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Art review: The Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

November 18, 2010 |  5:00 pm

MFA Meso American

BOSTON -- In 1994, a museum wave began to surge in Dallas. This weekend it breaks on a Massachusetts shore.

Saturday the Museum of Fine Arts Boston opens an impressive, $345-million new wing to display the Art of the Americas. The transformation, 11 years in the making, is dramatic.

The Dallas Museum of Art was the first to take a post-colonial view of the subject of American art, starting the chronology not with the European settlement of the New World, as museums traditionally had, but with ancient civilizations spanning North, Central and South America. Sophisticated indigenous and pre-Columbian civilizations had been around for thousands of years before Jamestown and Plymouth Colony.

Shifting focus toward the continents where the art was made, rather than to the history of today's dominant culture, had the benefit of clarifying the transitory ebb and flow of political power over time. Many museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, have since followed suit, beginning their American art displays in ancient Mesoamerica.

But Boston's, thanks to geography, ranks as perhaps the most decisive change. MFAB, founded five short years after the Civil War, is located in an epicenter of the American Revolution. It has always been synonymous with older, more hidebound ideas of what is American about American art.

When a collection boasts more than four dozen paintings by John Singleton Copley, including his iconic 1768 portrait of Paul Revere, how could it not be?

MFAB courtyard into galleries And that's not the half of it. The new galleries are reached by an immense, 63-foot-tall, glass-walled interior courtyard -- essentially a vast party space, rather chilly in its corporate sleekness (London's Norman Foster is the architect) -- which roughly duplicates the size and scale of the exhibition building adjacent.

The second and third floors of the new four-story wing, which boasts 51,000 square feet of space in 53 galleries, houses the museum's well-known collections of Colonial, Revolutionary and 19th century paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. Although primarily limited to the Northeastern U.S., the depth is exceptional.

First comes the museum's Ur-object: Revere's famous "Sons of Liberty Bowl," a simple footed shape, like a little punch bowl, in finely engraved silver hollow-ware. On the wall behind it is Copley's marvelous portrait of the silversmith-patriot. In the brilliant image, where Revere holds a teapot in one hand and his chin in the other, Copley fuses head with hand as implements of thought, labor and moral action.

MFA Revere Copley Each floor has a central spine, with rows of galleries on either side (think of a trio of parallel halls). The plan allows for serendipity in your journey, rather than a strictly linear narrative, as well as for great variation in display.

Some galleries are virtual solo or theme shows -- a room of great Copley portraits, say, or another with 33 hand-stitched needlework samplers by Sally Jackson and other young Colonial women. A salon-style floor-to-ceiling hanging of mostly Romantic landscapes and genre scenes includes Washington Allston's 1818 vision of ravens feeding Old Testament prophet Elijah in a bleak desert, the first work acquired by MFAB 140 years ago. Nearby, Luminist landscapes by Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade bring unearthly calm and order to the rise and aftermath of the brutal Civil War.

There are surprises. John Singer Sargent's famous pictorial answer to Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" is flanked by the actual colossal Japanese vases shown in Sargent's atmospheric 1882 depiction of "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit." Some paintings hang on replicas of brightly patterned period wallpaper. A small gallery features Spanish Colonial art -- mostly on loan, alas, but anchored by a fine new purchase: a 1754 Mexican archbishop's portrait by the great Miguel Cabrera.

MFAB 004 But nothing is more surprising than the ground floor, which kicks off the wing's chronology with an unexpectedly absorbing display of pre-Columbian objects from Mesoamerica. Who knew MFAB had such rich holdings -- especially great Mayan painted vessels, as fine as anything in the building?

There's wit, too. An adjacent gallery introduces the Puritans' arrival to Massachusetts. Leaving behind highly refined pre-Columbian clay, you encounter a rough,1680s cupboard with a tin-glazed earthenware British plate featuring the florid inscription, "Welcom [sic] my Friends, 1661." Welcome, indeed: The clash of the Europeans' arrival in the New World looms.

There are some significant problems, such as poorly displayed Colonial and 19th century furniture vignettes upstairs. MFAB has great decorative objects, lined up against walls. But shin-high strips of object labels inexplicably obscure the carefully crafted feet and lower registers of elaborately carved chairs, tables and chests. Like the graphics Chyron running at the bottom of a TV screen, the labeling is more intrusive than helpful.

MFA 20th century Still, the biggest fiasco is the fourth floor. A flatly dreadful selection of 20th century, mostly New York art, often badly installed, gives testament to MFAB's long-standing reputation -- which it wants to shake off -- for conservative disinterest in the complexities of modern life. Not to put too fine a point on it, the entire 20th century needs to be re-thought, much the way the entire Art of the Americas approach has been.

One hurdle faced by reconfigured museums, including MFAB, is that existing collections reflect the "old" approach to art's history rather than the new. That means huge and inevitable gaps. The question is what to do about them.

The new clarity afforded to existing holes might give potential donors some bright ideas. Nobody wants cookie-cutter museums with uniform collections -- there's already too much of that -- even for an encyclopedic museum like Boston's, which aspires to encyclopedic thoroughness. And distinctive local flavor is to be encouraged.

But MFAB's new American wing helpfully exposes the cracks in traditional thinking about American art. Maybe those fractures will give the museum some good ideas on how to represent art's 20th century.

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, (617) 267-9703; www.mfa.org

Photos: Mesoamerican galleries; courtyard and Art of the Americas galleries; John Singleton Copley's  "Portrait of Paul Revere" and Revere's "Sons of Liberty Bowl;" Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston; Martin Johnson Heade's "Approaching Storm: Beach Near Newport," center, and 19th century furniture; Credit: Christopher Knight / Los Angeles Times; 20th century art galleries; Credit: Museum of Fine Arts Boston

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