February 24, 2017

Looking at "A Revolutionary Impulse" @ MoMA

As the centennial of the Russian Revolution approaches, the curators of the Prints and Drawings and the Photography Departments at New York's Museum of Modern Art have combined forces to present an exhibition of avant-garde works created before, during and after this period of intense turmoil.  "A Revolutionary Impulse:  The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde" looks at how Russian artists bucked tradition by promoting an entire new style of art, one more in keeping with the social and political realities of the period.

With World War I raging in Europe and the centuries old Tsarist regime starting to crack, the time was ripe for a fresh approach to the visual and performing arts.  Artists like Natalia Goncharova...

"Rayonism, Blue-Green Forest", 1913

Vasily Kandinsky...

"Improvisation", c. 1914

and Kazimir Malevich...

...rejected classical form and replaced it with a new language - the language of Suprematism.  Art was no longer simply a re-creation of people, places or things, but a completely abstract expression of poetic form that freed the creators and viewers from the confines of reality.


With the overthrow of the Tsar and the installation of Bolshevism, avant-garde artists embraced an even more radical form of expression - Constructivism.  A reflection of the socialist agenda, this contemporary movement was no longer about the individual artist but society as a unit and with that a uniform language of abstraction.  Decorative painting was rejected in favor of more practical objects like posters and dishes that were produced mechanically rather than by hand.

Motion pictures, photography and dance, still relatively new forms of performance art, brought powerful messages of post-revolutionary ideals to a vast public.

Dziga Vertov "The Man with the Movie Camera", 1929

By the 1930s, when the "democratic" society was not quite as wonderful as people had hoped, Stalin turned to artists to promote the socialist agenda.  Graphic designers like Gustav Klutsis and Sergei Sen'kin were among many who were enlisted to create propaganda posters and pamphlets that glorified the new regime.

Some of these printed materials are remarkable in their design elements but ultimately the message was one of control.  Artists were no longer expressing their views but advertising for the Soviet power and experimentation was not allowed.   The age of "Socialist Realism" effectively ended the great avant-garde breakthroughs of the early part of the century and Russian artists were reduced to being civil servants rather than arbiters of change.  The rest, as they say, is history.  "A Revolutionary Impulse" can be seen at MoMA until March 12.

February 19, 2017

John McLaughlin "Total Abstraction" @ LACMA

Though born and raised a Yankee, John McLaughlin (1898-1976) is identified first and foremost as a Southern California artist.  So it is entirely appropriate that the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art (LACMA) honor the State's adopted son with a long-overdue retrospective of his "Hard Edge" works.  "John McLaughlin Paintings: Total Abstraction" is a comprehensive survey of the post war geometric paintings for which he is best known and only the third major museum exhibition ever devoted to his work.

Three "Untitled" paintings from the 1950s

While McLaughlin himself freely acknowledged the influence of such Minimalist artists as Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, it is the art of Japan that had the most profound impact on his vision.  From his childhood spent in the Asian art galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and his later travels throughout Japan and China, McLaughlin absorbed the Zen principals of the void, or "ma", the negative space where one's consciousness can expand.

"V-1957", 1957

His sharp geometric designs are not intended to represent any type of object or experience, rather they are meant to suggest complete abstraction and with that, the possibility of deep contemplation.   

Upper: "#22-1959", 1959
Lower: "Untitled", 1966

The precise and perfect lines permit the viewer to become immersed in the negative space and ideally develop a more complete connection with nature.  McLaughlin endeavored to push the concept of abstraction to its outer limit, ultimately employing solely the shape of a rectangle as the preferred form and black as the simplest and most powerful color.  By the 1970s McLaughlin's paintings had been simplified to the extreme as he pursued his quest to achieve the void.

"#12-1970", 1970

John McLaughlin's obsession with abstraction earned him quite a few accolades during his lifetime and has elevated him to almost cult status among followers of California art.  His work had an immeasurable influence on later 20th century movements such as Light and Space (think James Turrell) and Pop Art (think Ed Ruscha) and continues to inspire to this day.  "Total Abstraction" is on view at LACMA until April 16th.

Leaving the museum during a break in the rain, I passed the site-specific installation by another noted California artist Chris Burden (1946-2015) that has become a landmark for visitors to downtown Los Angeles.  "Urban Light", 2008, features two hundred and two restored cast-iron antique lamp posts arranged in a grid that is almost irresistible to anyone with a camera - myself included!

