On Exhibit

The 6: The six main artists who fill Building 6 with color, light, words — their work

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NORTH ADAMS — The six artists showcased in Building 6 represent the exploration and cross-pollination that has been at the heart of Mass MoCA’s mission since it opened 18 years ago. They include two legends of the last century whose work has shaped today’s art world, three artists now at the top of their game whose work will shape tomorrow’s and one unexpected local discovery ready to surprise a new, wider audience.

Jenny Holzer

When Jenny Holzer began to move away from the semiabstract painting of her early career, she was able to find ways to read people where they were, in language they could understand. That was the foundation of a body of work that would embrace the simple eloquence of English.

"I used language because I wanted to offer content that people — not necessarily art people — could understand," she said in a 2012 interview in Interview Magazine.

That began with a basic bit of guerrilla street messaging, or propaganda with an unclear purpose. Beginning in 1977, her Truisms series features black and white posters that she would hang around New York herself late at night, featuring leftfield aphorisms.

The pieces would extend to different media. They would appear on billboards, clothing, and later becoming one of the first to use LED lighting. In 1996, she expanded that to include projections onto the sides of buildings, most notably along the Arno River in Florence.

"I like placing content wherever people look," she said in that interview. "And that can be at the bottom of a cup or on a shirt or hat or on the surface of a building."

In 2007, she took over Building 5 with Projections, featuring her aphorisms projected across the vast space, for her first indoor work. For Building 6, she’ll begin with a new, large-scale projection on the side of the newly opened building.

 Robert Rauschenberg

It’s fitting that the first large work of art to fill Mass MoCA’s enormous Building 5 space — now hosting Nick Cave’s "Until" — when the museum opened in May 1999 was by Robert Rauschenberg. In many ways, choosing Rauschenberg to inaugurate Building 5 was an obvious choice: He was a giant of 20thcentury art, experimenting, needling, and reveling at the points where different schools and styles met.

He was among the first to make cross-pollinating media a central point of his work, mixing painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage and performance in a way that pointed to the future of the arts.

Building 6 will feature loans of work from the Rauschenberg Foundation, starting with "A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth)," a maze-like installation of panels with layers of images and paint. There will also be space for occasional work by artists at the Rauschenberg Foundation’s residency program at the artist’s estate on Captiva Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Rauschenberg was born in Texas in 1925, and in his early career earned a reputation as something of a prankster, tweaking the self-serious attitude of the dominant abstract expressionists. In the spirit of dadaism, one of his earliest works, "Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953)," was exactly that — a drawing by Willem de Kooning that he carefully erased and hung on the wall.

He first began to come into his own with his series of what he called "Combines," works that used abstract painting along with printed images and found objects to create complicated, multilayered works. That paved the way for a new approach in the arts, and would be taken up by pop artists like Andy Warhol. He was astonishingly prolific, and unafraid of experimenting. "Screwing things up is a virtue, being right is never the point," he once said, according to his New York Times obituary in 2008. "Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea."

James Turrell

Words and photos often fail to describe a James Turrell installation. What does it mean to explore the "thingness" or "materiality of light"? What kind of trickery is behind art built on nothing more than dark rooms and weird lights?

The straightforward answer is something called the Ganzfeld Effect. This is the phenomenon, which Turrell studied as a psychology student in the 1960s, that happens to your sense of perception when faced with a total field of color. The mind will add elements of depth and space that aren’t really there, a kind of hallucination that makes something unreal real.

Building 6 will feature several of Turrell’s explorations of this idea. In each, he uses room corners, projections, built-in shallow light boxes, and even fragments of sky to create uncanny, mind-forged ... things.

His work is purely abstract, more like music than sculpture. "

With no object, no image and no focus, what are you looking at?" he writes on his website. "You are looking at you looking. What is important to me is to create an experience of wordless thought."

Turrell’s work challenges curators, as they require minutely calibrated projections and completely blacked out rooms to create the necessary immersive experience. It’s a challenge for audiences, as well, who have to submit to the art’s demands. Some aren’t up for it — in 1980 two separate lawsuits were filed by museum-goers against the Whitney Museum of Art by visitors who claimed they were injured in falls after becoming disoriented in some of Turrell’s installations.

Much of his work is on a grand scale, including a recent installation in the central spiral of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. But his ongoing, most ambitious project is a complete installation he has spent decades constructing at Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in Arizona. It’s been the subject of art world buzz for decades and is still not yet open to the public.

