Linton Young

I have a secret. A shameful, potentially career-ending secret.

I want to touch the art. I would never do it of course; I am a museum professional, after all. But I’ve been thinking about it since I was a kid.

Vincent van Gogh was my gateway artist. His paintings are practically three-dimensional, with globs of thick paint that almost dare you to touch. Are those globs soft? Squishy? Dry? Crumbly? I’m proud to say I don’t know—and neither should you.

I’ll be perfectly clear on this point: you should never touch a work of art. Touching objects is extremely bad. It has something to do with the oils in our skin and the paint or patina or whatever. You should just never do it.

The problem is that the Art of the Americas Wing, which is about to reopen, is filled with temptation. Just getting there means passing through Shapiro Family Courtyard, where two sculptures jockey for attention. Dale Chihuly’s Lime Green Icicle Tower is bright green, tall, and spiky like a pineapple. Yoshitomo Nara’s Your Dog is deep black, stocky, and smooth like patent leather. They’re opposites in many ways, but both have tactile appeal. Are they cool to the touch? How pointy are the tips of those green icicles? Is the dog solid or filled with air like a balloon? Is it heavy?

Sculpture of a giant jet-black cartoon dog.
Yoshitomo Nara, Your Dog, 2003. Fiberglass, black paint, clear coat. Gift of Barbara L. and Theodore B. Alfond.

Speaking of heavy, just on the other side of the American Wing entrance is Paul Revere’s Sons of Liberty Bowl. I’ve always wondered how much it would weigh if you picked it up and held it. They keep that one under glass. Smart.

Silver bowl with inscriptions on the front.
Paul Revere Jr., Sons of Liberty Bowl, 1768. Silver. Museum purchase with funds donated by contribution and Bartlett Collection—Museum purchase with funds from the Francis Bartlett Donation of 1912.

Around the corner sits Arno, Horatio Greenough’s marble greyhound, which looks like it could stand up and walk away at any minute. When my son was little, he desperately wanted to hug Arno and so did I. Still do! A couple years ago I came across Arno with a lipstick kiss on the side of his head. Just to be clear, kissing counts as touching. Same rules apply.

Marble sculpture of a greyhound
Horatio Greenough, Arno, 1839. Marble. Arthur Tracy Cabot Fund.

Upstairs, the exhibition “Women Take the Floor” offers no relief. Kay Sekimachi’s Amiyose V is wispy like a column of smoke. It seems like you could blow it away with a breath. By the way, blowing counts as touching, too!

Sheila Hicks’s ropey fiber sculpture Bamiam is the opposite of ghostly and ephemeral. It is solid and thick and heavy. It looks like you could use it for tug-of-war or maybe tie a ship to a pier with it. A part of me wants to climb it like a rope in gym class. Needless to say, climbing counts as touching!

Sculpture with strands of pink and orange thread descending into a wild tangle
Sheila Hicks, Bamian, 1968. Wool and acrylic yarns, wrapped. Charles Potter King Fund and partial gift of Sheila Hicks. © Sheila Hicks.

There’s one more stop on this tour de touch: Kehinde Wiley’s John, 1st Baron Byron, a favorite of favorites. I love the size, the colors, the patterns, the model’s gaze, and his musculature. I even like his T-shirt! This is a special, beautiful, and important painting. And I don’t feel compelled to touch it at all.

Instead, this one touches me.

Welcome back, everyone!

Portrait of a man in a purple shirt standing before an ornate floral background.
Kehinde Wiley, John, 1st Baron Byron, 2013. Oil on Canvas. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection, The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection and funds donated by Stephen Borkowski in honor of Jason Collins. © Kehinde Wiley Studio.

Linton Young is senior manager, Visitor Experience.