September 26, 2016

"Proust's Muse: The Countess Greffulhe"

We have become almost inured to fashion spectacles by the likes of Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian who seek to shock with more and more outrageous outfits on the red carpet or just on the town.  But their desire to create a sensation or gain notoriety through dress (or lack of it) is nothing new.  In fact, one could say that the trend began over a century ago, in Paris, with the original fashion queen, the Countess Greffulhe.

Born Marie-Joséphine Anatole Louise Élizabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay to an aristocratic French family in 1860, she married the very wealthy Viscount (later Count) Henri Greffulhe at the age of 18.  This advantageous union provided the Countess Greffulhe the fortune she desired to indulge her many passions, and indulge she did.  As well as a generous supporter of the arts and sciences - she was a patron of causes from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to Marie Curie's research into radioactivity - the Countess was also a major client of some of the greatest couturiers of the age.
"Lily Dress", attributed to Worth, 1896
Black velvet with ivory silk appliqued "lilies", sequins and pearls

A stunning beauty with a slim build, dark eyes and auburn hair, the Countess had a very clear idea of how she wished to present herself and dictated those fashion terms to her dress designers.  Even such masters as Worth and Paul Poiret were forced to alter their sartorial visions to accommodate her wishes.  According to the press at the time "Her fashions, whether invented for her or by her must resemble no one else's."   She preferred to look "bizarre" rather than "banal".

Photograph by Nadar of the Countess Greffulhe posing
in front of a mirror, wearing the "Lily Dress"

While this may have rubbed some gentry the wrong way, it had the opposite effect on the up and coming writer Marcel Proust.  Though not a personal acquaintance, he became infatuated with the Countess Greffulhe and modeled Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes in his magnum opus "A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time)" after her.  Oriane, like the Countess, used fashion as a tool to project social standing, as a language to express her individuality and as a form of artistic expression.

Szekely de Doba "Portrait of Marcel Proust", 1926
Etching with drypoint

In collaboration with the Palais Galliera, the Fashion Museum of the City of Paris and the repository for the Countess' wardrobe, Dr. Valerie Steele and her team at New York's Museum at FIT are now presenting twenty eight magnificent examples of the Countess' gowns and wraps, plus an assortment of accessories including stockings, hats and shoes.  Dating from around 1885 to the late 1930s, the collection comprises fashions from day dresses to ball gowns, from the House of Worth to Jeanne Lanvin, each a masterpiece of couture in both style and workmanship.

"Tea Gown", House of Worth, circa 1897
Blue cut velvet on green satin ground

Two items in particular exemplified the Countess' identity as a very self aware fashion icon.  The first is an evening cape that originated as a gift from Tsar Nicolas II on a visit to Paris in 1896.  He presented the Countess with a heavily embellished court robe from Bukhara.  She promptly took it to Charles Worth and had it re-styled and transformed into an evening cape that is almost ecclesiastical in feeling.  The second is the gown she wore to her daughter's wedding.  Conservative in style with long sleeves, a train and a high neckline, the dress, nevertheless, is a show stopper.  Taffeta lamé with gold and silver embroidery, sequins, pearls and a fur trim, the "Byzantine Gown" was created in 1904 by a young Paul Poiret when he was still at the House of Worth.  The story goes that when the Countess arrived at the wedding, a good fifteen minutes before her daughter, the crowd exclaimed "My God, is that the mother of the bride" and the poor bride was completely forgotten!

The Countess Greffulhe lived a very long life and maintained her unique sense of style until the end.  And though Marcel Proust immortalized her in prose and worshiped her in private, she did not return the favor and refused his repeated requests for a photograph.  Fortunately for us, the legend lives on in this fascinating testament to a woman ahead of her time.

September 18, 2016

Stuart Davis @ The Whitney

Now that summer is drawing to a close, it's time to catch up on the exhibitions that I had been meaning to go to and are about to close.  One of the shows on my "must see" list was "Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" on view at the Whitney until September 25.  So, last week on a beautiful September afternoon, I took a ride downtown on the Number 1 train and checked it out.

"Egg Beater No. 3", 1928

Stuart Davis (1892-1964) is a study in contrasts.  Born in Philadelphia to artist parents, he grew up in the company of painters from the Ashcan school who promoted social realism and the role of everyday experiences in art.  Exposure to Fauvism and Abstraction, primarily at the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913, introduced the idea of form and composition taking precedence over subject and caused Davis to question his formative beliefs.

"Lucky Strike", 1921

Conflicted over the idea of pure abstraction superseding the social responsibility of art, Davis strove to reach a happy medium by developing a style that used bright colors and abstract shapes to express the speed and excitement of modernism.

"House and Street", 1931

Davis' "Aha!" moment arrived when he successfully merged every day objects with the avant-garde creating a look that was both European and American, Abstract and Realistic.

