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Tangka from Seeking Shambhala (Photo: MFA)

The MFA’s small show, Seeking Shambhala, is a quiet treasure chest opened up in a corner gallery of the Asian Wing. With a mythical utopian location at the heart of the exhibit, Shambhala (or as it is sometimes referenced in the West, Shangri-La) offers an open invitation to blend both the ancient and the contemporary. An exquisite collection of thangkas (gifted to the MFA in 1906) is combined with Buddhist objects as well as compelling works by two present-day artists, Gonkar Gyatso from Tibet and Tadanori Yokoo from Japan.

From Sebastian Smee‘s review in the Boston Globe:

Is it a real place? A mere state of mind? No one can say. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside I forget precisely what. The word derives from the Sanskrit, meaning “bliss arising,” or, less rousingly, “source of happiness…” Real or unreal, Shambhala has been described as a kingdom in Central Asia, obscured by a ring of snow-covered mountains and enveloped in fog, ruled by a succession of 32 kings…

The thangkas (there are nearly two dozen of them) are the beating heart of the exhibition; you could spend all your time with them alone. They’re magnificent—at once deliriously decorative, dauntingly potent, and laden with arcane symbolism…They make up one of the largest suites of paintings of the 32 kings of Shambala outside of Asia. And they have been lovingly restored for the occasion: Four MFA conservators…reportedly spent 4,000 hours on the job—removing them from old mounts, retouching faded areas, and adding silk borders, veils, and streamers.

The old is put in high contrast to the new. A series of silkscreens, called Shambala, were created by Yokoo in the 1970’s. They came into existence during a critical period in the artist’s spiritual journey when a monk came to him in a dream and spoke of the “King of Shambhala.” That mystical connection seems very fitting for the spirit of this show.

Gonkar Gyatso’s contemporary piece, “Shambhala in Modern Times,” offers another view from a different angle. His seated Buddha is haloed in the detritus of our noisy commercial world—throwaway images, logos, clippings, advertisements. From a distance it is a luminous and sacral portrait; it is only when you look closely that the nature of the elements making up the image are revealed.

The setting of this show is also in keeping with a spirit of the illusive and ethereal. Walking to the exhibit takes you through quiet galleries of ancient sculptures and meticulously detailed woodcuts. The show itself hangs in the foyer leading into the darkened space that is the Buddhist Temple Room, a space that holds its worthy silence with gravitas. Worthy of more visits, the show is up through September 30.


Gyatso’s Shambhala in Modern Times


Close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala


Another close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala


From Tadanori Yokoo’s series, Shambala


First floor view of the new Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA, Boston

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.)


Gallery view including Kara Walker‘s massive painting, “The Rich Soil Down There”


Works by Gerard Richter and Donald Judd


A few unexpecteds on view: Eclectic exhibit, “Quote? Copy? Update?” includes the old and the new


Artist Yee Sook Yung‘s wild tower, “Translated Vase,” is displayed next to 13th-century celadon ware

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:


A beauty by Ellen Gallagher, “Tally”


Cecily Brown‘s “Skulldiver III”


One of two pieces by Mark Bradford on display, “Backward C”

Another note: For a more in depth view of the new wing, see Greg Cook‘s review in the Phoenix.


Chihuly installation in the new courtyard of the MFA

A new exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture has opened at the MFA. People who are new to his work are often full of awe and delight. I remember feeling that way too when I first encountered his wildly expressive, technically mind-boggling, larger-than-life work. There was nothing quite like it. And his color sense was (and is) extraordinary, so I wasn’t surprised when Judy Pfaff, an artist whose work I adore, went out to study with him at his Pilchuck Glass School.

That was over 20 years ago. Since then I have seen Chihuly installations all over the world. Now I am just not that interested in seeing more. Over exposure? Too much of the same thing? I’m not sure if I have a full explanation.

Sebastian Smee, my favorite reviewer at the Boston Globe, expressed a similar response. He does acknowledge an upside to Chihuly’s work: “Chihuly makes spectacular art. Grandiose and eye-catching, his work is made to interact with architectural or natural environments, and aims squarely at seduction — the seductions of color and form and, not least, of virtuosic technique. It is, one might say, celebratory art.” But he begins his review of the show with this question: “Is it unfair to describe the majority of Dale Chihuly’s glass-based work as tasteless?”

Ah, there’s that squirrely term, taste. Squirrely and yet such a pervasive element in any aesthetic assessment. I’m full of strong opinions about art—as are most artists—and of course those opinions are influenced by my concept of taste.

