"Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life."
These days, the dust of everyday life accumulates quickly. Hatred, bigotry, racism, and misogyny are no longer lurking in the shadows but are on public display, buoyed by an administration that has embraced the ideology of white supremacy.
To counteract the negative effect of this constant bombardment, my friend Anulfo Baez launched the #museumswithanulfo project. Each week, he visits a museum with a friend to talk about art, life, and how to move forward.
Anulfo and I have been getting together at museums and talking about art since we first met on Twitter in 2011. At the time, Gabriel Orozco’s “Empty Shoe Box” was on exhibit at Tate Modern. Incensed, I questioned whether a commercially-produced shoe box should ever be considered art. Anulfo responded, challenging my strongly-held but not terribly well-informed ideas about art. Eventually, I conceded that my definition was, perhaps, too limited. Certainly he agreed that the piece didn’t warrant its place in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art or on exhibit at Tate Modern?
He did not.
We’ve been friends ever since. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate conceptual art and brutalist architecture. And our conversations have meandered through an array of topics. So when we decided to go to MASS MoCA, I was looking forward to the three-hour car ride from Boston.
As expected, we talked about everything going on in our lives: our families, friends, work and creative projects. We talked about race and class and challenges that take root in your childhood and manifest themselves clearly once you come into your own. We talked about toxic masculinity, the criminalization of poverty and the upcoming election. By the time we arrived in North Adams, I was convinced that our country was a complete dumpster fire. This is why we needed to lose ourselves in art.
An Introduction to MASS MoCA
Once the home of Arnold Print Works, one of the world’s leading producers of printed textiles, MASS MoCA is a world-class contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the complex of 19th-century factory buildings now provides 250,000 square feet of gallery space. You can still see traces of old paint on the brick walls and structural columns. Large windows bathe the wide corridors and soaring galleries in natural light, making the space feel warm and welcoming.
The exhibits feature well-known and emerging artists and are a mix of long-term loans and shorter-term shows. Building 5 is an open, three-story tall, football-field-sized gallery that hosts a series of changing installations. Few museums have that kind of space available to contemporary artists, and the installation on exhibit at the time of our visit used every bit of that space.
Liz Glynn: The Archaeology of Another Possible Future
As we explored the museum, we came to Building 5, which was inhabited by three huge pyramids of reclaimed shipping pallets. Although impressive, what initially drew me to the exhibit was the smell of fresh-cut wood. For a moment, I felt like I was back in my father’s wood shop watching him refinish a piece of furniture.
As it turned out, this spark of memory was perfectly aligned with the artist’s work, although not exactly in the way she intended. The Archaeology of Another Possible Future, Glynn’s five-part installation spread across 30,000 square feet, digs into questions about the fate and value of material objects and the people who make them as our economy becomes increasingly dematerialized.
The exhibit was intriguing. I didn’t really know what I was looking at or how to process the information. I just knew it was unsettling, and that visceral reaction was enough. Today, a full week after our visit, I find that I am still thinking about Glynn’s work. I’d like to experience it again, to gain a deeper understanding of the work, the message and my own view of the world.
Tanja Hollander: Are You Really My Friend?
In stark contrast with The Archaeology of Another Possible Future, Tanja Hollander’s exhibit is immediately relatable and, as a result, comforting. I’ve followed Hollander on Instagram, where she documents most of her work. I watched her prepare for and install the exhibit at MASS MoCA. I thought that was sufficient, so I wasn’t paying much attention when I turned a corner and saw several translucent floor-to-ceiling banners printed with more than 5,000 digital snapshots, selfies and post-it notes.
I stood in the middle of the gallery, gobsmacked. This was not what I expected. I decided to revisit the entire exhibit.
Are You Really My Friend? explores the definition of friendship in the 21st century. If you’re anything like me, you can claim several friends you’ve never met but engage with online. Hollander decided to photograph all 626 of her Facebook friends. She traveled across the globe, staying with and eventually photographing 430 people. Some she knew well, others she had never met.
The exhibit includes large portraits, taken on Hollander’s Hasselblad medium format film camera, banners featuring the photographs she took on her iPhone, a short documentary and an interactive post-it note project where visitors reflect on what it means to be a friend. Collectively, the exhibit explores our everyday trials and tribulations and captures the real lives of its subjects. It also looks at the ways social media can be used to either document or curate your life.
Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective
Just like I thought I knew Tanja Hollander’s work because I had seen it online, I thought I knew Sol LeWitt’s work because I had seen a few pieces before. And, once again, I was wrong.
In 2008, MASS MoCA opened Building 7 with A Wall Drawing Retrospective, a 25-year exhibition of 105 wall drawings by Sol LeWitt. The drawings occupy nearly an acre of wall space spread out over three stories. More interested in the idea behind his work than it’s execution, LeWitt did not actually paint any of the walls. Each piece began as a set of instructions, sometimes accompanied by a diagram or sketch. The diversity of the work allows you to get a glimpse into his thought process.
While the painted walls are probably the most popular, I was enamored with the pieces done in graphite pencil, marker and other non-traditional materials. My favorite piece is Wall Drawing 1180:
Within a four-meter (160”) circle, draw 10,000 black straight lines and 10,000 black not straight lines. All lines are randomly spaced and equally distributed.
At first glance, the drawing appears to be a solid black circle. But there are pockets of white, where the marker didn’t cover the wallboard, and you can still see the pencil outline of the circle along the edge. And as is the case with many of his earlier graphite works, the water-based pigmented marker is drawn directly on the unprimed wall so the texture of the wallboard shows through.
The drawings were stunning, but I’m not sure they would have captured my heart if they were exhibited independently or in a different location. The sunlit galleries and casual atmosphere that is so characteristic of MASS MoCA invited visitors to immerse themselves in the art, to engage with the work through playful photos and excited conversations. It felt like attending a wonderful party.
Spencer Finch: Cosmic Latte
The sense of play inspired by LeWitt’s work transformed into pure wonder as we entered the 80-foot long gallery hosting Spencer Finch’s Cosmic Latte, named after the color of the universe. 150 custom light fixtures holding 417 LED lights designed to look like incandescent bulbs were suspended from the ceiling. The arrangement of the lights and subtle variations of color mimics the the shape of the Milky Way as it is seen in the Northern Hemisphere in March.
As we were leaving the museum, we took a final walk through the exhibit. A special event was being set up in the gallery, a catered dinner for perhaps 30 people. As the sun slowly set, the character of the gallery subtly changed. In another hour, it would be dark outside, and those lucky enough to be part of the evening’s event would dine underneath the Milky Way.
James Turrell: Into The Light
The highlight of this truly exceptional day was Into the Light, a retrospective of James Turrell’s work from the 1960s to today. After getting a degree in perceptual psychology, Turrell went to graduate school for art. But it was his participation in the Art and Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that had the greatest influence on his work. There, he started experimenting with ganzfeld chambers. These enclosed spaces eliminate aural and visual stimulation and wreak havoc on an individual’s depth perception.
Turrell uses light as a sculptural medium. His work manipulates our perception of space and depth, which I found particularly disconcerting. Raethro II, Magenta (Corner Shallow Space) appears to be a solid pyramid floating in space. In reality, it is an empty chamber cut into the wall. The light makes it appear to be a tangible, solid object.
I don’t like not being able to trust what I can see with my own eyes. It makes me uncomfortable.
It was here that we met Josh Smith, a member of the security team at MASS MoCA. Sporting tattoos, a few piercings and some really cool jewelry, Josh asked what we thought of Turrell’s work. We bombarded him with questions and happily followed him through a dark corridor to see Pink Mist (Space Division). Entering the space, you see a dim light at the back of the room beyond what appears to be a screen or perhaps a floor-to-ceiling window. But there is no division. What you are seeing is a wall of light. And yes, it will blow your mind!
Photographs do not do Turrell’s work justice. It must be experienced. So if you do go to MASS MoCA, find out if Josh is on duty. He was one of the highlights of our trip and added to what was already an incredible experience. Knowledgeable, personable and fun, we sought him out several times as we made our way through the exhibit. Each time, we learned and connected a bit more.
MASS MoCA is More Than Just a Museum
By the time we finished our tour of the galleries, we were light-hearted and in love with the world. This is a place that celebrates art and human creativity, but it does so in a way that welcomes everyone, from novice to art enthusiast. Here, the art is not kept behind a red velvet rope and watched over by a uniformed security guard who gives you the side-eye every few minutes. And visitors don’t have to speak in hushed voices, but get to engage with each other, the staff and the work.
This summer, the museum opened Building 6, expanding its gallery space by 130,000 square feet and becoming the largest contemporary art museum in the country.
But MASS MoCA is so much more.