"Salt Shaker", 1931

After World War I, Paris was the undisputed center of the art world attracting painters, writers and musicians from all over the world.  Stuart Davis did not make the pilgrimage until 1928, when, with the support of Gertrude Whitney, he booked passage and stayed in the French capital until the crash of 1929 forced his return to the States.  The thirteen months he spent soaking up the fertile atmosphere were seminal to his artistic development and informed his work for the rest of his career.

"New York - Paris, No. 2", 1931

The Great Depression left Davis, and many other people, desperate for an income, and he turned to mural painting to earn some money.  In murals, he found a large canvas on which to paint his vivid abstractions filled with energy and motion.

"New York Mural", 1932

Another source of inspiration was commercial advertising.  Davis was a pioneer in the use of popular imagery and words as artistic subjects, a treatment later made famous by Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha.

 "Little Giant Still Life" 1950

In his later years Davis continued to explore abstract shapes making them bigger and more dominant, but reduced his color palatte to just three, red, green and yellow, plus black and white.

"Blips and Ifs", 1963-64

"Stuart Davis:  In Full Swing" gives visitors a fresh perspective on the work of this American icon.  Davis' unique mélange of abstraction and realism, of popular culture with fine art, of tradition with modernity and with American and European sensibilities, gives his work a unique place in both the history of art and as an influence on contemporary culture.

September 13, 2016

Announcing Catalogue Number Eleven!

Though the summer days are getting shorter and the sun has lost its bite, the new fall season is right around the corner and that is cause for some celebration.  Since 2006, I have ushered in the autumn with my annual catalogue presenting a selection of fine prints, drawings and watercolors acquired throughout the year.

For the first time the catalogue is structured around a theme, "Cherchez la femme", and features works honoring women from Belle Epoque "coquettes" to World War I nurses through mediums ranging from drawings, lithographs, pochoirs and etchings.  As usual, there is something for almost every taste and pocketbook.

This edition is somewhat bittersweet as it is the first time that my mother no longer with us, anxiously awaiting its arrival in the post.  I honor her memory with this small tribute to a woman who was a model of independence, fortitude and positivity.

August 24, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Millicent Rogers

A few miles north of the town of Taos, and just to the west of the Taos Pueblo, is a museum devoted to one of the area's more colorful characters, Millicent Rogers.  Though a resident for only six years, she left a lasting impact both for her own personal style and for her support of the arts and culture of the Southwest.

Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers (1902-1953) was the grand daughter of the co-founder of Standard Oil and grew up in high society with all the trappings of great wealth.  Despite a glamorous lifestyle with no financial worries, Millicent Rogers did not lead a carefree life.  A bout of rheumatic fever as a child left her prone to illness throughout her life but also taught her how to benefit from the periods of bed rest by drawing and designing.  Her quest for the "perfect man" resulted in three brief marriages but gave her three sons whom she adored.  And in 1947, a broken heart after an affair with Clark Gable ended badly, drove her west to Taos, New Mexico, where she found her own nirvana.

Which brings me back to the present and my recent visit to the Millicent Rogers Museum.  Situated in the former hacienda of Claude and Elizabeth Anderson, great friends of Millicent Rogers and a place she visited often, is a museum showcasing the artistic heritage of the native population as collected by Ms Rogers, as well as an homage to this remarkable lady and her vision.

Visitors to this remote site enter the private realm of one of the Southwest culture's earliest proponents.  Though Millicent Rogers may have rejected many of the trappings of her fashionable upbringing, she did apply her cultivated eye and substantial resources to collecting and promoting the great arts and crafts tradition of local Hispanic and Indian people.  An avid collector of woven blankets, like the Navajo examples seen above, and a patron of potters, especially Maria Martinez whose work is seen below, Millicent Rogers amassed over 7,000 objects that were donated to the museum by her son Paulie shortly after her death.

Not surprisingly, Millicent Rogers' main obsession was jewelry which she collected passionately and also designed.  The Museum offers a magnificent selection of silver and turquoise bracelets, belts, necklaces and other adornments most of which were owned and worn by Millicent Rogers herself.

There are further galleries devoted to other traditional arts such as Kachina dolls, woven baskets and tinwork, and still more that are closer to installations than museum displays.  The individual collections and the wide variety of items accumulated leave no doubt that Millicent Rogers was devoted to protecting and promoting indigenous culture long before it was considered "real art".

While it must have been curious that a jet setter like Millicent Rogers would finish her days as champion of an overlooked population in the middle of no where, in retrospect it seems perfectly natural.  Millicent Rogers wrote to her son Paulie shortly before she died that being in Taos made her feel "part of the earth".  I can only say that in my own experience, re-visiting the area after a decade long absence, I wish I could have been there then too.

