"They met in the late 1920s, when she hired him as the tenor to sing at one of her music halls in Washington," Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the MFA's Art of the Americas Department, tells me. "She was in her 70s, and he was very young, he was half her age basically. And they did marry, and they were just a dynamic collecting duo. He was really representative of the kind of person who came to this country and brought obviously new talents, new ideas. He championed those artists he felt were forgotten. Now we think of them, they're very well known, the landscape painters like Fitz Henry Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, many of them part of the Hudson River group, Thomas Cole. There are Karolik objects throughout 30 galleries. They collected folk art because he was a champion of the unknown artist, and the untrained, the non-academically trained."
ONWARD, GEORGE! Suddenly, with a collection that includes Thomas Sully’s The Passage of the Delaware, the Boston art world feels reset on a firm foundation.
Missing in action
The MFA collection trails off on the top floor, which focuses on 20th-century American Modernism, from Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alexander Calder to Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Malden-born Frank Stella, and Philip Guston, who taught at Boston University after his late, great, stumblebum cartoony paintings were panned in New York. The 22-foot ceilings of the center gallery make the room feel baggy, and the Abstract Expressionist canvases tend to get lost.
The third floor includes significant loans, like Stella's giant (dull) linked-rings abstract painting, a Mark Rothko featuring his signature moody hovering clouds in blue and black, Archibald Motley Jr.'s painting of a neon African-American cocktail party, and a pair of sleek Midwest landscapes by Grant Wood, whose work is rarely seen in any numbers outside Iowa. Whereas fine art and design are mixed throughout the wing, photography is segregated into just one room for a temporary display (augmented by loans) of early-20th-century works by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams — the latter two plus Wood and O'Keeffe account for nearly all the American art here from west of the Mississippi. It would be nice to see the painting the MFA owns by David Park, a Boston native who led a gang of mid-20th-century figurative expressionist painters in San Francisco.
What else is missing? The Civil War is pretty much confined to a single Homer sketch. World War I and II, the Depression, and Vietnam don't exist. The civil-rights movement is represented by Stockbridge resident Norman Rockwell's 1967 Look magazine illustration of a black family integrating a white neighborhood. Feminism is represented by Alice Neel's 1973 portrait of pioneering feminist art scholar Linda Nochlin and her daughter (though the painting doesn't promote this fact). After the American Revolution, social critics need not apply. There's no sign of Ben Shahn, Diego Rivera, Jack Levine, Corita Kent, or Peter Schumann of Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater, though all are in the MFA's collection. Is it a surprise that the museum hasn't included pioneering Massachusetts abstract painter Maud Morgan? After all, it's neglected to award its Maud Morgan prize for local women artists for four years now.