The Berkshires’ Best Art Museums
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.
We’ve asked the Clark’s director, Michael Conforti, to walk us through the center, 12,000 square feet of conservation work space and two glass-walled galleries. Ando’s design pulls the outdoors in as a companion to the exhibitions. When winter’s first snow appears, these rooms, currently filled with Sargents and Homers, must be even more beautiful.
A walk down the hill brings us to the original museum, a glowing white-marble temple that momentarily takes you out of rural Williamstown and puts you in Athens. Architect Daniel Perry designed the Neoclassical building, which was completed in 1955. Its scholarly collection of masterpieces set a new standard for museums in the area. To me, the Clark is for reconnecting with an old friend—the museum owns one of only five Piero della Francescas in the United States (the other four are in New York City’s Frick Collection): Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels (circa 1460–70). Surely the most explicit depiction of the wonderment of motherhood I’ve ever seen, it draws me back here again and again.
Especially after communing with Ando, Charles Moore’s 1980’s postmodern overhaul of the Williams College Museum of Art looks dated and fussy to me now—but it did put this small liberal-arts college on the global art map. At the entrance stands Eyes (2001), massive gray marble slabs with round, watchful eyes perched on top, by phenomenal Paris-born sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who recently turned 97. Carol and I both know where we’re going: straight to Edward Hopper’s Morning in a City (1944), one of our favorites here. A nude female peers out of an open bedroom window, the front of her bathed in sunlight, her back cast in shadows, with somber shades of greens and blues in the background. As in most of his oil paintings, Hopper’s enigmatic way with light keeps a viewer rapt and respectful before the most ordinary of scenes. It is a standout in a collection known for its contemporary art.
Day 4: Williamstown to North Adams
Just 10 minutes southeast down Route 2 leads us to MASS MoCA, where we’ve decided to try another hotel. The retro-chic Porches, 47 rooms in a row of restored Victorian-era workhouses, is just across the street. The hotel could be in any tony New England town, but down the road there are empty warehouses with shattered windows, shuttered shops, and almost no one in sight—signs of the economic depression the once-industrial area is slowly recovering from. Like the Guggenheim was for Bilbao, Spain, MASS MoCA has been a catalyst for change in this community. The museum itself is a village in miniature spread over 13 acres, with 26 buildings dedicated to art, music, dance, film, and theater—not to mention one of the best museum restaurants I have ever visited, Café Latino. We have lunch there before our art immersion—the chorizo empanaditas and fried-fish tacos are as good as any New York restaurant’s, and the modern décor is just as sophisticated: hand-stenciled turquoise walls, cork floors, and a backlit bar.
A series of gigantic red-brick warehouses (this was a textile mill in the early 20th century) make up this one-of-a-kind cultural center that in nine short years has become New England’s most innovative art space. I’m in awe of its sheer size as we traverse miles of raw gallery space flooded with light, one room the size of a football field. Carol mentions that what Sol had thought was missing in the United States was a museum dedicated to installations. MASS MoCA certainly fills this vacuum; no other institution can showcase exhibits of such immense proportions. This is the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the country.
When the exhibition was being arranged by Jock Reynolds, director of Yale University’s Art Gallery, and Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA, Carol and Sol visited the 27,000-square-foot former mill building where it would be housed. “I watched him climb up and down ladders to develop his plan for the installation, studying the light, the placements of the drawings,” she says. Now she was seeing his vision become reality. Everything has been built to LeWitt’s specifications, including new interior walls and windows to flood the space with natural light. More than 50 drafters were hired by the museum to put this nearly one-acre retrospective together, and most have been working since April to prepare for the November 16 opening.
MASS MoCA will keep LeWitt’s retrospective on view here for the next 25 years. At first, it seems incongruous to me that one of the most important contemporary masters in the world would be enshrined in a corner of the Berkshire hills. But given the scale and magnitude of the exhibition—and the growing artistic movement in this part of New England—it seems a most fitting memorial. For the next quarter-century, this remote area will become a site for all who love the work of Sol LeWitt, and art itself.
Gabriella De Ferrari is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and a writer and art historian based in New York City.
Where to Stay
36 King St., Northampton; 800/547-3529; hotelnorthampton.com; doubles from $185.
Great Value 231 River St., North Adams; 413/664-0400; porches.com; doubles from $179.
Where to Eat
1111 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams; 413/662-2004.
159 Main St., Northampton; 413/586-5427.
What to See and Do
151 Presidents Dr., Amherst; 800/999-8627; fineartscenter.com.
MASS MoCA Way, North Adams; 413/662-2111; massmoca.org.
12 Quadrangle Rd., Amherst; 413/542-2335; amherst.edu/mead.
Mount Holyoke College Art Museum
Lower Lake Rd., South Hadley; 413/538-2245; mtholyoke.edu.
Elm St. at Bedford Terrace, Northampton; 413/585-2760; smith.edu/museum.
225 South St., Williamstown; 413/458-2303; clarkart.edu.
225 South St., Williamstown; 413/458-0585; clarkart.edu.
15 Lawrence Hall Dr., Williamstown; 413/597-2429; wcma.org.