Art in the Berkshires: Picasso, Frankenthaler and Building 6 make big statements

While many focused on 40 pieces of art potentially leaving the Berkshires this year (have you heard?), numerous works that merited serious attention arrived in the county throughout 2017. Some even put roots down for years to come.

The Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) ensured that, early on, Williamstown was the hub of the 2017 Berkshires art scene. The Clark opened two exhibits on March 5, capturing a time and a place with "An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting." On March 17, WCMA added "Robert Rauschenberg: Autobiography," a show that included 26 original works and 56 objects.

Yet, an institution to the east soon became the county's art fixation and, for at least a short period in some eyes, the world's. On May 28, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art garnered international attention for the opening of Building 6, a 130,000-square-foot expansion that made the North Adams institution one of the largest contemporary art museums on the planet. The space now houses works by Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Rauschenberg, Gunnar Schonbeck and James Turrell, among others. The diverse collection, from Anderson's trip into virtual reality to Bourgeois' marble sculptures to Schonbeck's innovative musical instruments, exemplifies both the breadth of the museum's offerings and its commitment to long-term relationships with celebrated artists; some of the installations will live for years in the museum's galleries.

Among the newcomers, Turrell's nine light installations (drawing from each decade of his career) have shined particularly bright, providing disorienting and revelatory experiences for gallery-goers.

"Happily, his most recent work is among his best, an elliptical mandala of colored light that resembles a dematerialized version of the vacuum-formed plastic wall pieces that Craig Kauffman, Mr. Turrell's fellow light-and-spacer, started making in the 1960s," The New York Times' Roberta Smith wrote in a review of the museum, which she called "weird and wonderful."

Its own renovation old news by now, the Clark yanked eyes back more traditionally: by hosting time-constrained exhibitions of esteemed artists' work. Through 35 prints and three paintings, "Picasso: Encounters" crystallized the importance of others (collaborators, female muses) to Pablo Picasso's career.

"It is an exhibition not just about the artist and his biography, but about the depth and fury of his exploration of printmaking, a medium he tackled with the same gusto as he did painting and sculpture. The show includes a dizzying variety of styles — etchings, lithographs, aquatints, drypoint, linocuts. Each were rooted in his own larger-than-life mythos, but also often with the help of professional printers and publishers who were sometimes near co-creators," Christopher Marcisz wrote for The Eagle in advance of the show's June 4 start.

Collaborations were also at the fore in "No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts," one of two Frankenthaler exhibits that opened on July 1. The celebrated painter largely teamed with Japanese craftspeople trained in the ukiyo-e method for these woodcuts, some of which were striking in size; for instance, six woodcuts, titled "Tales of Genji" (1998), all measured 42 inches by 47 inches or 47 inches by 42 inches. She also forged her own path in printmaking. Her "guzzying" technique involved reshaping wood blocks' surfaces to alter their prints.

Still, the artist is better known for inventing painting's soak-stain technique, and the dozen pieces in "As in Nature: Helen Frankenthaler Paintings" conveyed this density and richness of color. They also drew from earthy influences, according to Alexandra Schwartz, the exhibit's curator.

"While all are primarily abstract, all contain elements of the landscape that function, dialectically, to reinforce their abstraction: as in nature, but also not as in nature," Schwartz wrote in the exhibition's catalog.

To the south, the Norman Rockwell Museum submitted its own high-profile exhibition during the summer with the opening of "Inventing America: Rockwell and Warhol" on June 10. The linking of Rockwell, renowned for his illustrations, to Andy Warhol, an abstract expressionist, certainly inspired some skeptics. The Nov. 11 debut of "Never Abandon Imagination: The Fantastical Art of Tony DiTerlizzi," however, was a more natural fit. With more than 200 original paintings and drawings, the exhibit traces DiTerlizzi's world-building prowess, complementing Rockwell's depictions of 20th century American life with creatures — goblins, fairies, dragons — from other realms.

Beyond the Berkshires' major art institutions, smaller galleries' displays delighted, too. To name just one, Lino Tagliapietra's glass art at Schantz Galleries in July enthralled the masses, with guests packed shoulder-to-shoulder amidst the vase-like structures on one afternoon. Only some paused to glimpse their reflections in these pieces; there was more art to see, after all.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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