The Work of Art

May 30, 2010

In 1987, Mass MOCA took a dormant factory and gave it new life as the nation’s largest center for Contemporary and Performing Arts. It is located in North Adams, Massachusetts.

It’s next time again.

A few years ago a sprawling factory in North Adams, Massachusetts was transformed into a gigantic museum for Contemporary Art, now called Mass MOCA. The vast high-ceilinged rooms have bare brick walls, wooden floors and massive clear spans. The brute physicality of the spaces cause most artists to break a bit of a sweat in order to fill them with large scale, site specific installations. Maybe this is one reasons a visit to Mass MOCA is so entertaining; most of the art shown there is the result of heavy lifting.

Re-projection: Hoosac, 2010 by Tobias Putrih is made of monofilament and a spotlight.

One good example is a recent work created by Tobias Putrih (b. 1972, Kranj, Slovenia). In a room which stretched over half the length of a football field, the artist strung 50 yard long strands of monofilament and then lit them dazzlingly with a single spotlight, projecting a starburst of dots into the center of the stretch.

This work, of course, could have been installed on a lesser scale but where, other than Mass MOCA, can an artist like Tobias Putrih really push a good idea like this one into something breathtaking and unforgettable? The magnitude of Mass MOCA provokes artists into coming up with big ideas and if they work hard enough they can realize truly grand visions. Mass MOCA gave this ethereal work a proving ground born of monumental space.

Mass MOCA’s new show, Material World, showcases the works of seven artists who investigate the artistic use of materials from the “modest to the precarious.” There is nothing slapdash about most of these impressive works. The enormity of the venue allows the obsessive compulsive natures of many of these artists to loom large. The show itself is a shrine to a virtue I admire in great art – hard work.

Once again I credit the writer Charles Michener for articulating this idea better than I ever could. In helping me with this concept he reminds me of a quote which he credits to “a great American theater critic, Stark Young, in his review of O’Neill’s ‘The Hairy Ape.’ " Charles thinks the quote was originally from The New Republic, in the 1920s. Stark Young said, "What moved us was not so much the play itself as the cost to the dramatist." Charles finds this, "A very useful distinction and criterion for understanding certain problematic works of art."

I’m sure there are great examples of artists who create spontaneously and quickly and perhaps without any effort at all. I just can’t think of any. Perhaps their art can be seen in a gesture like the elegant zen moment of an unpremeditated Japanese flower arrangement. However, I don’t look at the spontaneity in a Frank Gehry sketch or a Cy Twombly "doodle" as happening without effort and not without a lifetime of training and relevant experience. Sometimes, these days, and please forgive my crankiness here, art can be “found” in strewn garbage. It’s not the haphazard I mind, it is the apparent absence of effort that drives me nuts.

Do you think an artist’s effort should be factored in to your appreciation of the finished work? Or, does the finished work speak for itself? Do you feel what the artist went through to achieve it is perhaps irrelevant?

Thankfully for me, almost all the work I have ever seen at Mass MOCA has been overloaded with artistic effort. I admire this.

White Stag, 2009-20010, by Wade Kavanugh and Stephen B. Nguyen is constructed of wood and thousands of yards of paper

A wonderful example from the Material World show is a gargantuan, Baroque, obsessively-constructed forest of twisted paper conceived and realized by Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen (b. 1979, Portland Maine and b. 1976, Little Falls, Minnesota) Their creation is titled, White Stag. It is another site specific masterpiece where the interplay of Mass MOCA’s vast spaces contribute mightily to the effectiveness of the work.

Kavanaugh and Nguyen’s flowing convoluted river of paper defies all logic and any attempt to discern how it was made. It slaps you in the face from the first moment you see it and then it continues to confound you as you slowly try to grasp the impossibility of its construction. You follow in it’s mysterious flow through the rooms and up the stairs as it breaks through walls and the floor with its tendrils and roots.

In a short conversation with museum founding director, Joe Thompson, he let me know the foundation of the piece was a plywood armature which was then painstakingly covered with thousands of yards of rolled paper. He said while under construction one of Frank Gehry’s top designers, Edwin Chan, saw the overlapping “scales” of the plywood infrastructure and they both felt the sculpture, at its core, evoked the spirit of Frank Gehry.

