Sunday, December 15, 2013

See It All's Spring 2014 Preview

Well, it has been a great pleasure and privilege to see such a wonderful group of exhibitions this fall. My personal favorites would have to be the ICA Boston's Amy Sillman: one lump or two and MIT Museum's 5000 Moving Parts, with WAM's [remastered] close behind. The spring of 2014 has some exciting and varied offerings for See It All. Exhibitions featuring painting, installation, textiles, drawings and rare books and manuscripts will all be opening in and around the Hub.

The Shows

Fans of quilts and textiles can continue their exposure to amazing work started at New England Quilt Museum's The Roots of Modern Quilting by attending their follow-up show Quilting Japan, opening in mid-January.  Then, in April, the MFA mounts Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection which should present a diverse and masterful array of examples of the quilting art.

Two very interesting examinations of the act and meaning of collecting can be seen by visiting the Currier Museum's collaboration with Andrew Witkin, Exploring the Currier Inside and Out: Andrew Witkin, Among Others. This meditation on collecting and collections can be followed up in April with the Boston Athenaeum's second installment of their Collecting for a New Century, featuring rare books and manuscripts (a personal favorite of VO.)

Another favorite medium of VO is drawing, which will be the subject of a show opening at the Portland Museum of Art in late January. Fine Lines: American Drawings from the Brooklyn Museum, will give New England audiences a rare chance to view these delicate works.

The ICA Boston will provide a dramatic shift from their Amy Sillman show by turning their West Galleries over to unique installation and sound artist Nick Cave, an exhibition that's bound to dazzle.

A deep and stimulating glimpse into a painter's love of place will be featured in the Addison Gallery of American Art's An American in London: Whistler and the Thames. The examination of an artist's treatment of a paricular subject is also the theme of VO's most anticipated show of the spring, PEM's Turner and the Sea opening in May. This show features representations of the sea in the work of England's renowned 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner.

See It All's Most Anticipated Show of Early-2014
PEM/Turner and the Sea opening in May

Enthusiasts for all things nautical can sate their appetite further at the MIT Museum's The Herreshoff Legacy about America's most famous yacht designer (and MIT's own,) Nathaniel G. Herreshoff.

Another show that I am anticipating eagerly is Knights! at the Worcester Art Museum, opening in March. This will be the lead-off public event in the integration of the beloved Higgins Armory Collection into WAM's galleries, collections and programs.  I am fascinated to see how the absorption of the Higgins collection by WAM will play out.  The loss of the Higgins Museum from the Boston-area community of museums is a sad event and I applaud WAM's dedication to making the processing of this collection fairly transparent.  More information on this can be found here.

See It Before It Closes
Closing Dec. 31, Higgins Armory Museum
Closing Jan. 5, ICA Boston/Amy Sillman

Spring Preview Links:
Most looking forward to:

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alas, I Live in Modern Times.... A Farewell to the Higgins

The Higgins Armory Museum will be closing its doors forever on December 31.  This quirky, unique institution has been a staple of the New England museum scene for over eight decades, long enough to have impacted generations of visitors. There is not another institution like it in the entire country nor is there likely to be another for the foreseeable future. It is a sad event and one to which other New England museums large and small should pay attention.

John Woodman Higgins
The Higgins must close because it does not have the endowment to provide the financial stability the museum needs to operate. It must close because it is an institution from another time. The museum was the personal venture of John Woodman Higgins, a Worcester industrialist whose business, Worcester Pressed Steel, provided both the reason and the means for Higgins to begin amassing his collection of arms and armor in the early 20th century.  Higgins had a life-long passion for medieval armor and wrote in a poem about his collection lamenting the fact couldn't have witnessed the armor in use personally, "alas, I live in modern times."  The collection grew and was housed in its own building and welcomed generations of visitors. It is a story of civic philanthropy based on industrial wealth that underlies many of our revered museums across the country, but especially in the Northeast. It was an American philanthropic model that worked for much of the 20th century, but whose relevance has eroded and whose sustainability faces significant challenges in the 21st.

