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Top of the Class: Around Boston’s Rich Network of University Art Galleries

On shows at the Rose Art Museum, MIT's List Visual Arts Center, Harvard's Cooper Gallery, Harvard Art Museums, and Davis Museum

Rosalyn Drexler, F.B.I., 1964, acrylic and paper collage on canvas, 30" x 40". Rose Art Museum. ©2016 ROSALYN DREXLER/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YOKR/COURTESY GARTH GREENAN, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION

Rosalyn Drexler, F.B.I., 1964, acrylic and paper collage on canvas, 30″ x 40″. Rose Art Museum.

©2016 ROSALYN DREXLER/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YOKR/COURTESY GARTH GREENAN, NEW YORK/PRIVATE COLLECTION

In 2017 Mark Bradford will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, with Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum acting as the show’s commissioning institution. Bradford’s exhibition will be the second consecutive show for Venice’s U.S. pavilion presented by a university art gallery in the Boston area. (It follows Joan Jonas’s 2015 project for Venice, for which the MIT List Visual Arts Center was the presenting organization.)

Boston’s small but storied campus galleries have long served as stepping-stones for museum curators and directors on their way up, including Contemporary Arts Museum Houston director Bill Arning; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, chief curator Helen Molesworth; and Baltimore Museum of Art director Christopher Bedford. Although their target audience is nominally students and scholars, these institutions fill a vital need for noncanonical programming in a city with a scarcity of both commercial and not-for-profit exhibition spaces. Their importance in this regard for the broader gallery-going public was on display this past spring and summer, with a number of exhibition firsts at university art museums around Boston.

Organized by the Rose Art Museum, “Rosalyn Drexler: Who Does She Think She Is?” was the first full-career retrospective of the painter, playwright, novelist, and—briefly, in the 1950s—wrestler, who is now in her eighties. For the past 50-plus years, Drexler has been enlarging, collaging onto canvas, and overpainting film posters, pinups, and tabloid photos. Her earliest such pieces resonated with the Pop art of their time while anticipating, in their canny deconstruction of media imagery, the work of such Pictures Generation artists as Sarah Charlesworth.

The Rose’s exhibition included large-scale canvases like Love and Violence (1965)—in which a man grabs a woman by the throat, while frames from a horror film unfold below against a blood-red background—as well as photo and video documentation from the 1960s through the 1980s of Drexler’s theater pieces, which premiered at such avant-garde New York venues as the Judson Poets’ Theater and Theater for the New City. Brandeis students staged Room 17C (1983), the artist’s feminist fusion of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Tala Madani, Love Doctor, 2015, oil on linen, 16" x 14¼" x ¾". List Visual Arts Center. JOSH WHITE/COLLECTION OF CHRISTINA PAPADOPOULOS

Tala Madani, Love Doctor, 2015, oil on linen, 16″ x 14¼” x ¾”. List Visual Arts Center.

JOSH WHITE/COLLECTION OF CHRISTINA PAPADOPOULOS

Drexler’s latest revival, along with such exhibitions as the Brooklyn Museum’s 2010 show “Seductive Subversion: Women Pop Artists, 1958–1968” and last year’s “International Pop” at the Walker Art Center (both of which included her work), is part of a recent reevaluation of Pop art that goes beyond the largely Anglo-American, white male artists with whom it has historically been associated.

The List Visual Arts Center at MIT, in partnership with the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, presented “Tala Madani: First Light,” the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. Madani paints in the loose and confident manner of Marlene Dumas, Maria Lassnig, and Neo Rauch. Her canvases show bald male figures lactating, defecating, gripping their unruly phalluses, and staring dumbly into bright lights. Of two short animations in the exhibition, one ends with a gob of feces hurled at the viewer and the other with the protagonist bleeding to death.

Although the Los Angeles–based artist is from Iran, Madani’s politics have less to do with international relations than with gender. In the show’s catalogue, she explains to artist A. L. Steiner, “I do think that it would be different if I were a man painting this way. My work wouldn’t be read as critiquing men.”

In an adjacent gallery at the List, the London-based collective Villa Design Group installed a heavily shellacked Art Deco stage set and performed This Is It or Dawn at Bar Bazuhka, a queer, melodramatic version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Like Madani’s raunchy figuration and Drexler’s vaudevil
lian plays, this piece deployed camp and theatricality as strategic vehicles for political satire.