February 12, 2017

California Dreamin'

I really should have listened more carefully to the lyrics in "It Never Rains in Southern California", because at the end of the second stanza the other shoe drops - "It never rains in California, but girl don't they warn ya?  It pours, man, it pours".  And despite my dreams of a sunny few days while exhibiting in the recent Los Angeles Fine Print Fair, the exception proved the rule.  On the plus side, the rains brought an end to California's devastating six year drought and the normally dun-colored mountains were a lush green, but any idea of a quick dip in the hotel's outdoor pool was completely out of the question!

Of course Los Angeles offered plenty of other diversions to occupy my free time and one of the most enjoyable was a visit to the museum and galleries of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, or "FIDM" for short.  Founded in 1969, FIDM began as an educational institution for students of fashion and costume design.  The Institute now comprises 4 campuses in Southern California, and, since 1978, a museum and library featuring examples of and documentation for all manner of clothing, textiles, ornamentation and accessories, both historic and contemporary, for the movie industry and fashionistas alike.

As well as archives and reference materials, the FIDM Museum also offers fashion-themed special exhibitions that are free and open to the public.  I had the good fortune to attend the preview party for their winter exhibitions which was held in a see-through tent complete with chandeliers and was just as fabulous as you would probably expect!

The main exhibition celebrated the silver anniversary of the FIDM Museum's annual nod to the Hollywood costume industry.  "25th Art of Motion Picture Costume Design" featured wardrobes from several of 2016's outstanding films. Like these disco-inspired dresses from one of the opening numbers of "La La Land"...

These 1940's style gowns worn by Marion Cotillard in "Allied"...

And Meryl Streep's diva dreams in "Florence Foster Jennings...

The adjacent gallery was set up as an old-time railroad car from a 1920's movie set.  "Exotica" featured fashion and film costumes from the Roaring 20s with all its retro luxury and glamorous locales.

This exhibition highlighted the influence of international dress on movie costumes of the period.  Though not an expansive show, "Exotica" offered choice examples of how foreign clothing inspired Hollywood movie costumes and subsequently American fashions.  Like the Chinese embroidered shawl seen above and the fur-trimmed evening coat below...

All of the costumes were beautifully presented and excellent examples of fine fashions of the times.  The overall effect was quite impressive and I very much enjoyed seeing a fashion exhibition from a cinematic, rather than a purely historic, perspective.

Naturally, this being Los Angeles, there were quite a few attendees whose sartorial splendor rivaled the mannequins, but most of the guests at the opening party seemed as thrilled to be there as I was!  The exhibitions remain on view at the FIDM Museum and Galleries until April 22nd.

January 25, 2017

Winter Antiques Show 2017

Feeling a little blue now that the holidays are really and truly over and it seems like an eternity before spring will arrive?  I know it's tempting to tuck up in a cosy apartment and read or watch Netflix, but you really will feel better if you get out and about.  Trust me.  And if you're in the New York this week, why not head over to the Park Avenue Armory and peruse the wonderful wares at the Winter Antiques Show?

Typically, the Winter Antiques Show is the first art fair in the calendar year and serves as the kick-off for the rest of the season.  To this end, the opening night party benefiting East Side House Settlement, is one of the most prominent events on the social agenda and with many famous faces from New York's haute monde in attendance.  Not being a member of the glitterati, I look forward to the quiet of a weekday afternoon when I can calmly look and ask questions and enjoy the beautifully decorated booths of the exhibitors.

This year I found the decor particularly fine with a focus on creating small stage sets that showcase the offerings rather than simply lining up the goods.  Like this presentation at Hyde Park Antiques, New York, with the lovely lavender/silver Chinoiserie wall covering setting off the fine Oriental inspired English furniture...

or this playful checkerboard of Chinese export porcelain at Cohen and Cohen, London...

the super-sized trompe l'oeuil clock face backdrop to the cabinet clocks on view at Bernard and S. Dean Levy, New York....

and the French antique wallpaper and Modernist furniture on the combined stand of Carolle Thibaut-Pomerantz, Paris, and David Gill, London...

