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The Musuem of Fine Arts recently unveiled its new expansion project that showcases art from the mid-50s.

Susan Saccoccia | 9/21/2011, 1:55 p.m.
People viewing Black River, 2009, El Anatsui (detail). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Musuem of Fine Arts recently unveiled its new expansion project that showcases art from the mid-50s.

A panoramic painting of a formal dinner party attended solely by African Americans rivets the eye in the first-floor gallery of the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which opened last weekend.

Their faces frozen in hauteur, the diners stare at us as if to say, “How dare you join our party?” In “Black Tie” (1981), African American Bostonian Robert T. Freeman renders the handsome woman in the foreground, who wears a white gown, with dashes of pigment, a technique John Singer Sargent uses in some of his society paintings. The blank-faced men behind her evoke the caricatures of German social satirist Max Beckmann.

Freeman, at last Thursday’s press opening, said that his painting reverses the feeling of exclusion from the middle class experienced by his parents’ generation, “the discomfort that an outsider feels.”  

By mingling the works of established and lesser known artists, the debut exhibitions in the MFA’s new wing convey a welcoming inclusiveness. The latest milestone in the museum’s expansion, the two-floor renovation transforms the MFA’s west-facing section, designed by I.M. Pei and opened in 1981, into a showcase of art from the mid-50s onward.

One quarter of the wing’s more than 80,000 square feet of exhibition space includes two new galleries. Replacing the second-floor gift shop is the Daphne and Peter Farago Gallery, which displays craft and design works from the MFA’s Daphne Farago Collection. The Edward H. Linde Gallery on the first floor is dedicated to New England contemporary artists and alumni of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Next to “Black Tie” are selections from the family chronicles of photographers Nicholas Nixon, of Cambridge, and Tina Barney, of Watch Hill, R.I., as well as a leafy reverie by painter Scott Prior. Near these familiar works is an arresting pair of photographs taken by Sharon Lockhart at Bath Iron Works in Maine. One is a still life of a lunch pail, Coke and sandwich. In the other, two shipyard workers sit on a palette having lunch. Each image is rendered with dignity and documentary clarity.

At the foot of the new staircase (alas, replacing the escalator) is a whimsical portrayal evoking the Holy Family, “Lo Desconocido  (The Unknown)” (2011). Somerville artists Rául González III and his wife La Die insert themselves into an elaborate cartoon. He holds a rooster while striding alongside his wife, who in a sequined robe rides a mule cradling a baby.

Most of the 240 works on view are installed on the second floor of the wing, where the MFA’s former special exhibitions gallery has been renovated and subdivided into five display areas and a media screening room.

Organized loosely by theme, the exhibition mingles works by A-list elders and lesser-known artists. The exuberant mix of paintings, sculptures, photographs and works on paper is as much a celebration of the museum’s capacity to borrow as it is a showcase of its growing collection of contemporary art, which is not yet among the MFA’s strengths.