Higgins's Glass and Steel Wonder under Construction
This surface story does explain much of the demise of the Higgins, but there are deeper more interesting dimensions to its history. In 1931, Higgins built a state-of-the-art museum building utilising cutting-edge architectural techniques to house his beloved collections. How many museums around the world are turning to Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry to do the same today? At its inception, Higgins saw the arms and armor collection as a means of stimulating interest in steel fabrication and the collection was intermixed with modern examples of the latest in steel manufacture and design. The Higgins Armory Museum wasn't about armor, it was about steelA tour of the museum was followed by a tour of the factory itself to see steel being worked and shaped using the latest methods. Juxtaposing the historic with the contemporary. Sounds pretty progressive, right? Believing that museums have a powerful role in inspiring interest and future involvement in science and engineering.  Sounds like STEM, doesn't it? 

© Frank H. Jump
But this forward-looking focus did not survive the economic tumult of the latter part of the 20th century.  At some point the factory tours and the modern examples fell away and the focus of the museum reverted onto Higgins's fabulous collection of arms and armor. Worcester Pressed Steel went out of business in 1975 but the museum continued on, still nestled among industrial buildings to which it no longer had any relation. The survival of the institution was now in the hands of those generations of visitors who had been so bewitched by Higgins's visionary magic in previous decades.  And, sadly, the love, the successful programming, the educational commitment, all wasn't enough.

The good news is that John Higgins's beloved collection is staying in Worcester and plans are already well developed for its integration into the collections and interpretation of the Worcester Art Museum. Both institutions are trying hard to make this transition as transparent as possible and you can read more about this here.  What fate awaits the building itself is, as yet, unclear.

Museums are expensive and the days of depending on a single or small group of benefactors are largely over. At the same time, I believe that museums are important and worth the expense. What will be the new philanthropic model that sustains these institutions for the next eight decades? Museum directors across the country are struggling to find out. The passing of the old model does, I think, spell the end of a certain kind of American museum and as I walk through Higgins's soaring great hall, I can't help but muse, alas I live in modern times...
-Vident Omnes

Worcester Art Museum/ [remastered]

Venus Disarming Cupid, Paolo Veronese, about 1555

Curator: Matthias Waschek, Executive Director, Worcester Art Museum

The PR Buzz: Paintings will be displayed in medallion-style hangings—reminiscent of the 17th-18th century—that encourage the viewer to make personal connections with and between the works. This project is one of many where the Museum is focused on reshaping the visitor experience.”

In-depth reviews of the installation can be found here and here.

Recommended For: a glorious immersive experience of Old Master splendor.

The Experience:
Good Lord does the Worcester Art Museum have a good collection! I shouldn't be so surprised by this by now, but I am. Every time.

I made the drive out to WAM in less than 45 minutes. (Worcester may seem like the far side of Pluto to the Hub mentality, but let's be honest, it takes longer than that to get across Cambridge usually!) 

I was greeted outside the gallery entrance by a nicely-worded, but visually dull, label by new museum director Matthias Waschek, who was the driving force behind [remastered].  The label serves as an invitation to "stay and enjoy longer." The lackluster impression of the intro label vanished immediately as I entered the suite of three galleries that make up [remastered].  Sumptuous moss-green and terracotta gallery walls set off the rich tones, colors and luxurious highlights of the Old Master paintings. In short, the works look fantastic in the new galleries. As the museum literature promises, the paintings are hung in clusters that share themes, subjects, compositions and emotions. The flanking galleries feature more secular imagery, while the center gallery is dominated by religious, moral and allegorical works. The visitor is invited to make extended study of the paintings and spin their own webs of connection and meaning between them.

What there is: each gallery has its own gallery guide, there are rolling shelves with selections from the art research library on a variety of topics relating to the paintings, the artists and their times, two iPads set up to support two of the paintings in the central gallery that have a number of essays from a range of museum staff and community figures and the ability to enter your own commentary on the works, and an imaginative schedule of public programming in the galleries that enhance the experience of being around the art.

What there isn't: traditional on-the-wall labels. 

Does it work? Yes and no.

WAM has clearly made the choice to make all of its supplementary material as unobtrusive as possible. The gallery guides are placed in holders that are low and out of the way, the iPads revert to dark click-to-begin screens, and the books are presented in plain brown wrappers. Unfortunately, based on my observation, this meant that visitors seeking more information either did not know this material was available or how to use it if they noticed it. One visitor I asked found the laminated gallery guides "cumbersome." The add-your-own-label feature on the interpretive iPads had largely been used by visitors to debate whether the lack of traditional labels is a good idea.

What [remastered] gets right is installing superb examples of Old Master painting and then getting out of the way and letting the works speak to visitors in their own voices. The paintings themselves are tremendous and the museum's new acquisition, Veronese's Venus Disarming Cupid, lives up to any amount of hype that could be thrown at it.  These works were created to be studied, explored, and contemplated in a way that is too often undermined by traditional museum labels.

