Ada Louise Huxtable: MFA’s American Wing Fails To Take Flight

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal devoted a full page of its Leisure & Arts section to the new Art of the Americas Wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

And – no surprise here – the paper’s dual reviews featured dueling ledes.

From the Journal’s Leisure & Arts features editor Eric Gibson:

Hats off to Boston Museum of Fine Arts Director Malcolm Rogers for having his priorities in the right place with the new Art of the Americas Wing. He resisted the temptation of glitzy architecture and instead put the emphasis on art.

From the Journal’s storied architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable:

It’s all about the art. It’s not about the architecture. End of review—except for some persistent questions about museum design.

Specifically, in contrast to the recent American Wing redesign at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art:

The [MFA’s] new court, like all of [Foster + Partners’] work, is rational, corporate and cool. Designed for flexibility, there will undoubtedly be many opportunities for change. But the contrast with the covered court of the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, redesigned by Kevin Roche in collaboration with the chairman of the American Wing, Morrison Heckscher, and reopened in 2009, is both striking and instructive. The enclosing frame leaves open sky and park views. The MFA court is roofed with an extension of the uniform gallery lighting, making it feel totally enclosed. Even its exterior planting looks and feels remote.

Worse yet, Huxtable writes:

There are no subtleties or surprises, no risks taken. The new wing is an unassailably logical solution, superbly executed and singularly lifeless, largely redeemed by curatorial and installation expertise. The MFA’s collection of early Americana would be wonderful anywhere, in any kind of setting.

Just don’t expect that extra dimension of wonder and delight that architecture can add to art.

Before you write Huxtable off as just one more New York snot, remember that – against all odds (and conventional wisdom) – she loved Boston City Hall.

From her 1969 New York Times review:

Boston can celebrate with the knowledge that it has produced a superior public building in an age that values cheapness over quality as a form of public virtue. It also has one of the handsomest buildings around, and thus far, one of the least understood.

It is a product of this moment and these times – something that can be said of successful art of any period. And it is a winner, in more ways than one.

But the MFA’s new wing, to Huxtable, is a loser. In one very big way.

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