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Continental connection

By opening up the new wing to all of the Americas — North, Central, and South — the MFA steps up its ambitions

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By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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FRESHLY RETURNED FROM an extended play date with their Spanish cousins in Madrid, Boston’s most beloved girls, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit, now find themselves in a new home — and at the center of a new story.

You can see them in John Singer Sargent’s famous painting as you stand in the Museum of Fine Arts’ Sharf Visitor Center and gaze across the massive new glassed-in courtyard to Level 2 of the Art of the Americas Wing.

The trip to Spain has done them good. In Madrid, Sargent’s “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’’ spent time at the Prado with Velazquez’s royal “Las Meninas (the Maids of Honor),’’ the painting that inspired their precocious creator. Having returned, they seem more cosmopolitan. As enigmatic as ever, they seem suddenly to belong to a bigger, more ambitious world.

And so, now, does the Museum of Fine Arts.

The biggest news about the MFA’s new Art of the Americas Wing is the name. The museum could have called it the American Wing (up until relatively recently, in fact, it planned to). Doing so would have played to the MFA’s strengths: The museum has long been known for the depth of its holdings in work from the United States — in particular the paintings, silver, and furniture of Colonial New England and lavish holdings of mid- to late-19th-century artists such as Winslow Homer and Sargent.

But it chose not to. It decided instead to open its doors to all of the Americas — North, Central, and South. And with that decision, inevitably, in flooded the rest of the world, whose history over the last 500 years has been intimately connected with these two massive continents.

Opening up the MFA in this way could easily have been a folly — an undertaking to represent the visual heritage not of one country but of 22. An unrealistic, an impossible task.

And yet remarkably — despite obvious holes in its collection (“Mind the gaps,’’ Page 22) — the MFA seems to have pulled it off.

With the installation of 53 new galleries in the wing, the museum has broadened its horizons and stepped up its ambitions — and those of this city and region along with it.

In this country of immigrants, inhabited by native peoples and fought over by competing colonial powers, there has always been something mildly mendacious about the idea of an “American art.’’ So many of the nation’s most celebrated artists — from Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley to Sargent, James MacNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko — have always seemed to have as much to do with France, Italy, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, or Britain as with America.

It’s no contradiction to recognize this and still find American art one of the art world’s richest and most rewarding fields of study. It’s simply a question of grasping that many of these rewards come from understanding its connections with the rest of the world. That is what the MFA is explicitly acknowledging in its new wing.

Wandering around these galleries, it’s impossible not to be struck by the variety of styles of display, from whole galleries devoted to the carefully spaced work of a single artist to crowded, floor-to-ceiling salon-style hangs, from galleries lined with cases displaying precious objects to period rooms and richly interwoven ensembles of paintings, textiles, furniture, silver, and glass.

The decision to mix media throughout the wing is hardly groundbreaking. It’s in line with recent trends in displays of American art. And of course it revives much older traditions in Europe.

But it marks a break with the MFA’s own past displays, predicated as they were on keeping paintings separate from other media. More than any single other factor, it’s what brings the new galleries to life.

‘HIGHWAYS AND BYWAYS’
Here’s how the new wing works: It has four levels, each built around a central spine of large galleries. In these hang works that tell an important story (say, the American Revolution) or play to one of the MFA’s particular strengths (say, Sargent).

Fanning off on either side, the galleries become more nuanced and idiosyncratic. Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas department, who masterminded the hang, describes the basic strategy as one of “highways and byways’’ (after the title of a favorite painting by Paul Klee).

As you go from the bottom level to the top, you also go forward in time. Thus the bottom level is dedicated mainly to the art of ancient Central and South America and to Native American cultures. The second level features art of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods. The third features 19th- and early-20th-century art. And the top level takes us up to about 1980.

And yet the museum has not been too programmatic about chronology. Much of the work in the Native American gallery, for instance, was made relatively recently (it’s a living culture, after all). And within the chronological parameters of each level, the displays tend to be thematic.

The Lower Ground Level — a point of entry for most viewers visiting for the first time — makes a bold first statement. Through its rich array of Maya ceramics and haunting pieces like the Olmec mask or the ritual torture figure from Guatemala that doubles as a whistle (his anus is the blowhole!), it presents relatively unfamiliar cultures of self-evident sophistication and potency.

This floor also contains the first gallery the MFA has dedicated to Native American culture in almost a century. It’s not the world’s greatest collection, but it does a decent job, and it’s a vital component in the whole.

The effect of these initial galleries, which are complemented by a first-rate display of ship models and maritime paintings and an early Colonial period room, is theatrically hushed, visually splendid.