I am not arguing in favor of restoring the supplementary information to its traditional prominence, but what does need to be much more assertive is the museum's desire for people to assign their own values, meanings and perspectives to the works. Old museum habits- like label reading- are hard to break and if WAM wants to change the rules in [remastered], this intention should not be communicated discreetly, but emphatically. Waschek's invitation to "stay and enjoy longer" needs to be louder and clearer. My hope is that WAM will continue to tinker with the interpretation of the installation and that [remastered] will function as an evolving laboratory for creative content delivery.

Personally, I found the label-free installation helped me make extended and close study of the paintings and their marvelous details bloomed under my eyes. The experience, like the paintings themselves, was rich and glorious. Here are some of my favorite discoveries, come to [remastered] and find them if you can!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

PEM/Impressionists on the Water

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou, 1879, National Gallery of Art
Link to the Exhibition Website:

Co-Curators: Christopher Lloyd, former Surveyor of Queen Elizabeth II's collection, Phillip Dennis Cate, former director of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, and Daniel Charles, author and historian. PEM coordinating curator, Daniel Finamore

The PR Buzz: "Through nearly 60 oil paintings, works on paper, models and small craft, this exhibition illuminates the importance that access to the sea and France's extensive inland waterways played in the development of one of the world's most enduring artistic movements."

This exhibition was organized by the Fine Art Museum of San Francisco and opened there in June of this year to positive reviews, for example here and here.

The Globe review of the show in Salem can be found here.

Recommended For: a compelling portion of a day-long visit to PEM, but don't have it be the only reason you went.

The Experience:
Impressionists on the Water is a difficult show to write about. It is, in the end, an object lesson on the tremendous pressure that museums are under to capture media attention and generate "draw." This pressure causes some uncomfortable compromises to be made and this can, in many cases, undermine the effectiveness of an exhibition when it finally hits the galleries and opens its doors. Impressionists on the Water is such a show. It could have been, with largely the same checklist, a eloquent show about the evolution of water as a subject and inspiration in 19th century French fine and decorative arts. This would have encompassed a time of radical social, cultural and aesthetic change. It would, ultimately, have been a show that included, but was not about, Impressionist works.  It would have been original.  It would have been unique. But would you have bothered to go?

It was a sleepy weekday morning at PEM when I made my way up to the third floor special exhibition galleries. Although visitor traffic was light, a little admission desk eavesdropping confirmed that my fellow visitors had also come to see the Impressionists. I was greeted in the opening gallery with 2 paintings and a racing yacht model. The show's title was awkwardly placed to the left and the opening text was on the right. Although these objects make sense, given the lens of the show, there was nothing visually strong enough to really establish what you are about to see and why.

The show then proceeds thematically, exploring in turn, Masters of French Marine Art, Harbors and Coasts, Rivers, Gustave Caillebotte Artist and Yachtsman and the Open Ocean. This thematic hang does provide visitors with clusters of artworks that share a subject. This is useful in a show like this one where there is a variety of media- paintings, prints, photographs and ephemera- that are shown together. However, the sections are uneven in the number, size and quality of the works. It wasn't until I got to the third section on Rivers that I was greeted with the kind of visual punch that this show needed to start with.  This gallery featured a vibrant, large Renoir (Oarsmen at Chatou), the sleek and elegant rowing boat Nana, and (finally!) a large map of France that helped orient me to where all of these works had stemmed from.

Gustave Caillebotte, Boating on the Yerres, 1877, Milwaukee Art Museum
The section on Gustave Caillebotte gave the most coherent justification for the blending of models and painting in the show and could have, as Sebastian Smee rightly points out in his review, made for a compelling boutique exhibition on its own. It was my opinion, however, that Caillebotte, however avid a yachtsman he may have been, was nowhere near as good a painter of the waters as Boudin, Isabey and Renoir, all of whose works we had already seen by the time we meet Caillebotte.

The final section, The Open Ocean, was again weak visually, so the show has no real big finish. This section features seascapes by Courbet and Monet that unfortunately remind you how many other artists painted the sea and surf better than they did. Le Gray's photograph, The Brig, was a standout exception to this last gallery.