Of course there were many wonderful individual items as well.  These ranged from the exquisite, like this Art Nouveau table clock by Eugène Feuillatre on the stand of Wartski, London

and this elaborately framed enamel on porcelain portrait miniature of Jane Seymour at Elle Shushan, Philadelphia...

to the odd but fascinating, like the Fabergé potato at A La Vieille Russie, New York...

the Indian/Portuguese embroidered wall hanging of monkeys, created circa 1900 in Bengal at Keshishian, London and New York...

and the Buffalo Bill hat made in the late 1800s of turkey feathers, fur, horse hair, textile, metal, glass tin tinklers and mirrors that was found in the South of France but authenticated by the Buffalo Bill Museum on the stand of Gemini Antiques in Oldwick, NJ...

The Winter Antiques Show's strong suit has always been Americana, so I leave you with this photo of what I thought was a marvelous example of the genre - these beautifully installed military drums next to a cigar store Indian on the stand of Kelly Kinzle, Pennsylvania.  It's one of the many reasons that this show is now in its 63rd year and stronger than ever!

January 06, 2017

A New Subway for a New Year!

New Yorkers had an extra special reason to celebrate this New Year's Day!  With well-deserved fanfare, the Second Avenue Subway was at long last opened to the public.  It's almost like the impossible dream come true as the project was decades in planning, years of construction, and billions of dollars in cost, but now the chronically delayed Q Train extension will finally carry passengers from Coney Island, Brooklyn, to 96th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan.

And carry them in style!  Not only are the new subway tracks cushioned for comfort and quiet, but the subway stations are bright and clean and actually welcoming.  Adding to the amazement factor are the special art commissions decorating the new stations.  All the hoopla in the the press seemed too good to be true, so when I found myself on East 85th Street the other day I thought I'd better check it out for myself.

Now I've lived in New York for a long time and I do ride the subways when traveling longer distances, but I can't say I've ever really "enjoyed" the experience.  To say this was a pleasure may sound ludicrous, but that is indeed what it was.

The new subway stations are two-tiered meaning that one does not descend directly onto the platform, but first to a mezzanine level, through the turnstiles, and then down again via escalators, elevators or stairs to the trains.  There was not a piece of trash or graffiti in sight, the equipment was all operational, there was a surfeit of uniformed personnel on hand and the trains ran on time!  But what was really remarkable, was the profusion of museum quality public art that decorated the tile walls.

For example, the 86th Street Station features the work of Chuck Close (b. 1940), an artist known for large format portraits usually executed as paintings or photographs.  Here, his massive close ups are created using glass mosaic, some in color and some in black and white, and all are impressive.

Chuck Close "Self Portrait", 2016

Uptown at 96th Street, the terminus (for now), the entire station is decorated in a blue and white mural by Sarah Sze (b. 1969).  "Blueprint for a Landscape" is an all-encompassing installation covering the ground and first levels, including the escalator tunnels.


Heading back downtown, I stopped at the 72nd Street Station which is now populated with "Perfect Strangers", more than three dozen characters created in glass mosaic by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz (b. 1961).  A testament to the diversity of subway riders, there are people from all walks of life, like the businessman whose briefcase contents are flying in the wind...

The lady in a sari checking her phone and the gentleman carrying home the ingredients for dinner...

The father and his young daughter with their huge bouquet of balloons..

And the police officer enjoying an ice cream..

Each depiction is life-sized and according to the MTA website, is derived from a photograph of a real subway rider.

Finally we come to the newly re-constructed 63rd Street Station, where the new subway tunnel connects with the original Q line.  The art in the station is also a connection between old and new as "Elevations" by Korean-born Jean Shin (b. 1971) references the historical elevated subway lines but with a futuristic slant.

I still can't believe my own ears when I hear myself urging friends to take a ride on the Second Avenue Subway as a form of recreation, but it is true.  And I am certainly not alone.  For the first time in memory, the subway is a destination in itself with people taking photos and gleefully talking to fellow strap hangers.  How long this enthusiasm will last is anybody's guess, but for the time being, the new Second Avenue Subway is the talk of the town!

December 29, 2016

"Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age"

One of the exhibitions I most wanted to see this season is "Klimt and the Women of Vienna's Golden Age, 1900-1918" on view until January 16, 2017, at the Neue Galerie.  So I took advantage of a rainy Thursday between Christmas and New Year's to stop in and catch the show before it's too late.

Although he never married, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was certainly a ladies' man.  He fathered 14 children by his models and other working-class women, and he counted some of the most prominent ladies in fin-de-siècle Vienna as close friends.  Indeed, Klimt expressed his admiration for these women through some of the most beautiful portraits ever painted, many of which are on view here.

