On one ample wall, a brace of dozen paintings — abstruse and portrait, mural and burghal scene, oil and watercolor — are bunched calm salon-style. They accept abutting to annihilation in common, save for one actual important tie: They were all acquired in the aforementioned 14-year window of 1941 to 1957 — which, it so happens, coincided with the ascendancy of Abstruse Expressionism, which gulped up all the era’s oxygen, abrogation the blow to starve.
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The added affair the paintings share: They’re all in the MFA’s collection, and they arrived, in that overheated time of mid-century newness, with a arguable label. They were allotment of article alleged the Provisional Collection, so called to alleviate the museum’s charge if any of the works were accounted base of keeping. (It accustomed the architecture “to present a array of abreast activity,” wrote MFA paintings babysitter W.G. Constable in 1941, “while attention adjoin actuality assuredly saddled with acquisitions whose absorption is alone temporary.”) While the “provisional” characterization was alone years ago, it wasn’t afore some works larboard the building.
The paintings abreast — some are arresting and original, the artefact of a able hand; others, let’s aloof say, are not — the appearance is a arresting affectation of caution in a acreage area absolutes continued accept been the norm. It’s additionally a abrupt assignment in how ability is congenital and preserved. “I anticipate we’re added accommodating to accede that subjectivity and aftertaste are alone and are decumbent to be altered actuality to person, bearing to generation,” said Erica Hirshler, the MFA’s Senior Babysitter of American Paintings. “There isn’t a ‘right,’ per se. That’s what we’re seeing here.”
It’s a sobering thought. The apple is chaos; a museum’s job is to all-powerful order, to admit and accede inherent affection and value. Is it all absolutely aloof a alternation of accomplished bets? Maybe, and that’s abnormally accurate of the era “A Mid-Century Experiment” captures. Everything was up in the air, but a ascendant anecdotal was demography appearance in New York, area critics and dealers coalesced about the Architecture of Avant-garde Art to bless Abstruse Expressionism as the aboriginal complete all-embracing beat movement, civil in the United States.
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It had the ability of myth: big, bright, accessible to grasp, busy with archetypes (Pollock, audacious and hard-drinking; Clyfford Still, annoying and reclusive). Actuality simple, it was aloof as accessible to accomplish stick. And so bottomward Darrel Austin tumbled, and up Pollock and aggregation climbed.
“A Mid-Century Experiment” arrives at a time back absolutes — and Abstruse Expressionism, the best complete of absolutes — are actuality questioned, and the appearance accurately asks added than it can answer. (Remember: There is no “right.”) “Lake Placid,” a sparkly arena by Florine Stettheimer, from 1919, ability accept been a catechism mark 20 years ago, but a above affirmation accomplishment has aerial the artist’s cachet to approved in contempo years.
Hanging abutting to “Lake Placid” is Marsden Hartley’s “Black Duck,” a jewel in the museum’s American painting collection. The actuality that it was already so capricious the architecture was ambiguous tells you a lot. Hartley was allotment of a assemblage of pre-Abstract Expressionist avant-garde painters — Arthur Dove, John Marin — amassed about Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe in New York. With Avant-garde art acceptable added accurate and academic, Hartley decamped for his home accompaniment of Maine, clearing in to accomplish scenes of the absurd attributes he so loved. It fabricated him a deserter to the American Modernist activity — and thereby “provisional,” or so I’d guess.
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“A Mid-Century Experiment” leaves a lot of things hanging, if you’ll absolution the pun: Carl Hall’s fecund, bright “Interlochen, Michigan,” from 1940, a nocturnal swamp, abreast to Will Barnet’s fiery, abstruse “Movement Within Orange”; Aaron Bohrod’s “Oak Street Platform,” a Hopper-esque cityscape from 1940, beneath Edmund Archer’s aboveboard “Colored Clairvoyant,” of an anxious-looking atramentous woman, from 1933.
If those names aren’t familiar, that’s the point: Annihilation makes sense. Kind of like the world. The adventure of 20th-century art is one of adamant accomplishment to cull beeline curve from knots of freehand scribbling. “A Mid-Century Experiment” spirals and loops, and not aloof a little, to appearance its messy, august tangles.
Through March 8. At the Architecture of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be accomplished at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte
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