New MFA sculpture is much more than meets the eye

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) recently purchased and installed a sculpture by the artist Josiah McElheney, titled “Endlessly Reflecting 20th-Century Modernism,” into its West Wing lobby. The piece, located near the stairs going down towards the cafeteria, at first appears to be no more than a mirage or a mistaken perception. It is a box almost entirely cased in highly reflective aluminum, so rather than having a monumental presence, the sculpture melts into the background and mirrors its surroundings. Drawing closer to the piece, viewers will see a few windows into the box, shelves filled with reflective hand-blown glass vases.

This important accession for the MFA comes after McElheney’s pieces have been installed at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and featured in museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut. McElheney has been working to restore the role of craft in contemporary art throughout his career. He uses traditional glass-blowing and decorating techniques along with the appropriation and humor characteristic of contemporary art.

In this piece, McElheney mocks and pays respect to minimalist-era modernism by adapting and visually representing the concept of infinity: an endlessly reflected reflection, devoid of the hand of the artist, an unreachable ideal that the sculptor has made physical. The sculpture pokes fun at the seamless, perfect vision of modernism supported by critics like Clement Greenberg and artists like David Smith. Josiah McElheney’s “Endlessly Reflecting 20th-Century Modernism” will remain on view for an as-yet-undetermined length of time. To see this piece is not only to see the work of a fantastic artist but also to get a look behind the MFA’s collecting process and choices.