I find most often the works of art I cherish and which pose great meaning for me in my life are works in which the artist has invested enormous time, profound sacrifice and painstaking craft. These traits can be found in all forms of art whether in film, painting, sculpture, dance, music, architecture or drama. I don’t mean to imply all work which results from Herculean artistic effort is good. Hard work by itself doesn’t guarantee anything. I sometimes think art is the evidence of an arduous artistic journey. When I sense in a finished work, an artistic odyssey filled with exertion, adventure and risk – the art grips my attention. So what do you think? Should the “cost to the artist” matter?

Untitled #1234 (Tom’s Twin), 2007 – 2008 by Petah Coyne. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, NY

The reason for the pilgrimage to Mass MOCA was a retrospective show on one of my favorite artists, Petah Coyne. The show was designed by her architectural collaborator Nate McBride who took full advantage of Mass MOCA’s gigantic opportunities. I’ve never seen her work look better.

Petah did not want her show at Mass MOCA photographed so most of the photos shown here are links from her gallery’s website: Gallerie Lelong.

Untitled #720 (Eguchi’s Ghost), 1992/2007 by Petah Coyne. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong, NY

Every piece in Petah’s show, Everything That Rises Must Converge has a back story. The title is a quote from Flannery O’Connor. Petah invests all of her pieces with iconographic meaning. Some of this iconography is very Catholic. Other symbology comes from Dante or Pantheism or death rituals or Literature. One moody piece references an evocative Japanese novella by Yasunari Kawabata: The House of Sleeping Beauties. The catalog to the exhibition explains “In this story men nearing death can sleep the night next to young unconscious women.” You don’t need to know the story to be moved by the work but you somehow sense it. You also don’t need to know that the sculpture is constructed from a shredded airstream trailer. The shredded trailer has become an industrial material called “car hair.” All of this back story is imbedded in the piece and its form and its power exude all this meaning which you mysteriously pick up in a visceral way.

Petah’s work often shocks you with a powerful sensuality or a brutal primitive uneasiness. You then get trapped in a whirlpool of meaning which sucks you into uncharted depths of artistic feeling.

Untitled # 1240 (Black Cloud) by Petah Coyne. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, NY

Much of the work in her show features taxidermy and often of birds sometimes trapped in wax flowers or pools of black or deep maroon velvet. It is hard not to make comparisons with disturbing memories of oil soaked wildlife struggling in the polluted Gulf. Most of this work, however, predates the oil spill. Joe Thompson, in his after dinner remarks, credited the depth of Petah’s work which makes it somehow relevant in any timeframe. Perhaps this is another hallmark of really significant art?

One of Petah Coyne’s waxed flowers which are strewn like rose petals around her installations.

There is unfathomable labor in every work birthed by Petah Coyne. Every meticulously waxed flower speaks of delicate craftsmanship. Taken on their own, each of these flowers is an exquisite creation. You try not to step on them as you explore the work because they are sometimes strewn on the floor surrounding the larger sculptures. But when you multiply the effort and the “cost to the artist” in that one flower and multiply it by the countless thousands it takes to create one of these large pieces, your mind and your heart just cracks open against the crushing tide of obsessive dedication that it took to bring this about. As you gape at her giant yet fragile hanging pieces you can’t imagine the logistics it took to install such a massive show; let alone how she painstakingly created the works. Given all this effort it is a comfort to know her show at Mass MOCA will remain open until March 2011.

Until next time with much love, I remain your,


  • martina says:

    Charles’ note made me go to a recent New Yorker 4/19/10, to the Robert Bly Poem, “I have daughters and I have sons”. Stanza 6:

    “Perhaps our life is made of struts

    And paper, like those early

    Wright Brothers planes. Neighbors

    Run along holding the wingtips.”

    These big art pieces are like that– and we are like the neighbors!

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tommasso,

    Another great blog, congratulations. I was recently in New York, where besides going to the amazing Metropolitan Museum Of Art, I had a chance to visit a huge art loft in Brooklyn, (in the area where Marlon Brando played “On The Waterfront”). The subway doesn’t get there, and is a transitional neighborhood. Nevertheless, what it seemed a huge old factory, it had turned into a place to exhibit art. No installations on that group show, but easily it could accommodate them. What was interesting, is that we were given a ticket to write our favorite piece in the exhibition.The artist who received the most votes will win something. My friends and I were planning to just originally go very fast, nevertheless, the minute that we decided to choose our favorite piece of art, it was amazing how we REALLY looked at the art. Suddenly we were discussing works of art, that were not necessarily “important”, but some of them either moved you, shocked you or made you laugh.

