When it comes to recreational consumption of fossil fuel, there are few nicer trips in Massachusetts than driving up Route 2 to North Adams on a sunny day in the spring, as we did Saturday. And at the other end of the trip was Mass MoCA, the contemporary art museum spread out in a gazillion square feet of disused former factory space in the center of town, hard by the concrete chute of the Hoosic River. As always the art was a hugely mixed bag, from actual genius to quite mockable silliness. But we never leave MoCA without feeling like we've really been somewhere. And that sensation was especially strong this weekend.
The main reason, of course, was the new Sol LeWitt career review, which went up in November for a long-term stay of, gulp, 25 years. Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective comprises 105 of LeWitt’s large-scale wall drawings, spanning the artist’s career from 1969 to 2007, and filling most of the 27,000-square-foot Building #7 at the MoCA complex. If you're not familiar with LeWitt, his work seems like a dry intellectual concept. Each wall drawing begins as a set of instructions to be followed in executing the work, as in "A square, whose bottom side lies on the axis between the midpoint of the left side and the midpoint of the bottom side..." Nearly three dozen students, staff and local artists spent six months re-creating the works on the walls of the gallery. Watch a time lapse video of the process. The end result is nothing like a dry concept, ranging from the fine pencil lines of his early stuff to brightly colored pieces as eye-jangling as anything in pop art.
After the jump: More pix, more blather, and a few words on the other works currently on display at MoCA.
The LeWitt exhibit moves from early works on the first floor up to the second and third, where the work is brighter, more recent, and increasingly affecting in ways that have nothing to do with art theory. As Evan Garza wrote in the Phoenix, "the amount of visual stimuli is staggering," and I think the best works, like the one above, are actually fairly subtle in color. The exhibit is already causing a big spike in attendance for MoCA and should be a landmark over its run. Get there.
The white post in that pic, by the way, is just part of MoCA.This weekend, as always, I was as struck by the visuals of the museum itself as by almost anything in it. Building #7 was renovated by Bruner/Cott & Associates architects for the LeWitt exhibit. There's a dramatic four-story light well and a couple of slanting passages back to the main building, once used by factory workers, that evoke a steampunk aesthetic. Everywhere you look, the shapes and history and worn brick textures of the place, its pure geometric awesomeness, feel like art.
There's plenty of actual art in the vast complex besides the LeWitt. They were dismantling an exhibit called "Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape," which I wish I'd seen all of. As usual with these big survey exhibits at MoCA, there were works of conceptual pretension and no substance. But there were striking successes as well, including Alexis Rockman's multi-panel painting South, and Jennifer Steinkamp's Mike Kelley 2007, a haunting digital animation of a lifelike but never quite real tree as it is affected by breezes and the seasons.
Anselm Kiefer's paintings (in a separate exhibit) didn't work so much for me, but his cement-rebar-rubble sculpture Narrow Are The Vessels invokes 9/11 and Beirut and quake-collapsed freeways to troubling effect.
I didn't find much to like in "These Days: Elegies for Modern Times," an exhibit of disparate works that evoke the hush just after very bad things have happened. But Robert Taplin's Everything Real Is Imagined (After Dante) - nine dioramas referencing scenes from Dante's Inferno in modern settings - were powerfully creepy. Some are Edward Hopper-esque domestic scenes filled with disquiet, while several evoke violence and rubble again in haunting dystopias.
Last but not least difficult we come to Simon Starling's The Nanjing Particles, which occupies the monumental Building #5 gallery next door to the LeWitt. To make a very long story short, Starling was inspired by an 1870s stereograph image of Chinese workers at the MoCA site, and a blowup of the image appears as you enter the gallery. Through two round holes in the blow up, you can view two big silvery blobs, which look like half-melted Jeff Koons bunnies, but are in fact accurate reproductions of one of the microscopic silver grains in a print of the stereograph. Oh, and these blobs were fabricated in China. Conceptual density indeed, but the end result seems far less compelling than LeWitt's works, and rather lost in Building #5. It's a grand stunt, perhaps, but doesn't seem like anything more, and perhaps a lot less. "I miss the Uber Organ," said one member of my little group, referring to a giant, farting, Seussian contraption that once filled the space to less obvious meaning and far greater pleasure.