Ugh, I hate being so negative, but Impressionists on the Water is a show that should not have privileged the impressionists to the extent that it does (as much as I recognize the seductive lure of doing so.) The show does not demonstrate that water was an exceptional subject for impressionism, nor that impressionist representations of water were particularly influential.  It was very telling that as I was in the gallery, I overheard a docent-led tour begin by declaring to the group "This is not an Impressionist show." She was right, so why was it billed as such?

Gustav Le Gray, The Brig, 1856
I can't wrap up this review without mentioning some of the truly exceptional works that are in the show. There is a glowing, if modestly-sized Vernet (The Bathers, 1789), two wonderful Isabeys, three very good Boudin views of French ports, a strong Pissarro paired wonderfully with a lively Matisse, a couple of outstanding Le Gray photographs, and a brilliant Raffaelli (View of the Right Bank of the Seine, Paris, 1880).  All of these works are supported by a spectacularly diverse array of French print work from the period.

While You're There: see the impressively-expansive and revealing Future Beauty: Avant-Garde Japanese Fashion and the exquisite Toshio Shibata: Constructed Landscapes.

Monday, November 25, 2013

CAMPUS BEAT MIT Museum/5000 Moving Parts

John Douglas Powers, Haliades, 2012

Guest Curator: Laura Knott

The PR Buzz:  "The exhibition looks at the wide range of kinetic art being made now: from work that's concerned entirely with motion and unpredictability, to sculptures that engage with contemporary political topics, to work that brings ancient myth into contemporary life."

Recommended For: the kind of quirky inspiration you can expect from the MIT Museum

The Experience:
Less than a week since the last time, I was again hustling through chilly Central Square on my way to the MIT Museum. They must be doing something right, right?

As you turn the corner into the entrance of 5000 Moving Parts, your ears are met with the pervasive squueeeeeeeeeee! of the moving sculptures. Trust me, do not turn and walk away. Thanks to the fabulous label writing of curator Laura Knott, this sound will have a very different meaning for you by the end of the show.

The introduction rightly locates the show on a continuum from Marcel Duchamp's 1913 Bicycle Wheel and its modes of meditating and commenting on the "kinetic world of material life." The selection of works in the show eloquently demonstrate these voices of critique.

It is a good choice to begin the show with the very interactive Please Empty Your Pockets by Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmel.  This deceptively-simple illuminated conveyor belt uses a magical/mechanical form of intrusion to bond together one of the hidden spaces we all carry around with us. As Knott puts it, Lozano-Hemmer "misuses technologies of control" to relate us to each other.

A cluster of works by Anne Lilly, To Caress (which was heartbreakingly out of order), the mesmerizing Eighteen Eighteen, and To Conjugate anchor the center of the gallery. To Conjugate, with its antique fire engine fly wheels brings visitors expressively back to Duchamp's quote in the introductory text, "to see that wheel turning was very soothing, very comforting, a sort of opening of other avenues than material life of every day..."

At one end of the gallery there is a collaboration, or perhaps symbiosis might be more appropriate, between pioneer Arthur Ganson's Machine with Breath and Christina Campanella's BREATHE.  I found Campanella's soundscape of Ganson's work is worth spending some time with. Listening to the headphones as I watched Machine with Breath, the layers of mechanical rhythm expanded until they gave the impression of great physical volume and distance.  It was an uncanny sensation.

It is Knott's label writing for John Douglas Powers's seductively sinuous Haliades and deeply hypnotic Ialu that transform the dissonance of the gallery into the purposeful groan and squeal of ocean-going ships and the skirl of seabirds. Sound impossible?  Come experience it for yourself! I have to say that I have rarely experienced an exhibition in which the label text adds as much to the experience and appreciation of the objects across to board as in 5000 Moving Parts. Knott's clear and eloquent voice finds details and connections that enhance the power of the objects themselves without crowding them or coming across as overly didactic. These wonderful mini-essays are helped greatly by the placement, size and design of the labels themselves. Well done, Laura and MIT Museum!

If I have one critique of 5000 Moving Parts (other than the one sculpture that was out of order), it is that the show should have been mounted in the Epstein Innovation Gallery on the ground floor so that these works could have beckoned through the windows to the "kinetic world of material life" passing on Massachusetts Avenue.
-Vident Omnes

While You're There: See Stanley Greenberg: Time Machines reviewed by me here.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Concord Museum/The Best Workman in the Shop

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: David F. Wood

PR Buzz: "The Best Workman in the Shop explores William Munroe's (1778-1861) life and career through the objects he made - including some of the most beautiful clocks crafted in Massachusetts, exquisitely crafted furniture and his detailed shop records."