The next floor up sees both the MFA’s greatest strengths and its most glaring weaknesses on display. A brilliant central spine gal lery devoted to Colonial Boston, including Paul Revere’s “Sons of Liberty Bowl’’ perched in front of Copley’s iconic portrait of Revere, leads into a second large gallery celebrating the “New Nation,’’ with Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished but massively influential portraits of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Sully’s vast depiction of Washington crossing the Delaware, and John Neagle’s pomp-puncturing “Pat Lyon at the Forge.’’

It’s stirring, chewy stuff. There’s a whole gallery devoted to Copley, which makes good sense, given that no other museum comes close to matching the MFA’s holdings of this crucial figure. But sadly, when it comes to the whole 300-year history of colonial Spanish art, the museum has struggled to fill one small gallery. Much of what it does have is on loan.

Never mind. Something to work on.

One floor up, we are led, thrillingly, from a gallery devoted entirely to the work of Sargent into a crowded salon-style hang of artists who embarked on the European “Grand Tour’’ during the second half of the 19th century or the early years of the 20th. Look out for Frederic Edwin Church’s depiction of the Parthenon (a recent acquisition) and a stirring series of paintings depicting one of the leitmotifs of 19th-century American art: Niagara Falls.

On the same level there is a terrific gallery devoted to the Luminists, Martin Johnson Heade and Fitz Henry Lane, and another that combines the MFA’s strong suite of Homer paintings with Thomas Eakins and a display case focusing on the Civil War.

Two galleries display the brilliant Impressionist paintings of artists such as Childe Hassam, Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, and the incomparable Mary Cassatt, while another is dedicated to underrated Boston School artists such as Ellen Day Hale, Gretchen Rogers, and Lilian Westcott Hale. It is one of my favorites.

Perhaps best of all on this level are galleries devoted to the Aesthetic movement, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the American Renaissance, all of which boast superbly integrated arrangements of furniture, decorative arts, wallpaper, stained glass, and paintings.

MAKING IT MODERN
By and by, we arrive at the top floor, and the modern era.

Modern art has never been a great strength of the MFA, which seemed to drop the ball some time after Gauguin. Making matters worse, the museum’s leadership has decided, at least for now, to hang many of its strongest postwar pieces — by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg — in the contemporary wing, due to open in renovated space next year. The result is that the main top-floor gallery, designed as an architectural centerpiece, with the highest ceilings in the wing, is a flop. It has a superb new acquisition — an exquisitely colorful abstraction by the Argentine César Paternosto — and terrific pieces by Al Loving, Alexander Calder, and Frank Stella. But the majority of what’s on display is blowsy and third-rate. Whoever chose it simply has no eye for modern art.

Instead the most memorable galleries on this top floor are devoted to the intimate interplay of modernist art and design. Two galleries in particular — one devoted to the 1920s and ’30s and the other to the ’40s and ’50s — are highlights of the entire wing.

The latter is cunningly divided into objects that explore the idea of organic or biomorphic abstraction on one side and severer styles of geometric abstraction on the other. So much is packed into these galleries, you could spend an hour in each. Yet they never feel crowded or confusing; they’re models of lucidity.

Less impressive is a gallery devoted to figurative art, which sacrifices historical cogency — not to mention aesthetic taste — to a patchy umbrella concept.

But on the whole — and thanks in no small part to the Lane Collection of modernist art by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove, which came into the MFA in 1990 — the 20th century, which could have been an anticlimax, is made to feel like an unexpected strength.

It’s worth noting that the MFA has made considerable strides in its belated efforts to represent art by African-Americans. There’s much more to do, but great works by, among others, Loving, Horace Pippin, and Jacob Lawrence are on display.

I have barely mentioned the nine period rooms, which populate the outside flanks of each floor. These logistically mind-bending displays richly integrate all manner of objects and decoration, enhancing our sense of place, as well as socioeconomic and political context, in ways that feed into our encounters with objects in other parts of the wing.

Nor have I mentioned the various temporary galleries, which will allow the museum to rotate its displays of fragile or light-sensitive objects on a regular basis. It is a shame that, unlike the recently renovated Addison Gallery of American Art at Andover, the MFA has not been able to integrate photography more fully into its 19th- and 20th-century galleries. But a single large gallery has been reserved for photography on the third level.

All in all, the MFA’s new Art of the Americas Wing helps transform not only the physical reality of the MFA but also our understanding of the art that has emerged, over three millennia, from these two linked continents. And that in itself is a remarkable achievement.

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

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