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Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Curated by Darcy Kuronen
March 6 through July 3, 2005

Usually I enjoy tuning in to Emily Rooney who hosts an informal interview show on WGBH PBS called “Greater Boston.” She takes on the news of the day through informative dialogues with interesting guests. Mostly, she isn’t afraid to tackle tough topics with penetrating questions. But when in comes to art she is no more insightful than her curmudgeonly father, Andy Rooney, and his midbrow peers at 60 Minutes. Compared to hard hitting investigative reporting their arts pieces are big meaty softballs over the middle of the plate. They seem to pitch to the subject’s sweet spot instead of challenging the hitters.

Last night, for example, I could only gasp in dismay as Emily followed in the path of the obsequious Museum of Fine Arts director, Malcolm Rogers, at his most piquant and unctuous, as they meandered through the vintage cars on display in the Gund Gallery. He mouthed off oh so gushily wishing he could own a vintage Bugatti to run around town in. There was a bit of drool on the corner of his quivering lips.

I kept waiting for a Rooney zinger. Like, “Is this art?” Or, “What is this doing in the museum?” “Why are you always sucking up to celebrities?” “Did you have an unhappy childhood growing up in the Midlands the son of a long line of butchers?” Something like that. Or, a cut back to the studio to interact with a couple of art experts presenting a dissenting view. Just for balance and honesty in reporting. Such was not to be.

Actually, a former MFA director, Perry T. Rathbone, a museum director of the old school out of central casting, was well known for driving about town in a vintage convertible coupe. One glance at the MFA parking lot and you knew if Perry was in his office. He had such flair and panache. Never thought I would end up saying that. But Perry was genuine and high style, socially adept, autocratic, blue stocking, in a way that Malcolm just is not. Rogers is a simulacrum, a mere hologram of taste and style for the crass era of new money.

Because “Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection,” is all glitz and bling bling, full of sound and fury, signifying, well almost, nothing. Or, ok, very little.

But then you say, how can you dismiss a 1938 Bugatti Type 575SC Atlantic Coupe? How about the dashing “Count Trossi” Mercedes-Benz SSK from 1930? And a sweep of smashing red Ferraris? Or the legendary 1929 Blower Bentley the first car in the series of 007 super spy James Bond novels. This is the stuff of dreams, a word that Malcolm evoked slowly, with surreal emphasis, the better to sway and seduce our Emily. “But grandma, what big teeth you have,” she might have said. But such was not to be. Oh Emily, how you disappoint me. I expect better from PBS.

Even Christine Temin, known on occasion to show her claws, just purred like a kitten in the Globe. Perhaps they set her up for a spin around the block with Ralph. It is a sound tactic to wine and dine the media. A colleague informed me that he rather enjoyed the lobster risotto served to the press at the Salvador Dali opening. “The Gund Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts looks pretty much like a Palm Beach parking lot at the moment. Fifteen Bugattis, Porsches, and other posh automobiles fill the space. They’re all eerily perfect, betraying no sign of weather or wear-just like Ralph Lauren models,” Temin wrote in her lead.

Having parked Mom’s Taurus in those Palm Beach parking lots while shopping on Worth Avenue, I know just what Temin means. Or jogging and driving along the beach past Mar Y Lago, now the Trump estate. Sitting on the porch of the Breakers or acting like a Kennedy at Au Bar.

Cars say a lot about America. Particularly in LA, where the husband of a friend drove a $100,000 Porsche just one mile to work each day. But cars don’t mean so much in Boston. Here it is less about what you drive than where the heck can I park. In my neighborhood it is better not to drive anything flashy as it will soon be trashy. Like getting keyed if you move someone’s barrel. Now and then I see a Mercedes on our street and think, “Damn, there goes the neighborhood.”

So, what’s wrong about the car show at the MFA? Well, for openers, Ralph Lauren. Hey, I like the clothes and buy them every time I can at Filene’s Basement. But when rich boys like Lauren start loading up on Bugattis and Ferraris aren’t they just expensive toys? What’s art about that?

Then there is the notion that exhibitions should be about something. To have a scholarly and educational mandate. I walked out of the show asking if I had learned anything in the process. Not really. Nice cars. They are about motion and speed which isn’t well conveyed standing still. So they just become objects. Like sculptures. Perhaps they should be displayed in a setting with works by Giacometti, Henry Moore or David Smith. Give us a chance to compare and contrast. Put them into a context.

These rare and stunningly sleek, gleaming, vintage machines are presented with no historical connection. They are devoid of a coherent overview. They have just emerged full grown from the forehead of the collector. And serve only to affirm his social status and vast wealth. This just enhances the market value of a chic brand name. It’s great, free advertising. As a friend pointed out you can get Ralph Lauren designer paint at Home Depot. We live in an age of branding. Which is ok by me if I can get it on sale. But, do I need this ubermarketing at the Museum of Fine Arts?

This is the same gallery where just a year ago we saw great works by Paul Gauguin. Now, that was a show. Thank you very much Malcolm. Or, last fall, the great exhibition of Art Deco that came to us in reduced form from the Victoria and Albert Museum. So I am not saying that everything the MFA presents to us is worthless. But too much is questionable. This goes to motive. The debate point is just how does the Ralph Lauren car show enhance the museum? Does this contribute to, or merely exploit, the reputation of a world class institution? How many times can you just cash in on that legacy before you devalue it?

When this display fizzles out in July, having milked every conceivable ounce of testosterone out of its intended sanguine, male audience, yet another celebrity show will roll into the Gund Gallery. Prepare yourself for what the museum’s pre publicity, with tongue in chic, or foot in mouth, is describing as the “eclectic” holdings of mega bucker William I. Koch. When not acquiring art trophies, or gulping down vintage wines, he tried to win back yachting’s America’s Cup. Perhaps another word for Koch would be “dilettante.” No matter. He’s rich and owns nice stuff. For Malcolm that’s what counts. Let’s see how the curators make sense of his “collection.” Do we see a trend here?

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Speed, Style and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection" is on view March 6 through July 3, 2005 at The MFA.

All images are courtesy of the MFA website.

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