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Critic's tour of treasures meanders in the hills

From Williamstown to Stockbridge, museums display art for every taste

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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Call it the Mohawk art trail.

Every two or three months, as part of my job as the Globe’s art critic, I drive out Route 2 headed for North Adams and Williamstown, two towns that, although just five minutes apart, couldn’t be more different in character but share a role as cornerstones in a part of the state rich with cultural treasures.

My destination in the former industrial center of North Adams is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which occupies a campus that used to be Sprague Electric Co. headquarters, and before that, the Arnold Print Works factory, one of the world’s leading producers of printed textiles.

When Sprague closed its North Adams operation in 1985, the local economy had the stuffing knocked out of it. Art - and a museum director called Thomas Krens - came to the rescue.

Krens, as many people know, later became an aggressively expansionist director of the Guggenheim Museum, where he was responsible, among other things, for reviving the languishing Spanish industrial town of Bilbao with a spectacular, Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim outpost. Back in the 1980s, he was still director of the Williams College Museum of Art.

Seeing North Adams’s plight, and hunting around for a flexible space suited to the showing of large scale contemporary art, he backed a town proposal to convert the old Sprague campus on Marshall Street into what is now Mass MoCA, which has since become one of the most dynamic contemporary art museums in the country.

Mass MoCA can do things that no other museum can for one simple reason: space. It has room to burn. Right now (until Oct. 31), for instance, you can see a remarkable installation made from giant shards of white Styrofoam and huge heaps of soil, delivered by truck, that have been spray-painted lurid colors by the German artist Katharina Grosse. It’s vast. It’s amazing. It’s worth checking out.

There’s also a group show called “The Workers’’ - 25 artists engaged with what it means to be a worker in today’s global economy. And of course, you cannot go to Mass MoCA without seeing the semi-permanent, still flabbergasting retrospective of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings. These hypnotic works - deadpan, but full of sly wit - spread across three levels, and remain as fresh today as when the show opened three years ago.

(Hurricane Irene devastated picturesque Route 2 between Charlemont and North Adams in August. I have been told it’s impassable, with road signs suggesting a detour that takes an extra half hour. Mass MoCA’s website, under “Directions,’’ suggests a much shorter detour - but which requires you drive right past a sign saying “ROAD CLOSED.’’)

There’s pleasure, sometimes, in delaying the plunge into the gritty urban vibe of Mass MoCA and driving straight on through to the sylvan glades of Williamstown, and in particular the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. My favorite thing to do, having turned off South Street on to the seductively sweeping driveway that leads up to the museum, is to take the fork in the road that runs up the hill to the Stone Hill Center, a Tadao Ando-designed conservation center and exhibition space.

I don’t go in (I leave that for later): I simply park the car, then walk slowly down the path through the wood, crossing a bridge or two, passing a paddock with cows, and ambling through the car park into the museum proper. In every season, this walk is lovely - just the thing after a long drive.

The Clark’s collection is scintillating. If you like 18th- and 19th-century French art - with a good helping of British and American, as well as Italian and Northern European Renaissance-era works thrown in - you cannot help but harbor amorous feelings for the Clark.

It’s true, the Clarks were a little more susceptible to Renoir, and to sugar-coated depictions of languid society women, than I will ever be. But they were turned on to the good stuff on so many other fronts that it would be churlish to complain.

Over the next two years, many of the Clark’s best-loved Impressionist masterpieces are on tour in this country and in Europe and Asia. But don’t be discouraged: The Clark always mounts superb exhibitions (opening on Nov. 13 is “Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists’’) and there are still enough masterpieces in the permanent collection to detain you for a blissed-out afternoon or two.

Look out for three particular favorites of mine - Fragonard’s “Portrait of an Actor,’’ Piero della Francesca’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned With Four Angels,’’ and Gericault’s “Trumpeter of the Hussars on Horseback.’’

