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Music, memory, mystery on view

Part of the Sanford Biggers’s installation "The Cartographers Conundrum” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Part of the Sanford Biggers’s installation "The Cartographers Conundrum” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.A. Elizabeth Berg

NORTH ADAMS and WILLIAMSTOWN - In recent weeks, Massachusetts has witnessed an outbreak of vandalism against musical instruments on a scale not seen since the early days of punk rock. The perpetrators, wouldn’t you know it, are artists - a class of people notorious for getting creation mixed up with destruction.

And the results?


First we had Radcliffe Bailey, whose powerful installation evoking the slave trade, titled “Windward Coast,’’ at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (through May 6) is made up of 35,000 piano keys extracted from no less than 400 pianos.

And now we have Sanford Biggers - like Bailey, an African-American artist of thrilling flair and conviction - who seems to love smashed up instruments. (Both artists had me thinking of Picasso’s description of his art as a “sum of destructions’’ and Joan Miró’s pithy riposte to Picasso and his fellow Cubists: “I’m going to smash their guitar!’’)

According to museum sources, only around 50 instruments were harmed in the making of Biggers’s “The Cartographer’s Conundrum,’’ installed in the cavernous Room 4 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. And “harmed’’ may be an exaggeration: The instruments were sourced from the city’s students and schools, and were probably already headed for forgotten corners of the attic or basement.


At any rate, along with dozens of splintered star-shaped mirrors, Biggers has scattered overturned keyboards, battered trombones, French horns, trumpets, tubas, saxophones, clarinets, violins, violas, cellos, guitars, organs, and pianos in small heaps across the enormous floor, parts of which have been overlaid with geometric patterns. It all culminates in an eye-popping sculptural arrangement at one end of the gallery.

With its dangling piano, its organ pipes exploding like stylized rays of the sun (or like missiles; one actually pierces the masonry), its artfully placed pileup of instruments and instrument cases, some in broken pieces, the assemblage is cosmically lovely.


It extends a rich artistic tradition of using the visual and sculptural qualities of musical instruments that harks back to Picasso and Braque and beyond. But it gives the idea a form that’s original - and utterly absorbing. I couldn’t leave off looking.

The installation’s theatricality, its claim on our attention, is reinforced by other striking features. Rows of church pews, separated by a central aisle, extend back from the sculpture, which becomes, in effect, a massive altarpiece.

Seven rows of pews are suspended in the air, rising higher and higher the farther back you move, and they are transposed - almost dematerialized - from wood into transparent Plexiglas in vivid colors, suggesting the Buddhist idea of steps to enlightenment. (Buddhism, which Biggers studied in Japan, is one of many abiding themes in his work.)

The high windows of the former factory are also covered in clear Plexiglas coated with colored vinyl.

Samuel Joseph Brown’s “Boy in the White Suit” at the Williams College Museum of Art.
Samuel Joseph Brown’s “Boy in the White Suit” at the Williams College Museum of Art.Arthur Evans

Like Bailey, Biggers draws on a rich array of symbols and themes. A longstanding interest in Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader and self-described “ambassador from the intergalactic regions of the council of outer space,’’ is one thing they have in common.

Music, rhythm, memory, and the idea that certain fluidities and freedoms can exist even - or especially - within the darker, constraining corridors of African-American history are others.

Not all these themes are articulated in Biggers’s work with maximum clarity. But it’s the jazzy looseness and, at times, precisely the obscurity of his repertoire of ideas that make his work so beguiling. The experience of seeing it at Mass MoCA is so visceral and so absorbing that it’s impossible not to come away impressed.


Born in 1970, Biggers grew up in Los Angeles. Artistically, he was influenced by graffiti and hip-hop (he spent much of his teenage years with a graffiti crew), and by prints in his parents’ home by American figurative artists producing Afrocentric imagery.

One of those artists was John T. Biggers, who died in 2001 at 76, and who may be, Sanford says, his cousin. John T. Biggers, who was based in Houston, where he founded the art department at Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University), worked as a muralist, originally in a Social Realist vein.

But after a trip to West Africa, he became increasingly interested in mysticism, in allegories of hope and survival, in the connections between geometry and the sacred, and in Afrofuturism, an emerging field that combines science fiction, historical fiction, Afro-centricity, and non-Western cosmologies.

