Mass MoCA and The Clark explore spaces new and old


In "The Space Between," a low-key show now at Mass MoCA, a few of the many transitional "just passing through" spaces at the sprawling museum campus are filled with art. Sculpture, photography, sound art from seven artists try "to form a constellation of yet-unconnected dots."

How we consider space — both physical and conceptual — is among the topics many Berkshire museums will explore this summer. At the Clark Art Institute, the museum is still settling into its new, improved home, and adjusting to the expectations that come with it. MoCA is still filling out its abundance of space, this year with works that fill and reshape it in new ways. And it isn't just a matter of buildings and grounds — at the Norman Rockwell Museum, an exhibition will reexamine how the museum's iconic namesake engaged with his times.

No Berkshire museum has ever had a summer like the Clark did in 2015. After completing its $145-million renovation in 2014, it used its first full season to mount "Van Gogh and Nature," and hosted one of the most instantly recognizable American paintings — "Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1," better known as Whistler's Mother. The summer broke attendance records, with 170,000 guests who pumped an estimated $14.8 million into the local economy.

This summer's big show might not have the instant rock star appeal, but promises to be a major highlight of the season. "Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado" is a collaboration with the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, and features 28 Old Master paintings — 24 of which have never been shown in the United States.

The paintings tell a story about ideas of beauty and propriety at the time, and the fascination with mythological subjects, but also stories in themselves as objects, according to Lara Yeager-Crasselt, the Clark's interim curator of paintings and sculpture.

"There are different levels that come together to tell a very fascinating story," she said. "There are representations of the nude from the time from all over Europe, but also with how they were collected and displayed."

The paintings were collected by the Hapsburg and Spanish Bourbon kings of Spain, whose private tastes and interests diverged from the public morality required of Catholic monarchs. One compromise was to display the works in "sala reservadas" — private viewing salons for the king and select guests.

Over at Mass MoCA, work continues on Building 6, the next phase of the gradual buildout to repurpose the old Sprague Electric campus, that should be complete next year. But this summer in the galleries, the work includes Richard Nonas' quietly intense "The Man in the Empty Space" in MoCA's signature, vast Building 5 space, and Alex Da Corte's "Free Roses," which remixes several rooms with new sights, colors, smells and floorings. Opening later this summer, "Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder," brings works by 23 artists who each in their own way search for that "purer state of wonder ... poised between knowing and not knowing, and defined by an experience of something truly new."

Elsewhere in the county, the Norman Rockwell Museum this summer faces one of the great questions about Rockwell: how one of the 20th century's most iconic and familiar American artists ran so deeply against the grain of his era's prevailing styles.

"He was so popularly appreciated, but the interesting thing is that at mid-century he was in some ways a relic in terms of fine art," said Chief Curator Stephanie Plunkett. "Too traditional, too narrative, too accessible. Even the world of illustration was changing in response to what happened in the fine art world."

The exhibition, "Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World," not only looks at Rockwell's evolution, but how fellow illustrators were changing in response to the changes in the world of fine art. It features a huge range of works from across genres — from abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman and Helen Frankenthaler, to pop artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, to realists like Jamie Wyeth and Bo Bartlett.

The Rockwell Museum has often emphasized the work of other illustrators — last year's popular summer exhibition featured the work of New Yorker illustrator Roz Chast. But this is the first time Plunkett can recall that the museum has engaged directly with Rockwell's legacy in this way.

"This will be a lot of fun," Plunkett said. "I hope visitors come away understanding a little more about his place in time and how he was viewed."

At the Williams College Museum of Art this summer, "Not Theories but Revelations" about painter Abbott Handerson Thayer will remain up after opening in March. The exhibition explores how the American painter, best known for his ornate images of angels, had a deep fascination with camouflage in the natural world, and how his ideas were translated into military uses for the First World War.

This at a time when officials at the college have begun to argue that the museum needs new spaces to better suit its current mission. Talk of a possible new location on Southworth Street was shelved in the face of strong community opposition earlier this year. And while a project is many years away, there has been talk about possibly building on the current Williams Inn site, if the college's proposed new hotel on Spring Street is built.


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