Williamstown Massachusetts is a small, pretty college town on the Massachusetts/Vermont/New York border. The town itself is lovely with its two-block long commercial street (Spring Street) old buildings, and school campus.
We decided to stay in Williamstown for 2 nights. This would work for many people but it was not a good decision for us. Part of it is the sleepy town of Williamstown doesn’t fit into our need to find things to do at night when we travel or to find good food without having to drive far. Oh yes, we did find a bar within walking distance of our hotel with a Red Sox game on it which helped somewhat. But for us, Williamstown doesn’t have much going for it other than The Clark, which we can do on a day trip from another location in the area.
But whether or not you want to stay here, the town is worth a visit for three primary attractions:
- The Clark;
- Mass MOCA Contemporary Art Museum in nearby North Adams; and
- Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain (3,491 feet) in Massachusetts and a great place for hiking and, for those less inclined, a drive to a 90 mile view.
While we hiked Mount Greylock on a previous visit, we did not have time for that long hike on this trip. Instead, we focused on the two museums before driving down through the Berkshires to our next stop in Lenox, Massachusetts.
The Clark Art Institute
The Clark is one of our favorite small museums in the country. The complex and collection have both been expanded since our last visit. It has particularly strong collections of Winslow Homer (The Clark’s favorite painter) and George Inniss oils, representations of Dutch, French Romantic, and Italian religious works and nice collections of 19th-century British (especially JMW Turner and John Constable), formal silver table settings that trace the evolution of styles and a small but highly representative collection of European and American glass made with different technologies.
The museum, however, is best known for its Impressionist collection which had several oils from all of the primary artists and one of the most comprehensive representations of Rodin and Degas sculptures. It has the largest private collection of Renoirs in America and most of these represent his most important, transitionary period between his initial experimentation with Impressionism and the development of his own, unique style.
It also has one of Joyce’s favorites: John Singer Sargent’s Smoke of Ambergris
Other parts of its permanent collection include:
- European Art from 1800-1900, with pieces from impressionists and post-impressionists including Monet, Sisley, Caillebotte, Van Gogh, and others as well as a sculpture by famed actress Sarah Bernhardt (who was also an accomplished sculptor) that was effectively an elaborate self-portrait in the form of an inkwell.
- American Art from 1850-1900 includes a number of additional Sargents and other American Impressionists.
- European Decorative Arts and Paintings including furniture, porcelain, and decorative paintings;
- American Decorative Arts, which consists of multiple galleries in a separate section of the museum with displays of furniture, silver, porcelain, and paintings with a special section room of pieces that celebrated George Washington, including one of many versions of Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait.
- European Sculptures, especially Rodin, Carpeaux, and Dalau.
- British Painters, with a selection of works by Gainsborough, Constable and Turner.
- Glass, particularly late 19th and early 20th-century American glass which included a discussion of how glass was made and turned into functional items.
- European Silver from 1500-1850 including place settings, chargers and elaborate tureens and candelabra.
- Alfred Stevens (another of The Clark’s favorites who was a society painter who focused particularly on fashionable women and elegant interiors) in a room dedicated largely to his Four Seasons series; and a sculpture by famed actress Sarah Bernhardt (who was also an accomplished sculptor) that was effectively an elaborate self-portrait in the form of an inkwell.
Nature Transformed: Claude and Francoise-Xavier Lalanne (known collectively as Les Lalanne) was the one special exhibit being shown during our mid-October 2021 visit. This team of French artists looked to nature as a source of inspiration for mind-bending flights of fancy (such as a crocodile chair), surreal hybrid objects (such as a rabbit with wings and the feet of a hooved animal) and quirky inventions that reimage the natural world (such as a life-sized rhinoceros that opens into a desk and a giant grasshopper with compartments for wine bottles and glasses and wings that can server as small tables.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
Mass MOCA is a reconstruction of the large Sprague Electric manufacturing complex. The huge museum is spread across seven large, multi-story, reconditioned brick buildings. It was the cornerstone of the redevelopment of this depressed post-industrial town. As a number of additional buildings are still empty, we expect that Mass MOCA will be adding buildings to the museum as its rapidly expanding collection continues to grow. And grow it will, since few museums can offer the space that contemporary artists need for large installations.
We found some interesting exhibits:
- The Lure of the Dark, in which 14 artists portrayed both the primal fear and the unbridled imagination that nighttime elicits.
- The Archaeology of Another Possible Future, a huge two-story installation in which Liz Glynn attempts to illustrate the uncertain outcome of the massive transition from analog manufacturing to a digital world in which increasingly intelligent machines take over much of the work performed by people.
- Thumbs Up for the Mothership, which portrays the ways in which discarded objects are despoiling the planet;
- Maneater, which portrays the earth’s response to man‘s mistreatment of it, although by a different artist and in a different part of the sprawling museum, serves as something of a follow-up to Thumbs Up.
- Splosh, a very uncharacteristic, three-dimensional amoeba-like construction from Sol LeWitt.
