The Museum of Fine Arts’ Art of the Americas Wing opened in 2010 and was deservedly acclaimed. But its third floor, devoted to 20th-century art, was widely described as weak.
In fact, like the rest of the wing, the third floor was diverse, telling stories about 20th-century art through decorative arts, photography, large-scale sculpture, and both figurative and abstract painting. It was far from terrible, and some of the best parts are still in place.
If the third floor failed to convince, it was partly because the stories felt like minor tributaries and the overall impression was blurry. Even more, it was because there were so few great works by great artists. Adjustments were made over the next few years, new acquisitions came in, the display improved.
“Making Modern,” a major overhaul of five large galleries on the third floor, does something quite new. Presenting focused displays of vanguard modernism in the United States and Mexico, it plays to the collection’s strengths, rather than reminding us of its weaknesses.
The new hang emphasizes the impact of the two most celebrated female artists of the 20th century: Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo. And by including two giants of European modernism, Max Beckmann and Pablo Picasso, it dares to break down artificial barriers separating European art from the art of the Americas.
This last is a break with past practice in the wing. But it falls in line with the vision of American art as naturally cosmopolitan as outlined in “A New World Imagined,” the audacious catalog compiled by MFA curator Elliot Bostwick Davis for the new wing’s opening.
Each chapter in that catalog views American art through the lens of a specific foreign influence. Confined to the catalog, this was just a theoretical rubric. But now, in “Making Modern,” actual works by Jackson Pollock are paired in a large gallery with Picassos. Why? For the simple reason that Picasso’s influence on Pollock is at once massive and demonstrable.
This gallery is really first-rate. It includes Picasso’s 1908 proto-Cubist “Standing Figure” and his 1910 Cubist “Portrait of a Woman,” as well as Pollock’s rare 1939 ceramic bowl “Flight of Man,” his 1945 painting “Troubled Queen,” and his horizontal drip painting, “Number 10,” 1949.
Two Germans who had an impact specifically in Boston, Karl Zerbe and Beckmann, are at the heart of a nearby gallery devoted to Boston Expressionism — a movement that in the past has been woefully underserved by the MFA (surely the one museum that had a duty to do better).
Zerbe, an artist labeled “Degenerate” by the Nazis, immigrated to the United States in 1934. Beckmann, a more brilliant artist whose work was similarly vilified, came to the United States after a decade of exile in Amsterdam.
Beckmann, whom former MFA director Perry Rathbone had befriended and championed, stopped in Boston for only a few days. He met with some students at the Museum School and gave a lecture in German with his wife, Quappi, acting as interpreter.
Despite the brevity of Beckmann’s visit, his impact was tremendous. He was for decades a sort of genius in absentia, presiding in spirit over artists associated with Boston’s art schools, from Ellsworth Kelly and Philip Guston to key Boston Expressionists like Zerbe, Hyman Bloom, Jack Levine, and David Aronson.
So this room tells a vital story. Not only does it contain key works by Beckmann, Zerbe, Levine, and Bloom; it also has several of the virtuosic drawings by Levine and Bloom (both from Eastern European Jewish families and brought up in Boston slums) that so astonished their early supporters. Look out for two killer portraits of the same man, one by Bloom, who was 18 at the time, the other by Levine, who was just 16.
The Beckmanns include a slightly undercooked portrait of Rathbone, and another, sharper portrayal of his wife, Euretta. Surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Marsden Hartley. Hartley was not, of course, a Boston Expressionist but he had lived in Berlin and knew all about German Expressionism. His inclusion feels apt.
Another gallery in the new hang is dedicated to Kahlo and the Mexican modernists. The display hinges on the MFA’s gorgeous recent acquisition, Kahlo’s “Dos Mujeres (Salvadora y Herminia),” a double portrait of two maids from Kahlo’s home, the legendary Casa Azul (Blue House). It’s the first painting Kahlo ever sold.
The work is placed on a plinth, away from the wall, so we can read the handwritten note on the back of the canvas, and it is surrounded by documentary material.
As we contemplate the Kahlo, a distinctive self-portrait by her husband, Diego Rivera, peers at us from across the room. There are photographs, too, by Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Tina Modotti — all part of the legendary Kahlo-Rivera circle.
Those three photographers were avidly collected by William and Saundra Lane, the great MFA benefactors, who also collected American modernist paintings. The Lane paintings — small-scale works by great American modernists in the first half of the 20th century — fill out the floor’s central gallery.
This hang is particularly pleasing because it makes the most of the Lanes’ penchant for collecting their favorite artists in depth. Where earlier hangs were mostly confined to one room and highly selective, here we are treated to a whole bouquet of O’Keeffes, then a spray of Hartleys. Farther in are small bursts of paintings by Stuart Davis and Charles Sheeler, and a wonderful, career-spanning array of Arthur Doves.
Many of the paintings feel relatively minor. But by displaying so many works by each artist, the hang does what it can to honor each artist’s individual vision, and even to register evolutions within those visions. That’s especially so in the cases of O’Keeffe and Dove.
The MFA’s Abstract Expressionist holdings are weak. But one small gallery here highlights the importance of Hans Hofmann, another German émigré, for Abstract Expressionists like Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, and the sculptor David Smith.
As a pedagogue, Hofmann was a key figure in the story of American postwar art. But it’s unusual to find a Hofmann painting that really convinces. Sadly, his “Swamp Series II — Autumnal Glory,” 1957, is not one of those rarities.
Instead, the highlight here is the inspired pairing of Peter Voulkos’s ceramic sculpture “Camelback Mountain” (1957) with Kline’s black-on-white calligraphic painting “Probst I” (1960).
Despite the different scale and medium, the forms — a sort of pileup of strong diagonals of varying length — uncannily echo one another. Both works embrace roughness, vigor, and a kind of dark, native vulgarity that feels like a massive advance on Hofmann’s caution.
Each one of the new galleries homes in on a 20th-century moment: a particular story, a circle of artists, a relationship. But there are also connections among them, some significant, others trivial (but still fun).
The Mexican dress worn by Euretta Rathbone in Beckmann’s portrait dovetails with the Mexican maids painted by Kahlo. Hartley links two galleries. German émigrés crop up continually. Picasso, a latent presence in the works of Rivera and Beckmann (he was a big influence on both), bursts palpably into view in the gallery he shares with Pollock. And Pollock was heavily influenced by the Mexican muralists.
“Making Modern” is the best new installation at the MFA since the marvelous galleries devoted to aspects of Ancient Greece opened in 2014. It reminds us that, with a bit of thought and imagination, and even without as many full-throttle masterpieces as you might like, you can tell a lot of fascinating stories and harness plenty of star power.
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.
An earlier version misspelled the title of Kahlo’s painting “Dos Mujeres.”