Art

Museums Special

When seeing is restoring: A Midwest visitor renews her love of art at N.E. museums

One of several whale skeletons on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Erik Gould
One of several whale skeletons on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

I rebooted my relationship to art over the past year. I recovered something in New England’s museums, a capacity to be open — radically open — to the work of artists.

That was unexpected since I came to Boston to forget about art for a while. That’s not the sort of thing an art critic is supposed to say, at least not out loud, or in print.

But when I arrived a year ago — for a journalism fellowship at Harvard — it was with a case of digitally induced culture shock. I have been euphoric about the possibilities of the “digital turn” for a while, but it has taken a toll, too.

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With the once-rare tools of the artist in so many hands, the world at large is generating visual culture on a scale that’s overwhelming. Not everything spilling through our Instagram feeds is art, of course, but some of it is.

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That means it’s entirely possible that more great art is being made today than at any time in human history, and that the job of discerning what’s worthy of attention — my job — has never been harder.

A lot of art doesn’t happen anywhere near the Internet, but when so much art discussion and discovery happens there it’s impossible to underestimate the Web’s cultural force.

The need to make sense of this vast and churning visual world was the context for my year away. Eventually this would lead to encounters with museums across New England. My first instinct, though, was to retreat to the classroom.

One day, a professor played an audio clip of John F. Kennedy speaking about the “most critical” role of the artist: justice. He called art “a form of truth.” My eyes welled up and I glanced around the lecture hall, embarrassed. Kennedy’s words were like water on a dry plant, a reminder of things I knew but hadn’t felt in a while.

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A small, discrete exhibit was mounted in conjunction with that course at the Harvard Art Museums, and I found myself looking deeply at the 40 or so works in the “Vision & Justice” exhibition.

One artwork was emblematic of a turning point: Gordon Parks’s “Washington, D.C., Government Charwoman,” a conceptual riff on Grant Wood’s iconic painting “American Gothic.” It is a portrait of Ella Watson, a black woman holding her mop and broom and backed by an American flag. Her father had been lynched; and Watson’s grief, poverty, and resilience are so present in the 1942 photograph, an indictment of racial inequality. It underscored how art and images can serve justice and injustice, can humanize and dehumanize.

I thought about this when Donald Trump’s infamous “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced. As his vulgar comments about women from 2005 played on repeat, I made a pilgrimage to a small display case at the Harvard Art Museums. Inside, sculptural objects of the female form, quite tiny and ancient, provided a rejoinder from across millennia about the power and presence of our bodies.

They became experiments in long, slow looking. A grounded Neolithic torso with a hip swung out became like a talisman, an object to revisit, as did Gaston Lachaise’s “Woman Bending Backward,” from 1926. The latter features a woman in a confident back bend, a physical reverie, the bun in her hair lightly reaching her toes.

The Harvard Art Museums became a haunt. It was the only place I spent time with art, for a while. I drank countless cups of coffee and ate overpriced couscous salads in the cafe in the light-filled courtyard-turned-atrium.

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During those politically intense weeks, with cultural polarization on full view, my need for art resurfaced. I asked friends, professors, and Uber drivers which museums were must-see and developed a working list, vowing to get to as many as I could in my remaining weeks.

That led me to the Mapparium. The three-story, stained glass globe of the world was commissioned in 1930 for the headquarters of the Christian Science Publishing Society. Inspired by the spinning globe at the Daily News building, in New York, it is an icon of early-20th-century media ambition in the Fenway.

I entered somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. As I crossed a glass bridge to the center, my view to all points on the planet became equidistant. This is the only spot in the world where the surface of the Earth can be seen accurately, our Mapparium guide told us, as the relative size of countries and continents is distorted by perspective even when looking at a globe.

The Mapparium’s political boundary lines are frozen in time, between the two world wars, since it’s based on a 1934 map. It is made from 608 jewel-toned glass panels, a material associated with sanctuaries and belief. Inside, I silenced my phone. It had been pinging with anxiety-inducing news alerts all day. Before my eyes was evidence of how dramatically the world can change.

I thought about all of the boundaries that had shifted, all of the countries freed from foreign rule, all of the ideas that had spread and the people for whom that world was home. Contributing to the Mapparium’s mystical effects is the curious acoustics of a glass sphere. If you stand in the center, you can hear your own voice, outside of yourself and in surround sound.

The region’s rich repository of academic art institutions held much appeal, too. By definition, these places are about purposeful lines of inquiry, about gnarly questions without easy answers.

I went to see Patricia Silva’s “Mass Swell” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, part of the “List Projects: Civil Disobedience” exhibit. Silva’s poetic film, still on view, unfolds with a natural, real-time pacing and reveals the role women played in the Ferguson, Mo., protests. It’s also a meditation on what it means to watch such events from our homes and through our screens.

The exhibits at the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, were especially rigorous, often posing questions about the very nature of museums. The museum asks visitors “What book is helping you understand the world right now?” In return for answers, it buys the books for the “People’s Library,” an open-ended portrait of the museum’s public and a fine reading resource for the generally curious. I was ravenous at the time for author Maggie Nelson and her mash-up of memoir and cultural criticism, “The Argonauts.” But it was already on the shelf, so I jotted down Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” the wrenching story of families trying to keep their homes in Milwaukee, my hometown.

Not far from Williams is the Clark Art Institute. For years, I’ve heard about its gatherings of scholars and critics in the Berkshires. The crisp, close-to-the-ground lines of architect Tadao Ando’s additions graciously frame and reframe what is central to the Clark and its collection: the landscape.

