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Mind the gaps

What’s missing in the new wing?

The MFA’s Abstract Expressionist holdings include Jackson Pollock’s ‘‘Number 10.’’ The MFA’s Abstract Expressionist holdings include Jackson Pollock’s ‘‘Number 10.’’ (Museum of Fine Arts)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010

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EVEN AS IT celebrates its strengths with the new wing, the MFA has made a deliberate decision to expand its horizons. Has it bitten off more than it can chew?

The short answer is yes. Way more. But that’s not a bad thing.

In truth, the MFA simply does not have the holdings to present anything like a coherent and persuasive overview of so much art from so many cultures.

And yet two things spring to mind. First, its holdings are deeper and better in many areas than you might think.

And second, advertising ambition can be a good thing in itself.

If there is no gallery dedicated to the display of, for instance, Native American art, the museum stands little chance of attracting gifts in this area from collectors or offers from dealers. But if, as is now the case, there is a handsome new gallery that, through a combination of loans and works from the collection, tries to put forward a judicious display of such art, then word gets around. With any luck (and some serious curatorial commitment), new things will start to come in.

The same goes for Spanish colonial art, silver, and furniture, and Canadian art, both areas in which the museum finds itself starting virtually from scratch. These are big and serious gaps, and the MFA needs to do something about them sooner rather than later if its admirable ambitions are not to turn into a lingering embarrassment.

The MFA's holdings of Abstract Expressionist art also remain weak: Its best Pollock, "Number 10," is temporarily on view in the exhibit "Fresh Ink," and other than works on paper it has no de Kooning or Still. It's also missing anything significant by Twombly, and its Philip Guston (an artist closely tied with Boston) is large, but poor.

So are its holdings of work by the Boston Expressionists — a fascinating group to which the museum should really have paid closer attention.

Going back in time, one could wish for better holdings of an array of important artists, from Jacob Lawrence and the Mexican muralists to Canada’s Group of Seven. Nor do the MFA’s holdings of the stirring and sublime canvases of the Hudson River School painters seem as strong as one would like.

But in all these cases the curators have done what they can. And set against everything they do have, most of the gaps don’t seem too glaring.

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