At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas wing, the story of American art is told over the course of four floors, ranging from colonial and indigenous art through modernism. Stopping before contemporary, the third floor above ground level is the home of American modernism. The opening gallery of the floor tells a story that’s neither comprehensive nor diverse, instead presenting a kind of multifaceted, unfocused face to greet the public.
Like it or not, the Museum of Modern Art’s modernism galleries form the gold standard for most New York-area art spectators. The stately upper floor galleries show modernism as a slow progress from impressionism to abstraction to the contemporary edges of minimalism. And this is what we have to compare the MFA’s attempt at an encyclopedic presentation of American art to. Unfortunately, instead of a well-balanced selection, what we’re greeted with is a muddled bunch of hits dredged up from the collections: a powerful Guston, a quiet Rothko, a domineering Frank Stella, seen above. [Note: the Rothko is actually a loan; see below]
The Frank Stella piece, “Hiraqla” (1968) runs the show and doesn’t let go of the lead, even though the front gallery of the MFA’s modern floor is split into two discrete segments. Emphatically clear through the dividing gallery walls, the pastel-colored wall sculpture grabs eyeballs immediately. And it’s a great Stella- huge, strident in its non-objectivism, vehemently opposed to figuration, even to the plane of the painting. It’s just that that particular painting doesn’t leave any visual or mental room for any of the other fantastic works on view in the gallery. Sure, curators have to go for the punch, but they also have to know when to back off and let viewers see for themselves.
In the face of “Hiraqla,” Guston’s powerful “The Deluge” (1969), a half-abstract half-objective work, gets shouted out. Its muddled color palette is overwhelmed by the candy tones of the Stella and the eloquence of its brushstrokes silenced by the flatness of “Hiraqla.” Likewise, an almost monotone blue and black Mark Rothko canvas, intense and meditative on its own, becomes a pale joke. A small-scale John Chamberlain gets engulfed. Only the Helen Frankenthaler hung to the right of “The Deluge” holds its ground, sharing the Stella’s similarly saccharine colors. This is a case of gallery hangings gone wrong.
Still, the reshuffling is continuing at the MFA’s galleries. The old space occupied by American art in the I.M. Pei-designed older wing of the Museum of Fine Arts is being prepped for contemporary and rotating shows, hopefully making more room for some modern work. The hanging isn’t set, and I do hope the MFA finds space to show a more even selection of work in its flagship modern gallery.