I hiked a forested path uphill to reach a study center and a group of paintings by Helen Frankenthaler. That buffer of nature, solitude, and sweat prepared me perfectly for Frankenthaler’s experiments in landscape, her thin washes of color that form shapes like countries on an atlas.

One must pass through a small gallery of American paintings in order to get to the Clark’s notable permanent collection and its much sought-after stash of Impressionists in a lilac gallery. This is a savvy curatorial arm twist to linger with these Americans, which I did.

Winslow Homer’s painting of a sleigh disappearing over a steep hill, the sky an impenetrable gray, is elegiac and on the verge of abstraction. The lone Blackfoot scout tentatively approaching an encampment in Frederic Remington’s “Friends or Foes? (The Scout)” somehow shares the tension of recent headlines. These are lonely paintings, made around the turn of the 20th century, that inspire introspection.

I love grand museums, like the Museum of Fine Arts, which envelop us in the sweep of history. They contain so much theater, too, the clack of high heels and first-date attire on Friday nights, the solitary wanderers, the children seeing art for the first time.

But I also believe in small museums, literally little or focused in scope. Sometimes it is the museums that carve out some slice of history or claim an individual human life that offer up the most expansive encounters. New England has more than its share of these, too.

I loved inspecting the neatly arranged eyeglasses, ceramic pots, stones, and correspondence on the desk of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius on a tour of his Lincoln home. I loved visiting the rooms where Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville suffered over their words in house museums in Amherst and Pittsfield. I relished the view from Edith Wharton’s bedroom, where she wrote for the first several hours of the day, even before bathing and dressing. That’s what a guide told us at her Lenox estate, The Mount.

At the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, perched on a cliff above the Atlantic, in Maine, is a gutsy, set-the-record-straight critique of Ernest Hemingway. The show, which runs through Oct. 31, tells the tale of the falling out between Hemingway and the museum’s founder, painter Henry Strater, through portraits, letters, and a photograph of a shark-eaten marlin.

A show at the Bennington Museum makes the case that the famed folk artist Grandma Moses was a modernist, placing her dappled country scenes alongside more canonical works. It runs through Nov. 5. Ardent and strained thesis aside, the Vermont museum’s trove of Moses works is a treat. Looking at one of her only known self-portraits, I wondered if Moses wasn’t herself quite modern. So much strength is centered in her face, framed by a crisp, closely shorn hairline. For an artist whose childlike figures were often sprinkled like confetti across scenes to enliven them, this portrait has a particularity to it.

Even the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum, as grand as it is, is at its finest in the details. It was Kennedy’s simple sketch of a sailboat that most moved me, especially when followed by I.M. Pei’s soaring atrium and the view to the water, the Boston skyline and the slain president’s beloved boat.

My favorite of these wonderfully idiosyncratic museums, though, was the New Bedford Whaling Museum. So many of the world’s shores have been touched by the whaling industry; and this museum works to get the whole story into its labyrinth of galleries. Dense with explanatory texts and objects — including five full whale skeletons and a half-scale whaling ship — it’s a museum that rewards patience.

I was especially drawn to the scrimshaw, decorated and carved teeth and bone, and the watercolor sketches made by whalemen at sea. These depictions of sea life are often exacting in their details, a meticulous recording of events, but also the work of earnest, unskilled hands. There is a lot of humanity in these humble images of epic struggles where the seas turn claret and dying whales spout blood in the shape of thought balloons.

I have always favored contemporary art institutions that take on the issues of our time. Indeed, I count my experiences at the Institute of Contemporary Art and Mass MoCA, in North Adams, among the most irreplaceable of my year.

Steve McQueen’s two-sided video installation, “Ashes,” on view at the ICA through Feb. 25, has stayed with me. On one screen, a young fisherman named Ashes is buoyed by the motion of the sea and the attention of a camera. On the opposite screen is a different kind of attention, images of the painstaking labor of making his grave. It is a meditation about life and death, but also the joy and meaning of being seen, even by strangers.

As much as I appreciated the immersion in ideas this year, it’s a good thing I got my nose out of my books and myself into the museums of this city and region.

During the year, I thought about our device-driven culture and how it favors certain qualities — wit, weirdness, urgency, luscious looks. I wanted the opposite of all of that — subtle, slow, humanizing, almost devotional experiences.

I wanted to be acutely susceptible again to what JFK called “a form of truth.”

It was not long after looking at precisely nothing that I knew I had recovered my art-seeking self. On one of my visits to Mass
MoCA, I got a tiny dose of what is known to drive some mad — sensory deprivation.

I was directed into a darkened chamber and walked a series of switchbacks, the darkness growing more complete with every turn. I could feel my pupils splay, straining to gather light, any light. Hints of spaces hummed in my peripheral vision, something like the chambers in Piranesi’s imaginary prisons. Were these echoes of spaces I had seen, some kind of afterimage, something conjured in my mind?

After a while, a deep purple stain surfaced in my vision. It seemed at once like a distant haze or a liquidy drop on my cornea. I was looking at myself looking, as James Turrell, the artist behind the experience, has said. It was like dreaming and being awake at the same time. Then a museum employee called to me. My time with “Hind Sight,” one of two by-appointment-only works in a Turrell retrospective, was over.

The idea of wandering the galleries and looking at anything else seemed inconceivable, so I walked right out the door, squinting against the sun. The sound of trees rustling was enough to crack my heart wide, as was the green grass, which had gone electric. The experience was not over. So I sat on a hill and drank in the heightened view — one of the sweetest highs of my life.

Mary Louise Schumacher is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s art and architecture critic, currently on leave after pursuing a fellowship with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. You can find her on Instagram (marylouises) and Twitter (@artcity).