Four museums and a theater deliver Art Country to the Berkshire region
Photo by Julia Sabot
In 1999, the summer MASS MoCA opened, Robert Rauschenberg came to the museum several times to see his work installed in the football-field–size gallery in Building 5. The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece gathers images from athletes and animals to umbrellas and planets, collaged or silkscreened onto fabrics, aluminum, and copper. It is a massive record of his life.
Lisa Dorin was then a graduate student in the art-history program at Williams College and the first curatorial intern in a long line to work with MASS MoCA. She caught glimpses of Rauschenberg, she says, as he explored the new galleries in the old mill.
Now, as MASS MoCA prepares to open its new Building 6 and double the size of its campus, Dorin is the deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) and co-curator of “Robert Rauschenberg: Autobiography,” a retrospective show digging into Rauschenberg’s newly opened archives.
Northern Berkshire museums have always worked together, formally and informally, and this summer the organic exchange behind the scenes has become more visible. MASS MoCA and WCMA have joined the Clark Art Institute, Bennington Museum, and the Williamstown Theatre Festival to launch “Art Country,” a new initiative revealing the depth of visual and performing arts in the northern Berkshires and southern Vermont.
That depth appears in links between summer shows. As MASS MoCA and WCMA explore contemporary artists inspired by Rauchenberg, the Clark Art Institute and Bennington Museum will honor another artist with local ties who redrew the boundaries of contemporary art from the 1950s to the 1990s. Helen Frankenthaler’s works will hold the spotlight in two shows at the Clark: “As in Nature,” a look at her paintings across 40 years, and “No Rules,” focusing on her woodcuts. Several of her pieces will appear in the central summer exhibit at the Bennington Museum as well. (Pictured left Frankenthaler’s Off-White-Square.)
American painter Morris Louis called Frankenthaler’s Mountains and the Sea “a bridge from Pollock to what is possible,” says Bennington Museum curator Jamie Franklin. Frankenthaler found a way forward from Pollock’s splatters of paint on canvas, executive director Robert Wolterstorff explains. She was one of the first to invent color-field painting, staining her canvases and soaking in swathes of intense color, often without line or composition. Her work often walked the line between representation and abstraction, as in Abstract Landscape, a work overlaying mountain ridges with bright shapes, says Alexandra Schwartz, curator of “As in Nature” at the Clark.
Frankenthaler was painting the Green Mountains while another artist, already internationally known, painted them from the far side of the ridge. Grandma Moses’s artwork will meet Frankenthaler’s in the central show at Bennington Museum this summer, as the show places Moses in the context of the art world when she was painting—the art world that received her into it. “Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Seas is a memory painting of a landscape,” Franklin says, as Moses’s paintings were memory paintings and collages. “It’s Nova Scotia, waves pounding on the shore.” The museum’s exhibition also includes Silver Coast, from Frankenthaler’s honeymoon on the coast of Portugal, as a comparison between the artists.
Frankenthaler had roots in the mountains, too. She graduated from Bennington College in 1949, and in 1979 she returned as an artist in residence at Williams College, says Jay Clarke, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs at the Clark and curator of “No Rules.” In 1979, the Clark held a show of Frankenthaler’s prints, and Clarke has curated a show of her wood cuts, looking at the techniques she evolved.
While Frankenthaler was creating new techniques for woodblock prints, roughening the wood surfaces to hold color and print in unusual ways, Rauschenberg was developing his own techniques for massive prints and photographs. “Autobiography,” the collage work at the center of WCMA’s show, is 17 feet high. Frankenthaler wrote that artists should “go against the rules or ignore the rules—that is what invention is about,” and Rauschenberg did.
He was known for moving ahead of his time, says Susan Cross, curator at MASS MoCA: “He was so current, so prescient; he feels so new, and he was doing it in the 60s.”
WCMA is mounting “Autobiography” as MASS MoCA puts Rauschenberg at the front of its new expansion, Dorin says. She and Williams art professor C. Ondine Chavoya, and an art-history class, dove into the newly opened archive of Rauschenberg’s papers and paired their findings with artworks across the decades.
He was known for mechanical imagery, expressionistic brushstrokes, and blending sculpture with painting, Cross says. At MASS MoCA, Rauschenberg’s A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth) —a maze he designed in images on clear panels—will sit at the entrance to the new Building 6.
“It’s a print work, but a sculpture you have to move your body through,” says Larry Smallwood, deputy director of MASS MoCA.
The new building will also house work by artists whom Rauschenberg inspired, including Lonnie Holley and Dawn Dedeaux, who will collaborate on an installation with found objects. And at WCMA, Meleko Mokgosi (Williams College ’07) will show immense murals, including prints he made at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s artist-residency program on Captiva, Florida.
The links between the shows, and between the museums in Massachusetts and Vermont, grow out of a shared history. The artists have ties to Williams College and to each other, and the curators do as well. “The unspoken coincidence is that we all trained here,” Franklin says.
Re-exploring an icon
"Grandma Moses: American Modern," opening July 1 at Bennington Museum, pairs Grandma Moses alongside fellow “folk artists” and her modernist contemporaries.