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    Boston Art Letter
by Charles Giuliano
 
     
 
Vincent van Gogh
The Postman of Arles
1888
at the Boston MFA
 
Vincent van Gogh
Mother Roulin with her Baby
1888
 
Ambreen Butt
Untitled
1999
(detail)
 
Remo Campopiano's ant farm, at the DeCordova
 
Hannah Cohoon
The Tree of Light or Blazing Tree
1845
 
John Singer Sargent
Fumée d'Ambre Gris
1880
at the Clark Art Institute
 
Thomas Grunfeld
Misfit (St. Bernard)
1994
at Mass MOCA
 
Janine Antoni
Slumber
1993
at Mass MOCA
 
With its rich mix of superb architecture, world-renowned universities and celebrated museums, Boston is a popular summer destination. Undoubtedly the city's greatest cultural attraction of the moment is "Van Gogh: Face to Face," on view July 2-Sept. 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts. The blockbuster features some 80 works by the popular Dutch Neo-Impressionist, ranging from the early figure drawings of peasants in 1882 through works created just before his death by suicide in 1890.

The show was originally hatched by its three co-organizing institutions -- the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art along with the MFA -- to focus on the many representations of the Joseph Roulin family, which is well represented in the collections of the collaborating museums. Indeed, the show contains no less than 17 riveting works representing the postman of Arles, his wife, Augustine, their sons, Camille and Armand, and the baby, Marcelle.

Such a collection of similar poses allows viewers to see the way that van Gogh's style developed from naturalism to a more abstract, decorative patterning and an almost cruel and violent expressionism. Madame Roulin, in some works, is depicted with a crude, hunched body and jaundiced skin. And, in the Met's version of Mother and Child, the baby is such a little perrisher that you really wonder about Vincent's feeling and motive.

There is a great selection of the poignant self-portraits but we greatly miss the Courtauld masterpiece with its bandaged ear. Similarly, the pair of seminal portraits of Dr. Gachet are conspicuously absent. Despite these quibbles, "Van Gogh: Face to Face" is an awesome show.

At the ICA and elsewhere
The summer strategy of the Institute of Contemporary Art is to lure you into the museum facility to see "From a Distance: Approaching Landscape," a group show of 14 artists that is on view July 18-Oct. 8, and then to dispatch you into the fresh air to discover site-specific works by nine artists in a show called "Art on the Emerald Necklace," July 1-Aug. 20. The neglected but magnificent Emerald Necklace is a series of parks that meander through the city, designed by the 19th century landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted.

While the ICA has an ongoing problem of luring viewers to its contemporary shows -- annual attendance is about 25,000 -- the museum has initiated "Vita Brevis," a successful program to place works temporarily in urban locations. The strategy has greatly increased the ICA presence in the city, which plays into the museum's ambitious plans to move from its current 6,000 square foot facility and build a new 60,000-square-foot building as the centerpiece of a major new waterfront development.

The mandate of the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in posh, suburban Lincoln is to focus on the artists of New England. Through Sept. 4, it is featuring ten artists in its "Annual."

With no unifying theme, the museum has installed what is in effect ten small solo shows. The most talked about piece, by Remo Campopiano, is an ersatz city populated by ants, their intensive activity monitored by TV. The Persian-inspired imagery of Ambreen Butt has also been well received, as have the deconstructed realist portraits of Frank Egloff. And be sure to check out the 32-foot-high mythological, alchemical silhouettes of Randal Thurston.

The McMullen Museum at Boston College has scored a real coup with "Francois Gilot: 1940-1950," on view through Sept. 24. The legendary former mistress of Picasso and author of the autobiographical My Life with Picasso is expected to be on hand for a reception on Sept. 17.

The Berkshires
During a recent weekend visit we checked out the summer highlights in the Berkshires. First stop was the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., where "Seen and Received; The Shaker's Private Art" is on view through April 2001 in its newly completed museum and visitors center. The divinely inspired drawings, which date from the 1840s and 1850s and were created mostly by women, are often in the form of the Tree of Life or intensive hearts with miniscule calligraphy. The Village has a collection of some 20,000 objects. Be sure to tour the site with its famous round stone barn.

The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., is featuring an eclectic mix of paintings, posters, Shriner paraphernalia and clips of silent movies in the provocative, often hilarious "Noble Dreams, Wicked Pleasures, Orientalism in America, 1879-1930," through Sept. 4. The show is based on works from its permanent collection, and includes paintings by John Singer Sargent and the erotic kitsch of the French Salon painter Jean Leon Gerome.

In the most stunning showcase for contemporary art in all of North America, Mass MOCA (in North Adams, Mass.) is featuring "Unnatural Science" -- a show that's "alive" through Spring 2001. Last year, the general art-world curiosity about the newly renovated, sprawling, former Sprague Electric Company complex was sufficient to fill the parking lot. This year, it looks like more good news -- Mass MOCA is once again a huge draw.

With its industrial-strength galleries, the museum balances both long-term installations by artists like Joseph Beuys and Mario Merz, as well as a major, annual, thematic exhibition.

We get the point of the current show immediately upon interacting with new international art-scene fave Thomas Grunfeld's taxidermy, dubbed Misfit, which features a sheep's head "genetically engineered" onto the body of a stuffed Saint Bernard. "Unnatural Science" also features hilarious videos by Fischli and Weiss, an exotic weaving by Janine Antoni and the epic, inflatable bladders of Tim Hawkinson.


CHARLES GIULIANO is an artist, curator and columnist for Art New England.