While the ACT-UP show offered a glimpse of her impressive thinking, "Dance/Draw," meaty and ambitious though somewhat muddled, was her first project here that showed the aesthetic and intellectual fireworks possible if a museum gave her room to run.
"This Will Have Been" raises the stakes again, while kicking off a series of major projects that Molesworth is developing for the ICA, including a survey of New York painter Amy Sillman for fall 2013 and a new history of the revolutionary North Carolina art school Black Mountain College.
"Helen has without question brought a different kind of historical interest and scholarly heft to the ICA," says art critic Tyler Green of the blog Modern Art Notes. "She would have to be considered in that top tier of scholarly-minded contemporary curators" in a category with Michael Auping of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Los Angeles Museum from 1990 to this past June; Nancy Spector at New York's Guggenheim Museum; and Siri Engberg at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center.
Molesworth's best shows are wicked smart without making visitors feel dumb, notes Arlette Kayafas, owner of Boston's Gallery Kayafas. "I think that she brings a really high intellectual content and presents it in a way that you feel successful and not less than when you experience the show."
For decades, the national leader in the expansive revisionist history that "This Will Have Been" attempts has been LA MoCA. But a significant difference between Molesworth and Schimmel's LA team is that part of their rewriting of art history has been deeply engaged with art made in their region (one of Schimmel's first shows was 1992's "Helter Skelter: LA Art in the '90s"), while Molesworth exhibits so far have given scant attention to art from Massachusetts and New England. There's no denying that Schimmel began working at LA at a time when the city's artists were becoming widely recognized as world class, while little Boston art is so regarded. But Schimmel has used his stature — his power — to give art made in California official legitimacy, to help lift his neighbors up with him.
Molesworth takes issue with the notion that she should pay more attention to art made here. "It's so weird to me," she says. "I feel like that's definitely the perception people have of the ICA even though since I've been here there have been two permanent collection rotations both of which have had a 'local' artist in them. In ['Dance/Draw'] the big group show I did, I had a 'local' artist in it. . . . I feel like there's this rap and, you know, all we can do is what we're doing."
So it will be interesting next May to see Molesworth's version of the Foster Prize exhibit, the ICA's biennial roundup of local talent (arriving nearly three years after the last one). She's also curating a small survey of Boston painter Steve Locke for next summer, inspired by his recent works challengingly, awkwardly combining painting and sculpture.
"I get very excited," Molesworth says, "when I think an artist makes a big leap of faith into unknown territory."
"THIS WILL HAVE BEEN: ART, LOVE & POLITICS IN THE 1980S" INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART, 100 NORTHERN AVE, BOSTON :: NOVEMBER 15–MARCH 3 :: ICABOSTON.ORG
Greg Cook can be reached at gregcookland.com/journal.