It's a gray day in June, and I am driving to Williamstown, Massachusetts to meet my brother. I’m coming from Boston, and before that I was in Brooklyn, New York and Washington, D.C. I’ve seen Little Rock and Linville Falls, North Carolina this time around, and I even spent a night in Chatham, Tennessee, birthplace of two Nobel Prize winners. Who knew.
Anyway, I’m due to meet my brother in two hours, and there’s time to spare. I wonder where I’ll eat lunch, where I might stroll while I wait for him, and then I pass a sign for the Mass MoCA, an art museum I’ve studied in college, read about in magazines, and in general vaguely wondered about for many years. "Great!" I think, and pull in. Ample parking!
As far as I can tell, the Mass MoCA is a series of interconnected warehouses, and on this dreary day it appears so gritty, so understatedly grungy, that it's the hippest of hip: we, the museum-goers, are somehow part of an underground club! The MoCA is just opening, and I think, "How auspicious!" And it’s Monday, a day many museums close. And Sol LeWitt’s work is showing. A massive sign is telling me so. "I know Sol LeWitt!" I think to myself, and my heartbeat quickens.
Inside, there’s a line for tickets. While I wait, I look up and down the Mass MoCa. The foyer is one enormous room, ticket desk just kind of drifting into gift shop, which is drifting toward the bathrooms. My ticket costs twelve dollars because I get the student price. The price for a regular adult is twenty dollars. That seems really expensive, but I badly miss art.
I used to breathe art. In college, I would wake up at five AM and take the bus to New York City to visit the Whitney and the MOMA alone, just wander through the museum’s rooms without seeing anyone I knew, taking notes on the pieces I saw to write and sketch and think about later. I would walk the streets and stare in wonder at strangers, or have a drink in a bar, any bar, one of a million New York bars on New York corners. I would catch an afternoon bus home and get to Boston late and ravenous, exhausted. Yet I was never able to sleep, high as I was off the art and the city.
Now, I climb the stairs to see the work of Sol LeWitt. I’m not even really that familiar with his work—all I remember is learning in college about him and the ready-mades and the other post 1950’s modernists who made art about ideas, not images. LeWitt, as I recall, wanted a kind of art that normal people could understand, and even make.
I am the only one walking toward the exhibit. The hallway is actually a second-story connector between two warehouse spaces. It’s windowed, and I look out onto the river, which runs fast and high. It’s started to rain again, and people rush from warehouse space to parking lot. So many umbrellas.
I’m the only one in the exhibit, too. The floors creak with old boards and there is exposed brick in corners, little signs of what this building used to be. There’s a movie playing on a screen in one corner and empty chairs strewn around. The very first piece of art I see is a nine-photograph sequence, portraits of people who work at the museum. This is not by Sol LeWitt. I recognize one portrait and am surprised. I went to college with her, I realize and snap a photo. Outside, the river rushes, and I marvel: alone at the Mass Moca, watching the rain, I recognize someone in a picture on a wall. There are so many strangers in this world, yet how eerily small our earth.
Next, I walk through the empty LeWitt rooms. This is his art: massive paintings that take up entire walls. The text accompanying uses the word ‘grammatical’ with frequency, and there is a certain grammar, a meticulous structure, to these works. They are so even, the lines so straight, as if painted with tape. Looking closely, I can see the quality of the color on the wall: mottled, like sponge paintings, and blended if you look closely—mauve is really red and blue and brown and a trace, far beneath, of a dusty gold.
There are signs that tell you not to touch, so that future generations can enjoy these walls. I wonder about that rule. Walls are for touching. They are made to lean upon, and even the emptiest of rooms gathers dust. And museums are not empty rooms.
And yet this one is. No one else comes as I walk through the rooms, all brilliantly painted—yellow, pink, blocks of red and green. All are brilliant, that is, except the last, which is black and white and feels somehow like the quiet, dark end of a life. Human existence is encapsulated in these rooms, these rooms of the ready-made.
In the other galleries, I don’t get the art at all. I can guess at some meaning in places—the embroidered tents with images of human suffering stitched inside and out, the paintings of flying wigs and discombobulated nudes, a reenacted room in a man’s house during the Cold War. But most of the pieces mean, to me, nothing at all. Students strolling past them snicker in groups and point and whisper. At times, there is something silly about the art, something deeply and self-consciously absurd.
The Mass MoCA's current masterpiece, at least to me, was Clifford Ross's enormous pigment-print landscape, water and mountain and tree and sky. Mountain Redux I is a masterpiece, a celebration of the natural world and human skill. It reminds me of my journey, the road that took me through Oklahoma and Arkansas, Tennesee and North Carolina and Virginia. This is our country, I think to myself, although I have no idea whose country it is meant to represent. I feel at home before the expanse of Mountain Redux. I snap a picture, no flash, and then made my way back out into the rain.
Maybe I'm just getting old, but only Mountain Redux made me feel the way art used to make me feel. The rest of the Mass MoCa left me confused, which is probably the point. Except sometimes a museum's job is not to perplex but to welcome, to introduce, to cultivate, to enrich. I wanted to leave satisfied, but even the doors to enter the Mass MoCA are perplexing: mottled glass and invisible handles. Maybe Santa Fe, with the portraits and landscapes of Canyon Road, have made me soft. Maybe now all I want is art that soothes.
And yet I know it isn't just that, because I left wondering what my students would have thought. They would have giggled and flirted and left perplexed. I guess I wish the work had worked harder to say something real. Why not talk about suffering explicitly, or about being a woman in today's world? The war in Iraq, or the unrest plaguing Syria? The hatred within our own country? Poverty? Depression? Nepal?
Shouldn't museums pay homage, at least to some degree?
Shouldn't museums pay homage, at least to some degree?
In the end, the Mass Moca told me very little, and I left hungry and thirsty and twelve dollars poorer. And that was the student rate.
“How was the museum?” my brother asked me as we sat drinking coffee in Williamsburg.
I paused, took a sip. “It was weird.”