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On the Cutting Edge


By Kathleen I. Kourfl

THOSE PEOPLE who think Boston is hopelessly behind the times culturally, that New York is the only place to experience the avant-garde in the visual and performing arts, clearly don't know about the Hub's Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). For almost 50 years now, the ICA has been the setting for some of the most adventurous exhibitions in the country. And while the institute has had its share of flops over the decades, this last year has seen a phenomenal string of artistic and-popular successes at the ICA. And many in the arts community believe that the ICA is entering a new and exciting period in its history, one which will garner for the institution and the city a reputation as a center for art at the cutting edge.

To a large extent, this tiny institution is a reflection of the tastes and skill of the person running it, and the level of taste and skill has varied quite a bit throughout the past years. These days, it's impossible to talk about the ICA without talking about its director of one year, a young and energetic man by the name of David Ross. "I'm here because I like what I do," says Ross, "and I'm committed to contemporary art. It's hard for some people to support contemporary art--it's an unknown, it takes a little courage; but I think it's so important. Looking at the art of our times helps us to understand our times, and art can provide a full and rich way of dealing with the battering that life gives some people."

Only 34 years old, Ross has an impressive background, having already served as Chief Curator of the University Art Museum at Berkeley. Deputy Director for the Long Beach Museum of Art, and Curator of Video Art at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse. He's written and lectured extensively on contemporary art, and has taught at several universities including Harvard, where he now leads a Fine Arts tutorial entitled, "Form Follows Fiction."

"He's an experimenter," says James Plaut '33, the original director of the ICA, "but he's the right kind of experimenter. He approaches things with great enthusiasm, but also with thorough knowledge and great calm." Linda Stux, owner and director of the Stux Gallery on Newbury St., echoes those sentiments. "The ICA has changed tremendously," she says. "Ross is very accessible and open-minded, and he's using the ICA to focus on the good artists here in Boston. His energy level is so high, it's contagious. There's a real feeling that something is happening in Boston, the art scene is really coming together."

The ICA seems to be serving, as never before in its history, as a catalyst for change in the Boston arts scene. Only for the past three years has the institution even had an annual exhibition of the work of Boston artists. For years the institution's emphasis seemed to be only on mounting exhibitions of the work of rising stars on the international art scene.

To a certain extent this focus was the natural result of its creation back in 1936. Founded by Nathaniel Saltonstall and a group of Harvard affiliates as a satellite of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the institute was originally called the Museum of Modern Art in Boston. Located in a brownstone on Beacon St., the museum served as a venue for the traveling exhibitions of its New York parent, and at the instruction of MOMA, it concentrated on the Northern European modernist painters, leaving the New York branch to deal primarily with the Paris school of modernists. For some years this was a most fruitful setup for the tiny Boston MOMA. Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, and Georges Rouault were virtually unknown in this country when the ICA first exhibited their work.

Yet by the 1940s, director Plaut and trustees such as Lincoln Kirstein were beginning to bristle at the limitations imposed by the rubric of "modern art." Modern art, by that time, no longer meant the art of the present, but rather served as a term to define a period, a term just like "Neo-Impressionism," or "The Pre-Raphaelites." Feeling that the Boston institution should serve as a place of experimentation in art. Plaut and some of his trustees broke off from MOMA and renamed the institution the Institute of Contemporary Art. "Contemporary Art" began to take on its current meaning, that is, "art of today," at about that time.

After that push the ICA became an innovator. It was one of the first institutions to show the works of Henry Moore, and in the late 60s, it was one of the first to begin community outreach art programs. But the leadership then took a turn for the worse. As Plaut admits, "Over the years the ICA has had waves of success and failure, good leadership and not so good." Some critics have maintained that during the late 60s and early 70s the ICA lost almost all of its reputation, run as it was by the girlfriends of trustees. "That assessment's a bit harsh," says Plaut. "I was not a part of it in those days, but I think the Board just lost its sense that the staff had to be professional. There were amateurs trying to run the place, but they were well-meaning amateurs."

IT IS PERHAPS because of the ICA's somewhat mottled past, that the efforts of Ross this year to establish performance/installation art and video art displays have made such a splash in Boston art circles. Originally a video artist himself. Ross knows such well-known performance artists as Laurie Anderson. He has brought a totally different kind of background to his job at the ICA, and this first year has been one of new directions for the museum.

"David Ross is bringing more of the theatrical to the ICA, more performance art, the whole video situation. I expect the ICA will be at the forefront among purveyors of video art in this country. You'll be able to say you saw it at the ICA," says Peter Sellars '80, who along with graphic artist Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz, and dancer Bonnie Zimmering '81, recently mounted the highly-acclaimed "Sudden Difficulties," a performance art installation at the ICA.