Laurie Anderson

Laurie Anderson has blazed a career as a pioneer of avant-garde art and technology, but also about bringing those experiments and explorations to the mainstream with a warmth and humor seldom associated with cutting-edge New York artists.

After college in 1972, she spent much of the decade in New York’s avant-garde experimental downtown music scene, becoming technically skilled and socially engaged. She became a sort of rare cross-over star in 1981, when her single "O Superman" became an unexpected hit.

Her installation at Mass MoCA will include a career retrospective, focusing on technology and the arts that will be as historical as practical. It will include a multi-function constellation of galleries, with a working studio, an audio archive, an exhibition venue, and a virtual reality environment.

She’s been a recurring presence at Mass MoCA through the years, as one of the very first artists-in-residence in the late 1990s, when she was working on a cycle of songs and music inspired by the work of Herman Melville, another artist who spent some time in the Berkshires. While always having a human and broad view, she has also pioneered the material world she works on.

In the 1970s, she made a "tape-bow violin," with a length of magnetic tape where the horsehair was supposed to be, played over a tape head. In the 1990s, she created a "talking stick," a digital device that could record and repeat sounds.

But the point was never about technology alone.

"I’m more into things that make me a little more afraid than that, that are more beautiful than that," she said in a 2003 talk in Philadelphia.

"I’m over the dazzle." 

Louise Bourgeois

Since 2001, Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture of giant metal eyes have glared out at Route 2. "Eyes (nine elements)" was installed for the Williams College Museum of Art’s 75th anniversary, and depending on your mood, can seem either like a cartoon joke, or ominous blue-eyed monsters.

The sense of not being what it appears comes through as well for the Bourgeois that will be included in Building 6. It is two joined sculptures, made of marble, with one weighing almost 15 tons. The waves and folds and curves, hint at something much deeper, possibly darker, than it appears at first.

That approach likely comes, in part, from the earliest roots of her career, in the early modernist moment when the discoveries of Freud and the subconscious were still fresh. Born in France in 1911, she came to sculpture after moving to New York after the war.

"I became a sculptor because it allowed me to express — this is terribly, terribly important — it allowed me to express what I was embarrassed to express before," she is quoted as saying in a 2002 New Yorker profile.

She uses abstract forms that coalesce into images — lots of curves, rolls, folds. It is intimately bound up with the body and its strengths and frailties, and very concerned with very basic human feelings of aggression, fear and anger as well as beauty, softness, and grace.

Through decades of work, she remained committed to the content of the subconscious, even while the art world chose to explore process and technique. But by the 1970s and ’80s, her work acquired a new relevance as the conversation turned toward gender, sexuality, and trauma.

Gunnar Schonbeck

Gunnar Schonbeck’s philosophy of music was very simple: Anyone can be a musician, and anything can be an instrument. And over the course of his 50-year career he lived that approach, designing and building thousands of his own unorthodox musical instruments, and inviting probably just as many people to join him in having fun and exploring how the urge to create musical sound was powerful and universal.

Building 6 will include an exhibition space for a large number of his instruments, which until recently had been housed at Bennington College, where from 1945 to 1995 he taught music theory and composition.

The exhibition is called "No Experience Required," and includes works like a 9-foot-high banjo, an 8-footlong marimba, drums made out of an airplane fuselage, and a xylophone out of truck springs. It is going to be quintessentially hands on — Mass MoCA likens the feel of the finished room to a high-school music room. A fitting tribute to a lesser known local music legend, and the spirit that would lead him to experiments like making a violin from a coconut and insist that everyone had some music in them.

Schonbeck was born in Springfield in 1917, and after a short career playing clarinet in orchestras and bands, he moved to teaching, eventually in 1945 settling in at Bennington, where he would remain for 50 years. He spent much of that time designing his new pieces and talking about the value of people accepting that they too were musical beings. For years, he would organize community concerts that would draw hundreds of players — from accomplished musicians to tone-deaf amateurs — to play.

After his death in 2005, the items were stored at the college. In 2011, Mass MoCA worked with the college to move the surviving instruments to North Adams. During the 2011 Solid Sound Festival, some were put on display in the Sol LeWitt galleries, and drew admirers like Glenn Kotche of Wilco and Mark Stewart from Bang on a Can.


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