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You’re in town for a week and you want a quick taste of our cultural highlights. But in a city that’s older than the nation, with museums large and small to lure you, how do you know what you’re looking for? Trust the Phoenix: we humbly offer our list of 10 can’t-miss artworks and exhibits worth ditching the FleetCenter festivities for.
El Jaleo at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Gardner Museum is a Boston classic. Inspired by the architecture of Venetian palazzi, the home of Isabella Stewart Gardner was intended to showcase great works of art from around the world and through time.
Though a survey of Boston curators two years ago championed another Gardner treasure, Titian’s Europa, as the city’s most important piece of art, the popular favorite is John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo (1882) — which may be just what Gardner intended. When she saw the work in a Paris salon, she was immediately captivated by it. Back in Boston, she created her own little Alhambra — Moorish arches and Mexican tile — to house the painting and give it prominence. The result is a dramatic focal point of the museum: an image of a dancer fully given over to the passion of the moment. In a city known for its buttoned-up feelings, there’s nothing like it.
Yin Yu Tang House at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Peabody Essex Museum was already impressive, covering two city blocks, with 30 galleries. But the curators outdid themselves in their stunning remodeling last year, the crown jewel of which is Yin Yu Tang House.
The multistory home was built in southeast China near the end of the Qing Dynasty (late 19th/early 20th century) as the residence of the Huang family. After many decades, their descendants eventually abandoned the home, which remained largely intact as an example of Huizhou architecture, with its interior "skywell" courtyard, post-and-beam construction, and tile rooftops. The entire home, its details preserved and restored, has been transplanted to the Peabody Essex, where it enchants visitors.
Portrait of a Woman at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s not easy to choose a single masterpiece from a collection as vast as the one at the Museum of Fine Arts. With prime examples from the work of classical, Egyptian, Asian, European, and American masters, the MFA has the kind of overwhelming collection that can hardly be taken in during one visit.
But you shouldn’t miss Picasso’s Portrait of a Woman. The 1910 oil painting is a seminal work in the development of Cubism. Beyond its historical role, there is its almost spiritual intensity; though its subject has been rendered featureless, its flat planes and brooding palette engage the viewer with the power of fierce humanity.
Ence Pence at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. Spanning 35 acres, the DeCordova, New England’s largest sculpture park, is one of the best venues in America for seeing large-scale contemporary art in an outdoor setting. The rotating line-up of 70-plus sculptures includes items from the DeCordova’s permanent collection, pieces on loan, and site-specific temporary (though typically long-term) installations. Individual pieces aside, the park as a whole is a grand achievement.
One piece that is strikingly at home in this environment is Ence Pence, by Ursula von Rydingsvard. The German-born sculptor creates abstractions from tiny cedar pieces, which are formed and reformed, then laboriously shaped into larger formats. This sculpture invites touch and prompts questions: is it a hive, a geological anomaly, an altar? Or, well, you decide — that’s the point.
Eternal Presence at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists. The collections inside the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists are fascinating, representing the black visual-arts heritage of the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa (including the burial chamber of a Nubian king). But the most arresting piece is actually outside the museum.
Eternal Presence is a seven-foot sculpture of a black face. Depending on where you view it from and at what time of day, it can appear contemplative, brooding, searching, or quietly beckoning. Commissioned by the NCAAA, the piece was created by artist John Wilson and reflects representational traditions from around the world, from the oversize Olmec heads of pre-Columbian Mexico to the serene Buddhas throughout Asia. It is instantly accessible to laypeople, yet not cheaply sentimental (unlike a certain memorial downtown), and it will linger in your memory.
Niho Kozuro installation at Paul Revere House. The Institute of Contemporary Art is building a striking new home on the waterfront, which will replace its current funky firehouse home. But the ICA also has a vagabond wandering side, which takes the form of its Vita Brevis series: exhibits that are temporary and site-specific, displayed somewhere other than the museum. The current exhibit, "Re-Turning the Past: Cultural Icons Recast," by Niho Kozuru, gives you a chance to experience cutting-edge artwork while visiting Boston’s oldest building, the historic Paul Revere House. Both inside the house and in the courtyard, you’ll find cast-rubber objects that render colonial forms (such as the spindle) into otherworldly shapes: looping coils that disappear into walls and portals in the air.
The Atrium at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. When you approach the I.M. Pei–designed JFK Library, it may seem somewhat imposing (all that blocky stone), if a little on the uninspiring side. But that’s because the power of the building is interior: its effect is meant to accumulate as you pass through the exhibits. Once inside, you proceed through displays documenting the life of the president until you reach the penultimate exhibit: a dim passageway lit by news reports of his assassination. When you emerge from this dark place, the effect of stepping into the 115-foot atrium is profound: the soaring glass wall is almost cathedral-like in its majesty, yet it is unadorned, instead offering views of the Harbor for your reflection. It’s a design element of great vision beautifully achieved.
Glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Among the museums of Harvard, probably no exhibit is more beloved than the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models and Plants — which everybody just calls "the glass flowers." The handiwork of a father-and-son team of glass artists, the collection of 3000 minutely detailed replicas of actual flowers took 50 years to complete, from the late-19th century to the middle of the 20th. From the gaudy coneflower to the intricately elegant echeveria, it is a wonder-inspiring collection.
The Shaw Memorial and Partisans on the Boston Common. Two very different sculptures bookend Boston Common’s Beacon Street side: one at the top, by Park Street, and another at the bottom, along Charles Street. Taken together, they act as an installation speaking to the gravity of armed struggle. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s relief depicts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw on horseback, surrounded by the all-black infantrymen of the 54th Regiment, shown marching on their way to the Civil War battle that would kill most of them. Andrzej Pitynski’s Partisans depicts horseback guerrilla fighters, brutally worn down in their fight. Though these works have fans and foes to varying degrees, they are equally clear about the human toll of fighting for what one believes in — a message both timely and timeless.
Freemasons exhibit at the National Heritage Museum. If you’re in town to nominate one member of a secret society to run against a member of another secret society, then you really ought to know a little about what you’re getting. There’s no better place to start than the National Heritage Museum, which was not only founded by Scottish Freemasons, but contains an earnest exhibit, "To Build and Sustain: Freemasons in American Community." This may not be high art, but it’s certainly unique and oh-so-topical, outlining the secret and not-so-secret workings of a fraternal society. Displaying equal parts good deeds and wacky initiation rituals, the exhibit evokes the bio of a president in the making.
David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: July 23 - 29, 2004
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