Yet David Ross is not committed solely to performance and video art. "Art moves in all ways at all times," Ross says. "Art is not a single projection progression, that's a fallacy expounded by people who believe in dialectic progression in art. There is no single monolithic avant-garde. If there's a cutting edge in art, it's like a round razor--it cuts in all directions at once." Besides its spectacular "Art and Dance" performance series, and the popular series of video screenings, the ICA this year has offered several exhibitions of purely visual, stationary works of art as well, including an exhibition of pastels by Lucas Samaras, and the recent showing of Christopher Wilmarth's "Breath," a collection of blown glass, steel sculpture and works on paper, created in response to seven poems by Stephane Mallarme. The upcoming "Boston Now" show will feature painting, photography and sculpture, as well as works in the newer media.

By following this pattern, the ICA represents a very different philosophy from that which guides traditional art institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts. While both institutions are concerned primarily with displaying art and educating the public, the ICA shows only contemporary works, whereas institutions like the MFA, obviously, have displays from all periods. A natural divergence results from this philosophical division. Institutions like the MFA are museums, they collect art and so take on the responsibilities of investigating, maintaining and educating the public about the works in their collections. The ICA, concerned as it is with the art of the present, has no collection, nor for that matter does it have the space or the finances to maintain a collection. That, according to Ross, is a double-edged sword "Travelling without baggage is a bit scary," he says. "Without a collection, without assets, the ICA has always been in a fragile condition. Nevertheless, it means we travel light. We're free to respond to the most sudden changes in art. We can shift 180 degrees in days if we need to."

And Ross is comfortable with the ICA's non-traditional focus. "I received a letter from a 10-year-old girl," he says, "and she wrote. 'Your museum is junky. Why can't it be like other museums?' I'd tell her it's not a museum, but semantics are of no interest to a little girl. It's a problem we have with people of all ages. Some people who come in are enraptured by the works, others are turned off, they find it too 'out' for their tastes."

THIS COMING YEAR will be another time of innovation for David Ross and the ICA. In an agreement with the Sack Theatres, the ICA will be free to screen film art work at one of the eight new cinemas to be built by Sack at Copley Place. Ross believes that film has been and will be one of the most important mediums for artists. Another major change will occur with scheduling at the ICA. Soon exhibitions will run in a more linear direction through time as opposed to space. The ICA's current building on Boylston St. across from the Hynes Auditorium, is what Sellars calls "a terribly thrilling space." But it is also a terribly small space, and Ross hopes to mount as many as seven exhibitions at a time, rather than two or three as is now the case, by displaying only a few works in each category simultaneously, and by allowing the shows to run for several consecutive months. Besides using the space better, Ross believes that this new scheduling technique will allow the ICA to "evolve naturally, the way art does." An exhibition of the works of Boston artists for example, could show one or two artists at a time, changing every week or two, even as those artists create more works. "We'll be very contemporary," says Ross, who believes that his is the first attempt at such scheduling anywhere in the country.

Especially excited about the new scheduling and its impact on the "Boston Now" exhibition are Don and Jeanne Stanton, avid collectors of contemporary art, and co-chairmen of The Friends of Boston Art, the group which sponsors the ICA's "Boston Now" exhibition. "One of the reasons our group exists," says Don Stanton, "is to guarantee that the ICA has a commitment to get behind Boston artists. The ICA has had an absolutely terrific year, and really seems on the verge of doing something special."

Acknowledging the criticism from some local artists who complain of too many repeats in this year's display, Graham Gund, a well-known collector and the architect responsible for the ICA's dramatic interior, explains. "It's impossible to please all of the Boston artists, and it's important to remember that the ICA helps Boston artists in other ways, by bringing the works of other artists here to educate local artists." Gund, whose collection includes works from all over the world, believes that "Boston artists are less 'out' than those in San Francisco and Chicago," nevertheless he says that the level of competence displayed by Boston artists is very high, and that the future seems to be a bright one for the Boston art community.

That future will be bright if David Ross can do anything about it. As he says, "The ICA hadn't been doing enough to make the contemporary art scene in Boston work. We have to break the rules, we have to do more." And the ICA has helped many Boston artists already. The Stantons say they have discovered the works of such artists as Scott Hatfield, Mags Harries, Peter Hoss. Robert Ferrandini and Joyce Loughran through the ICA. Linda Stux added Magnus Johnstone and Harvey Low Simons to the Stux Gallery's list of exhibitors after seeing their work in connection with the ICA's "Boston Now" show.

The ICA, under Ross' direction, may well do much to dispel the myth that the avant-garde in art is nowhere to be found in Boston. "Reputations still have to be made or unmade in New York," says Sellars, "but the ICA is moving in very exciting directions. I saw a lot there that meant a great deal to me, and it's a great environment in which to work. And that's the important thing for an artist. The important thing for an artist is working in the media available, getting it done."

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