No longer sharing space with a firehouse, Boston's Institue of Contemporary Art now has a harborside home.
No longer sharing space with a firehouse, Boston's Institue of Contemporary Art now has a harborside home.

Waterfront Colors: Boston's Modern Update

Column-free galleries are among the bold features of the new home of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art.
Column-free galleries are among the bold features of the new home of Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. (By Peter Vanderwarker)
By Christine Temin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 10, 2006

The first art museum to be built in Boston in nearly a century opens its new digs today. And with its move to the Seaport District, the Institute of Contemporary Art stands to become the signature of a part of the city that even most Bostonians don't know.

Until recently, the neighborhood has mostly been a sea of parking lots used by people who work in the congested downtown area. But the new ICA, designed by the New York-based firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is meant to do for Boston what Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao did for that formerly lackluster city in Spain: to make a boring part of the urban landscape come alive and make people rethink where the center of the city is.

A key factor in this extension of the city is the Big Dig, Boston's over-budget and never-quite-finished construction project, which has buried a particularly unattractive elevated highway that once divided the Quincy Market/Faneuil Hall area from the harbor. Now, with the highway moved underground, the city has a feeling of openness, and the waterfront a new accessibility.

While the ICA is the anchor for development on the waterfront, a few other significant lures are already in place. Across a vast parking lot from the new ICA (seemingly everything in the Seaport District is across a vast parking lot) is the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, which opened in 1998 with a specially commissioned permanent exhibit of 21 monochromatic paintings by Ellsworth Kelly. Most of the brilliantly colored, 11-foot-high works are installed at either end of the sweeping corridors at the building's harbor side. They seem to glue together an otherwise sprawling building.

As with the ICA, the courthouse presents its most glamorous side not to those parking lots, but to the sea. A pleasant way to approach both buildings, especially in the evening when they're lighted, is via the harbor cruises that run in warm weather and the water taxis that operate year-round.

Boston's acclaimed Children's Museum, a 10-minute walk from the new ICA, is itself undergoing a major expansion (open during construction, though), with 23,000 square feet of new space. The equally celebrated New England Aquarium is a 20-minute walk from the ICA along the HarborWalk that will one day follow the water for more than 40 miles.

There also are a growing number of restaurants and shops in the area, new hotels, the huge new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and spectacular views of the wharves that ring the harbor, the sea beyond and, if you turn around, the Boston skyline.

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The 70-year-old ICA began life as the Boston Museum of Modern Art, a sister to New York's Museum of Modern Art. Both were founded by young Harvard grads determined to introduce new art to America. MoMA championed the School of Paris -- Picasso, etc. -- while the ICA favored Northern European artists, including Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka. The ICA, which mixes visual and performing arts, has had several homes, most recently sharing a historic but awkwardly renovated Back Bay building with a firehouse.

There's a huge amount of glass in the new, 65,000-square-foot museum: The cafe has sliding glass walls, and two walls of the 325-seat theater are glass. In the walls' fully transparent state, the view stands to compete with anything on the stage. But the walls can be changed with the flick of a switch. Performers can choose filtered light with no view or a total blackout. They also can choose whether they want visitors to see their backstage preparations.

The land side of the ICA is an enigmatic blank, three floors with exterior walls of several kinds of glass topped by a huge opalescent box on the fourth. There's no grand entrance in the center of the facade, not even a sign on the front of the building. The architects' idea is that the structure itself is supposed to say "ICA." They've deliberately placed the entrance obliquely, in the southwest corner of the building. (There will be a discreet ICA sign over that door.) Go to the water side of the ICA and the mystery unravels, starting with an outdoor staircase that will serve as a grandstand where people will be entertained by poetry readings as well as by the water view and, above that, a dramatically cantilevered fourth floor that looks as if it wants to float or fly away. This is the floor where the galleries are -- galleries that are column-free, so that nothing interrupts the view of the art.

The new ICA asserts its mission as soon as you enter the lobby, where a huge wall will be given over to one artist each year. The inaugural choice is Japanese artist Chiho Aoshima, whose "The Divine Gas" features a huge nude woman lying prone on the grass, the Boston skyline reflected in her eyes, a rainbow appearing over her head. Pastel bubbles rise on the right, and if you look carefully you notice that they're coming out of her derriere.

Another opening exhibition features Mona Hatoum's 1994 "Foreign Body," made in collaboration with a doctor wielding an endoscopic camera that entered all the artist's bodily orifices. Those who still believe in the Hoax of Contemporary Art may have their prejudices reinforced when watching Hatoum's colonoscopy, projected on the floor of a small round room.

A temporary show, "Super Vision," explores what we see, and what sees us, in the modern world. It's part Photoshop, part surveillance, and a bit creepy. The Mona Hatoum piece is in it. So are Andreas Gursky's nine-foot-tall photograph "Shanghai," an eerie, seemingly endless hotel lobby that dwarfs the viewer and is dominated by a preternatural shade of yellow; and Tony Oursler's huge staring eyeballs, projected onto white orbs hanging from the ceiling.

The original ICA was a show space without a permanent collection of its own. With the move to the waterfront, the Institute has started acquiring artworks, most of them gifts from loyal supporters, and about half the gallery space is devoted to new-collections display. The Institute can't play catch-up, though. Creating a comprehensive collection of contemporary art would be prohibitively expensive. So the policy is to acquire works from ICA exhibitions, one at a time.

Some are stunning. Take, for instance, the 1999 "Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson)" by the British artist Cornelia Parker, who had her first solo U.S. museum exhibition at the old ICA in 2000. "Hanging Fire" is one of her trademark suspended sculptures. Hundreds of bits of charred wood dangle from nearly invisible wires. They look as if, in death, they're en route to some sort of architectural heaven.

Then there's photographer Nan Goldin's 1988 "Matt and Lewis in the tub kissing, Cambridge," which caused a censorship controversy when it was displayed in a Boston office building a decade ago as part of an auction to benefit AIDS causes. The portrait of two men embracing in a bathtub was removed by the building's owner but now has a place of honor in the ICA.

The new building isn't the end of the ICA's expansionist vision for the city. When the Institute was in its former cramped quarters, it extended its reach through a series of summer shows in other spaces, both inside and out, called "Vita Brevis." Next year "Vita Brevis" continues with projects on Boston's underused Harbor Islands. ICA director Jill Medvedow calls the new Institute, together with the harbor, its other institutions and the islands, a "sapphire necklace," a play on the "emerald necklace" of parks with which Frederick Law Olmsted ringed Boston in the late 19th century.

Christine Temin, an art critic in Boston, last wrote for Travel about the Japanese island of Naoshima.

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