Recommended For: a fall family outing to historic Concord

The Experience:
I took the kids over to the Concord Museum today to see their relatively new show on the life and work of William Monroe. I thought it a valuable fieldtrip primarily because time-telling is one skill they are learning in school and the exhibition promised an opportunity to see some very different clocks than ones they were used to seeing.

The show opened with a gallery dedicated to Monroe's period of apprenticeship during which he learned his craft. We then passed through a long (an architecturally awkward) gallery about working Concord in Monroe's day and finished with a large gallery featuring some of Monroe's more ambitious creations. Overall, the installation was concise, tidy and attractively installed.

The kids enjoyed the hands-on interactive about inlay work and we were able to then go around and (carefully) point out examples of inlay on the historic pieces.

I do wish that more could have been made of the manuscript autobiography that Monroe penned that was the source material for most of the details of his career.

One enjoyable surprise was the tall case clock in the final gallery striking the hour as we worked on our inlay patterns.
-Vident Omnes

While you're there: see From the Minute Man to the Lincoln Memorial: The Timeless Sculpture of Daniel Chester French, also very popular with my children.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

CAMPUS BEAT: Peabody Museum (Harvard)/Translating Encounters

Plaque Depicting Chief Flanked by Two Warriors, 1550-1650, (detail)

Link the the Exhibition Website:

Co-Curators: Stephanie N Krysiak, Emily P Pierce and Drs. Diana Lauren, Peabody Museum Associate Curator, and Christina Hodge, Peabody Museum Senior Curatorial Assistant

PR Buzz: "This exhibition broadly explores the material ways in which encounters were experienced, translated, and memorialized by peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Americas."

Recommended For: a trip to the Peabody is always recommended by Vident Omnes

The Experience:
On a sunny weekday, I threaded my way through the idiosyncratic warren that is the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnolog. The inspiring noise of an enthusiastically engaged school group echoed through the halls. I eventually found my quarry.

Translating Encounters is a terrific idea on a number of levels that falls down a bit on execution. The exhibition is the product of a collaboration between two Harvard classes working with the collections of the Peabody and various Harvard library and archival holdings.  That, in itself, is a wonderful experiment that I hope is repeated in the future. The subject of the show is a fascinating topic that deserves room to be explored.

Unfortunately, room is something this show is not given. Tucked into a corner of the 4th floor galleries, Translating Encounters is difficult to distinguish from the Pacific cultures material and dioramas of Native Americans that surround it. The exhibition takes a swing at some very big ideas it doesn't ultimately have the bandwidth to deliver. This shortcoming is compounded by the inclusion of some late 19th or early 20th century African objects, such as the magnificent Kuba royal masks, whose presence in the show is not fully explained.

I found myself wishing that the true early-17th century materials that were displayed had been featured, or brought to the fore, more effectively. Among these objects are a spectacular bronze Plaque from Benin depicting a chief flanked by warriors, a remarkable Spanish (or Spanish-American?) painted leather shield, and a ceramic Jaguar Warrior figurine. The period prints, drawings and engravings were all shown in reproduction- a disappointment as surely the Harvard collections have more than a few of these in the original. An image of an elaborate 17th century celestial globe from Harvard's own collections is shown. Why not have the real thing?

In summary, the exhibition should have either been given more real estate to make its statement, or should have focused on the thoughtful juxtaposition of fewer, more original objects and artworks.

-Vident Omnes

While You're There: see the wonderfully-intalled Wiyopiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West on the first floor just as you enter.

Jaguar Warrior Figurine 14th-16th century

CAMPUS BEAT: MIT Museum/Stanley Greenberg Time Machines

Bubble Chamber image by Stanley Greenberg

Link to the Exhibition Website:

The PR Buzz: "New York-based photographer Stanley Greenberg has long entranced viewers with his stunning black-and-white photographs that provide unparalleled access to objects and places ordinary prople might otherwise never see- from New York's century-old water system to the hidden infrastructure of some of the world's most impressive architectural works. In this exhibition, Greenberg turns his lens on the unfailingly strange world of nuclear and particle physics."

Recommended For: a unique cross-over of art and science.

