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At the MFA, revisiting a mid-century cache of ‘provisional’ art

A small exhibition features paintings purchased for the MFA's Provisional Collection between 1943 and '57.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Does the name “Darrel Austin" sound familiar? I’m guessing not. But as artists go, he was once as big as they get — in the early 1940s, bigger than Jackson Pollock, who I bet rings a bell. That’s what plays out on a graph tracking solo exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Collecting Stories: A Mid-Century Experiment” exhibition. Austin, a painter of gloopy wildlife and nature scenes, holds the upper hand over the blustery abstract expressionist — and most everyone else — before falling off a cliff, while Pollock blasts off.

You can take that as a metaphor for America’s cultural coming-of-age, as it abandoned old modes for the shock of the new, and brought the world along with it. Or you can take that for what it is: an exemplar of how value can be steered, often by the consensus of a tiny cognoscenti, and how history narrows to a fine point because of it. That’s what “A Mid-Century Experiment” is all about.


A graphic at the MFA tracks four artists' solo exhibitions over time.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

On one large wall, a couple of dozen paintings — abstract and portrait, landscape and urban scene, oil and watercolor — are bunched together salon-style. They have next to nothing in common, save for one very important tie: They were all acquired in the same 14-year window of 1941 to 1957 — which, it so happens, coincided with the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, which gulped up all the era’s oxygen, leaving the rest to starve.

The other thing the paintings share: They’re all in the MFA’s collection, and they arrived, in that overheated time of mid-century newness, with a dubious label. They were part of something called the Provisional Collection, so named to loosen the museum’s commitment if any of the works were deemed unworthy of keeping. (It allowed the museum “to present a cross-section of contemporary activity,” wrote MFA paintings curator W.G. Constable in 1941, “while guarding against being permanently saddled with acquisitions whose interest is only temporary.”) While the “provisional” label was dropped years ago, it wasn’t before some works left the building.


Marsden Hartley's "Black Duck."Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The paintings aside — some are captivating and original, the product of a gifted hand; others, let’s just say, are not — the show is a remarkable display of circumspection in a field where absolutes long have been the norm. It’s also a stark lesson in how culture is built and preserved. "I think we’re more willing to acknowledge that subjectivity and taste are individual and are prone to be different person to person, generation to generation,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Senior Curator of American Paintings. “There isn’t a ‘right,’ per se. That’s what we’re seeing here.”

It’s a sobering thought. The world is chaos; a museum’s job is to divine order, to recognize and acknowledge inherent quality and value. Is it all really just a series of educated bets? Maybe, and that’s especially true of the era “A Mid-Century Experiment” captures. Everything was up in the air, but a dominant narrative was taking shape in New York, where critics and dealers coalesced around the Museum of Modern Art to anoint Abstract Expressionism as the first full-blown international avant-garde movement, home-grown in the United States.

It had the power of myth: big, bright, easy to grasp, populated with archetypes (Pollock, brash and hard-drinking; Clyfford Still, prickly and reclusive). Being simple, it was just as easy to make stick. And so down Darrel Austin tumbled, and up Pollock and company climbed.


“A Mid-Century Experiment” arrives at a time when absolutes — and Abstract Expressionism, the most absolute of absolutes — are being questioned, and the show rightly asks more than it can answer. (Remember: There is no “right.”) “Lake Placid,” a sparkly scene by Florine Stettheimer, from 1919, might have been a question mark 20 years ago, but a major reclamation effort has lifted the artist’s status to canonical in recent years.

Florine Stettheimer's "Lake Placid."Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hanging next to “Lake Placid” is Marsden Hartley’s “Black Duck,” a jewel in the museum’s American painting collection. The fact that it was once so iffy the museum was noncommittal tells you a lot. Hartley was part of a gang of pre-Abstract Expressionist modern painters — Arthur Dove, John Marin — clustered around Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe in New York. With Modern art becoming more rigorous and academic, Hartley decamped for his home state of Maine, settling in to make scenes of the extravagant nature he so loved. It made him a deserter to the American Modernist project — and thereby “provisional,” or so I’d guess.

“A Mid-Century Experiment” leaves a lot of things hanging, if you’ll pardon the pun: Carl Hall’s fecund, glistening “Interlochen, Michigan,” from 1940, a nocturnal swamp, near to Will Barnet’s fiery, abstract “Movement Within Orange”; Aaron Bohrod’s “Oak Street Platform,” a Hopper-esque cityscape from 1940, underneath Edmund Archer’s frank “Colored Clairvoyant,” of an anxious-looking black woman, from 1933.


If those names aren’t familiar, that’s the point: Nothing makes sense. Kind of like the world. The story of 20th-century art is one of relentless effort to pull straight lines from knots of freehand scribbling. “A Mid-Century Experiment” spirals and loops, and not just a little, to show its messy, glorious tangles.


Through March 8. At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.