The MFA Gets Contemporary, Linde-Style

I didn’t mean to keep track of the last time I was in the MFA’s west wing. Not counting trips to the bookstore, I’m pretty sure it was during their special Egyptian tomb exhibit. What strikes me most about that realization is that in this same space, where once artifacts bore witness to Pharoanic times, there now hardly exists anything pre-1955. This wing, designed by I.M. Pei in 1981, has borne changing exhibits for decades but only as of this past weekend has it had a concrete identity, namely the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. And while its offerings are still smaller than, say, MoMA in New York, the overall space has a freshness that helps fill out what I’ve felt has been missing at the MFA since … well, since my first visit to the MFA more than 25 years ago.

I will always be grateful to the MFA for teaching an adolescent version of me that John Singer Sargent and ancient Asian vessels are, like, totally cool — but I admit that my youthful mid-’80s days were spent taking the train from New Haven into New York to see what was completely new, even if it was something as dubious as a head of cabbage circling a SoHo gallery on an automated railroad track (true story). When I’d take the train or drive up to Boston, the MFA was where I got an education, but elsewhere was where I got my kicks.

Linde Family Wing Façade for Contemporary Art. (Photo copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Thankfully, this new Linde wing should go a long way toward making generations of teens feel that art is cool and relevant, but it also does the right thing by showing that this field of art has close links to the rest of art history. When I asked MFA director Malcolm Rogers about how the MFA could compete with the ICA, he said: “What we’re doing is very different and very complementary. The ICA has helped create the new interest in contemporary art in Boston; we’re aiming to show it in an encyclopedic context. We can show thousands of years of art alongside the wealth of contemporary art.”

And in my tour with Al Miner, assistant curator of contemporary art, that message of linking the eras and the effect of the galleries within the museum is loud and clear. The Farago gallery of contemporary decorative arts provides a subtle bridge between the Impressionists and a room filled with the likes of Donald Judd and Gerhard Richter. In fact, as you stand in the contemporary gallery and look down the long lanes of striking glass vases, you can just see Degas’s famous bronze ballerina, and it works. Meanwhile, within the galleries themselves, the MFA curators have sparingly included older works to comment on the new, whether as conscious or unconscious inspiration. Cindy Sherman’s self-portrait as Medusa stares across one hall at Monet’s portrait of his wife, Camille, in a Japanese robe. As Miner points out, Picasso’s Rape of the Sabines (1963) shares blocks of blue and red and a jumbled composition with Richard Tuttle’s sculptural installation System 5: Glass Suit (2011). Other museums may surpass the MFA in their contemporary holdings, but it’s true that few if any can quite contextualize them like the Fenway institution.

The vaulted ceiling of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. (Photo copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

So the wing seems to slot in nicely with the rest of the museum, and indeed that open galleria that felt like lost space is now filled with neon art that links everything together, but what about the art in the galleries themselves? In short, it is a very nice, easily digestible and varied array of big and emerging names, all arranged to play on each other and to maximize each work’s impact. The biggest names are here (Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, SMFA alum Ellsworth Kelly), as are the newer established generation (Sherman, Kara Walker, Rachel Whiteread, Chuck Close). But Miner said that the biggest and most welcome surprise has been that people have not been rushing to the big works but particularly lingering over pieces they don’t know.

I personally was glad to be introduced to three works: 1) Iago’s Mirror (2009), by Fred Wilson, a bewildering construction of ornate Victorian-style mirrors, made out of black Murano glass; 2) Bockscar (2010), by Matthew Day Jackson, a view from the cockpit of the plane that dropped the Bomb on Nagasaki, fashioned from charred wood and atomic sunset-colored formica; and 3) Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg, & Moore (2007), by Carlson/Strom (Mary Ellen Strom teaches at the SMFA), a video in the wing’s new media gallery that shows a quartet of real New York corporate lawyers engaged in spastic performance art as they manically repeat various poses and movements from their actual body language during litigation. All these works, and many others there, give you that feeling of seeing something you haven’t seen before and you’re happy for it. This is more fun than going to school and looking at what you’re supposed to look at.

Speaking of “looking,” then there’s one of the best new acquisitions of the museum, Christian Marclay’s “The Clock,” screening just down the hall from the Linde wing, through the Asian arts galleries. There was that kerfuffle a few weeks ago about how the 24-hour film installation would only be visible during museum hours, except if you bought tickets to the museum’s opening gala. Well, the museum has made 24-hour viewings available to the general public on a limited pre-schedule basis, with the next one starting Sunday Oct. 9 at 4 p.m. and lasting until Monday Oct. 10 at 4 p.m. Is it worth all the fuss? I would say absolutely, and if I didn’t have a wife and child, I’d park myself there for the duration. Miner did warn me to keep track of how much time I spent in that screening room, even despite the constant reminders of hour and minute on screen: “Ironically, when you’re sitting there watching it, time loses all sense of meaning. I’ve seen people go in planning for a couple minutes and staying three hours.” It’s true, “The Clock” is the most enjoyable contemporary-art timesuck I’ve ever experienced.

And that’s emblematic of the Linde wing as a whole. It’s just enjoyable, without sacrificing quality for flash. Something as uncompromising as Ellsworth Kelly’s stunningly severe wood sculptures become absorbing to neophytes in this space. Could it be bigger, more comprehensive? Maybe, but the quality of the works on display is consistently strong. And though the ICA can certainly grouse that they were the first to do up some of these artists in this city (Mark Bradford, Charles LeDray, Roni Horn, for example), I’m just glad that they have a continuing home here. In a confident but understated way, it feels like a new era for this tradition-bound museum and this tradition-bound burg.