A New Year, A New Boston

Here’s to a new year, a new Boston!

Source: Emerson College

More than two decades in the making, the Paramount Theatre is breathing new life today thanks to dedicated organizations like the Boston Preservation Alliance, institutions like Emerson College, the  Boston Landmarks Commission and Bostonians whose vision aided in the revitalization of many of the theatres on Washington Street. Two weeks ago, I went on a tour of the Paramount Theatre organized by the Boston Preservation Alliance with the Boston Society of Architects and was thrilled to see Downtown Crossing finally reaping the benefits of historic preservation.

Sorry, these images don't do any justice to the recreated interior of the Paramount.

Perhaps the Paramount can serve as an example to the Filene’s Basement fiasco? Let’s hope that 2011 is the year that this stalled project resurrects from the ashes of Downtown Crossing.

Decaying Downtown Crossing

And what about Dudley Square? Many promises were broken in 2010, but maybe,  just maybe we’ll see a commitment from the city to finally give it the attention this area deserves.

The gaping hole in Dudley Square and the scars of the Ferdinand Building

Finally, I must commend the Boston Landmarks Commission for their outstanding work in completing the Christian Science Center Study Report. This was a tremendous, but extremely important undertaking which will give a voice to Modernism in Boston and beyond. Now the Boston Landmarks Commission will consider the petition for the  potential designation of the Christian Science Center Complex as a Boston Landmark on January 25, 2011. Let’s hope that this petition is approved!

Christian Science Complex, Nicholas Nixon, 1957. Source: Columbia College of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography

Looking forward to a year filled with many preservation successes and fewer losses!

A Fascination with the Toxic

Calla Lily, 1925, Imogen Cunningham. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Growing up in a tiny rural town on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, meant that I was always surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers.  I grew up with my feet firmly planted on the ground (literally) anxiously looking after our banana, lime, pomegranate, cherry, guava and coconut trees. Flowers like hibiscus, passion flowers, fragrant white oleanders and calla lilies nurtured sweet and colorful memories of my homeland.


The Harmony of a Square

Boston Squared. The many squares of
Boston, with Copley Square being the most “square like” of them all. Source: Andy Woodruff, Cartogrammar.com


To fit together, to join or be in agreement or concord with one another is one definition of harmony. Steen Eiler Rasmussen in Experiencing Architecture refers to architecture as “frozen music,” because it often employs the simple dimensions, scale and proportion that are found in music harmonies. When most of us hear the word harmony, we think ofmusic. While we hear the harmonies in music, Rasmussen articulates that we can only experience them in architecture.


Life, as expressed by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, German, 1884–1950, Double Portrait 1946, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accession Number 1989.348

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.


In 1938, in a lecture at the New Burlington Gallery in London, the German painter Max Beckmann said that “life is difficult, as perhaps everyone knows by now[1].” The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that captures the soul, are all psychological traits present in the works of Max Beckmann and the artists of the Expressionist Movement, particularly The New Objectivity (neue sachlichkeit). The New Objectivity proposed a return to naturalism in painting and was in opposition to the obscure images of Expressionism.[2] Double Portrait (1946), at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston captures the social realities and the chaos of modern life; it pierces the viewer’s hearts and paints a world full of solitude while simultaneously offering a glimpse of hope for a better tomorrow.

Beckmann chooses as his subject matter two men, Hanns Swarzenski, a scholar of medieval art and curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Curt Valentin, a New York art dealer. Both friends of Beckmann, these two men have played a vital role in the development of Beckmann as artist. Engaged in a conversation, Swarzenski and Valentin, are both depicted wearing business attire, a detail that speaks of the distinguished backgrounds these two men come from. Double Portrait expresses to the fullest extent, “the power of [Beckmann’s] imagination[3]” since both of these subjects were not present in the same room for the painting, but it emphasizes the power of friendships in a time of crisis (such as the aftermath of World War II).

The composition of Double Portrait also plays a key role in expressing the context during which this painting was created. Beckmann places both figures diagonally in between an object that appears to be a table and an ambiguous window-like feature or mural showing a slight recession into space. The sharp angles of the object directs the viewer’s eye to Curt Valentin who holds a candle,  which further brings the eye to the figure of Hanns Swarzenski, who holds an Old Fashioned Glass. The placement of both of these figures on the canvas suggests a world in which oppression reigns, dreams are crushed and hope remains for those who long for better and peaceful times.

The world outside of this opening is a physically and psychologically cruel one, suggesting that the only life that is worth living, are the lives of Beckmann’s two friends; Hanns and Curt. With its somber shades of grey juxtaposed with the dark, oppressive (but yet seductive) colors of the interior space in which the two figures are placed, Beckmann expresses the uncertainties of the times as well as his psychological state of mind.

The physical and spiritual destruction of humanity, including the atrocities caused by World War II are emphasized by the hues of deep blues, purples, and black accentuated with splotches of green, red, gray and orange. Beckmann said in his lecture at the New Burlington Gallery, that “it is the dream of many to see only the white and truly beautiful, or the black, ugly and destructive. But I cannot help realizing both, for only in the two, only in black and in white, can I see God as a unity creating again and again a great and eternally changing terrestrial drama[4].”

The difficulties of life, the powerful emotions of fear and anxiety, and the hopeless feeling that detains the soul are all captured in Beckmann’s Double Portrait of 1946. The subject matter Beckmann chose to represent in Double Portrait speaks to the power of friendships in a time of crisis while the composition serves as a testament to the cruel realities of war and the oppression it forces upon humanity.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has a few amazing pieces by Beckmann. This one is currently on view.

