New Kids on the Block

A changing of the guard, as contemporary art finally arrives at the Harvard University Art Museums

“I Smear Vaseline on Our Legs With a Pipe” aren’t words that one would necessarily expect to see enacted within the hallowed halls of Harvard’s Fogg Museum. But every weekend since June, in a second-floor room roughly the size of a closet, a T.V. screen has been displaying precisely that.

The video is one of Paul McCarthy’s “Red Poster Tapes,” which themselves are only one part of “Nominally Figured: Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art.” The exhibition, along with its equally contemporary counterparts at the Busch-Reisinger Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, represents a heightened commitment on the part of Harvard University Art Museums (HUAM) to collecting and showcasing contemporary art.

The diverse trio of exhibitions was organized in anticipation of HUAM’s efforts to give modern and contemporary art an increased presence at Harvard, including renovations of existing buildings to make room for modern and contemporary galleries and construction of new facilities in Allston-Brighton to be dedicated specifically to this art.

BEHIND THE TIMES

Though groups like the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art as well as the Busch-Reisinger Museum began showing more recent art as early as the 1930s, HUAM’s Modern and Contemporary Art Department did not come into being until 1998.

Even since 1998, Harvard museums have found it difficult to display modern and contemporary art. Both Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums Thomas W. Lentz and HUAM spokesperson Daron Manoogian cite the previous lack of suitable spaces for contemporary art as the main reason behind this difficulty. The new building across the river promises to resolve the problem of ill-suited facilities.

“It’s been a long process, but we are finally at the point at which those facilities are imminent, and we will be able to wholly dedicate ourselves to the exhibition and study of modern and contemporary works,” writes Lentz in an e-mail.

Of the motivation behind these improvements, Lentz says that “the study, conservation, and appreciation of these works is fundamentally important in the continuum of art history—and our own ability to serve students, faculty and the community.”

Expansion and growth are keywords throughout the fine arts world of Boston these days, and many other museums in the area have dedicated themselves to new building and development, including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. With this building boom, Manoogian says, “Boston is becoming more of a hub for art museums.”

In addition to an increased interest in fine art in general, many Boston museums are currently building up their collections of modern and contemporary art. Manoogian cites the Institute of Contemporary Art’s construction of a new $62 million building as evidence for his claim that “there is a modern and contemporary arts craze happening right now.”

Through Nov. 12: “The New Chinese Landscape: Recent Acquisitions”

Of the three shows, the Sackler’s “The New Chinese Landscape: Recent Acquisitions” conforms least to the average Cambridge-dweller’s expectations of “contemporary art.”

To the unitiated eye, many of the works—which tend to rely on traditional materials and feature classical depictions of Chinese landscapes—appear very similar to far older Chinese paintings. Luckily, the incredibly comprehensive labels, including separate detailed biographies of the artists, break down how each of them diverges from tradition.

One of the most complex works, “Sacrifice,” itself consists of 24 different pieces, each a beautiful album leaf covered with a rendering of the Chinese mountainside. To make the leaves, Li Junyi forsook a standard brush for a gridded stamping technique that some have likened to the work of contemporary American artist Chuck Close. Li’s unusually geometric depictions of the landscape present a squarely classical subject through the lens of an entirely new technique. An accompanying label notes that Li created “Sacrifice” to commemorate students who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Based on the pieces on display, the artists appear to be proponents of the motto “Modernization without Westernization,” exploring new techniques and styles from foreign cultures within the context of the classical Chinese foundation. Many of the points of divergence are so subtle that some previous knowledge of Chinese landscape art is necessary, though the labels go a long way towards helping those who lack this expertise.

Regardless, the elemental beauty of the paintings and sculpture, all of which HUAM term their “most important contemporary Chinese acquisitions to date,” is patent.

Through Dec. 3: “German Art of the 1980s from the Heliod Spiekermann Collection”

Consisting of only five pieces, “German Art of the 1980s,” now on view at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, provides a concentrated look at exactly what the title says it does. Likewise, Rosemarie Trockel’s “Made in Western Germany” is aptly titled on several levels: quite literally made in Western Germany, the pea-green wool background of the piece is also broken up by row upon row of the title’s words.

Georg Herold’s “Portrait” tempts those with a sophisticated palate and who pine for something they won’t find in the dining halls. Caviar dots the work’s surface, its precious little lumps making a social statement as they compose the faintest outline of a face.

As a whole, “German Art of the 1980s” displays a sly intelligence, making the little show of big loans a small, smart and highly recommended exhibition.

Through Oct. 15: “Nominally Figured: Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art”

The Fogg’s “Nominally Figured: Recent Acquisitions in Contemporary Art,” whose first rotation will be followed by a second show on view through Feb. 25, is a compilation of recent additions to HUAM’s collection of contemporary art. The show’s accompanying statement, written by the Fogg’s former associate curator of contemporary art Linda Norden, cites the exploration of the human figure as a unifying theme.

With many works in many different media, from painting and sculpture to photos and film, everyone can find something to love—and perhaps also something to loathe. Eight-year-old Sally Green and her four-year-old brother Jack, visiting the gallery with their family, find Luis Gispert’s interactive piece “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” a source of smiles and a good reason to dance. As Sally describes the squat cylinder, “When you stand on it or sit on it, it makes music!”

However, Margaret Adachi’s “Rapture” is so bizarre as to cast doubt on its merit as art. The plush red cow reclining on a stool—udders erect and yarn pubic hair apparent—could easily have been imagined as part of some sort of senior prank.

The first rotation’s second gallery, containing two-dimensional works as opposed to the 3-D ones filling the first room, is much stronger as a whole. The “study-storage” presentation of well over 20 works on one wall, though initially an intimidating profusion of different pieces, rewards the patient viewer.