A Tourist at the Opera, A Visitor’s Impression of the Northern Berkshires

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A Tourist at the Opera, A Visitor’s Impression of the Northern Berkshires, March 2009 (Click here for JC Scott’s review of the Brill Gallery exhibition, Artists without Borders.)

At the Opening of the Nanjing Particles at Mass MoCA, by Simon Starling, photo Michael Miller
At the Opening of the Nanjing Particles at Mass MoCA, by Simon Starling, photo Michael Miller

The past week has provided one of the most rewarding experiences of my adult life for a variety of reasons.  My first trip to the Northern Berkshires centered specifically in North Adams and Williamstown, Massachusetts and began on Canada’s West Coast—on Vancouver Island, where I live .  My purpose was to attend an opening of Artists without Borders at the Brill Gallery, located in the historic Eclipse Mill in North Adams.

The gallery exhibition features three international women artists, whose diverse artworks are presented to the art going public in a notably well-balanced, casual studio atmosphere.  The curator, Ralph Brill, intends to celebrate International Women’s Month with artworks ranging from a European artist working in America, an Asian artist also working in America and Japan and a British artist now working in Canada.

With short visits to charming Boston bracketing my weekend in the Berkshires for the grand opening of the exhibition on Saturday March 21, my itinerary focused on cultural variety and personal enjoyment.  For a raw food nut like me Boston proved wonderful with Grezzo Restaurant and Rawberts Organic Garden Café. Grezzo in the North End restaurant district provides raw gourmet dining surpassing the well reviewed and very tasty Pure Food & Wine Brasserie in NYC.  The next morning, a road trip to the well established Rawberts in Beverly allowed for a deep heritage tour north along the ocean coast from Boston.  Salem’s original Colonial Village and Marblehead’s narrow winding streets with overhanging wood and stone buildings along the historic waterfront created memorable highlights.  If you care about your health, weight or longevity, look into the benefits of raw food. The Web site Living Foods is a good place to begin learning more about it.

Cambridge is ideal for airport access and a simple turn out the front door of the Marlowe Hotel, led down the Charles River, past MIT and Harvard along Route 2 all the way to North Adams.  Winding through maple sugar country (with a stop at the 50 year old Gould’s sugar barn for sampling required) we drove through more famous history (the Mohawk Trail ) and unexpected scenic beauty.

North Adams was a pleasure to discover, with massive historic red brick textile mills, wonderfully detailed and preserved residential architecture climbing steep hillsides. At the epicenter of town straddling the necessary river, sits the enormous (750,000 square foot) and truly wonderful MASS MoCA Gallery where Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings are simply worth the whole trip: with three floors and 27,000 square feet of perfectly executed concepts of form, line and color.  Sixty five artists and draftspeople worked with drawings, notes and personal direction for six months until Sol died, while the process was near its completion. There is so much more that could be said about this visual experience, but go and see for yourself, take time and engage in the geometry of aesthetic ideals.

Also at MASS MoCA are The Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape, an exhibit which is provocative, ecological and contemporary.  By including works of artists as diverse and important as Ed Ruscha with massive encaustic paintings and environmental photography, the show proves itself to be of major urban gallery quality.  In another wing, 2005 Turner Prize winner, Simon Starling, with his Nanjing Particles installation gives us a vast, pristine, perfectly conceived and executed site specific work that is serenely engaging.  At one million times expansion, two silver molecules taken from the emulsion of a photo of Chinese shoe factory laborers in North Adams in 1870 are then executed with a Jeff Koons-like reflective surface.  These perfectly finished stainless steel sculptures are exhibited in a huge white brick room first seen through two holes in a blow-up of the original photograph—displayed wall size in a hall with clear glass windows looking out towards the town where the workers would have lived. This proved for me to be as good as installation art can get.  Our delightfully restored historic inn The Porches’ was visible across the mill’s river channel from the gallery window. It was recently reconstructed from workers housing from this very period. This public gallery with actual windows and the delightful installation artwork feels liberated from tradition.

We emerged at closing time, exhausted, inspired and honestly awe struck by the enormity and quality of the MASS MoCA Gallery and exhibitions.  My partner barely slept being thrilled by the concept of monumental installation art with details as fine as lithography in her mind’s eye.

Being a restaurant and eco-resort designer, I was directed for dinner to Williamstown’s intimate Mezze Bistro + Bar, where we were surprised, not with small town America  backwater fare, but with delicious local gourmet dishes, beautifully presented by a culturally sophisticated server in a very satisfactory dining environment.  Williamstown’s charm inspired more research the following day and we were assured that we would be delighted with our efforts by galleries, sculpture and architecture.  Williams College apparently produces one quarter of the world’s museum directors, a stunning number given the size and location of the town.

