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MFA exhibits invite viewers to slow down, pay attention

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

MFA exhibits invite viewers to slow down, pay attention
“Chamonix” (about 1962) by Joan Mitchell (Photo: Courtesy of MFA Boston)

At its best, viewing art is an absorbing experience. The work slows you down and draws you in and distractions fall away.

The art of paying attention is the subject of a beguiling new exhibition, “Seeking Stillness,” and its companion show, “Mark Rothko: Reflection,” both on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston through July 1.

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Unfolding like a journey through three galleries, “Seeking Stillness” presents about 40 works that invite and reward slow looking. Among the featured artists are three extraordinary women not often represented in Boston shows: Agnes Martin, Joan Mitchell and Joan Jonas.

This show also serves as preparation for viewing the austere masterpieces of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) in the fourth gallery, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The show’s uncluttered staging is conducive to contemplation. Adding to a sense of calm is a recording of spare piano solos performed by Ivan Illic, composed by avant-garde musician John Cage (1912–1992), whose repertoire includes a work in which the pianist does not touch the keyboard. Excellent wall texts provide context and artists’ comments, including translated quotes from Chinese artists and poets.

Grounding the first gallery and its exploration of space as a catalyst of contemplation is a monumental, skull-shaped sculpture by African American artist Martin Puryear, who uses artisanal, hand-crafted techniques and materials to create evocative works. Entitled “Confessional” (1996–2000), the sculpture calls to mind the inner sanctum of a confessional space, and even has a kneeler. But with the kneeler mounted on the outside and lacking an entrance, the structure only allows viewers to peek inside.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs of movie palaces and concert halls exude a quality of mystery. Shellburne Thurber’s images render the quiet stability of a secular haven for reflection, the carefully furnished setting of a psychiatrist’s office. Drawing from his Indian heritage, Gulam Rasool Santosh paints contemporary designs for meditation echoing the geometric patterns of Tantric mandalas.

Enclosed in its own viewing space is an overpowering altarpiece by Rosso Fiorentino, “The Dead Christ with Angels” (about 1524–27), a churning portrayal that seems ready to burst from its frame — an odd choice in an exhibition intended to encourage quiet contemplation.

The next gallery focuses on the process of art making as a meditative act in itself. A palette of ivory, soft grey and beige dominates the room and the works on view. Wall texts describe the rituals of some artists whose practices take monk-like discipline and skill. Among the abstract works are paintings by a Korean group active in the 1970s whose meditative art-making involved repeated application and removal of paint, tasks they performed with their whole bodies.

A minimalist with a Zen Buddhist’s taste for simplicity, Agnes Martin (1912–2004) is represented with a 1988 painting that translates her memories of the light and air of Taos, New Mexico, into a delicate honeycomb of rippling lines.

The third gallery shows works in a variety of media — sculpture, paintings, photography, ceramics, and performance — by artists whose path to contemplation and creation is rooted in the natural world.

Drawing on the MFA’s rich collections of Asian art, the gallery shows traditional Chinese renderings of mountain scenes, from mural-size paintings on silk and miniatures carved in stone and wood to prized found objects, rocks that resemble mountains and bring the contemplation of a mountain scene into the home. Dominating the gallery is a large contemporary version by Zhan Wang, “Artificial Rock #85” (2005) a gleaming tower of chrome-plated stainless steel.

Edward Weston (1886–1958) photographed the dunes, rocks and tree stumps of California’s coasts and deserts with his large format camera, and his black-and-white close-ups of their patterns and textures render nature’s own abstractions.

Another American, Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), captures the raw power of the landscape surrounding her retreat in the French Alps in her abstract painting “Chamonix” (about 1962), which is accompanied by her comment, “I could certainly never mirror nature. I would like more to paint what it leaves with me.”

The smallest works in the gallery, and among the most alluring, are a delicate Chinese porcelain dish (1723–35), and a tiny treasure from the late classical period of the Maya (550–850 AD) — a paint container carved out of a conch shell that fits into the user’s hand.

“Ice Drawings,” a sensational installation in its own small gallery, conjures segments of a renowned long-form performance, “Reanimation,” by Joan Jonas, professor emeritus at MIT. Jonas debuted the work in 2013 and performed it for the first time in Boston at the MFA in 2014, accompanied by her musical collaborator, pianist Jason Moran. Inspired by the 1968 novel “Under the Glacier,” by Icelandic author Halldór Laxness, the work is a poetic response to climate change. While a row of dangling crystals casts prisms of light on the screen, a video shifts between scenes of glacial landscapes and Jonas rapidly drawing abstract shapes with black ink and melting ice cubes.

Any good journey prompts a detour, and a fine one awaits a visitor willing to briefly exit this exhibition and go to a gallery by the main staircase, where a three-part sculpture by Nishida Jun (1977–2005) is on view. His baked porcelain and powdered glaze forms echo processes as violent and strenuous as nature’s own convulsions, and evoke ancient human and geological history. The sculpture’s columnar segments resemble fragments of classical Greek statuary and its raw, unfired portions call to mind volcanic fissures, molten earth and swirls of petrified rock.

Then return for the majestic Rothkos displayed in the fourth gallery, chosen by Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the MFA’s Art of the Americas department, whose stirring overview of the show is online. The 11 paintings span all stages of Rothko’s career and follow his drive to create art that brings viewers into a profound emotional and even religious experience, a desire that led him to abandon representation for increasingly abstract works.

A curious, touching self-portrait of Rothko in his 30s is displayed next to a painting by his idol, Rembrandt (1606-1669). In both, an artist gazes at an easel, a tool of his trade.

Paintings from the 1940s show geometric forms in jeweled colors; arranged in a row, they suggest the stained glass windows of a church. In some, shapes float as if suspended underwater and glow with deep inner light of Old Masters paintings. Later, darker canvases are kin to the series he created in the ’60s for his culminating work, the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

These paintings are enormous. In what seems like a paradox, Rothko believed that large works are more conducive to intimacy, enveloping viewer and artist alike. He recommended standing just 18 inches away when looking at a large painting.

Seen close up, the serene and warm hues in “Mulberry and Brown” (1958) appear to levitate, their vintage glow a product of Rothko’s masterful use of Italian Renaissance ingredients — egg and hide glue. With its earthen tones and materials, the painting is kin to Puryear’s sculpture.

Viewed slowly, the vast, dark works reveal subtle layers of paint, muted bands of color that form frames within frames. Their richly textured surfaces shimmer with light. Such discoveries become visible the way shapes emerge as the eye adjusts to a darkened room. The experience of slow and attentive viewing is a gift that will linger long after you leave these shows.

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