Curator: Gary Van Zante, Curator, Architecture & Design, in collaboration with Dr. Janet Conrad, MIT Professor of Physics

The Experience:
Brrrr, it's getting chilly in the Hub! I hustled along the breezy sidewalks of Central Square to the MIT Museum on Mass Ave and made my way up the stairs to the second floor galleries.  The Kurtz Photography Galleries are tucked in the far back corner, so you have to make your way through a number of other exhibitions to get to the Greenberg show. This is hardly an imposition. I got to pass through 5,000 Moving Parts, an exhibition of kinetic sculpture, while it was under installation.  It opens Nov. 21st, and I can't wait to see it.

Time Machines is attractively installed in the Kurtz galleries. Greenberg's silver gelatin prints look just right on the walls and encompass the mind-boggling array of inscrutable geometries- from retro scifi to angularly futuristic-  involved in the engineering of subatomic inquiry.  The prints are devoid of human presence so the scale of what you are looking at is often ambiguous and requires careful study to figure out.

The photographs are accompanied by fascinating, but excruciatingly small labels. Less dedicated label readers than I will miss some of the more compelling descriptions. For example; did you know that there was a neutrino observatory at the South Pole that is installed in a cubic kilometer of clear Antarctic ice? Or that Argentinian cows once upset the observation of cosmic rays? Or that a subatomic detector at Stanford was made from steel recycled from a ship sunk at Pearl Harbor because the immersion of the metal meant that it was less radioactive than new steel produced today? Or the dizzying alphabet soup of acronyms including  LIGO, TRIUMF, IceCube, CERN, ATLAS, KEK, DESY, OPERA, MINOS, LHC, KLOE, CMS, KamLAND, CEBAF, SLAC and SNO. And then if you're a really careful reader you'll also find ZEUS, which is actually a physics joke, and a reasonably funny one at that.

You  would also miss this compelling quote from Greenberg himself about film negatives used in the observation of the results of particle collisions, "Just as most physics experiments have shifted to electronic and digital representation of particle collisions, the photographic world has largely abandoned film for digital media. The idea that the photons from particles actually touched the substrate reminds me that film has an unparalleled tactility that has never ceased to work visual- and scientific- miracles."

By now, you probably get the fact that I liked this show.
-Vident Omnes

P.S. If you ask nicely at the desk, you can get a free booklet entitled Backstories: The Physics Experiments Behind Stanley Greenberg's "Time Machines"

While You're There: I bookended my visit with stops at Central Square's Mariposa Bakery and Cafe Luna, both highly recommended!

TGC Wheel, CERN, 2006

Friday, November 15, 2013

ICA Boston/Amy Sillman: one lump or two

Amy Sillman, Unearth, 2003, detail
Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: Helen Molesworth, Barbara Lee Chief Curator

The PR Buzz: "Through her dramatic shifts in style, sophisticated writings, and her role a the head of the painting program at Bard College's prestigious MFA program, she has proven that the basic building blocks of 20th-century painting are as relevant as ever."

You can read Sebastian Smee's laudatory and vocabulary-building review of the show here:

Recommended For: an art-induced rejuvenation on a gloomy winter's day.

The Experience:
I got to the ICA as the doors opened and made my way up to the fourth floor galleries. Sillman was not a painter I was very familiar with, so I was not really sure what I would be walking into. In the opening gallery, however, I was greeted by the compassionate and very human community of the Williamsburg Portraits (1991-92), disarmingly affixed to the gallery wall with push pins. Also in this gallery hung the killingly- and cuttingly funny Seating Chart (2006). Here was an artist, then, with a powerful connection with the messy, personal and embarrassingly honest trials of the human condition.

This unabashed, intimate voice carried through the rest of the exhibition, through grand-scale canvasses and ephemeral sketch work alike. In an introductory video on the ICA's website, Sillman describes her "devotion to a procedure of transformation."  The effort behind that devotion is evident in every clearly-defined brushstroke of her work. I came out of the show refreshingly validated for all my own foibles and neurotic idiosyncrasies- a rare accomplishment for an art exhibition.

