NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Eighteen years ago, when MASS MoCA was born in a sprawling complex of brick factory buildings, its size and mission were daunting.
Could this expanse of rough industrial space really be transformed into a major museum for contemporary art? Would people travel to a small, down-and-out village in western Massachusetts to see the art?
In 1999, we wound our way through 19 galleries and 100,000 square feet of exhibit space. One gallery, in Building 5, was nearly as large as a football field.
But that was only the beginning. Less than a decade later, in 2008, the Sol LeWitt galleries opened in Building 7.
And on May 28 of this year, when MASS MoCA opened Building 6, the museum nearly doubled in size, leapfrogging from 120,000 square feet of art space to 250,000.
North Adams is now home to the largest contemporary art museum in America. If you put on a Fitbit and walk to every gallery, you will log four miles.
It sounds overwhelming but it’s not. Buildings, walkways and courtyards are connected and loop around. The summer visitor’s guide offers maps for each of the six buildings, the outdoor artworks and downtown North Adams.
Visitors stand near works by Robert Rauschenberg at the opening of Building 6 at MASS MoCA. (Zoran Orlic)
To get to Building 6, you traverse across a courtyard, a massive outdoor space where you might imagine life in the 1960s, when 4,000 Sprague Electric workers punched the clock.
The entrance to the three-story building is non-descript, but once inside, visitors wander around its 130,000 square feet and encounter long-term exhibits by artists like James Turrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Louise Bourgeois, Joe Wardwell, Dawn DeDeaux/Lonnie Holley, Jenny Holzer and Gunnar Schonbeck.
With each exhibit, the atmosphere changes radically.
“Into the Light,” a large first-floor installation by Turrell, leads the viewer into spaces of total darkness. Handrails lead you slowly into these spaces, and if you are patient and allow time for your irises to adjust, you can sit on a bench and ponder his light works.
Turrell also shows us a model of “Roden Crater,” his work-in-progress, a celestial observatory that’s located in a volcanic cinder cone in Arizona.
On the second floor, Louise Bourgeois, who expressed emotions about childhood, marriage and motherhood in her sculpture, draws us into her world with four works, three of them created in marble and another in metal.
In “The Couple,” 2007-2009, two figures made of cast and polished aluminum are bound together in a python-like grip. Suspended from the ceiling, the sculpture suggests a relationship that neither person can escape.
It was one of the last works the artist made before she died in 2010.
Around the corner from the Bourgeois, we see “Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States,” a mural of bold colors and text that was painted directly on the wall by Boston-based artist Joe Wardell.
This work was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s 1981 book “Hello America,” in which our country becomes an empty, abandoned wasteland in the late 20th century.
The text or “40 hits” in the piece are quotes about government and society by Madonna, Maya Angelou, Lincoln, W.E.B. Dubois, Hunter Thompson, Barack Obama and many more.
We’ve seen Jenny Holzer before at MASS MoCA. In 2007, the Hoosick Falls resident took over the largest gallery in Building 5.
This exhibit, about prisoners held by the U.S. government, is as disturbing as it is enlightening.
Blowups of declassified documents, hundreds of them, detail the torture, deaths and living conditions of these prisoners.
In one, a person whose name is blacked out writes a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell about teen-age prisoners at Guantanamo.
In one of the Holzer galleries, phrases like “there wasn’t enough water” and “soaked with blood” appear on LED lights that roll continuously into the floor in arcs that look like restraints on a gurney.
“I do make work that focuses on unnecessary cruelty in the hope that people will recoil. I would like there to be less cruelty,” Holzer says in the label text.
Sharing the third floor with Holzer is Laurie Anderson, who we’ve also seen at MASS MoCA, as she was one of the museum’s first artists-in-residence.
Anderson, known for her multi-media performances and storytelling, offers us “The Chalkroom,” a dark room with the ceiling, floor and walls covered with glowing black-and white words and drawings. The visitor dons a headset and enters the room, which changes in a way that I cannot describe for fear of ruining one’s experience. It’s not for everyone. There’s a gallery monitor and an emergency button to press if you feel sick and want to escape.
In Building 6, the astonishment that one experienced on a visit to MASS MoCA in its early days, is back once again.
This time, however, there is a difference.
The idea of discovering contemporary art in a conglomeration of 19th-century structures in North Adams no longer seems risky or far-fetched.
In recent years, the museum has attracted 165,000 visitors annually.
With the opening of Building 6, that number is expected to bump up by another 35,000 to 65,000.
For MASS MoCA, mission impossible has become mission accomplished.