Culture Vulture: Night (And Free Day) at the Museum, Part I

Katharina Grosse: One Floor Up More Highly
Katharina Grosse: One Floor Up More Highly

Part 1: The Vulture feeds his soul real good… for free!

One of my past lives was spent in commercial radio, where the unofficial industry motto is “If it’s free, it’s for ME!” Many years and (marginally) better economic circumstances later, my ears still prick up at the sound of freebies falling from the sky. So when a cultural funhouse like MASS MoCA opens its doors and says, “No charge,” I’m there with a smile… and a slight limp, courtesy of the beautiful but increasingly brutal Route 2. (A little stimulus spending, please? Anyone? Anyone?)

I wasn’t the only one who’d cleared his schedule: By the time we passed the upside-down trees that greet all visitors to North Adams’ re-purposed textile factory, nearly 2,500 people had come in out of the cold – 300 of them in the first hour. There’s no telling how many of those people were experiencing MASS MoCA’s singular style for the first time, but we met a few of them in Sol Lewitt’s maze-like wall-drawing retrospective. One of the newbies smiled nervously when she told us she was worried she “wouldn’t be smart enough” for what the museum had on display.

Okay, how to put this tactfully? Maybe like this: INTELLIGENCE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT! Now, that’s a punchline for all those would-be pundits who look at something deeper than a Thomas Kinkade calendar and snort, “My 5-year-old kid coulda done that!” Listen, Sparky, if your five-year old can come up with something as bizarre as the “Peacock room” in Petah Coyne’s retrospective “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” either get him therapy or get him a grant! And no, I didn’t say that to the first-timer, though I admit was pretty boggled when my partner – a future PhD – pointed out (and then explained) the optical illusion inside one of Lewitt’s already-dizzying murals.

In all seriousness, the key to MASS MoCA can be found in “An Exchange with Sol Lewitt,” an exhibition resulting from an open call for hypothetical ‘gifts’ to Lewitt from other artists. They’re all pretty small, mostly 8×10″, but they range from cryptic photos to detailed prints, from schizophrenic collages to elegant calligraphy, from unexplainable sculptures bolted on the wall to a note from Lynn Carlson that says, “Brevity is the Sol Lewitt.” And at the far end of the exhibit is a piece of paper contributed by Richie Bearden that contains a single question done in multiple colors of pencil: “How does it make you feel?”

And that’s it. You don’t have to know what speed Coyne used when she shot the “Bridal Series” pictures, or when she photographed the double line of Japanese monks walking away from her camera. But a little imagination (and a lot of time spent at weddings) lets you see a bride dancing and spinning on her wedding day, the happiest day of her life so far; then you see the ‘aura’ that the time-lapse puts around the monks, and it’s easy to believe that Coyne has literally captured the spirit that travels with her subjects.

Then there’s Katharina Grosse’s mammoth installation “one floor up more highly.” Jagged glaciers made of Styrofoam sit on top of tons of soil that has been blasted with countless sheets of paint. Balled-up pieces of clothing, possibly left by squatters, is not spared by the colorful onslaught. A sleek-yet jagged piece of (What? Wreckage? Rubble? Pottery?) sits in the middle of the floor, revealing a brilliant rainbow of its own. The small anteroom next to the main gallery is another festival of paint on the walls and the floor, seemingly random until you notice that some of the patterns look like light coming in from a door or a window. The scope is enormous, the logistics unfathomable. It could be a snapshot of The Day After, or what Passonno Paints might look like if it’s ever hit by a frozen meteor. But you don’t have to know any of the details. All that matters is Bearden’s question: How does it make you feel?

You might not react to any of the exhibits I’ve just talked about, and then you might find the hallway with the series of commemorative Wilco concert posters and be stunned by their connection to the mind-bending artwork generated for ’60s-era concerts by San Francisco legends like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. It’s all subjective, and your results may vary. But if you’ve never been to MASS MoCA, don’t wait for the next Free Day. Just drive on up, and don’t worry: There’s no test at MASS MoCA, least of all an intelligence test.

Story and photographs by J Hunter (aka the Culture Vulture)

Stay tuned for J Hunter’s “Culture Vulture: Night (And Free Day) at the Museum, Part II” coming later today…

How Does It Make You Feel?

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