A few works glowed in my mind after I left the show. Among them the regal Regarding Saturna (2003), the fearless series Shape that Stands Up and Listens (2012), the provocative juxtaposition of Sillman's "memory paintings" of romantic couples she was acquainted with and the abstract works those paintings engendered, and the pairing of the painting #841 with the digital print #841 that probes the very essence of painting.
Regarding Saturna, (2003)
The installation is what I'd call Contemporary Traditional- voluminous white boxes hung sparsely with work. The choice is  appropriate for much of Sillman's bold and vibrant work.  The labels are  discrete and low- to the point that I found them something of a challenge to read. One wall-sized installation of 30 drawings was somewhat compromised by the reflections of the walls and lights on the glazing in the frames. I understood from one of the gallery attendants that the glazing was stipulated in the loan of the works from the Brooklyn Museum and it is, in my opinion, a real shame that the drawings could not be allowed to "breathe." The sequence of Sillman's works through the show is loosely chronological.

After exiting the show and contemplating for a moment, I turned around and went through the show again from back to front, starting with the raw and insistent Draft of a Voice Over for Split Screen Video Loop (2012), and finishing with the camaraderie of the Williamsburg Portraits. And do you know what? I found the sequence of works even more satisfying in that direction! If you go through a chronological show backwards, does it become a show about memory?

While You’re There: See the soul-scouring LaToya Ruby Frazier: Witness, curated by Dean Daderko, Curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and introduced by Anna Stothart, ICA Boston Curatorial Associate

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Boston Athenaeum/Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum in the 21st Century

William McGregor Paxton, Elizabeth Vaughan Okie, ca. 1895

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Curator: David Dearinger, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of Paintings and Sculpture and Director of Exhibitions

PR Buzz: Collecting for a New Century: Paintings and Sculptures is the first in a series of four exhibitions that will be held in the Athenæum’s Norma Jean Calderwood Gallery between 2013 and 2018. Respectively, these exhibitions will focus on paintings & sculpture; rare book; maps; and prints & photographs. Collectively, they will celebrate the Athenæum’s continuing commitment to scholarship, preservation, and the dissemination of knowledge as represented by its extensive collections of rare and unique materials.

Recommended For: a mid-morning escape on Beacon Hill

Collecting for a New Century is a fascinating assemblage of objects acquired by the Athenaeum since 2000. Dearinger has arranged the show into a neo-classical sequence of portraiture, figural work, landscape, still life, cityscape and genre works. He has also penned a thorough guide and checklist which makes for good reading after having seen the exhibition. When I visited the cozy galleries on the first floor of the Perkins mansion, I was the only one viewing the show which allowed me to take my time and intimately take in a selection of works with surprising emotional range.

In my own mind, a few of my favorite works rearranged themselves into a new set of categories. 

There was the Curiously Intriguing, encompassing Enrico Meneghelli's Studio Interior (1879) and Picture Galleries, the Museum of Fine Arts at Copley Square (1877), David D. Neal's Winter Fishing on the Charles River (1857) and Russell Smith's Study for the Drop Curtain of the Boston Theatre (1864).

The Delicately Beautiful, with William Trost Richard's Breakers and Dunes (ca. 1885) and Maurice Prendergast's Telegraph Hill, Nahant (1896-97).

The Surprisingly Emotional, featuring John Sloan's defiant Miss Boston (1935), William McGregor Paxton's effusively romantic Elizabeth Vaughan Okie (ca. 1895) and Alexander Brooks's warmly affectionate Going, Going, Gone (Peggy Bacon) ( n.d.).

And then there was the Downright Funny, with Polly Thayer's Shopping for Furs (1943), George Deem's George Washington and His Portrait (1972) and Peter Lyons's Kaleidoscope (2011).

A small show to be sure, but one you will be happy you saw.

-Vident Omnes

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/The Inscrutable Eye: Watercolors byJohn Singer Sargent in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Collection

A Tent in the Rockies, 1916

Link to the Exhibition Website:

Co-Curators: Oliver Tostmann, William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection, and Associate Curator Anne-Marie Eze

The PR Buzz: "This exhibition offers a look at the vibrant watercolors Sargent made for his own pleasure that were avidly collected by Gardner towards the end of her life. With their brilliant technique and fresh colors, these pictures reveal the stupendous quality of Sargent's draftsmanship"

Recommended For: More Sargent goodness, just steps away from the show at the MFA

The Experience:
I found The Inscrutable Eye something of a tease. It had a number of intriguing elements that did not hang together as a coherent experience for me. Instead of reciting my frustrations, let me tell you how I wish I had seen the show.

The first thing I should have done is get the exhibition brochure, available inside the gallery, and retreated back out to the Spanish Cloister. I then would have read the concise and eloquent essay, A Singular Friendship, by Associate Curator of the Collection, Anne-Marie Eze, while relishing in the moody passion of Sargent's El Jaleo. Once I'd finished the essay, I would return to the Fenway Gallery to take in the selection of watercolors on display.  I would have started with the Italian views on the left and then worked my way around to finish with the case of letters and ephemera.

