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A Visit to Boston's MFA

A Visit to Boston’s MFA
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   Even back in the 1970s when I was a graduate student in Boston, I wasn’t a big fan of the Museum of Fine Arts. I dropped in at the elegant and eccentric little Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum regularly just to smell the gardens in winter and breathe the ancient air, but the MFA struck me as somehow stuffy and academic.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

My interest in art is almost entirely contemporary and the MFA rarely seems to mount contemporary exhibitions that make me want to go to Boston. I’m much more likely to visit the DeCordova out in Lincoln or the ICA in Boston. But the MFA’s new $12.5 million Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, which opened in September, prompted me to give the MFA another try.

   The Linde Family Wing transforms the former West Wing back into a wing. It had been the main entrance for decades. The 80,000 square feet of new space provides 21,000 square feet of exhibition space for contemporary art in seven new galleries. The new wing may signal a new MFA commitment to contemporary art, but then the investment in the Linde Family Wings pales compared to the $504 million invested in the 53-gallery Art of the Americas Wing that open a year ago.

   While we’re on the subject of money, my wife Carolyn and I, our daughter Tess, and one of her college friends visited the MFA during its Columbus Day Fall Open House when admission was free. Otherwise it would have cost the four of us $84. Given the $18 I paid to park in the museum lot, I kept thinking I should be seeing the Red Sox for that kind of money. The MFA does, however, make the $22 adult admission fee “voluntary” on Wednesday’s after 4 p.m. All museums should be open free of charge at least one day a week.

From Jonathan Borofky's I Dreamed I Could Fly

The signal architectural statement of the new Linde wing is a soaring glass galleria that makes the museum look and feel a bit like an airline terminal. Or maybe a human aviary would be more apt as the lofty, barrel-vaulted galleria features several suspended male figures comprising Maine artist Jonathan Borofsky’s I Dreamed I Could Fly.

   Befitting a gorgeous fall Monday holiday with free admission, the MFA was packed with people. The new wing is a very social and sociable space with restaurant, bookstore, and kids horsing around in the courtyard. That’s the way I like a museum to be, lively rather than hushed. There’s nothing sacred about art. It’s interesting stuff, but it’s just stuff.

   The featured exhibition for the opening of the new contemporary art wing seemed an odd choice. Ellsworth Kelly: Wood Sculpture (through March 4, 2012) brigs together 30 of the artist’s unpainted minimalist sculptures, pieces so deceptively straightforward and bland that they prompted the bored gallery guard to occasionally quip, “Want to buy some lumber?” Kelly’s art is all about high key color. Subtle wood tones don’t do a thing for his hard-edge forms.

Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism by Josiah McElheny

The artwork that seemed to draw the most interest in the new wing was Josiah McElheny’s fascinating Endlessly Repeating Twentieth Century Modernism, a glass vitrine filled with glass bottles and mirrors that begs the question, “Is it art or just an illusion?”

Lime Green Icicle Tower by Dale Chihuly (detail)

Another work of glass art commands the Shapiro Family Courtyard begging to be bought. Dale Chihuly’s 42-foot Lime Green Icicle Tower has been displayed with a little glass donation box asking the public to help “Keep the Icicle Tower at the MFA.” Some 1,000 visitors contributed more than $1 million to purchase the gaudy spike.

Please by Jeppe Hein

In general, I’d have to say the MFA makes a little took much use of light art. Maurizio Nannucci’s neon text, All Art Has Been Contemporary is a neon non sequitor.  Then there’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts grad Wade Aarons’ INTENT, a word-grid of incandescent light bulbs timed to burn out one by one. And Jeppe Hein’s Please reads like neon instructions for visiting the museum rather than a museum piece.

   The big fall-winter show at the MFA is Degas and the Nude through February 5, 2012), a scholarly exhibition of some 160 works lent from as many as 50 collections. It is a feast for the eyes, but the Degas show could actually use a little more light. I know light waves are destructive, but I can’t imagine Edgar Degas ever intended that his paintings be hung in darkened galleries.

Installation view of Degas and the Nude

Though I realize this little verbal visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston probably sounds a bit snarky, we all enjoyed our visit enormously. And the fact that the MFA is dedicating more and more important space to the art of our times will be enough to get me back more often in the future.

 [Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston MA, 617-267-9300.]

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Edgar Allen Beem

Author:

Edgar Allen Beem

Biography:

Take a look at art in New England with Edgar Allen Beem. He’s been art critic for the Portland Independent, art critic and feature writer for Maine Times, and now is a freelance writer for Yankee, Down East, Boston Globe Magazine, The Forecaster, and Photo District News. He’s the author of Maine Art Now (1990) and Maine: The Spirit of America (2000). In 1988, he won the Manufacturers Hanover Art/World Award for Distinguished Newspaper Art Criticism for his coverage of the 1987 auction sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises. Ed says, “My credo as an arts writer has long been: ‘The work of art is the search for meaning.’ I believe art is not only a form of personal expression but also a form of inquiry, every bit as much a quest for truth as scientific research.” Ed Beem’s newest book, Backyard Maine: Local Essays, has just been published by Tilbury House, Publishers, of Gardiner, Maine. It’s not about the meaning of art; it’s about the meaning of family, community, and life in general. Edgar Beem is currently at work on a new book about contemporary art in Maine to be published in the fall of 2012.
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One Response to A Visit to Boston’s MFA

  1. William Delia July 10, 2014 at 10:10 am #

    It never ceases to astonish me how anyone who possesses even a modicum of intelligence can walk the galleries of one the great Art Museums of the world and describe it as being “stuffy and academic.” Didn’t you SEE what was all around you? All one has to do is stand at the foot of the grand staircase and look up. THAT should’ve been your introduction of things to come. Too bad you missed it.

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