This is Smee’s take on that issue:

Taste, after all, is a social concept more than an aesthetic one, and is beside the point when judging serious art…And yet, the two concepts — art and taste — can never be completely separated. And if taste is primarily a function of social life, the truth is that Chihuly has for a long time now been a social sort of an artist…

I have no quibbles with Chihuly’s factory-style operation, his terrific rate of production, or his immense popularity. None at all. Nor am I bothered by the general absence of ideas in his work: I am all in favor of senseless beauty, and would prefer it any day to most of the brittle, air-filled intellectual meringue that goes by the description of conceptual art.

It’s the works themselves that I find so off-putting. And again and again I find the problem with them is that they are tasteless.

They’re tasteless in the way that a 15-course meal might be tasteless, or a garage with a dozen Ferraris, or a wardrobe with hundreds of pairs of shoes. Too many of them derive their raison d’etre from numbers and scale, rather than from any kind of inner purpose. They don’t understand restraint. Even when they do give off a whiff of minimalist intent…the combination of materials feels willed and strangely arbitrary.

You sense that if something is outlandishly ambitious, or if it is going to be technically difficult to do, that will be enough reason for Team Chihuly to do it. Make it big, make it bright, make them say, Wow!

I get what Smee is saying, and I am in basic agreement with his point of view. But for me that last line captures something even deeper, a crucial element that seems to be off base here: intent. My personal test for potentially powerful and moving art is often based on the Smith Doctrine*: Art made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. And by that measure this isn’t it.

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* The Smith Doctrine: Roberta Smith first published that memorable phrase in the New York Times in February 2010. Since then I have referenced it many times on this blog. My original post is here.

Two Boston museum recommendations:

At the ICA


Charles LeDray, Mens Suits (Photo: ICA, Boston)

I have looked at examples of Charles LeDray’s work online for several years, but seeing his work in person is a whole different kettle of fish. As an idea his approach seemed almost too precious—his curious obsession (and I mean that literally) with the fabrication of thousands of miniatures, done with a decidedly fine art flair. But that originating concept disappears when you are actually in conversation, face to face, with these artifacts. His Art Angel sponsored exhibit, Mens Suits, is best experienced in silence. The absence of the living forms for whom these items were fashioned is so palpable I found myself tearing up. This is work that must be seen in person, whether you catch it here or at the Whitney Museum in October.

The description from the ICA website:

For over 20 years, New York-based artist Charles LeDray has created handmade sculptures in stitched fabric, carved bone, and wheel-thrown clay. LeDray painstakingly fashions smaller-than-life formal suits, embroidered patches, ties, and hats, as well as scaled-down chests of drawers, doors, thousands of unique, thimble-sized vessels, and even complex models of the solar system.

The exhibition gathers approximately 50 sculptures and installations, from seminal early works to the first U.S. presentation of MENS SUITS (2006-2009), his highly acclaimed project presenting three complex, small-scale vignettes of second-hand clothing shops. The ICA will also premiere Throwing Shadows (2008-2010), an extraordinary new ceramic work including more than 3,000 vessels made of black porcelain, each less than two inches tall.

At the MFA


From Nicholas Nixon, Family Album (Photo: MFA, Boston)

Nicholas Nixon’s new exhibit, Family Album, is a loving family portrait by a consummate photographer. Seeing the Brown Sisters hanging together on a wall is always a show stopper. But I loved the chance to view new images of Nick’s children Sam and Clemmie (who grew up with my own in Brookline.) One photograph is of a note scrawled by a very young Clemmie apologizing for her bad behavior. In another, Sam’s hands are grubbily holding a stack of bills. These fit right in alongside the flesh of these babies next to Bebe’s breast or an array arms and legs indecipherably intertwined.

Certainly other families have been portrayed in an artistic setting. The most notorious is probably still Sally Mann’s photographs of her children 20 years ago. But without being showy or self-aggrandizing, Nixon has captured a wholeness and healthiness in his family that is hard to fake. And the photos are, as always, masterfully toned and exquisitely composed.

From the MFA website:

Among the most compelling of Nicholas Nixon’s series of photographs are the portraits that he has made of his close-knit family. These photographs, taken over time, explore the nature of long-committed relationships. The exhibition features the entire sequence of the celebrated portraits of the artist’s wife, Bebe, and her three sisters. Taken annually, the Brown Sisters pictures reveal gradual changes in their physiques and shifts in their relationships. The exhibition also includes photographs of the artist’s daily life with Bebe and their children Samuel and Clementine (born in the early 1980s), which enable viewers to share in the daily interactions and joys of parenthood. Also included in the show are recent portraits of Bebe and self-portraits that stand for the steadiness of long marriage. Nicholas Nixon, who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art, is one of the most celebrated American photographers of our generation. The Brown Sisters photographs are a promised gift of James and Margie Krebs. Many of the other works in the exhibition are loans from the photographer.


Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I just found a spunky rebuttal to the much-discussed article by the Times’ Robin Pogrebin about the recent era of museum overbuilding. Pogrebin’s article is referenced in yesterday’s post, and anyone who has read her piece should also read through Lee Rosenbaum’s article on CultureGrrl, Not Dead Yet: Museum Building Projects Are Alive and Kicking. (Rosenbaum has written a more detailed analysis of major omissions in Pogrebin’s piece in an earlier posting, also very interesting.)

Rosenbaum’s bottom line with expansion delays and other ongoing projects:

Museum expansion isn’t an evil to be avoided, as Robin’s article seems to suggest. It just needs to be done for the right reasons and with a secure financial underpinning. That means not only knowing in advance where the necessary construction money is coming from, but also amassing the endowment funds required to cover the increased operating costs of the expanded facility. If you don’t know where that money is coming from, you need to delay the project. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Showing a geographical bias, I was pleased to see Rosenbaum highlight U.K.-based Apollo magazine’s choice of Boston’s MFA director Malcolm Rogers as their Personality of the Year. “Among its many photos of its cover boy, the magazine features a shot of Rogers ‘amid construction of the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center’—part of the major renovation and expansion (including a new American wing) designed by Norman Foster. The project successfully concluded its capital campaign in June 2008 (good timing), raising a whopping $504 million.”

The scheduled date for completion of the MFA project is the end of 2010.

irwin-portrait

If you take the cubist idea and really press it…what you have is what I was now being forced to deal with…In other words, the marriage of figure and ground—which is how they always term the cubist achievement—of necessity leads to the marriage between painting and environment; essentially they are the same thing, just taking it one step further. When I married the painting to the environment, suddenly it had to deal with the environment around it as being equal to the figure and having as much meaning.

–Robert Irwin

Night 2 with Robert Irwin wasn’t quite as scintillating and rapid-fire as Night 1 (see the posting below for that report), but it was still well worth the crisp evening walk to the MFA. In this second session I got a better sense of what in his material is the essential boiler plate (not meant to be dismissive but more in line with its original meaning of reusable text rendered in a durable form) and elemental to his argument. Hearing him run through his constellated world view again definitely took me deeper into his way of seeing things. And amazingly, his energy never flags. His passion for this material is palpable, like heat from a high tuned burner.

Night 2’s lecture, The Hidden Structure of the Art World, delivered less on that title’s lofty promise than on the next revelatory layer of the Irwin Cosmology. The quote at the begnning of this post is a fairly succinct description of Irwin’s artistic journey, and the search for that path is at the core of his presentation both nights. But to that end he also suggested a number of side trips worthy of exploration—Edmund Hesserl’s phenomenology, the figure/ground debate, deep space, determined relations vs particular form, the parity of intellect and feeling, the economics of identity, the devolution of hierarchy. Much of this can be had by reading his book, Seeing is Forgetting The Name of the Thing One Sees, but hearing him string these disparate ideas together, in real time, into a living, breathing, rhizomatic, all-at-once, everything is important structure is its own pleasure.

Walking home I felt a renewed connection to my earliest art making self—the extraordinary mystery that is sheer consciousness; the deliciousness of unbridled curiosity; the enchantment of seeing, hearing and tasting the world every waking moment; the often overlooked power of intuition, instinct and feeling; the challenge to be alert to what it is that moves us in this world and then to find the focus and discipline to translate that into a form that others can understand and relate to. It is a process that has often left me utterly speechless and intoxicated with the uncomplicated joy of it all. (At one point last night Irwin said, “For me, the crux of being an artist is to take something I know and make it comprehensible.”)

This passage from Piet Mondrian’s Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art (1937) captures some of the Irwinian view:

In spite of world disorder, intuition and instinct are carrying humanity to a real equilibrium…Intuition becomes more and more conscious and instinct more and more purified…The culture of particular form gives way to determined relations.

That last line is an extraordinary one—the “culture of particular form” giving way to “determined relations.” And so much in keeping with Irwin’s point of view.

And to whom I give the last shot:

My art has never been about ideas…My pieces were never meant to be dealt with intellectually as ideas, but to be considered experientially.