Ironically, Klimt was not primarily a portrait painter.  Known initially as a Symbolist and later as a founding member of the Vienna Secession Movement, Klimt's earlier works tended to be allegorical in nature and were often overtly erotic.  It was his reluctance to conform that induced him to refuse State sponsorship which in turn resulted in him relying on private commissions for economic survival.  These commissions were principally portraits of wealthy patrons that he completed at the rather stately pace of one per year making the twelve on view in this exhibition a very large portion of his output.

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer", 1907

If you've ever had the pleasure of visiting the Neue Galerie, you are already familiar with the fantastic Klimt paintings, both landscapes and portraits, on permanent view.  Even if you have never visited the Neue Galerie, you are probably aware of the star of the collection, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" (also known as "The Woman in Gold"), confiscated by the Nazis and restituted to the family after an eight-year lawsuit after which it was acquired by Ronald Lauder at public auction.  For the duration of this special exhibition, visitors can see not only this masterpiece, but also its successor, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II", on loan from a private collection.

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II", 1912

Of course, Klimt painted other women as well.  His main patron was Szerena Lederer, the Hungarian born wife of a wealthy industrialist, who commissioned portraits of herself and her daughter and at one point had amassed the largest collection of Klimt paintings in private hands.

"Szerena Pulitzer Lederer", 1899

"Elisabeth Lederer", 1914-1916

The exhibition also features 40 drawings, both preparatory and finished, relating to Klimt's portraits and a fine group of decorative objects like fans and leather goods that a Viennese lady may have used.  Also of interest are several examples of contemporary dress by Shanghai designer Han Feng that draw on the reform fashions of Klimt's companion Emilie Flöge.

Of course, no visit to the Neue Galerie is complete without a stop at their Viennese inspired restaurant, the Café Sabarsky.  As usual, I am unable to resist the temptation of a Kaffee und Kuchen and I enjoyed every morsel!  My wish for you, my dear readers, is that year ahead brings you beauty and sweetness is all you do, and that we can share many more adventures together in 2017.  Happy New Year!

December 28, 2016

Loving "La La Land"

If you're looking for a few hours away from shopping and cooking and entertaining this holiday season, I have the perfect suggestion.  Pack up all your cares and woes, even the house guest who's getting on your nerves, and head to the nearest cinema showing this season's must-see hit "La La Land"!

Set in the Los Angeles of today, the movie is an homage to musicals of times past.  It follows the story of Mia, played by Emma Stone, an aspiring actress employed part time as a barista in a coffee shop on a movie lot while running from audition to audition, and Sebastian, played by Ryan Gosling, a jazz pianist forced to play in mediocre cover bands to earn a living while longing to open his own club.

There are several factors that make director Damien Chazelle's take on this love story different from the usual boy-meets-girl, the main element being the location.  Audiences are used to romantic movies taking place in romantic cities like Paris or New York.  Chazelle, a native of Rhode Island, chose Los Angeles for its historic attraction as the land where dreams can come true.  Though Los Angeles cannot be considered "charming", it does have a nostalgic attraction especially for aficionados of old movies.  "La La Land" is shot almost entirely on location using a CinemaScope wide screen format that adds to the film's retro appeal.  Though definitely a contemporary story - Mia drives a Prius and both use cell phones - it has a certain timeless quality as far as costumes and styles.  Add to this mix references to Hollywood classics like "Rebel Without a Cause", "Singin' in the Rain" and "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and you have all the makings of movie magic.

The Opening Scene of "La La Land"
Ensemble performance of "Another Day of Sun"

It's popular to lament the dearth of quality entertainment in the movie houses these days, but "La La Land" is like a step back in time, yet refreshingly original.  It is a modern day relationship between two people dedicated to pursuing their dreams and it does not have a story book ending.  Though I couldn't hum a single tune from the soundtrack, I thoroughly enjoyed the song and dance routines from the fabulous opening number shot on a car pool ramp where the 105 and 110 Freeways intersect, to Mia and Sebastian's first duet on a cul de sac overlooking L.A. (below), to the dancing on the Milky Way at the historic Griffith Observatory in "Planetarium".

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling
"A Lovely Night"

The two hours just flew by and judging from the audience's reaction, we were all sorry to see it end.  "La La Land" has already been nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards and I think it will figure prominently in the Academy Awards as well.  It is a rare gem of a movie - nostalgic and modern, romantic and realistic, dramatic and funny - and ideal entertainment for this holiday season.