[1] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 189

[2] Tony Richardson and Nikos Stangos, ed. Concepts of Modern Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 48

[3] Ibid., 48

[4] Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1968), 188

The Home According to Rachel Whiteread

Double Doors II (A+B), Rachel Whiteread. Plasticized plaster with interior aluminum framework, two panels. Accession Number: 2008.643.1-2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A series of posts inspired by pieces in the collections of Boston area museums.

As of last week, I spotted these doors at the MFA which were part of Whiteread’s show Place/Village. Today, the MFA online collections catalog says these are not on display.

For Rachel Whiteread, a house is only a skeleton draped in a beautiful fabric. For a house to become a home, this fabric must be covered in bits of history from its past inhabitants. What makes a home for Whiteread are the empty and often neglected spaces that are ever present in our lives. These spaces convey a sense of a history, a journey into our past.

Place/Village, Rachel Whiteread. Image: http://www.treehugger.com

In Village (Place/Village 2008, was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2008) Whiteread has assembled vintage doll houses on top of wooden crates to resemble “communities” similar to those in any city or town on earth. The houses projected a feeling of emptiness and solitude, lacking the human interaction and emotions associated with a home. Individually, these dolls houses appeared ghostly and eerie, however when seen in context to the larger exhibit, they projected a sense of warmth, the same feeling that transforms a house into a home. Placed in a dark room, these houses illuminated the empty and forgotten spaces in a house, visually peeling away those layers rich in history that make a house a home.

Domesticity for Whiteread is found within the house. Traces of human interaction are the core of a house, they are the organs that breathe life to it and transform it into a home. Doors, windows, packing boxes, stairs are for Whiteread, the objects of domesticity that complete a home. Usage, in other words, an old door full of marks convey the same message a home conveys. The doors in Whiteread’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts are executed with crisply defined lines and geometric shapes, further conveying the feeling of harshness and emotional emptiness found in a house. At close inspection, these doors tell a different story through scrapes and discolorations as well as missing hardware.

The materials Whiteread employs in her work are industrious, cold and unglamorous. The solitude and desolation felt in Village is softened only by golden shimmering lights coming from within the doll houses. Whiteread’s work employs very minimal use of color, further emphasizing the emptiness and solitude that a house conveys.  

Rachel Whiteread has said that her work produces a remarkable awareness of our enduring “presence through absence.” Her drawings are all executed on graph paper suggesting order upon all the chaos that exists in the world and in our lives.  The world, like a house for Whiteread is a void that can only be filled and molded by leaving one’s “fingerprints” upon its surfaces. 

For Whiteread, a house must undergo multiple transformations and stages for it to become a home. For a house to become a home one must also undergo the same physical and emotional transformations. Whiteread’s work reminds us all to unpack our lives physically and emotionally to live in the moment. Living in the moment requires us to leave our fingerprint on one’s path to turning a house into a home. The world constantly places one inside this void creating moments that present challenges and opportunities which further allows one to transform one’s life. Rachel Whiteread attempts to shrink the distance between herself and this empty box by breaking away from the crisp lines of the graphing paper which she draws on or the smoothness of the plaster and rubber which she sculpts with. The works of Rachel Whiteread speak to the insincerity and emptiness found in this world. At close inspection they exhibit many impurities that allow one to break away from the rigidity of every day life.

The impurities in Whiteread’s works best capture this “presence through absence” that transforms a house into a home.  For a house to be a home and a place to be a community there needs to be an emotional connection between the present and the past. For Whiteread, it is this emotional connection that breathes a “presence through absence” in a home, a connection that must be cultivated through time.

Art of the Ancient Near East in Boston

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II.Nimrud (Calah, Kalhu), Iraq. Height x width x depth: 230x 132 x 9.4 cm (90 9/16 x51 15/16 x 3 11/16 in.) Accession Number 81.56 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

 A series of posts inspired by the recently opened American art wing at the Museum of Fine Arts. It highlights some pieces in Boston area museums.

Winged protective deity, two alabaster reliefs from the northwest palace at Calakh, 883-859 BCE, Assyrian, Reign of Assurnasipal II

Throughout history art has been used to legitimize and even achieve political power, it has been used as a vehicle for the dissemination of propagandistic messages in hopes of persuading people to change their attitude towards ideas or beliefs. The two alabaster architectural reliefs from the northwest Palace of Assurnasipal II are examples of such works of art, one of their primary functions was to legitimize the king’s rule and protect his power under enemy attacks.

Produced around 883-859 BCE in Assyria, the alabaster architectural reliefs of the winged protective deities emphasize the king’s power and importance through their monumentality and scale. The reliefs portray different winged deities with larger than life bodies. One deity is depicted pollinating a sacred tree and  another holding a small scepter. These figures were not only meant to protect the king from intruders or enemies, but to simultaneously intimidate and astonish those who stood in front of them.  The wings, depicted larger than the body themselves convey a message of power and authority.

The lines in the alabaster and the shallowness of the reliefs in particular the highly detailed wings and the garment worn by the figures add a rich texture further emphasized by the light falling upon the surfaces of the stone. The subtle play of light and shadow on the relief delineates the highly muscular arms and legs, heightening the drama that was to unfold as one would approach the palace of the king. The art of the Ancient Near East would have been painted in bright colors, so the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster would have been different than what we see today.

Light and shadow also create a rich contrast between the soft curves of the muscles in the legs and arms with the stark linear patterns in the beards and wings. The two alabaster architectural reliefs legitimized and protected the power of the king through their monumentality, highly abstract linearity and geometry which is further heightened by the play of light and shadow falling upon the surface of the alabaster.

Have you seen this piece at the Museum of Fine Arts? They are two of the most dramatic pieces in the Art of the Ancient Near East galleries.