Native North American art gallery at Boston MFA’s Art of the Americas wing (all photos by author)

The purpose of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas wing to provide a space to tell the entire story of American art. Yet visitors may be surprised to find the ground floor of the new wing occupied by Aztec, Mayan and Native American art, sharing space with early colonial work. The new galleries question the idea that “American” art is solely defined by work created in the United States, tied to the too-strong connection between “America” and the colonial US. The MFA instead presents art from this era of both Americas, South and North, as a continuum, part of a dynamic intercultural milieu. But how far does the museum go in redefining what we mean by “American” art?

The bottom floor of the MFA’s Art of the Americas wing showcases the earliest period in a sequence of galleries that progresses through modernism with the 1950s and on at the top floor. Greeted by a gallery that showcases some fascinating model ships from the early 18th century, it would be tempting to assume that no reshuffling of the previous artistic order has gone on. The gallery is like colonial porn, the settler equivalent of a sports car magazine, with tiny cannons, miniature furniture and epic webs of rigging. This “100-Gun Ship of the Line” (1715-1719) is a sexy example, standing proud in front of massive maritime-scene canvases, largely from the mid to late 19th century.

Maritime art at the Boston MFA’s Art of the Americas wing

After this tumultuous introduction to the action figures of the colonial United States, I was met with two options to move forward. I could continue in my colonial adventure, peeking in on some stiff portraits and elegant silver, or I could follow the glimpse I got of some indigenous South American art- snarling masks and shining golden figures. I first went for the colonial, ending up at an immersive installation of a colonial American interior: the Brown-Pearl House. In the display, severe lines dominate pieces of furniture that are nonetheless decorative and sumptuous in their fabric coverings, a testament to the Puritans’ persistent interest in showing off, despite their reputation. The Brown-Pearl House (c. 1725) is striking and fully-formed as an exhibition; it provides a moment to stop and reflect on the burgeoning stability of colonial presence on the newly-explored continent.

The Brown-Pearl Hall (c. 1725) at Boston MFA

That demonstration of Puritan stability is undermined by a visit to the neighboring Native North American galleries, more museum-standard displays that show pottery, jewelry and 2-dimensional works often encased in vitrines. The display lacks the vitality of the Brown-Pearl House, but the Native North American galleries are no less fascinating. Where before, Native American art would be sequestered into a separate area of the museum and perhaps lumped in with Aboriginal work, there is now a gallery fully devoted to showing off the intricate pieces in a context that does them justice. The ceramics on view are particularly staggering, ranging from 19th century work to modern, they are placed in a historical continuum and artistic background that gives them a greater weight than they would on their own.

Boston MFA’s parallel galleries provide a constant reminder that there are multiple histories in progress, and multiple definitions of artistic progress. After making my way through Native American, I circled around back to the Ancient Central American and Ancient South American galleries, the spaces that initially drew me in with their gold. These galleries are far and away the most staid of the ground floor galleries; if you’ve seen a generic “Ancient [fill in the blank]” didactic installation, you pretty much know what to expect: glass cases, display cards. What kept me going was the sheer quality of the collection as well as its breadth- objects range from masks to clothing to jewelry to full size figural sculptures.

Native North American ceramics in Boston MFA’s Art of the Americas wing

How the Boston MFA redefines American art is by placing what we usually define it as, North American colonial art, in the context of everything else that makes up art of the Americas. Parallel gallery installations that visitors are free to meander through, bouncing from Puritan furniture to Native American pottery and back again, sets up a wider range of what “American” might mean. The expanded definition isn’t made entirely explicit, the galleries are still separated in terms of culture, but visitors’ own movement through the exhibitions will make it obvious: Art of the Americas isn’t just English ships and dour portraits any more. It’s the entire continent.

But it’s not all good. The different galleries throughout the Art of the Americas wing point to deficiencies in the MFA’s collection as much as they do curatorial missteps. The Native American gallery is fantastic because it shows a deep, wide-range look at Native North American art, from 19th century to modern. Yet there is no effort to demonstrate that same understanding of Central and South American art. The bottom floor is well divided between different cultures throughout the Americas, but the MFA’s first through third floors of their new wing don’t even bother to acknowledge that “Americas” might signify something other than the North. A good step? For sure. Mission accomplished? Not by a long shot.

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,...

2 replies on “What is “American” Art?”

  1. This kind of initiative always make get upset. As a Brazilian all the time I see North Americans talking about South American art , contemporary or not , I know that here comes stereotypes and a total lack of generosity. Sure that they are going to treat distant cultures only in a folkloric and imitated way never really looking to a real expression of those people .
    You know , if you’re not going to do it in a right and fair way , is better to do not even try. This typical political correctness idea that must to include all the different cultures in one single museum only brings more misunderstanding and prejudices.
    And it is so obvious that the museum has absolute no interest to include real South American modernism and contemporary art or have a deeper view on the many different Colonial periods . So why do they do it ?

    1. I think the Boston MFA is actually doing a decent job of trying to mix up different cultures within the same gallery space: the galleries here are a far cry from the previously segregated sections marked “Indigenous Art” or something equally derogatory. You’re right, though, the MFA clearly has little intention of presenting the full breadth of art from all of the Americas.

      Here’s to hoping that within the Art of the Americas wing they’ll find space to showcase South American modernism, even in a rotating exhibition. Very few museums show South/Central American modernism with any kind of consistency…

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