thought I would stay for 20 minutes. Three hours later, I was rapt and still didn’t want to leave.
This trancelike work flows from one scene to another, stitched together with references to time (in complete sequence with IRL time) and a deft weaving of haunting moments of human life. Using elements such as rain falling, the view from a window or a running figure to move from one sequence to the next, Marclay lifts you ever so gently into a transcendent sense of our own collective unconscious, a (mostly) Western dreaming that is breathtaking. Almost 24 hours later, I’m still caught in its magic. As Sebastian Smee wrote, it is a dazzling piece of work.
(Note: The MFA is mounting the full 24 hour showing on October 9 starting at 4pm and running through Monday. I will be out of town that weekend for a wedding but if I were in Boston I wouldn’t miss it.)
In addition to being pleased to see works by Richard Tuttle, El Anatsui, Kiki Smith and Sigmar Polke, here are a few other personal favorites on view:
Another note: For a more in depth view of the new wing, see Greg Cook‘s review in the Phoenix.