MASS MoCA: Critical MASS (1999)

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 26 February 2011
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 18(8), October 1999, pp. 12-3.


Sometimes good things do come to those who wait. Thirteen years after it was first put on the drawing board— and after navigating through several barriers that threatened its creation— MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) finally opened to the public on May 30. Located in the Berkshires town of North Adams in the state’s northwest corner, the museum was initially proposed as a “large static display” for artworks. But it was reconceptualized to include not only galleries, but also performance spaces, theaters, and rehearsal studios, as well as to embrace multi-media technology; it also plans to “serve as an open laboratory for the creation and exploration of contemporary art.” The museum opens with a group exhibition selected to “test the spatial and lighting dynamics of MASS MoCA,” a billboard art retrospective— including new commissions— lining Massachusetts highways in and around North Adams, and it has already begun to distribute site-specific sound art installations throughout the community. The variety of sites at MASS MoCA are spectacular— 19th-century factory architecture manipulated for the presentation of art.

Size does matter, and big is one way to describe MASS MoCA’s 220,000 square feet. Monumental interiors abound; a 130-foot-long and 40-foot-high space, which can be viewed from three levels, has been christened by James Rosenquist’s The Swimmer in the Econo-mist (1997–98), “a history painting for the end of the millennium.” The space containing Robert Rauschenberg’s 195-part “self-contained retrospective‚” The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–present)— almost as long as a football field— recalls an Italian church and emphasizes the art procession. Other galleries house a 24-foot-high “Dorito-shaped” work by Joseph Beuys and multiplications of large-scale forms by Mario Merz.

At first glance, it may appear as though very little was done to change the mill complex, a site listed on the National Historic Register. Architect Simeon Bruner of Bruner/Cott & Associates says, “We worked with found buildings and incorporated them directly into the spaces, and it appears that we had done nothing. Yet, we totally manipulated the spaces so they could be understood in their new context as they might have been in their old context. In a funny way, what you see is the inverse of what was there— more open spaces where there were cluttered ones, and more closed spaces where there were more open ones.”

“It had to stand as a revitalization and preservation of a mill complex. Every time we had demolition we had to make sure it was acceptable to the Park Service and the Register,” explains Simeon Bruner. “And yet it had to work with the plan for the museum. So we wove this fabric very tightly between the two, and yet each one exists on its own. For example, in the courtyard we put back the walls that we had taken down. They define the space and create the seating area, and tell you where the buildings were.”

According to Simeon Bruner, the budget was not quite one-tenth that of other museum projects. “We could ‘spend’ lots of space but had to watch the money. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to build an exciting space.”

Curator Laura Heon is also enthusiastic. “When you walk through the museum, you can’t help but be aware that you are in a place that is 120 or 130 years old; there’s a lot of life in the building. There is a considerable amount of natural light in our galleries,” she says. “In addition to the scale, our spaces have a strong character, so they’re going to take a certain kind of artwork. While the first floor is much more white cube-like, the Beuys and the Merz [gallery] walls are very decorative and have incredible texture and color. I think there are some works of art that would be completely overwhelmed by that. But, the Beuys and the Merz rise to the challenge and look all the better.”

For artist Natalie Jeremijenko, the site of her installation Tree Logic in the museum’s courtyard entrance was particularly pleasing. She preferred the outdoor space because “it has more of a relationship to the community and [the work relates] to the site more specifically.” Australian-born and American-resident, Jeremijenko emphasized the entrance by lining up a row of six hanging, upside-down trees, supported by weights, loads, and forces. For Jeremijenko, the process “went remarkably well because of the incredible amount of construction being done [at the museum]. There were cranes all around that were available that wouldn’t ordinarily be. Access to heavy equipment helped with the creation of the work. MASS MoCA was ready, eager— and able— to deal with pieces of a scale that no one else could deal with.” After a five-year period, the trees will be re-sited. “They’ll forever be marked after having survived under these unusual conditions. This history will be framed within them forever.” The trees are photographed daily; their unexpected growth, which raises “questions about the nature of the natural,” is fully documented and posted on MASS MoCA’s Web site.

What should we expect to see at MASS MoCA in the future? Plans are to use all 27 buildings, adding an additional 350,000 square feet to the five buildings already in use. Regarding the artworks, Laura Heon says, “I think you can expect to see more works that will rise to the challenge of the spaces and [those that] need the kind of space we can provide. It’ll be more works by younger and lesser-known artists. A few more sound installations, some new commissions, and loan shows too. We’ll continue to work with our various partners and find new ones to program with.” Currently, the museum’s lenders and programming partners include the Guggenheim, the Dia Center for the Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and Kleiser-Walczak Construction Company. If the opening is any indication of MASS MoCA’s future, more excitement will follow. Watch this space.