Art & Socio-Politics at the Mass MoCA – Sarah Cho ’18

Like many past summers, I’ve spent the past few months in the heart of New York. But for the first time, I ventured out to visit Mass MoCA! I drove up to North Adams, Massachusetts one Saturday morning at 8am. It’s a winding path through the Taconic State Parkway with stunning views of the Hudson Valley’s luscious peaks. Despite trying to focus on not straying from the constant curves in the highway, I found myself lost in the distant horizon of these mountains, dreaming about what must have captured the attention of the Hudson River School. It made so much sense when I spotted a historic brown highway sign for the Thomas Cole House.

At about 11:30, we took a quick pit stop at the Clark Art Institute for the show “No Rules: Helen Frankenthaler Woodcuts.” Cordoned off in the Clark Institute’s breathtaking library, this exhibition was one of the best I’ve yet experienced. Maybe it was because my investment in Frankenthaler grew after a tangential, yet important, exploration of her work for my junior paper. Mostly, it was because her work is ethereally spiritual when experienced in person. These prints were a combination of just pure genius, technical skills of using 10+ wood blocks for one print, and color harmony. The best pieces of the show were the series from Tales of Genji I-VI, in which Frankenthaler created woodcut prints in response to/tandem with the books of The Tale of Genji, what is widely considered the world’s first novel. Having read and analyzed the tales myself, it was a treat to see these paintings bring to life the intricacy of words and in-between-the-lines meanings woven in the stories.



After spending time closely looking at these prints from all angles (shout out to the Clark’s guards for not yelling at me for getting real close), we ended up at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. This museum contains miles of contemporary art to walk through and experience. Here’s just one of their many Sol Lewitt walls. Although, I’ve got to say that our Sol Lewitt mural in the Bloomberg Hall arch is prettier, a statement that may or may not be 100% biased.



There was also a huge Nick Cave show, “Until,” that was full of seemingly “instagrammable” surface content: metallic wind spinners, climbable “heaven”, and colorful weaved fabric. But the show was heavy with deeper meaning. The metallic wind spinners were icons of guns, bullets, gunshots, and teardrops. The “heaven” accessible by 4 industrial ladders was filled with holiday animals and ephemera/dolls in black-face. The weaved fabric was knit together with hundreds of party-colored plastic beads. Despite the “instagrammable” surface, there were a lot of heavy socio-political issues that permeated each part of the installation. Mass MoCA’s space became a platform on which Cave engages the visitors with a lot of questions that have been raised and heavily discussed during the past few years, let alone the past weeks.


(Nick Cave, Until, installation at Mass MoCA. 16,000 wind spinners; millions of plastic pony beads; thousands of ceramic birds, fruits, and animals; 13 gilded pigs; more than 10 miles of crystals; 24 chandeliers; 1 crocodile; and 17 cast-iron lawn jockeys)


Finally, one of my favorite exhibitions at Mass MoCA was “Half Life of Love.” Inspired by Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, the art in this show dealt with the ephemerality of romance and lovers. The reason why this exhibition was so exciting was that this small, intimate show included artists whose works I have a deep connection with and admiration for. Felix Gonzalez-Torres was so apt in a show about “half life” and “love,” and his work was beautifully displayed. I met Kambui Olujimi last summer when I worked at New York Artists Equity Association, and seeing his video piece “In Your Absence the Skies Are All the Same” was a transcendental experience in which love, or reminiscing about love, becomes an out-of-body experience at the same time as it is a visceral one. And finally, Jordan Casteel is an artist I have been admiring for quite some time for her large, colorful, vivacious portraits celebrating and valuing the lives and personalities of the black men she interacts with. It was quite an experience to just stand in front of her painting, face to face with a life-sized young man displayed with such vulnerability, as his eyes lock the viewer’s.


(Ato, Jordan Casteel, Oil on canvas, 72 x 54 in, 2014, as seen in “Half Life of Love” )


On another note, Deana Lawson is an assistant professor in the Visual Arts department at Princeton University. Her photograph “Funeral Wallpaper, Kingston, Jamaica, 2013” was recently on view at our Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibition Revealing Pictures: Photographs from the Christopher E. Olofson Collection. I’ve also recently seen her works in conversation with race relations and celebrating black identity and culture in the Whitney’s Biennial! Seeing her photograph, Blinky and Tony Forever, here linked with the idea of Junot Diaz’s “half life of love,” spoke just as loud as the very strong and pointed display at the Biennial.


(Deanna Lawson, Blinky and Tony Forever, 2009, pigmented inkjet print, as seen in “Half Life of Love”)


Looking back, what I loved most about my trip to Mass MoCA was that this museum was providing a space for the public to engage with art, but also foddering discussion about socio-political issues and pain that grips the life of America today. I’m excited to return to Princeton in the fall and continue making our art museum a space just like Mass MoCA, so that students can not only come to enjoy the beauty of art but also learn about and discuss the heavily integrated social topics that make art Art.