Sterling Clark inherited the collecting bug from his father and grandfather, both of whom went to Williams College. As a result, ever since Sterling (a Yale University engineering graduate) chose a campus for his museum that was just a short walk from Williams (he himself had visited Williamstown for the first time only six months previously), there has always been a strong connection between the two institutions, and - completing the triangle - between the Clark and Mass MoCA.

So go to Williams College Museum of Art, too. It’s just a 10 minute walk from the Clark. Once there, it doesn’t take long to develop an appreciation for why this school has turned out so many of the most accomplished and influential art historians, directors, critics, and curators of the last few decades. Its collection is deep, broad, and robust - an unbelievably fine and flexible resource.

It is a teaching museum and open to the public. But its mission is primarily to serve the college community in a way that advances inquiry and scholarship. Sometimes you feel it would be nice if the curators would lower the dial on the self-consciousness, with their questioning wall labels and category-busting displays, and let objects speak, as it were, for themselves. But it’s such rich pickings here that on most days you just roll with it.

There’s more to art in the Berkshires beyond this little family romance of sibling museums. Head south from Williamstown along Route 7 or (from North Adams) Route 8, and you quickly come to Pittsfield, a place that has featured in great works by at least two memorable mythologists of small town America: the illustrator Norman Rockwell and the photographer Gregory Crewdson.

Pittsfield is home to the Berkshire Museum, an attractive venue for exhibitions that range from arms and armor to paintings and fun facts about lizards. “Geckos: Tails to Toepads’’ may have closed last month, but the museum is still showing (through Oct. 11) a selection of art, including works by Sam Francis, Red Grooms, David Hockney, Alex Katz, and LeWitt, from the collection of Jay and Jane Braus.

Down the road is the marvelous Norman Rockwell Museum near Stockbridge. It’s preferred, but by no means mandatory, that you be a signed-up admirer of Rockwell’s brand of homespun parables in paint if you want to enjoy this museum.

I myself get a lot out of Rockwell (how strange he finally is!), and the museum is set on the loveliest campus, with rolling hills and picturesque views. There’s no better museum in the area - apart, perhaps, from Mass MoCA - to visit with children.

Better yet, it’s not one of those one-trick, one-artist museums that runs the risk of pickling in its own juices. It has a dynamic exhibition program, with shows that highlight the work of a wide array of artists, most of them working in the genre of illustration.

Coming up next month, for instance, is “Curious George Saves The Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey,’’ a show organized by the Jewish Museum in New York. The Reys fled Nazi-occupied Europe back in the 1940s with a Curious George manuscript in their suitcase. The show tells their story, and it will be complemented by a Rockwell exhibition inspired by Charles Dickens.

Art-wise, there’s so much more in the Berkshires than just these five museums. And of course, if you head a little east (I sometimes drive back this way) you can also take in several of the finest college museums in New England - from Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst to my own favorite, the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton.

And then there’s the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, also in Amherst, which, like so much else about this region, I’m yet to discover. Maybe this fall?

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

If You Go

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
1040 Mass MoCA Way
North Adams
413-662-2111
www.massmoca.org
Wed-Mon 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $15, students $10, children $5.
Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute
225 South St., Williamstown
413-458-2303
www.clarkart.edu
Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults $15 through Oct. 31, students and children free. Free Nov. 1-May 31.
Williams College Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Suite 2, Williamstown
413-597-2429
wcma.williams.edu
Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 1-5. Free.
Berkshire Museum 39 South St., Pittsfield
413-443-7171
www.berkshiremuseum.org
Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun noon-5. Adults $13, children ages 3-18 $6, under 3 free.
Norman Rockwell Museum
9 Route 183, Stockbridge
413-298-4100
www.nrm.org
May through October, daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; November through April, weekdays 10-4, weekends and holidays 10-5. Adults $16, seniors 65 and older $14.50, college students $10, children 6-18 $5, 5 and under free.