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Road Trip - Mass MoCA

Updated on April 7, 2012
Modern art pours out of Mass MoCA
Modern art pours out of Mass MoCA | Source

A Contemporary Art Museum Where?

Ahhh mud season in New England. Skiing is done and its too early for gardening. The hiking trails are soft and spongy and there is still a chill in the air. Most summer attractions are not open yet. What to do? Road trip!

The family got an early start and headed the car south for a two hour trip down 91s in Vermont and then took a hard right through the mountains to the upper north east corner of Massachusetts to the Bershires region and the city of North Adams. Any wrong turn and we'd be in upstate New York.

North Adams nestled in a valley surrounded by the outdoors playground of the Berkshire mountain range has had some rough times lately, like many U.S. towns built in its heyday on manufacturing and industry but of late suffering as those jobs moved overseas leaving behind a lot of empty real estate in the form of huge brick factories and mills.

For all intents and purposes, North Adams is the last place you'd expect to find a facility dedicated to cutting edge contemporary art. Its in the middle of no where both culturally and physically at least in the lexicon of urban dwellers.

But what North Adams lacks perhaps in black clothing enveloped urbanites, it does have something that is highly desirable for modern artists - space. Contemporary art often is about impact and impact usually means oversize, large pieces. The Mass MoCA facility encompaness 27 separate building although not all are currently utilized and some are rented out to other businesses including restaurants, stores and offices. Still Mass MoCA boasts over 110,000 square feet of open and flexible exhibition space. To say the least, Mass MoCA represents an opportunity for artists to create large pieces and the museum thrives on makeing and presenting work that is fresh, surprising and challenging.

Indeed contemporary art work is very challenging to most art patrons. The mediums are typically atypical perhaps incorporating video projection, sculpture, large format photographs and any manner of found objects. For the visitor used to seeing paintings on a wall hung in gilded ornate frames, the experience can be quite jarring.

The key to understanding contemporary art typically lays within knowing what the artist is trying to achieve. Appreciation of any of the works displayed at the Mass MoCA can be enhanced by a free guided tour by museum staff.

One of the main attractions to Mass MoCA is the 25 year lease of works by minimalist Sol LeWitt. Conceived with his blessing while he was still alive, the collection of Sol LeWitt wall paintings take up an entire building at Mass MoCA. The retrospective of LeWitt's colorful, playful and exciting artwork covers three stages of his career. I highly recommend taking the 30 minute tour of the collection which is fun and entertaining.

If you are familiar with Sol LeWitt's wall paintings you know that the artist gave instructions for how the paintings would be laid out on a wall of the purchasers choice. The artwork would scale to fit the wall used. So the renditions shown at Mass MoCA are unique as the paintings become customized to walls in the museums. The collection on display took draftsmen, artists and art students over six months to paint and draw the paintings to LeWitt's specifications. The result is 27,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to LeWitt's geometric, colorful and huge wall paintings. Again I highly recommend taking the guided tour of the collection to fully appreciate what went into creating the ideas behind the paintings as well as the challenges of creating them for the museum.

The rest of the museum's vast space is given over to revolving shows from visiting artists and themed shows featuring a variety of artists. No doubt artists chosen to display at the Mass MoCA must be besides themselves and down right intimidated by having to create pieces to fill the huge galleries at the Mass MoCA. Again in these galleries it's recommended to get a guided tour. I found the information on the wall to be lack in explaining the though process behind some of the work in these galleries. Contemporary art is really challenging to the view to make sense of what they are seeing. If you don't know the though process behind the work, often one just writes off what they are seeing as something from those "crazy modern artists" or "my third grader can do that".

Mass MoCoCA also has a lot of performance space and puts on many shows and concerts through out the year. If you get hungry there is an excellent cafe in the lobby that serves sandwiches, salads and burritos.

The only downside of Mass MoCA to me is that they don't have any permanent collections yet. There is no review of classic modern artists - no Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollack etc like you might find in a museum like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Rather Mass MoCA focuses on new art and providing a space for creating new works. Its kind of like a performance space. Still it would be nice to see some signature, well know works at least for educational purposes. I also thought that with all of the space available they could showcase some smaller works. The amount of space is so huge that there is plenty of room for a photography exhibit or even adding a gallery of local artists. Perhaps they will as they expand into more of the buildings on the site.

If your having cabin fear, go check out Mass MoCA.


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