Something old, something new

By GREG COOK  |  March 1, 2006

Behind a green shingled door, Miyake’s 20-minute video “A Beaver’s Life” screened hourly. As a narrator deadpanned beaver facts, Beaver tromped through the woods and splashed in a pond. He tried to chop down a small tree (“A four-inch diameter tree can be felled by beaver within 30 minutes”), selected lumber at a lumber yard, shopped for waders at a camping shop, downed pancakes and coffee at a restaurant (“The trees beaver eat are rich in nutrition”), and, with the help of gallery fabricators, erected an ersatz dam and lodge near the pond edge.

At first I suspected Miyake wanted to say something about America with his Beaver, something about industriousness, perhaps, or how he sees the US as an isolationist fortress surrounded by ocean moats. Beaver pelts were one of the famous exports from the New World. Hunting and clearing woods to create farmland eradicated this indigenous species from Massachusetts by the late 1700s. Beavers have returned to the commonwealth in the past 100 years, much to the chagrin of suburbanites who find their properties flooded by the now protected rodents. And of course “beaver” is slang for what my dictionary describes as, ahem, a lady’s most ladylike parts.

Yet Miyake said (through an interpreter) that he didn’t intend his Beaver to be a symbol for anything, and the more I looked around, the more I believed him. When he was little, he saw a documentary about beavers and marveled how something so small could accomplish so much. He remembered this when he was fishing for motifs of local importance the better to involve local curators and audiences. He succeeded; when else do you see children and such crowds at college contemporary-art shows? Miyake’s ultimate goal is to erect encompassing art environments that remind us “how free and how fun to make things.” As an advocate for making art more fun, I found that this show put me in an awkward position. It was fun all right, but is fun enough?

RED RIVER VALLEY: In Stella's early work, the geometric pattern bends slightly here and there, imbuing the harsh regularity with a warm, handmade idiosyncrasy.IN JUNE OF 1958, 22-year-old Malden native Frank Stella graduated from Princeton and moved to New York. The 21 works being shown in the Sackler Museum’s “Frank Stella 1958,” about half of what he made that year, reveal how enamored he was of Robert Rauschenberg and especially Jasper Johns. He swiped the stripes of Johns’s famous American-flag paintings and began trying out various arrangements of stripes and a rectangle rendered in cheap house paint. He aimed to supplant the Abstract Expressionists, whose work he thought had grown precious. “I sensed a hesitancy, a doubt of some vague dimension which made their work touching, but to me too vulnerable.”

The paintings and assemblages he produced — reunited at Harvard for the first time in decades — are okay, but for me they’re the minor works of a major artist. The exhibition’s narrow focus, perfect for study (and eminently appropriate for an academic institution), shows you Stella thinking, making one experiment after another, until near the end of the year he hit on his great idea.

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