CURVE XXI Though generic in form, Ellsworth Kelly’s wood sculptures readjust your sense of the room
and scale — and their varied grains bring to mind scholars’ rocks.
In contrast to this post-modern sampling is preeminent modernist Ellsworth Kelly's "Wood Sculpture" in the Foster Gallery through March 4. His is known for painting shaped canvases or panels of juxtaposed flat colors that stand out from the wall. This precise survey is the "first museum exhibition of his wood sculpture," according to Saywell, rounding up 18 of the 30 he's made since 1958. Kelly isolates shapes from nature to create minimal, geometric abstractions. Early on, his shapes were idiosyncratic, whispering at their origins as bridge arches or the stripes of beach tents. But by the mid-'60s, his shapes became basic curves, triangles, and quadrilaterals, which can feel generic.
The flat wood planks at the MFA follow similar designs, with sides either straight or defined by the edges of long, graceful curves. Some pieces place one straight plank behind a board cut on a curve, and, like his later paintings, hover off the wall. Others are freestanding verticals, like exclamation points or the essential forms of stele. It's about elemental shapes, their shadows, and how they readjust your sense of the room and scale. The shapes remain rather generic, but the fantastic, often exotic woods, which Kelly has cut to order, offer wonderful grains, ranging from digital-seeming dashes to cascading ripples that bring to mind Chinese scholars' rocks.
> SLIDESHOW: Scenes from the opening of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art <
Saywell says the MFA seeks to distinguish itself nationally by highlighting how contemporary works fit amongst the museum's renowned encyclopedic collection and provide some focus on art made here. A handful of New England artists are featured on the first floor (Scott Prior, Nicholas Nixon, Robert Freeman, Raul Gonzalez, Michael Mazur), whereas more famous New Yorkers who used to be here are integrated into the main second floor galleries (Walker, Josiah McElheny, Ellen Gallagher, Doug and Mike Starn). Wendy Jacob, the 2011 winner of the MFA's rebooted Maud Morgan Prize for Massachusetts women artists, exhibits a group of photos that tour Boston and an interactive sculpture. The latter comprises a group of white square platforms. Sit on them to hear and feel faint thumps from a recording of air bubbling up as it was released by melting glacial ice, which Jacob recorded in the Arctic. It's a stiff, formalist presentation of a dreamy, transporting idea.
Many New Englanders already in the history books — and the MFA collection — curiously aren't featured: Harry Callahan, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Alex Katz, Joel Meyerowitz, Abelardo Morell, Kenneth Noland, Eliot Porter, Fairfield Porter, Aaron Siskind, Peter Schumann, Neil Welliver, Minor White. But the MFA retains Mainer Jonathan Borofsky's cheesy 2000 fiberglass figures that pretend to fly through the atrium.
A surprise: text-based art in the halls on both floors may be the most extensive long-term grouping of text art in any major museum. Though Saywell talks about it simply as visitor outreach and "sparking dialogue." Maurizio Nannucci's 1999 blue neon All Art Has Been Contemporary is the slogan for the new wing. Also featured are Jenny Holzer, Kay Rosen, Cerith Wyn Evans, Tracey Emin, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner. Michael Phelan's 2009 neon Bless You Taco Bell, installed above the MFA's Bravo restaurant, amuses. But too many of the text pieces are easy bromides or conceptual japes. (Wall labels throughout take a similar Art for Dummies approach that underestimates visitors.)