MASS MoCA: Exploring Massachusett’s art scene

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A visit to MASS MoCA

We were recently in New York for a series of meetings, but once they were over, we took ourselves up to North Adams, Massachusetts to get some fresh air and kick back for a few days.

By pure chance, we soon discovered that we were staying just up the road from the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, usually known as MASS MoCA. It didn’t take us long to decide we should go and have a look around.

MASS MoCA opened in 1986 on the site of a former textile mill and later an electric company that helped make components for early atomic bombs and NASA space missions. Originally conceived as a space for exhibiting large works of contemporary art, during construction the plan evolved for it to become a centre for changing exhibitions and performing arts as well.

We have to admit we weren’t previously aware of this arts centre, to our shame, but we were blown away when we visited. First, by the sheer scale of the place. It was worth going just to see the building itself – multiple windows providing plenty of natural light for the wide-open gallery spaces and corridors.

We got there at 10am, just as it opened, and virtually had the place to ourselves, which was a real delight after being used to the busy exhibition spaces of London.

There were several exhibitions taking place at the time, but if we were to pick our favourites we’d go with the following:

Sol LeWitt – A Wall Drawing Retrospective

A minimalist artist, Sol Lewitt created simple geometric imagery, only as architecturally scaled wall drawings. The exhibition takes up nearly an acre of specially installed walls over three storeys of one of the former mill buildings. Each wall drawing starts out as a detailed set of instructions or a diagram showing how the work should be executed. The construction of the wall drawings took six months of work by a team of 22 assistants who had worked with LeWitt for many years, plus dozens of student interns and local artists.

The drawings range from layers of lines drawn in black pencil to colourful contrasts of geometric shapes of wavy lines. It put me in mind of one of the artists we represent – Andy Gilmore, who is all about shape and form, though at this scale the pieces are incredibly impressive.

Jenny Holzer

Jenny Holzer is probably best known for her Truisms posters, which first appeared anonymously on walls in Manhattan in the late 1970s. They were purely text – a series of aphorisms often culled from her reading at the time. She hoped they would provoke people and even make them laugh. Since then she has continued to create work that focus on putting across thoughts and ideas through words, usually in public spaces, using billboards, projections and LED signs.

I knew a little about Jenny before seeing the exhibition here, but soon learned a lot more. Her pieces appear on everything from postcards, golf balls and stone benches to condoms. She represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 1990, for which she won the Golden Lion.

James Turrell – Into the Light

The gallery has nine Turrell pieces presently on display as part of their retrospective. That’s no mean feat considering the scale at which he can work. For example, since 1979 he’s been working on Roden Crater, which is the three-mile wide cone of an extinct volcano in Arizona, which he has been slowly transforming into a naked eye observatory for viewing the light of the sky.

Turrell’s work tends to be about the interaction between light and space, sometimes tricking the eye, and is shown at MASS MoCA in galleries designed to show off his works to their best advantage. I loved these as completely immersive experiences, often rewarding you for your patience as your eyes adjusted to the light to reveal something new.

The Bright and Hollow Sky

Lifting its title from Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’, this is a photographic exhibition drawn from a collection of music photography by a number of photographers. The intention is to show portraits which probe beneath the surface of image to reveal more of the real artist. Individuals, ranging from Iggy, naturally to Lester Bangs, Nan Goldin, James Brown and Divine start the exhibition in connected images. Then you’re taken into photos grouped more by theme – psychedelic musicians, R&B singers, couples, the Velvet Underground/Warhol circle and more. It makes for a fascinating insight into those who have helped shape culture over recent decades.

And those are just the exhibition spaces we had time to explore during our stay in North Adams. In short, if you ever find yourself in the area, you should definitely pay MASS MoCA a visit. And even if you’re not in the area, you might want to make a diversion up that way.   

Here is a selection of images from the exhibitions we visited.