MASS MoCA Gets a New Building

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) is a museum in a converted factory building located in North Adams, Massachusetts.  Opening in 1999 with 19 galleries it has grown to be one of the largest centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States.

The newest building on the Mass MoCA campus, constructed over the abandoned foundation, is unlike any other at Mass MoCA. While the factory buildings are noted for their vast windows and side lighting, the new building has none.  Instead it is illuminated from above by skylights with UV filters. The space is also unique for its concrete floor. The architectural impact is minimalist and industrial.

Building 15

The interior space has three configurations all by a German artist named Anselm Kiefer. The art is on a 15-year loan from megacollector Andrew Hall and his wife, Christine. The Hall Art Foundation paid some $2 to $3 million to realize the project.

There is a free standing wall dividing the galleries as you enter on the left. The first long, narrow area displays “Etroits sont les viasseaux” (Narrow are the Vessels), an 82-foot-long wave-like structure of concrete and rebar.

Anselm Kiefer, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels,) 2002
Anselm Kiefer, Étroits sont les Vaisseaux (Narrow are the Vessels,) 2002

Narrow are the Vessels is expected to age in place, to deteriorate over time. Bits and pieces are expected to fall off the piece as time goes on, and in fact little bits of dust and debris are already in evidence on the floor under the undulating concrete slabs, simply from the piece having been moved around its new site.  Mass MoCA’s director, Joseph Thompson, calls Kiefer’s art “biodegradable” since even his paintings will develop cracks and fissures meant to deepen the texture of the works.

The next gallery with identical dimensions on the other side has a series of 20 beds covered with crinkled, distressed lead sheets and hollowed-out centers with water and/or assorted solids which comprise “Les Femmes de la revolution (The Women of the Revolution).”

Les Femmes de la revolution (The Women of the Revolution) by Anselm Kiefer
Les Femmes de la revolution (The Women of the Revolution) by Anselm Kiefer

Many museum visitors will be daunted by the unattractive visual aspect of this work. There is brutal beauty if you are willing to be embraced by the poetic irony.  Each bed is meant to honor a heroine of the French Revolution.

The remaining half of the building contains a prefabricated metal pavilion with a grid of 30 large scale paintings comprising “Velimir Chlebnikov.”  There are fragments of hand written text as well as attached lead models of vessels and submarines. The work is based on the Russian poet and futurist Chlebnikov (1885-1922), who used a complex system of mathematical calculation, to deduce that there are naval battles every 317 years.

Overview of "Velimir Chlebnikov" Courtesy of MASS MoCA
Overview of “Velimir Chlebnikov” Courtesy of MASS MoCA
Anselm Kiefer, close up of Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004, steel pavilion containing 30 paintings each made of mixed mediums including dirt, lead, straw to give the 3-D effect of a rolling, angry sea.
Anselm Kiefer, close up of Velimir Chlebnikov, 2004, steel pavilion containing 30 paintings each made of mixed mediums including dirt, lead, straw to give the 3-D effect of a rolling, angry sea.

The collaboration with the Hall Art Foundation comes with complete transparency and no strings attached. This new project represents a special relationship with private collectors and their foundation.

“The building, the construction, the new road and gate — all of that is 100 percent paid for by the Hall Art Foundation. They are paying 100 percent of the operating costs — the utilities, electricity, security and all the other things,” Thompson said. “Mass MoCA does the ticket taking, the educational docents and provides all the other museological infrastructure. There is no pretense that this art is going to come to Mass MoCA. It all belongs to the Hall Art Foundation. If, at the end of the 15-year agreement, they choose not to renew it, the art will go back to the foundation and we’ll keep the building and the improvements.”

Mass MoCA, by mandate, does not collect. This allows for great flexibility as the galleries constantly rotate giving it the ability to refresh and update itself.  It promises to be a cutting edge institution for generations to come. In that regard, arguably, it is the world’s most interesting contemporary art museum.

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