Traveler Contributing Editor James Conaway is inspired by the New England’s fall foliage, and goes looking for other inspirational art at two local museums.
The foliage factor’s just beginning to radically alter the New England landscape. I wanted something thoughtful to add to the palette of fiery reds and yellows of just-turning maples as I was driving through Massachusetts, and so headed for the northwest corner, where I found what are probably the two antithetical, if captivating, art venues in the state: “The Clark,” in Williamstown, and MASS MoCA in nearby North Adams.
The undeclared war between traditional, painterly views of nature, and those portraying the physical world as an unrelenting grapple with the forces of destruction and anomie, rages. You’d never know it from the air of decorum reigning at both institutions. Yet the vast arc of western artistic interpretation links them and provides the traveler with a riveting contrast, the Clark being the essence of tradition, and MASS MoCA a descent into the post-apocalyptic present. Both are provocative and, yes, fun.
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute sits at the foot of the gentle Taconic Mountains and includes in its stunning collection some iconic New England paintings, among them Winslow Homer’s Undertow, which shows ocean survivors once described as the wettest-looking people in American art. There are scads of Impressionists, among them many Renoirs, Pissarros, and Monets, some too pretty for real nature to ever equal. The collection is deep and varied, however, and can easily take up a day, particularly with the addition of Through the Seasons: Japanese Art in Nature, at the new Stone Hill Center, with Edo screens on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and stunning examples of contemporary Japanese ceramics.
MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), by contrast, occupies a sprawling former factory where the un-lovelies of industrial construction are as evident as the artists’ edginess. I headed for These Days: Elegies for Modern Times, six young artists’ visceral expressions in video, installations, painting, sculpture and photographs. Chris Doyle’s animated urban disaster scene includes operatic laments by a man trapped beneath crumbled pavement and a woman in a shawl grieving like a modern-day Greek tragedian, all in a garish, 21st-century palette. There’s a subterranean quality to much of the exhibit, including a captivating video, A Little Death, of a decaying hare–are those real maggots in time lapse?–by Sam Taylor-Wood that’s hard not to look at, believe it or not.
The exhibit’s abutted by Anselm Kiefer’s huge canvases encrusted with oils and emulsions suggesting vast, striated landscapes freighted with too much history, and a long reef of broken concrete and exposed rebar leading the viewer–this one, anyway–back to the door and eventually out under the blue New England sky. The sun was still warm; MASS MoCA’s signature potted maples–hung upside, of course, from cables–were also turning pink.