Working backwards in my memory of a day unlike any other, we ended, despite promises to stop several times before this, with Tadao Ando’s Stone Hill Center at The Clark. One of only two buildings created by this world famous and influential architect in North America that I am aware of.  A monument of subtle good taste, sensitive siting, refined detailing and perfectly composed materials, the structure is a symphonic opus.  To those who appreciate contemporary architecture, this single hilltop building alone is a jewel worthy of a pilgrimage to the North Berkshires.

Our pilgrimage up the hill was preceded by a monumental tour of The Clark’s permanent collection which proved at one point for me to be so simply overwhelmingly intense that I had to stop and sit down.  As a graduate art and architectural historian who has visited all the world’s top galleries except the Hermitage and who can plow straight through gallery rooms at the Louvre and the Met at walking pace, this stop is an admission of some note.  It took four Domenico Ghirlandaio’s including the famous Portrait of a Lady and a quintessentially perfect round Botticelli to stop me cold.  Like virtually every other collected work here, these are unique mint condition gems of notable importance in the wider art world.  For example all the Winslow Homers on display, now 100 years old, look as fresh today as if they came off his easel yesterday.

Our minds swirled with Cassatt, Degas, Turner and Constable, Homer and Remington, all under one extremely elegant roof; presented for viewing in subtle and welcoming galleries—all exhibits were free in Williamstown.  Let me describe highlights from one room we almost missed.  In the centre of the room, seen through a doorway, was Degas’ Dancer, the big one of the young girl with perfect gauze skirt and perfect satin ribbon on the bronze figure.  As we entered I realized there were at least four more Degas sculptures of dancing figures.  On one wall at the centre was a totally perfect cat sitting on the lap of a charming girl painted by Renoir, a painting that a personal collector, not a museum collector would purchase.  In another room we had seen the cutest small dog portrait, also by Renoir.  Flanking this large painting of the girl with the cat were two Degas bronze dancing figures, and further to the right a classic Renoir nude blonde, and to the left a classic Renoir brunette nude, both the same size and format.  It would have been cloying if these paintings and sculptures were not all masterworks and so obviously collected by people who simply liked these artists and their works so well.  This day felt like a full day in Chicago or a similar large city, seeing several galleries and museums, but, because this was so much more intimate and pleasant, we’ll be back!

Before these exhibitions at the Clark we had begun earlier in the day with the blockbuster Toulouse Lautrec and Paris exhibit, also at the Clark until April 26, showing for the first time in fifteen years the entire collection of this artist’s works from the permanent collection along with well-related supporting artworks and documentary material.  By combining photographs of the subjects of many his best known portrait and poster subjects with the art, we are given a novel and personalized depth to these iconic works.  A wonderfully satisfying and extensive retrospective, this show was very well attended when we visited.

The feeling that grew on us throughout the day, particularly as we noted the other visitors, their language, wardrobe styling and the attention being given to the artworks on view was that in this adult playground, the more sophisticated, educated and travelled one may be, the greater the inherent rewards that The Clark, MASS MoCA and the other galleries and cultural experiences of the North Berkshires will offer.

We had started our adult play-day at the small, but intensely full Williams College Museum of Art. The small galleries here leave little doubt about why so many museum directors and architectural planners, leaders and thinkers like my brilliant friend Jeff Speck were educated here.  The faculty exhibition showed that some of those who can” actually do” teach.  This room was only a teaser to the collection but well worth the time we spent studying the variety, quality, diversity, detail and handling of materials by the faculty artists and an architecture professor.  Remember that we were starting our first day after the powerful MASS MoCA experience in the WCMA Collection Galleries where we bounced around like kids in a candy store from one art chestnut to another.  From Jim Dine’s Camel to an abstract by “Bill” de Kooning (his own signature on the surface of a work dedicated to a personal friend) and on to an iconic flower study on a dark ground by Georgia O’Keefe all set within scores of masterworks. One of the most memorable works for me was the first authorized bust in white marble of Abraham Lincoln—a very relevant figure in the Obama presidency.

If you want some gravy, a great trip-topper is Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice—taken in at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston as I did on my way to the airport.  Monster masterworks by these virtually contemporary legends are being shown for the first time ever outside Venice, in a very well-researched and documented exhibition.  The show travels next to the Louvre before returning home.  Before you go home, be sure to take this on board to enhance your cultural quotient big time.

The Berkshires may indeed be well worth the self-proclaimed title on a road sign America’s Cultural Capital.”   Boston and the Northern Berkshires…undoubtedly a cultural high point in my recent life.

JC Scott, currently serves on the Board of Tourism Victoria, as the Arts, Culture and Society representative, co-chairs the City of Victoria Public Art Committee, and is an Art Advisor to The Victoria Airport Authority. He designs sustainable resorts and places art in all his projects. (Click here for JC Scott’s review of the Brill Gallery exhibition, Artists without Borders.)

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