Founded in 1936, the Institute of Contemporary Art spent its first 70 years mounting temporary shows, many of them way ahead of their time. It didn't bother about collecting.
When you consider that over those seven decades the ICA had 13 different homes, the resistance to building a collection makes good sense. But when you reflect on what might have been, it does seem a pity.
The no-collecting policy changed when the ICA's pioneering director, Jill Medvedow, moved the museum into its waterfront home in the Seaport District. "First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA" celebrates both the 10-year anniversary of the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed building, and the 10th birthday of the collection.
It's a powerful show. Earlier efforts to highlight works from the sprouting collection have looked lean and undernourished. Unsurprisingly: It was still in its infancy, and the focus remained, rightly, on temporary shows.
This, by far the largest collection show to date, proves that the permanent holdings are putting on some bulk. It includes many new acquisitions, among them powerful works by Marisol, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Robert Rohm, Francoise Grossen, and Ellen Gallagher.
Better yet, the display amounts to a coherent experience. Yes, it's disparate — different styles, different content, different eras. But it's not a case of contemporary art on "shuffle." You come away with something to hang on to, a new perspective, new and animating confusions.
The most notable thing about the ICA's collection is that almost two-thirds of the works in it are by women. This refreshing bias reverses a chronic one in the overwhelming majority of museum collections — even contemporary collections — which skew heavily toward men.
The immediate explanation is that the ICA's most important donor, Barbara Lee, collects work almost exclusively by women. Lee has supplied the ICA with about a third of the works in its permanent collection. If each work were assigned a weight that corresponded to its quality, that fraction would increase to well over half.
As the museum was preparing to move to its new home, Lee presented it with its first promised gift, Cornelia Parker's "Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)." That deservedly popular work is one of three major pieces that anchor "First Light." All three are visible as you enter.
The other two are Paul Chan's post-9/11 elegy "1st Light," a simple, digital animation projected onto the floor, and a cut-paper silhouette wall piece by Kara Walker. The Walker, a highlight of Lee's most recent gift — a tranche of works worth $42 million — was purchased on the advice of chief ICA curator Eva Respini.
All three pieces are in a mournful key. They are about death, crime, and degradation. They use formal strategies — above all, silhouettes — to evoke things we cannot or do not wish to see. And yet they are also inventive, commanding works, full of esprit.
Parker's "Hanging Fire" leads into the most impressive part of the show, devoted exclusively to works from the Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women, which was established at the ICA in 2014. Organized by Respini, it includes several drawings and sculptures by Eva Hesse.
The most impressive is "Ennead," a three-dimensional corner piece. An orderly curtain of thick, brown string falls like hair from a rectangular, acrylic papier-mache support, but turns into a tropical tangle as it curves to attach to a point low on the adjacent wall.
Hesse made the piece at the height of her powers, in 1966. She died, age 34, in 1970. The aesthetic shift she instigated, from tight, minimalist rigor into formlessness, open-endedness, and autobiographical content, proved hugely influential. But an exaggerated consciousness of that influence, and of the indelible sadness of her premature death, can obscure the very specific beauty, intelligence, and surprise of a piece like "Ennead."
The rest of this gallery is filled with works by women who gave rein to autobiographical impulses with increasing degrees of theatricality: Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Yayoi Kusama, Ana Mendieta, and Mona Hatoum.
The next room continues in the same vein, although it is more focused on painting. It includes Marlene Dumas's four-panel piece, "The Messengers," Lisa Yuskavage's "[Expletive] Rock," Dana Schutz's "Sneeze," and Alice Neel's "Portrait of Vera Beckerhoff," as well as several small Cindy Sherman photographs from her breakthrough 1979-80 series.
There is also a wonderful Marisol piece — part painting, part sculpture, part assemblage — called "Couple No. 1." Made in 1965-66, it's a very unusual double-portrait. The woman's shadowed face is recessed in a concave hollow. The man's has been replaced by a long windsock kept horizontal (one wants to say "erect" but it's not quite right) by an invisible fan. He's the very definition of a blowhard.
Striking, too, in the same section, is Gallagher's "DeLuxe," a constellation of 60 old-fashioned advertisements aimed at black women. The ads, dating from the 1930s to the '70s, pushed products intended to aid cosmetic "improvements" to hair, skin, and bodies. Using a giddy range of techniques and media, and an absorbing level of perverse fancy, Gallagher has altered each ad to turn up the dial on the prejudices to which they pandered.
Several sections of the show will be entirely replaced for a second rotation in early October. One of them is a gallery that places photographs snatched from reality by Nan Goldin alongside more carefully orchestrated portraits by Rineke Dijkstra. Despite their different approaches, both photographers achieve searing levels of intimacy.
Keep your eyes peeled, too, for powerful sculptures by Doris Salcedo and Diane Simpson and for the section called "Soft Power," which is excellent. Featuring works made mainly from fabrics, it includes brilliant things by Nick Cave, Alexandre da Cunha, Charles LeDray, Grossen, and Rohm.
Grossen's "Inchworm," which appeared at the ICA in "Fiber: Sculpture 1960-present" in 2014 and was subsequently donated by the artist, is a particular favorite of mine. But against the stereotype that fiber art and "soft sculpture" are made by and for women, it's interesting to note that Grossen is the only woman in this section.
The standout work of video art in this first iteration is a riveting 38-minute film by Sharon Hayes, called "Ricerche: three." Inspired by a Pier Paolo Pasolini documentary called "Comizi d'Amore (Love Meetings)," it takes the form of an open-air group discussion among 35 female students from diverse international backgrounds at Mount Holyoke College.
Holding a microphone, Hayes asks them to speak about sex, politics, feminism, and life at an all-female college. The camera focuses sometimes on the speaker, sometimes on others in the group who are listening, or not really listening, but instead picking stray matter out of a neighbor's hair or fondly hugging or gazing pensively into the middle distance.
The tension between the sly intimacy of the footage and the giddy passion of the discussion, laced as it is with heady abstractions and broad assertions, is unaccountably poignant.
The whole show is a treat.
FIRST LIGHT: A DECADE OF COLLECTING AT THE ICA
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Jan. 16 . 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.