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Recent arrivals, now in a museum’s spotlight

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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For a curator, there is nothing quite like opening up a new space. For a contemporary art curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, the moment holds special significance. The MFA, fairly or unfairly, has long been viewed as disinterested in all things contemporary. Museum leaders hope to change that perception when they introduce the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art’s new galleries, new educational facilities, and, of course, new art. “As we walk through the galleries,’’ says Edward Saywell, chair of the MFA’s contemporary art program, “it’s incredible how many works have come into the collection in recent years.’’

Here are five that stand out.

INTENT Wade Aaron

Status: Commissioned, temporary installation

Not all art lasts forever. In the case of Wade Aaron’s “Intent,’’ art only lasts as long as the lights stay on.

Aaron, 34, a New Hampshire native and 2009 graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, created the piece by constructing a grid of more than 300 light bulbs that, when plugged in, spell the word “Intent.’’ What happens to the word as the inevitable bulb-burn occurs? One requirement of the piece, says Aaron, is that the bulbs never be replaced. When they go out, they go.

“You go from this thing that’s clearly legible to this thing that sort of perishes or becomes deciduous over time,’’ he says. “It loses its message or ceases to be, or becomes something else.’’ He pauses. “That’s something I haven’t quite come to understand.’’

One thing’s for sure: The MFA installation is a big break for Aaron, 34, whose work has been exhibited in galleries but never in a major museum.

It will remain on view for two years and isn’t being made part of the MFA’s permanent collection.

“His piece is meant to die out,’’ says Jen Mergel, the MFA’s senior curator of contemporary art. “It’s a great poetic challenge to ideas that art should be permanent or last forever.’’

ARCUS III Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova

Status: Loan

With acquisition budgets tight, the MFA has to rely to some extent on the generosity of private collectors. For the new wing, that meant borrowing about 80 loaned works from a longtime friend of the museum, Daphne Farago.

Farago has been generous. In 2004, she gave the MFA fiber art by Katherine Westphal and Ed Rossbach. In 2007, she donated jewelry, leading to an exhibition. Just a couple of weeks after starting at the museum last October, Emily Zilber, the curator of contemporary decorative arts, headed to Rhode Island to visit with Farago. They went out for lobster rolls and returned to discuss Farago’s impressive collection of contemporary works.

“She has such an incredible eye,’’ says Zilber. “And she really lives with the work. It’s wonderful to see how it is integrated into her own life. It’s everywhere. There are pieces in the kitchen.’’

One of the 80 pieces Farago agreed to loan the MFA for the Linde Family Wing opening is “Arcus III,’’ a glass work crafted in the mid-’90s by the Czechoslovakian couple Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova.

“He made the concept drawing, and she transformed it into a three-dimensional work,’’ said Zilber. “It involved both drawing and ceramics and glass.’’

The final product, Zilber notes, is both beautiful and ever-changing. Its look depends on the angle at which it is hit by light. To show that, the MFA will be recording a 24-hour time lapse of the piece as it sits in the gallery.

ALL ART HAS BEEN CONTEMPORARY Maurizio Nannucci

Status: Commissioned, permanent

The museum first heard about this piece from an unlikely source. Rita Freed, chair of the MFA’s Department of the Ancient World, was visiting the Altes Museum in Berlin a few years ago when she found herself mesmerized by a red neon sign spelling out the words “All Art Has Been Contemporary.’’ Fast forward to last year.

Mergel, the contemporary art curator, was talking to Freed about plans for the contemporary wing. The Egyptian art expert mentioned Nannucci’s piece.

“It sums everything up,’’ says Freed. “You look at some of the moments in Egyptian art that were revolutionary in their time. The fact is, everything was contemporary when it was created, but there were some artists who really broke the mold.’’

Mergel had seen another work by Nannucci, which spelled out the word “Art’’ at Harvard’s Carpenter Center more than a decade earlier. She began to consider a new version of “All Art Has Been Contemporary’’ for the Linde wing. She chose blue after determining that Nannucci’s earlier works were done in that color.

Mergel appreciates that the 18-foot-long work is both an art object and a sign. She also believes the simple message is important.

“It applies not just to the work in the Linde Family Wing but the entire institution,’’ she said. “Everything in here has at one time been new.’’

SYSTEM 5, GLASS SUIT Richard Tuttle

Status: Gift, permanent

The MFA wanted a Richard Tuttle. But the American postminimalist’s work can be expensive, particularly “System 5, Glass Suit,’’ a large sculpture in which a series of objects are suspended or installed on a platform.

“Obviously, for any institution, it is very difficult to buy actively in the marketplace,’’ says Saywell. “So we’re reliant on the generosity of our museum family.’’

In this case, that family is Arne and Milly Glimcher, the owners of Pace Gallery. The MFA and its supporters do considerable business with Pace. (Another important new acquisition, Fred Wilson’s “Iago’s Mirror,’’ was purchased there by the MFA.)

The Tuttle gift came after Saywell went to the opening of a Tuttle show at Pace last year.

“It was honestly one of those serendipitous conversations,’’ he said. “We were really just talking about Richard Tuttle. I started talking about how fantastic it was. There was a pause, and Arne said, ‘Actually that was our favorite.’ So it was just that sort of magical moment in a way.’’

“System 5, Glass Suit’’ is made from a range of materials, everything from plywood to cardboard to Styrofoam. The result is a multifaceted work that not everybody sees the same way.

“The object which actually sits at the heart of the wires - some have called it a sort of wasps nest, others almost like a leg of lamb,’’ says Saywell. The beauty of the work, he adds, is that “everyone can realize their own thoughts about what each of these pieces means to them.’’

BLACK RIVER El Anatsui

Status: Purchase, permanent

Sometimes an artist leaves instructions on how to install a work. For “Black River,’’ El Anatsui, the Ghanaian sculptor, offered something else. He suggested that the museum determine how to display the piece, which is a kind of tapestry made of aluminum, bottle caps, and copper wire.

“The goal was to create this topography,’’ said Joel Thompson, associate curator in the textiles department. “We were looking for something that almost looked like you were looking at a landscape from above.’’

Thompson, conservator Meredith Montague, and contemporary art curator Mergel started by laying out the piece flat. Then, using entomology pins, they hung it on the wall.

“It’s difficult because it’s awkward and large and flexible,’’ says Thompson. “The sculpting just takes a little bit of trial and error.’’

It took about two days, with Thompson and Montague working on ladders, Mergel standing back to offer guidance.

“We don’t jump into this blind,’’ says Mergel. “I’ve seen his work installed many times and, of course, we had a show of his work on view earlier this year.’’

But when they were done, she said “Black River’’ did look different than it had on display in other places.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.


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