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.]

  • William

    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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