    I was recently the single juror for an art show in Pasadena, and I spent three hours choosing amongst 240 pieces of art the ones that were going to be shown in an art gallery, plus I had to select a few winners. It was a very hard job but really interesting. I find many people laugh at installations, but if they were going to be given the opportunity to choose their best, in let’s say a situation like in MASS MOCA, I bet those people will have to pay a bit more attention to the work exhibited there. The pictures you posted are amazing, and I am sure in real life it’s even better. For those who have a hard time dealing with art that is not as traditional, pretend you are a juror, and pick one from a show that is your favorite. I’m sure it will be a fun experience!

  • Christopher Eiben says:


    I hope you drove a over to Williamstown to check out the Clark Art Institute, one of my favorite places on earth and a favorite haunt when I was a student at Williams.


  • steve ellis says:

    Thoughtful and provocative once again. Too bad you can’t get paid for this sort of thing.

    I tried to think of artists who produced compelling works who were lucky enough to be able to “phone it in”. I too couldn’t think of one. It appears great work requires great effort. But I also got to thinking about the relation between the efforts of the patron and the appreciation of the work. Those who try to produce something memorable and moving in any medium know the psychological, emotional and ultimately physical toll exacted by the effort. And they also know that mostly the results are not great, because it is so hard to sustain what’s necessary to produce something memorable and moving. So for sure the artist has to labor mightily for their work to rise above the clatter. But ecstatic appreciation probably mostly comes from those who know first hand what’s involved in producing the work. Think about how you are awed by a film that to a lot of us is only “interesting” because we’re ignorant of how hard it is to make a great film (or music or book or architecture). We can take classes in film appreciation and go to lectures, but I’m certain actually being behind a camera and orchestrating the variables of sound, light , narrative , pace, etc, and producing a work that actually rises to the level of “pretty good”, produce a difference in kind as to appreciating great film making.

  • Charles Michener says:

    Just thought of another good tip from V.S. Naipaul (on writing a book): “You know you’re almost there when it begins to stick.”

  • Charles Michener says:

    Tom – fascinating, beautiful description of that great show at Mass MOCA. It makes me wonder why Cleveland can’t convert one of its beautiful, abandoned factories into a similar showcase for “difficult” contemporary art – just as DIA:Beacon does in that old printing factory along the Hudson River and the astonishing Raussmuller Collection (Beuys, Merz, Nauman, LeWitt et al) along the Rhine. Perhaps drop a hint in the ears of Peter B. Lewis or Toby Lewis?

    Three other tips for approaching unfamiliar works of art:

    1) from my old mentor at Newsweek, Jack Kroll: “Before you decide whether something is good or bad, you first have to ask the question, “What is it?”

    2) from Clement Greenberg: various comments relating to judging abstract painting and sculpture of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s as “space under pressure.”

    3) from Leonard Bernstein (by way of Stephen Sondheim): “It’s good if it feels fresh but inevitable.”

  • martina says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    This is an outstanding edition of your blog! I am so glad you have invited me to see the works you have shown here, and wish I could get to Massachusetts to see them in their glory. Each is a masterpiece, and as you said invites us to a “brutal primitive uneasiness”– which could be the beginning of wonder, more meticulously described. I agree that effort of the artist, the “blood, sweat and tears” and the consciousness, are important to the work, to the way we see and feel and understand the work. Even if it is very “noire”– the meaning can be transcendent, and it may heal us with its perspective. I LOVE that “White Stag”. Gorgeous, sensuous, breathtaking! I have a white dog, and her fur is like a polar bear’s. And when she runs in the ocean, it glistens like sugar, and is cold to the touch. Looking at the White Stag, I immediately remembered the sensuous pleasure of rubbing my hands in her fur, and watching her leap in the waves. Each of the pieces you have shown here is quite moving and wonderful.

    I love the array of points of light in the first piece, also. In surgery, we use fiberoptic light cords, and occasionally there is a filament broken inside the cable, so little stars of light show at the place where the breaks are. I love the idea of the long span of the cables of micro-monofilaments, glistening like thread, and then that starburst! Bless you for expanding my universe!

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