Carl Van Vechten, Bessie Smith, 1936, hand gravure from original 35mm negative, 22" x 14". “Art of Jazz,” at Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art. COURTESY THE HUTCHINS CENTER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Carl Van Vechten, Bessie Smith, 1936, hand gravure from original 35mm negative, 22″ x 14″. “Art of Jazz,” at Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art.

COURTESY THE HUTCHINS CENTER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY

At Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, “Art of Jazz: Form/Performance/Notes” presented historical and contemporary visual responses to jazz, broadly conceived. Electric-blue walls picked up hues from canvases by Norman Lewis (Blue and Boogie, 1974) and Lina Viktor (Arcadia, 2014). Poetry by Langston Hughes and photographs of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington accompanied album covers by Josef Albers, Ben Shahn, and Andy Warhol.

In homage to Dizzy Gillespie, Walter Davis’s collage Nights in Tunisia (ca. 1986) ripples with colored paper, paint, woven strips of sheet music, map fragments, and onomatopoeic text clippings. Christopher Myers’s mixed-media installation Echo in the Bones (2014), featuring Myers’s invented musical instruments, shared space with a music video for Petit Noir’s song “Best.”

A satellite show at the nearby Harvard Art Museums consisted of works from the museums’ permanent collection including Matisse’s Jazz portfolio and a Hans Namuth photograph of Jackson Pollock at work. Taking an interdisciplinary and transhistorical approach, the exhibition shrewdly used jazz as a starting point for an exploration of African-American cultural expression and its global influence.

Upending entrenched notions of contemporaneity was at the heart of “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia,” also at Harvard Art Museums. The show, guest curated by indigenous Australian Stephen Gilchrist, consisted primarily of works made after 1970 by such artists as Emily Kam Kngwarray, Judy Watson, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, and Christian Thompson.

Comprising over 70 pieces, “Everywhen” presented them first and foremost as contemporary art. In the abstract painting Yari Country (1989), Rover Thomas uses quadrants of deeply saturated beige, brown, and charcoal to narrate an ancient aboriginal legend. Adopting 19th-century ethnographic display strategies, Yhonnie Scarce’s installation The Silence of Others (Series of Six) N2360, N2409, N2357, N2394, N1858, N2358 (2014) features blown-glass replicas of aboriginal food items, each inscribed with a number. These numbers correspond to numbers assigned to members of the artist’s family, the subjects of an ethnographic study by anthropologist Norman Tindale during the late 1930s.

Installation view of "Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia," 2016. Harvard Art Museums. HARVARD ART MUSEUMS/©PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE

Installation view of “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia,” 2016. Harvard Art Museums.

HARVARD ART MUSEUMS/©PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD COLLEGE

Alongside these contemporary works, the exhibition incorporated vessels, cradles, and coffins borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Entering museum collections as artifacts rather than artworks, these objects were given accession numbers and are displayed in galleries as “Oceanic” art rather than as 19th-century, modern, or contemporary art.

According to the catalogue’s summary of the first comprehensive chemical examination of Australian bark paintings, the arrival of European mediums and artistic methods in Australia never eradicated the use of traditional ones. This scientific demonstration of the ways artists adapted their tools and traditions without abandoning them reinforced the show’s premise that indigenous and contemporary are not mutually exclusive terms.

In the basement of Wellesley College’s Davis Museum, “The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer,” the first museum retrospective devoted to a video game designer, glowed blue with computer screens. In 2012, Rohrer’s Passage (2007) was among the first video games to enter the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Along with topical themes like police brutality and oil drilling, Rohrer’s games explore the infinite and unknowable. Players of Between (2008) switch between sleeping and waking modes, only discovering the objectives of the game as they progress through it, while Inside a Star-filled Sky (2011) was inspired by a concept from Hindu cosmology.

The exhibition’s co-curator, Michael Maizels, describes returning to a historical model of the museum as a venue “to show not ‘art’ but material cultural artifacts.” It’s the sort of thing that campus galleries, less encumbered than larger institutions, do best. In Boston, this summer, they approached contemporary human artifacts with scholarly rigor, situating their subjects in new affective networks of identity politics.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 147 under the title “Around Boston.”

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