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The Berkshires’ Best Art Museums

David Cicconi Berkshires' new art

Photo: David Cicconi

Since 1980, when I first traveled to the Berkshires to visit the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, I’ve returned to explore this art-rich region more times than I can remember. But last spring, with my friend Carol LeWitt, was a special pilgrimage: we planned a four-day itinerary to take in the region’s wealth of museums that would culminate in a preview of the walldrawing retrospective honoring her late husband, Sol LeWitt, at MASS MoCA, in North Adams. The conceptual artist died in April 2007 at the age of 78 while working on the exhibition, which is due to open next month.

Thanks in part to the largesse of their alumni, the area’s colleges (Amherst, Williams, Smith, and Mount Holyoke) have remarkable museums that have helped turn this community of former mill towns and working farms into a thriving arts destination. No other pastoral region in the United States can lay claim to so many ambitious and architecturally inspiring art institutions, all within a two hours’ drive of one another.

Day 1: New York to Northampton

After 3 1/2 hours on the road, we arrive at the university town of Northampton, site of our first stop: the Smith College Museum of Art. A large majority of the artworks here are gifts of alumnae—many of whom started donating their prized possessions in the early 1900’s. The building’s $35 million renovation in 2003 transformed the simple concrete structure into a soaring steel-and–red brick Modernist creation with enormous light-filled galleries. The art collection spans more than 4,500 years. We see works by 19th- and 20th-century masters such as Gustave Courbet, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Jean Arp, and Picasso. I find the most riveting piece to be an oil painting called Old Man Writing by Candlelight, by the 17th-century Dutch master Hendrick Terbrugghen, whose work is rarely seen in America. Caravaggio strongly influenced Terbrugghen, and like the late-Renaissance painter, he contrasts light and dark dramatically: a burning candle illuminates the old man’s face to reveal a map of wrinkles so intricate, he appears to come alive on the canvas.

There’s a Sol LeWitt drawing to see here before we move on to the exhibit at MASS MoCA: Wall Drawing #139: Grid and arcs from the midpoints of four sides (1972), one of the artist’s signature geometric pencil drawings, covering an entire 21-by-11-foot gallery wall. The wall drawing series was revolutionary because it proposed the idea that an artist’s concept was more important than its actual execution. “To see this work realized is remarkable, since I’d only read Sol’s instructions on how to re-create it,” Carol says. LeWitt would initially come up with the idea, then write instructions that would allow any trained draftsman to bring his vision to life.

Northampton is no longer the strict New England community it was during the early 20th century, when Calvin Coolidge was mayor here. It is college-town central for the area’s schools—five in all—and only two hours west of Boston. The tidy streets are lined with health-food delis, independent bookstores, and buzzing cafés, and packed with loitering students. I try in vain to find a diet Coke in shops that sell only natural and organic drinks; and at the bookstore where Carol and I buy books by Orhan Pamuk and Andrea Camilleri, the eco-conscious salesclerk assumes we’d rather take our purchases home without a bag.

We check into our home base for the next two days, the 80-year-old Hotel Northampton, a Colonial Revival building in the center of town, before heading to the Tibetan restaurant Lhasa Café. I expect the typically bland food you usually find in a college town, but the yak is spicy and tender. Paired with a glass of robust Cabernet, it’s the perfect end to the day.

Day 2: Northampton to Amherst

Eight miles northeast and across the Connecticut River, our next stop is the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The concrete box, designed by architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo in 1975, is anything but welcoming, though it houses a concert hall and a little-known contemporary art gallery that has mounted ambitious temporary exhibitions of such notable artists as Tom Friedman and Gabriel Orozco, garnering international recognition. The museum’s director, Loretta Yarlow, is a longtime friend, and she mentions an upcoming photography exhibition we already know we’ll have to come back for in the fall called “Of People and Places” (on view through December). Netherlands-based Rineke Dijkstra and New York landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld are just two of the names that Yarlow has lined up for the exhibition.

A five-minute drive south is the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College. The institution is known as a compact bastion of American treasures—Robert Henri’s Salome (1909) is housed here—so we’re happily surprised by the selection of Russian art. Most are the gifts of one collector, Thomas P. Whitney, class of 1937, who moved to Moscow, married a Russian pianist, and cultivated one of the most discerning collections of modern Russian masterpieces in the United States. We were particularly moved by the 20th-century avant-garde paintings by Liubov Popova and Natalia Goncharova. Sculptor Alexander Archipenko’s Torso in Space (1936), a sensuous bronze replica of a nude female figure, appears to float in air despite its decidedly earthbound pedestal. These treasures are too personal in nature to have been assembled by a museum curator, whose objective is often to tell the history of art. Instead, they reveal the passion and taste of one avid collector.

Day 3: Amherst to Williamstown

We set out early for the 1 1/2-hour drive to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, eager to see the new Stone Hill Center, designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando. The Pritzker Prize winner’s Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth had knocked over Carol and me, so we’re expecting Stone Hill, his third U.S. project, to be equally impressive. It is: as we round the entranceway into the museum, Ando’s building rises ever-so-subtly from the wooded hillside, as if part of the landscape; its sharp lines, broad flat planes, and geometric precision blend with the mountains that loom in the background.

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