For me, there were two standout works in the show. I was stunned by the delicately glowing A Tent in the Rockies. Sargent's ability to capture the play of bright sunlight on the exterior and interior of the canvas tent is truly masterful. Finally, there is the tender and heartbreaking Mrs. Gardner in White, a picture made all the more poignant if one has read Ms. Eze's essay.

After taking in this show, and the MFA show, the Sargents hung in the adjacent rooms of the palace leapt off the walls for me without needing to resort to the room guides.

As I left the museum back into the chilly Fenway, I found myself wondering, "Why was it called The Inscrutable Eye?"

-Vident Omnes

Mrs. Gardner in White, 1922
While You’re There: See Sophie Calle: Last Seen, the art of the unhealed wound.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

MFA/John Singer Sargent Watercolors

Bridge of Sighs, 1903-04, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
Link to the Exhibition Website:

Co-Curators: Teresa Carbone, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art from the Brooklyn Museum and Erica Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Painting from the MFA

The PR Buzz: "A triumphant show combines the two best collections of John Singer Sargent's dazzling watercolors."

John Singer Sargent Watercolors, a collaboration between the MFA and the Brooklyn Museum, opened in Brooklyn in April of this year and was on view there until July.  It was greeted with rapturous reviews by the NY media such as the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal.

Recommended For: an adult excursion to take advantage of a rare opportunity to see an assemblage of exceptional works by a true master of the medium and giant of American art.

The Experience: 
On a chilly November morning, I hurried to the MFA to try and get in before the crowds built up. Watercolors are most rewarding when viewed intimately and a crowded gallery can really impact the gallery experience. Did it work? Not as well as I might have hoped. A crowd of others waited at the Huntington St entrance for the doors to open and most of them, it seemed, had the same destination as I.

As I descended the steps from the Shapiro Courtyard, I was greeted with a really stunning video wall installation of blending detail views of works in the show.  The effect was vibrant and welcoming and brought more than a few people to a stop to enjoy the display.

Turning the corner through the glass doors brought me into a moody blue room hung with exquisite Venetian views.  I had arrived.

The works themselves, it's fair to say, should get top billing in any review: they are exceptional. Sargent's hand is free, immediate, effortless, liquid, his composition stunning.  The works are, at their best, works of genius. The opportunity to see this number of fragile Sargent watercolors together is extremely rare and this show gives what is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really appreciate this period of Sargent's life as an artist.

The works are hung grouped by subject matter, an organization that allows the visitor to easily relate adjacent works to each other.  I was surprised sometimes, when I checked the dates of the works, to see the wide span of years over which Sargent would paint works of similar subject matter or composition. The themes are presented in the following order as one moves through the show- In Venice, Arab Encounter, Lying Down, Mountain Heights, Portraits at Hand, Watercraft, At Work, Villa Gardens, the Knoedler Exhibitions and finishing with Sunlight on Stone. Each gallery contained a rich and rewarding selection of paintings.

In short, I loved the works. I did not love the installation. Other than the video wall outside the galleries, there was no big opening visual statement heralding the show. Even as one entered In Venice, the title label for the show was crammed awkwardly in a corner to your left. Too often, the sectional theme signage ended up behind your shoulder as you entered a gallery. The Knoedler Exhibitions section, with its fascinating insight into Sargent's relationship to the art world of his day and the genesis of the remarkable Brooklyn Museum and MFA holdings of his watercolor work, was shunted off in a dead-end appendix gallery. The visually-rich and captivating video demonstrating Sargent's technique in action was far too easily passed by. The loudest visual statement in the closing gallery Sunlight on Stone was the glass door into the lobster trap-like boutique shop dedicated to the exhibition.

My quibbles over the installation aside, John Singer Sargent Watercolors is a not-to-be-missed treasure for American art and painting lovers alike.

While You’re There: See Michelle Finamore's Think Pink, a delightful boutique show with a great installation! See the website here.

Some of My Favorites:
Early, but not early enough!

Bedouin Women, 1905-06
Poperinghe: Two Soldiers, 1918
Simplon Pass: The Green Parasol, about 1911
Spanish Soldiers, about 1903
Unloading Plaster, about 1908
La Biancheria, 1910