ALL ART HAS BEEN CONTEMPORARY Maurizio Nannucci’s 1999 blue neon piece is the new wing’s
slogan — and is part of what may be the most extensive long-term grouping of text art in any major
Imagine if curators supplemented this group with text pieces from the collection by artists with local ties: Jack Pierson, Robert Indiana, and Sister Corita Kent. Or Glenn Ligon's 1990 painting of a James Baldwin quote: "Whites want black artists to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience." And Group Material's 1991 bus placard quoting George H.W. Bush: "Like many of you, Barbara and I have had friends who have died of AIDS. . . . Once disease strikes, we don't blame those who are suffering."
The initial contemporary offerings don't make evident a distinctive vision. Snapping up hits by established stars is a reasonable plan, but it's not fresh thinking, and the one-of-each approach undercuts the presentation. The new wing, after all, offers rich possibilities. Why not hang all the MFA's Warhols (from a mourning Jackie O, to Mick Jagger, to a piss painting) with its '60s rock posters and Richard Avedon's psychedelic photos of the Beatles? The MFA has long been embarrassed by its rich collection of Morris Louis, but recent abstraction suggests he's ripe for rediscovery. How about a micro survey?
Can the MFA catch up in art of the past 50 years? Conventional wisdom says that you can't go back and build a blue-chip historical collection from an era that's been as well mined as, for example, the '60s. But that's proved wrong by the Van Otterloo collection of 17th-century Dutch art featured at Salem's Peabody Essex Museum last winter and Walmart heiress Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The MFA could make major progress if it has the will — and the donors.
"A new culture of collecting contemporary art in Boston is gaining momentum all the time," MFA director Malcolm Rogers said at a press preview last week. The Institute of Contemporary Art impressed with its ability to raise $41 million for a new museum on the Boston waterfront, which opened nearly five years ago. But the MFA has astonished with fund-raising to construct a $345 million Art of the Americas Wing, which opened in November, and now a $12.5 million renovation to create the contemporary art wing. (Though renovated, the 1981 I.M. Pei–designed architecture still feels like a shopping mall.) Renovations to the European department are coming. Which has fostered a sense around town that the MFA is corralling the region's donors, including sugardaddies previously more affiliated with other institutions, like the Linde family, which has long been a chief supporter of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.
The MFA contemporary wing comes amidst an unprecedented museum building boom across the region. As a viewer, nothing could be better than for the MFA, ICA, Harvard, deCordova, Brandeis, Andover, Wellesley, and the Peabody Essex to all compete at contemporary art. The MFA may lead the money race, but if I'm an ICA or Andover curator, the MFA's contemporary wing today doesn't challenge me. The MFA frames it as an opening statement. Saywell says upcoming contemporary special exhibits will feature photographer Ori Gersht and painter Alex Katz. Wait and see.