Visual Arts Feature: MASS MoCA Launches Building 6

It is now possible for visitors to explore the MASS MoCA museum complex via a continual loop of 4.5 miles.

The MoCA tower being wired for a new light work. Photo: Charles Giuliano

The MASS MoCA tower being wired for a new light work. Photo: Charles Giuliano.

By Charles Giuliano

On May 28, MASS MoCA will launch the third and final phase of developing a complex of 19th-century industrial buildings on its 16 acre campus in North Adams, MA.

The vast museum opened in 1999 with some $25 million in seed money from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Another $25 million from the Commonwealth initiated renovation of Building 6 with 130,000 square feet at $380 per square foot. That’s a tenth of the going rate for museums. Currently, MoCA is raising the final $10 million of $65 million.

Of that, $2 million is earmarked to renovate an abandoned water tower to serve as an installation by James Turrell. An oculus will be constructed to observe celestial phenomena, most spectacularly at dawn and dusk.

He is one of six artists — Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Robert Rauschenberg, Gunnar Schonbeck and Turrell — whose work will be displayed for up to 15 years in the new wing, which doubles  as exhibition space.

It is now possible for visitors to explore the museum complex via a continual loop of 4.5 miles. There are works sited on its campus and in downtown North Adams.

In addition to the visual arts, MoCA features performing arts.  In June, the biannual Solid Sound Festival will take place. Mid-season and early fall will feature Bang on the Can and Fresh Grass festivals.

Artists and installers were working round the clock when museum director Joe Thompson led a media tour.

The most spectacular impression was made by the space itself. On three floors there are hundreds of enormous, single pane windows. They were essential during the Industrial Age, before the advent of electric lighting. Normally, museums are phobic about the damage caused by UV light. They usually construct black boxes, a means to meticulously control light levels.

MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson leading a tour for reporters. Photo: Charles Giuliano.

MASS MoCA director Joe Thompson leading a tour for reporters. Photo: Charles Giuliano.

MoCA’s design lets in natural light, but does so cleverly. There is ambient, clerestory lighting in its vast Building Five, where work by Nick Cave is on view through Labor Day. In Building 6. a broad ambulatory circulates around a series of black box galleries. Temporary works will be shown in the corridors.

The original light well has been restored. The roof has been replaced by a skylight, which illuminates the interior, etching out  the bridges and stairs.

Following a footprint mandated by the Hoosic River, the original source of energy for the mill complex, Building 6 narrows to a prow. The end wall has been opened up via an enormous window. A floor above has been removed, which creates an opportunity for spectacular views. The area provides a lounge and café.

The concept of extended installations featuring renowned artists was inspired by the success of MoCA’s buildings devoted to Sol LeWitt and Anselm Kiefer. The strategy of a semi-permanent collection echoes the mandates regarding minimal art installations in the industrial scaled Dia Beacon in New York and the Chinati/ Judd Foundation in Marfa, Texas.

MoCA’s distinction is that half of its space rotates with an annual cycle of exhibitions. That approach encourages reasons for art lovers to return. There is also the lure of special exhibitions at the nearby Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art. Also, entrepreneur Tom Krens is developing museums for trains, clocks, and architecture within walking distance of MoCA.

As Thompson quipped “Not everyone likes contemporary art but everyone loves trains.”

It is expected that the annual MoCA visitation of 165,000 will spike this summer. But it remains to be seen whether the reception for the six, long term installations will be able to extend the spectacular success of LeWitt and Kiefer.

An initial response is that, when the Turrell installations are put into position, particularly when the water tower comes on line, the experience will be magnificent. This artist’s ability to manipulate light in ways that create disorienting illusions is magical and unprecedented. The works here have been selected from the breath of his decades long career, which began during the 1960s in Santa Monica, when he blacked out studio windows to allow in narrow slits of manipulated light, redolent of a camera obscura.

A wall was removed in Building 6 so the massive marble works by Louise Bourgeois could be lifted in (via crane). Engineering and shoring had to be done to support the weight. A number of her bulging eyeballs, emitting an eerie blue light at night, are permanently installed in front of neighboring WCMA. The French/ American artist has been canonized by the art world — but I remain agnostic.

Some of the renowned artists selected for Building 6 have long associations with MoCA.

A low point for MoCA occurred during a divisive lawsuit brought by the artist Christoph Buchel, who claimed that an installation of his in Building 5 was mishandled. The museum moved forward in 2007 when Jenny Holzer created her first indoor projection for that Building 5 space. A friend and neighbor of the museum, she will show a rotation of work. The current iteration is from her ‘redacted documents’ series. In addition, her signature inscribed marble benches will be sited around the campus, and her twilight video projections will be screened adjacent to the museum.

At MASS MoCA: A low slung multi-media sculpture by Robert Motherwell. Photos: Charles Giuliano.

At MASS MoCA: A low slung multi-media sculpture by Robert Motherwell. Photos: Charles Giuliano.

Robert Rauschenberg was the first artist to be shown in Building 5. There will be rotating displays of his work in collaboration with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Captiva Residency Program. The current work, 1994’s A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth), is a maze of images printed on mylar elements.

In the past, performance and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson has created new works while in residence at MoCA. Now she will have a long term studio. Her first new creation will be a virtual reality room (created with Hsin-Chien Huang) in which she has handpainted every surface. An adjoining gallery displays large scale drawings inspired by her now deceased dog.

During his lifetime Bennington College music professor Gunnar Schonbeck created a thousand unique and funky instruments. From his notion that everyone is a musician evolved the Bang on a Can festivals. Visitors are encouraged to play with his creations, which will provide considerable clang and crash to the glorious cacophony that emanates from MASS MoCA now and forever.

Charles Giuliano is publisher/ editor of Berkshire Fine Arts. He will soon publish his fourth book since 2014, Gloucester Poems: Nugents of Rockport. This summer he will jury the annual show for Boston’s Galatea Gallery.

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