- A new style and media for modernist sculptor Louise Bourgeois, in which two large marble sculptures combine male and female components into a gender-bending mélange.
- Cosmic Latte, a 350 light fixture installation, roughly mimicking the shape of the Milky Way, that is intended to match the average color of the universe;
- A Cold Hole, a frozen room, covered in ice with a hole into which volunteers plunge into a pool of 36-degree water, in a ritual of rejuvenation and purification that is routinely practiced in countries including Finland, Russia, and Japan.
- A large, irregular, untitled, concave, polished aluminum disk from Anish Kapoor that distorts reflected light into different patterns, depending on the angle from which you view it.
Speaking of light patterns, one floor of one building is devoted to works by James Turrell, the master of light installations. The exhibit consists of a number of installations that help viewers to perceive light and its effects in different ways. These include:
- A series of lighted panels that appear to display different, three-dimensional shapes depending on the angle from which they are viewed;
- A number of darkened immersion rooms in which viewers sit to experience light in different ways; and most fascinating of all;
- A particularly fascinating immersion room in which colors gradually blend with others, transform into other colors, and are periodically interspersed with strobes in which viewers perceive different patterns.
The installation also provides models of the artist’s Roden Crater project—a Flagstaff-area volcanic crater the artist purchased and is now in the process of converting into a series of viewing chambers from which the sky is supposed to take on different appearances of solids. (We can let you know if it fulfills its promise when we next get to Flagstaff.)
The highlight of the visit, however, was a super-installation! A massive, three-floor, 30,000 square-foot building that hosts a retrospective of Sol LeWitt’s iconic wall drawings. Each floor represents a different stage of the artist’s career, with dozens of very different installations on each floor:
- The first floor, representing the early years from when he first began producing these wall-sized works, begins with his famous snap-line walls and progresses through simple, repetitive, often monotone patterns.
- The second floor portrays his mid-career works with geometric patterns in a much wider range of colors.
- The third floor, with his later work, consists largely of arches, curves, and intermixed patterns in much more vibrant colors.
And for those who are looking for a more personal relationship with LeWitt’s work, you can buy table place settings with the artist’s designs in the gift shop.
While we have always liked Mass MOCA, we often have no idea of what a contempory artist is attempting to express and therefore, have no context from which to begin interpreting the work, or even deciding whether or not we like it. No, we are not asking for so much information that we do not really think about the piece. But enough information to provide context for which you are seeing and to provide s starting point for your own interpretation would help us.
Contemporary art aficionados who can and prefer to discern their own meaning without an intermediary may not approve. However, as contemporary art neophytes, such aids greatly enhance our appreciation of art that would otherwise be way beyond us. Thank you, Mass MOCA!
Williamstown Area Restaurants
- Mezze is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in town. it offers a small, farm-to-table, bistro-style menu consisting of meat, pasta, fish, and vegetarian dishes. We began with a very nice winter squash and apple soup with roasted bacon, brussel sprouts, and crème fraiche. We followed this with two entrees: an acceptable garganeli pasta with pork and beef ragu, Italian sausage and toasted garlic breadcrumbs, and a more interesting grilled heritage pork sausage with brussel sprouts, maitake mushrooms, apple cider and whole-gran mustard butter. From the rather uninspired list, we found an also acceptable 2016 Vina Alberdi tempranillo. Overall, we found the experience okay, but certainly not memorable.
- Gramercy Bistro is at the Mass MOCA Museum (in North Adams). We had two good entrees, if not memorable. Sesame tuna with soy-ginger sauce, accompanied by bok choy and black rice; and veal schnitzel topped with sunnyside-up egg, anchovy, capers with spaetzle, carrots and green beans. The wine was a 2015 Lemelson, Tina’s Selection Willamette pinot.
- Blue Mango, a Thai/Japanese restaurant on Spring Street, was acceptable at a college restaurant. Not great, but OK. We had red curry with duck and tempura udon.
We stayed at the House On Main Street. If you want to stay in Williamstown, the location is very walkable to the college, the 2 block strip of college stores, and The Clark. Our disappointment with this place started before we arrived. We reached out too many times via email and phone messages before we got an answer on places to eat in this busy time of the year so that we could make reservations. OK, we need to reset our expectations. Our room was on the second floor (no elevator of course as this is an older, historic place). The bed was fairly comfortable. Our bathroom was outside our room but we had a door to block off the bathroom from the hallway so it was somewhat private. The AC didn’t seem to be strong enough to overcome the heat which was on in the house in general. We tend to like a colder room for sleeping, unlike many people. The breakfast was served for the entire table of guests at the same time. Although we were told breakfast was 8:30ish, we all sat around until about 9:00 when it really started. Well, it gave us more time to interact with the other guests. Breakfast was fine, nothing special as many B&Bs are, but not bad. The woman serving breakfast made it very clear that we were expected to leave a tip in the room for the staff (which included her). The owner was delightful, open, and very friendly, which makes it harder to understand why we had to reach out so many times to get restaurant information in advance.
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