The city's art scene gets a boost with the opening of the ICA.
Despite Boston’s radical reputation, its art scene has been decidedly conservative. Locals in search of progressive art would once trek 200 miles south to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, ignoring the handful of small, struggling galleries within the city limits. Local critic Cate McQuaid called Boston “a city that hasn’t thrilled to contemporary art since Monet.” All that is about to change with the long-awaited opening of the new Institute of Contemporary Art. The waterfront building, which opened just last month, is the first major museum to open in Boston in nearly a century.
words by > Tracy Walsh
Highlights of the new ICA include 17,000 square feet of gallery space—nearly triple the capacity of its old incarnation—a 325-seat performing arts venue and a Wolfgang Puck eatery. But the four-story museum overlooking Boston Harbor is a work of art in its own right.
The airy, almost weightless building seems to fl oat on the water, thanks to an all-glass façade held aloft by slender ribbons of metal. Its fourth-story galleries are housed in a cantilever which extends dramatically over the pier.
The all-glass design “takes advantage of the extraordinary water views without diminishing the experience of the art inside the museum,” says Museum Director Jill Medvedow. “You get these gorgeous and quite unexpected landscapes everywhere.”
An oversized glass elevator whisks patrons to the fourth-floor galleries, off ering sweeping harbor vistas along the way. The view from the top fl oor reveals a panorama of the Boston cityscape, from the picturesque spire of Old North Church to the strikingly modernist New England Aquarium. White-sailed boats glide across the harbor; gulls swoop and soar in the distance. Across the harbor you can see East Boston and the bustle of Logan Airport—a mere five minute drive away.
As striking as the architecture and panoramas are, they pale next to the art itself. the ICA, once confined to a corner of an old Boston firehouse, now has enough room to run four major exhibitions simultaneously—including one devoted to its permanent collection.
As part of its expansion, the ICA has acquired 25 works, including several by the famed American artist Nan Goldin, best known for her intimate and naturalistic photography, and two by British artist Cornelia Parker, famed for her installation art. “For the first time in our 70-year history, we’re a collecting institution,” says Medvedow. “It’s a very big step.”
Parker’s Hanging Fire, which the artist once described as “a three-dimensional charcoal sketch,” is Medvedow’s personal favorite. “It’s devastatingly beautiful,” she says. the monumental installation features the charred remains of an incinerated house strung in layers from the ceiling. The end result is a delicate, almost effervescent scultpture rising into space. “It’s both familiar and mysterious,” she says.
On a lighter note, Tropicalounge, the sixth exhibition in the ICA’s Momentum series of up-and-coming artists, features Sergio Vega’s playful take on Brazil’s “Modernismo Tropical.” the Argentinean Vega was inspired by an early colonial-era map which claimed to locate a “New Eden” in Brazil. Vega traveled to Mato Grosso, a largely undeveloped state in western Brazil better known for its swamplands and rainforests than for its cities, in order to get a firsthand look at the unknown interior of South America.
Th e resulting work is a colorful jumble of images in a room-sized installation. Patrons can recline on a lily-pad shaped couch in the shade of a potted palm tree, listen to blaring Tropicalia music or peer into a life-sized dilapidated shed, taking care not to step on the stuff ed roosters that dot the ground. the installation incorporates text, photography, sculpture and painting, along with an eight-foot-tall plush parrot with a working telephone in its chest cavity. Some might call the chaos a witty and subversive commentary on cultural stereotyping. Others might just call it fun.
Also on display is Super Vision, a major group show featuring 27 international artists. the show traces the development of contemporary visual culture from Bridget Riley’s mesmerizing 1960s Op Art to Andreas Gurksy’s heroic, digitally manipulated panoramas. “It’s about how new visual technologies are changing the way we see reality—the macro and the micro,” says Medvedow. “With modern technology, we can all have super-human vision now.”
And, in a nod to Britain’s Turner Prize, the ICA is showing works by each of the four finalists for its ICA Artist Prize. Winners of the biannual prize receive $25,000 and the esteem of the art world. Since each shortlisted artist has several pieces on display, visitors can judge for themselves the merits of Sheila Gallagher’s mixed-media religious meditations, Jane D. Marsching’s Arctic photography, Kelly Sherman’s wistful found art, and Rachel Perry Welty’s “disposable” sculptures.
The new ICA is a long way from its old digs: the aforementioned abandoned 19th century firehouse in the city’s crowded Back Bay section. “Th e massive sandstone structure could be described as ‘formidable,’” jokes Medvedow. “It was really designed to keep people out. And it worked.”
Th e job of rebuilding the ICA went to Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a world-renowned firm which won the first-ever MacArthur “Genius Grant” awarded in the field of architecture. “Th ey’re very well-known, but mostly for their conceptual work and unpublished designs,” says Medvedow. the ICA is their first building in the US.
But even though the building is new, the ICA has been on the Boston scene since 1936. It exhibited artists like Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol before they became household names. Today, the ICA exhibits heavyweights of the contemporary art world, like Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, along with lesser-known up-and-comers.
“Boston has always been fairly conservative when it comes to art,” says museum spokeswoman Melissa Kuronen. “It hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced contemporary art. But now the ICA is ready to expand people’s ideas about what contemporary art can be.” www.icaboston.org