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The fourth floor of MFA Boston’s new Wing of the Americas (all photos by the author)

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.

At left, Philip Guston’s “The Deluge” (1969)

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.

Chamberlain, Frankenthalter, and Rothko in the MFA’s fourth floor entrance gallery

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

6 replies on “Gallery Hangings Gone Wrong at Boston MFA’s New Wing”

  1. Agree, lots of near misses. The Frankenthaller is indeed a beaut. The modern room dedicated to figurative art, just off to the side of this gallery was terrible, although it includes a kinky, likeable Larry Rivers double nude. For Boston, compared to this installation, the Rose Museum seems the place to see good modern art installed well.

    1. It’s just too messy. And yeah that figurative one is very hard to figure out… they didn’t quite admit that it was a “figurative” room either; it’s titled something like “People in America”. Oof. Anyway I thought the earlier colonial galleries were amazing so hopefully have posts about them soon.

  2. Look again. Not all the work on view is “from the collections,” such as that “quiet Rothko,” which is on loan because the museum’s own collection is very thin.

    1. It’s true that not all the work on display is from the collection, but I disagree that the museum’s modernist collection is thin (maybe you meant the rothko collex is thin? if so, totally). They have a huge selection of paintings, that while not necessarily from the superstars of the 50s and 60s, are still quite good.

      The MFA could have used the space to showcase the alternative history in their collection. Their Morris Louis canvases are staggering, as are their Jack Bush works. This gallery just seems like a bunch of weird choices. Thanks for pointing out the loan though.

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