Much has been written about “Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch” currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts. Many of these articles address the blatant pandering of the MFA to the whims of a prominent collector, including the last issue of Big RED, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and many more. It seems, however, that very little has been written about he exhibition itself, and while much insight has been offered about whether or not this exhibition should have been shown, not much has been written about what is showing.
This is probably due to the vast number of works in the exhibition, and the fact that they come from diverse genres, themes and historical contexts. Thankfully, the MFA has provided us with a single umbrella theme: William Koch loves things. They have even graciously divided his love of things into groups, spread among the six galleries and two courtyards that are home to this exhibition. “Things I Love” may contain many THINGS, but Mr. Koch’s love only has so many themes, each of which we can address in turn.
William Koch Loves: Manly Men And Their Boats
Fully three of the eight spaces housing this exhibition are devoted to a nautical theme. There are, of course, the two boats towering over Huntington Avenue. While they look absurd flanking the famed Indian sculpture, a 180º turn shows them reflected in the windows of University House of Pizza and Punters Pub, which looks absolutely comical. The MFA has always stood out a little from its Fenway neighbors, but this grandiose showing is extremely out of place.
Inside, things aren’t much different. In a rotunda gallery, Koch’s collection of model boats sit under glass. They are fine specimens of craftsmanship, and show a range of designs and styles considered in Koch’s bid to win a prestigious sailing award. Amidst one of the finest art collections in the world, though, they look a lot like a child’s toy collection that has been left behind.
The nautical theme extends into another gallery, where it is joined with it’s predictable counterpart: manliness. Brave men in Admirals’ hats, holding ornate swords, are painted in great detail, while nearby historic naval battles spill from the canvas to impress us with the powerful history of men in boats.
As a collection of paintings, this section of the exhibition is quite strong. There are many fine examples from the heyday of British colonialism, beautifully painted and overflowing with epic themes. But among the grandiose boats, they feel more like Mr. Koch’s wish list each time he raises anchor. They are dreams of the unlimited power of the admiralty, the heroic battles against villainous Barbary pirates, and the chivalry of men made famous by their exploits at sea. They are myths kept alive in paint.
William Koch Loves: Ogling Women
As a counterpoint to the masculine boats, the MFA presents an entire room of nude women. There are many outstanding works here, including Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude”, Picasso’s “Night Club Singer”, sculptures by Aristide Maillol and Jean Arp, paintings by Dali, Matisse and many more. They are works that deserve to be seen by everyone, yet the presentation feels somewhat lurid and designed to fly in the face of much art theory written in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. The women represented are unmistakably passive, openly seductive, and the cumulative result is unambiguous objectification.
Adding insult to injury, a collection of figureheads furthers the naval theme. While exquisitely carved and detailed, one cannot help but be aware that these scantily clad women with bare breasts thrust forward were meant to serve one purpose. They existed to be ogled by lonely men at sea. Like the Modernist works, they are great pieces and have much to show us about the era they were created in, but they also highlight how a singularly male-minded aesthetic objectified women and created a legacy that we still live with today.
William Koch Loves: Genocide
In one of the most bizarre sections of the exhibition, the MFA presents Koch’s collection of artifacts and images from the American west. The gallery is divided nearly in half, separating the native people from the manifest destiny of the U.S. Along one wall hangs a fascinating collection of native clothing, moccasins, pots, and other pieces. Facing them, on the opposite wall, is a collection of Civil War and post-Civil War era guns.
The statement is clear, and made without irony. These are the indigenous people of this continent, and here are the guns we used to kill them.
Like all of the other sections of “Things I Love”, there are many great pieces here. Adolph Alexander Weinman’s “Chief Blackbird, Ogalala Sioux” is a fine example of bronze sculpture, and many of the guns would be fascinating to any history buff. Yet, like the nude women, context is everything. As they are presented, these pieces can only remind us of a horribly cruel moment in our history that should be looked upon with shame rather than reverence. That the artifacts of this genocide can be placed in such shameless juxtaposition, linking the daily lives of a people with those bent on their destruction, creates a false and sad history.
William Koch Loves: Being Rich
The remaining three sections of “Things I Love” seem to contain no real themes at all, other than a desire to own expensive stuff. There are wine bottles and Greek tiles; pastoral paintings; Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Winslow Homer, among a long list of famous names and works. Along one wall, Tom Wesselmann’s “Seascape #20” hints that Koch had a bachelor pad in the 80’s that need some spice. Peaceful and pastoral paintings by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, William Merritt Chase and others hint at a longing for a peaceful life. Altoon Sultan’s “Farmyard, Cambridge, NY” is a great painting, longing for rural farm life.
Also included as part of the ‘Being Rich’ theme are a collection of sculptures by Fernando Botero, spread throughout the Museum and its lawn. In their presentation, these wonderful figures don’t seem to belong with the rest of the exhibition. It is as if they are another show, placed in juxtaposition to the mix-and-match presentation of the other works.
Despite the themelessness of these displays of money, one important factor cannot be ignored. Koch wants us to know that he is wealthy, and can afford to purchase works by artists whose names have become legend. For the most part, these legendary men (there are few women represented) are dead and gone. These are not the purchases of a philanthropist, supporting a local scene by buying a painting he loved, but collection of famously expensive pieces that show a love of recognition and a display of money. Were these works representative of Koch supporting living artists, even famous ones, this collection would show that he really loved art.
The Love of Things
In titling an exhibition “Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch” has placed the collector before the work, and made any reading of these wonderful pieces and their presentation into a study of Koch himself. The groupings of the collections, and the underlying themes that can be found in the various galleries, lead critics and even casual viewers to psychoanalyze the collector as much as it allows them to enjoy the work. Koch, through the Museum, has presented us the things he loves, through his filter, and we are asked to view the work through his eyes. The collector, not the collection, is the most important part of this show.
Because of this, it should come as any surprise that Koch has hinted at legal action against the Boston Globe over negative reviews of the exhibition. By framing the show as an exhibition about Koch himself, played out through his possessions, his fixations and his desires, a bad review by The Globe or Big RED will never be about the art on the walls or the Museum that hung it. It will be about the collector, Koch himself.
“Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch” is full of many great works that should be seen by all. It is a shame that it must be viewed through the filter of Koch’s personality, and even more of a shame that the Museum of Fine Arts must resort to such blatant courting of a collector to show such amazing work.
Museum of Fine Arts
"Things I Love: The Many Collections of William I. Koch" is on view Wednesday, August 31, 2005 - Sunday, November 13, 2005 at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
All images are courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts website.