In Mass MoCA’s balcony gallery, which provides stunning views back over the main installation, is a reproduction of one of John T. Biggers’s major murals, “Quilting Party,’’ painted in 1980-81. It’s full of geometric patterns and futuristic visions.

Sanford Biggers recently retraced the earlier artist’s journey through West Africa. He was inspired, he said in a recent interview with Terry Adkins in BOMB magazine, not just by John T. Biggers’s artworks, but by “his use of history’’ and “his weaving of vernacular - US Southern vernacular, African vernacular and culture, mythology, revisionist history, pro-positive black imagery, African diaspora imagery, [and] sacred geometry.’’


All these things, he explained, inform his own work.

“So I really want to posit this show as if seen by a third person who has unearthed a stream of research done by Biggers-Biggers over generations, over decades, over time.’’

The result, needless to say, is something you have to submit to, giving it time, suspending skepticism, and treating history and ideas as infinitely malleable - almost as their own kind of sculptural material, which is how Biggers has said he thinks of it.

When you do, connections between symbols and visual codes multiply, one’s understanding deepens. But something enigmatic - an uncrackable code that speaks, perhaps, to the confounding mysteries and splintering traumas at the very heart of history - lingers on.

Biggers sees himself as an artist who is also part historian, part provocateur, and part polemicist. All of which makes his show worth seeing in tandem with “African Americans and the American Scene, 1929-1945,’’ an exhibit at the nearby Williams College Museum of Art.

Where Biggers uses imagination and outright fantasy to transform history into a springboard for new forms of freedom, the Williams show is more earnest and academic, more imaginatively limited. With a slight tendency toward finger-wagging and moral hairsplitting, it treats art as little more than an illustration of historical binds.


Thus, Charles Prendergast gets rebuked for admiring African-American communities from a distance and succumbing to what artist Robert Gwathmey described as the “romantic mockery’’ of the picturesque, while in his (inferior, to my mind, but perhaps I’m succumbing to aesthetic hairsplitting) painting “Sun-Up,’’ Gwathmey himself, according to Dalila Scruggs writing in a brochure accompanying the show, “ennobled his [African-American] subject by allowing the figure to dominate the composition.’’

What’s more, writes Scruggs, Gwathmey’s “abstraction facilitated a modern perception of the world,’’ clearing away “stereotypical representations.’’

Would that it were all so simple.

The period the show covers saw, amid the travails of the Great Depression, the term “American Scene’’ emerge to refer to art that addressed everyday life in the United States. Both Regionalist and Social Realist painters participated in this turn toward more democratic, inclusive subject matter. But they did so with different political motivations.

The question of how African-Americans fared both as subjects of American Scene art and as practicing artists is worth addressing, and the show does it with intriguing examples, including of contemporary art.

By displaying, for instance, examples from Aaron Siskind’s 1937 “Harlem Documents’’ series - photographs of African-Americans going about their daily lives - beside Carrie Mae Weems’s thematically related 1990 “Kitchen Table Series,’’ we’re reminded of the difference between being the objects of an artistic vision and being agents in the creation of that vision.

Awkwardly, however, that difference doesn’t make Weems’s politically more enlightened series superior as art.

The most vivid picture in the show is “Boy in the White Suit,’’ a watercolor by Samuel Joseph Brown. Looking off to the right and slightly cropped at the top of his head and at the knee, the boy in question is made to feel closer to us than perhaps he would like, giving the image a poignant charge.

With this work, Brown became, in 1941, the first African-American artist to be acquired by Williams College for its art collection. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired its first work by an African-American artist, Jacob Lawrence, in the same year. Both works, interestingly, originally included the word “Negro’’ in their titles.)

Brown’s work is lovely - and truthful. It fulfills the critic Alain Locke’s call for art to “discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have obscured and overlaid.’’

As a realist portrait painted in watercolor, it couldn’t be further away in spirit from the work of Sanford Biggers. Except in one respect: It’s convincing as art.


At the Williams College Museum of Art. Through April 22. 413-597-2429, wcma.williams.edu

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.