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When modern and contemporary art broke up

The Boston manifesto that gave the ICA its name

In the story of how modern art conquered its detractors, Alfred Barr Jr.’s seminar isn’t the only important Boston-area turning point. In “What Was Contemporary Art?,” Richard Meyer also cites a 1940s-era rift between the Museum of Modern Art and Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art that made national headlines, pitting two visions of art against one another, with Boston taking a populist stand against New York.

The fight captivated the art world for two years. The charge out of Boston was that too many champions of modern art—read: MoMA and its Harvard-trained curator Alfred Barr—were embracing only its most extreme forms.

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The ICA was born in 1936 as an offshoot of MoMA and was originally named the Boston Museum of Modern Art. In 1948, by now independent from its New York parent and following an interim period as the Institute of Modern Art, the Boston museum released a provocative statement on the art world that instantly became known as the “Boston manifesto.”

Modern art, the manifesto declared, had become “a cult of bewilderment”; the gap between critics and artists and the public had produced “a...playground for double-talk, opportunism, and chicanery at the public expense.”

Modern art had “come to signify for millions something unintelligible, even meaningless,” and so the museum was changing its name accordingly. It would henceforth devote itself to what it termed “contemporary art,” focusing on works that were “conscientious and forthright.”

In the art world, this has generally been seen as a Boston museum recoiling from the cutting edge in favor of the safe, familiar, and parochial. Indeed, Serge Guilbaut, a professor of art history at the University of British Columbia, sees it as basically reactionary. James Plaut, director of the Boston museum, had referred to “unbalanced, violently leftist painters” in a 1940 radio interview, and there’s no getting around how McCarthyite that would have sounded at the time, Guilbaut contends. The museum’s definition of “contemporary” encompassed some very conservative work; a 1941 exhibition it mounted called “50 Oncoming American Painters” embraced local painters and realism—artists like the now-forgotten Willard Warren Cummings and Yvonne Twining—at a time when the art world was moving ever more deeply into nonrepresentational splashes of color.

In his book, however, Meyer relates a more complicated story, one more flattering to Boston. Despite that interview, Plaut was no philistine, or even much of a conservative: He had presided over a retrospective of Picasso in 1940 and mounted the first exhibition of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s work in the United States, in 1948. And a show called “Plastics” (1940-’41), which featured translucent umbrellas and door handles alongside a Plexiglass sculpture by Alexander Calder, captured something key about the disruptive influence of mass capitalism, Meyer writes, that MoMA was missing.

Plaut came to regret his overheated rhetoric, and in 1950 he and the directors of MoMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art united to release a statement “deplor[ing] the reckless and ignorant use of political or moral terms in attacking modern art”—making common cause against cultural conservatives.

But to some extent the distinction that Plaut proposed is now part of the language of art. “Modern” has come to mean a specific lineage of early-to-mid-20th-century tradition-shattering artists, while “contemporary” is a more capacious term referring to whatever is being created at the present time. (Today, MoMA mounts contemporary art exhibitions but is also known as America’s temple of canonical “modern” art. The ICA, by contrast, is more single-minded in its focus on contemporary works.)

Meyer sees some merit in Plaut’s argument that MoMA was becoming too wed to a narrow definition of modernism, and that it may have also been losing a sense of playfulness. In the 1950s, by contrast, the ICA held a show in which paintings were hung over the produce aisle at a Stop & Shop, a populist move that seems like a precursor to Pop Art, when supermarket wares became subjects of paintings.

“Everything now is hybrid, and so interwoven with mass culture and technology,” Meyer says. “In that sense the ICA turned out to be on the right side of history, and MoMA looks awfully conservative.”

Looking back, Jill Medvedow, the director of the ICA, sees little upside in debating whether Barr or Plaut, and their respective museums, were on the “right” course more than 60 years ago. “To posit [either] one as conservative or reactionary strikes me as wrong,” she says.

David Joselit, a professor of art at Yale and former ICA curator, agrees that there is little point in comparing New York’s and Boston’s contributions, given New York’s outsize role in 20th century art. Still, he says, Boston in the 1940s played an underrecognized role—and one perhaps surprising for such a conservative city—by mounting “a lively, scrappy counterargument to what was emerging as a canon.”

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