August 21, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Mabel Dodge Luhan

About an hour and a half drive north of Santa Fe, through the Rio Grande Gorge to the edge of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, is the historic town of Taos.  Founded in 1615 after the Spanish conquest of nearby Pueblos, the area saw a lot of conflict between Hispanics and American Indians until New Mexico became a territory of the United States in 1850.

By the late 19th century, before the territory became a state in 1912, Taos began to develop into a destination for artists.  Drawn by dramatic scenery and a fascinating mix of cultures, what began as a handful soon became a full fledged community and the Taos Art Colony was established.  Today, the town of Taos continues to be a lure for artists and is home to many studios, galleries and three museums, one of which was the main reason for my recent visit.

The Harwood Museum of Art was the brainchild of Bert and Elizabeth Harwood who joined their fellow artists in a retreat from the usual art centers to the quiet inspiration of the Southwest.  In 1916 the Harwoods purchased and re-purposed a group of adobe buildings to develop an art complex known as El Pueblito.  For some years it also functioned as the town's only library, stocked with books from the Harwood's private collection.  Eventually, the Foundation was donated to the University of New Mexico under whose aegis the facility has expanded into a small but very fine museum focusing on the art and culture of the region.

Nicolai Fechin
"Mabel Dodge Luhan", c. 1927

The impetus for my visit to The Harwood was not just to see their renowned permanent collection but to view a special exhibition that has received a lot of publicity in the art world press.  "Mabel Dodge Luhan and Company:  American Moderns and The West" focuses on the extraordinary cultural entrepreneur, Mabel Ganson Evans Dodge Sterne Luhan, and how she, almost single-handedly, cultivated what is now known as Southwestern Modernism.

Mabel Dodge Luhan's (1879-1962) remarkable life began in Buffalo, New York, where she was the only child of a very wealthy banker and his wife.  Widowed at the age of 24, Mabel Ganson Evans left with her only child for Europe where she married her second husband, Boston architect Edwin Dodge, and established a very popular artistic and society salon in their lavishly restored residence, the Villa Curonia in Florence, Italy.  By 1912, Mabel, Edwin and John returned to New York to set up housekeeping, and a new salon, in Greenwich Village.  Actively engaged in the avant garde art scene, Mabel was a vociferous proponent of free speech, social reform and sexual equality.  With the outbreak of World War I, and the dissolution of her marriage, Mabel moved to Croton-on-Hudson where she attracted not only her usual coterie of artists and activists but also the attention of the Russian post-Impressionist painter Maurice Sterne, who soon became husband number three.

Maurice Sterne
"Pueblo Indian Head", 1918, and "Taos Indian", 1918

Shortly after the marriage, Mabel dispatched Maurice to Santa Fe with the hope that he would find new inspiration for his art.  He was captivated by the region and wrote to his wife to come and join him and "save the Indians, their art-culture-reveal it to the world!"  Mabel made the arduous trek to northern New Mexico, then still quite remote, and was bowled over.  Unfortunately for Maurice, while Taos became her Shangri-La, he was replaced as soul-mate when she met and fell in love with Tony Lujan, a Tiwa Indian from the Taos Pueblo whom she married in 1923.
Together, Mabel and Tony built Los Gallos, a seventeen-room house with five guesthouses, on the outskirts of Taos.  It was here that she created her ultimate salon - a destination for artists and writers to come and work in a supportive and inspirational community.  And come they did.  Before long, Los Gallos was visited by artists both American and European who seized the opportunity to spend time in such a fertile environment - intellectually, culturally and visually.  Guests included D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, Agnes Pelton...

Agnes Pelton
"The Voice", 1930

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Maynard Dixon and Andrew Dasburg...

Andrew Dasburg
"Taos Houses", 1926 well as Willa Cather, Martha Graham and Marsden Hartley...

Marsden Hartley
"An Abstract Arrangement of Indian Symbols", 1914-15

Alfred Stieglitz and his entourage were also captivated by the beauty and mysticism of Taos.  Photographer Paul Strand and his wife Rebecca Salsbury (best known for her reverse oil on glass paintings), John Marin, and of course Georgia O'Keeffe all painted the stunning scenery in a uniquely American Modernist style...

Georgia O'Keeffe
"Taos, New Mexico", 1939

As well as the spectacular landscape, Taos also offered a rare perspective on "primitive" cultures with both Hispanic and American Indian folk and religious art part of the every day.  Hispanic santos and retablos as well as tribal rites and artifacts provided visitors to the Luhans' with new sources of Modernist imagery.

 A "Death Cart / Carreta de la Muerte" with works by
John Marin and Victor Higgins in the background

Marsden Hartley's "Blessing the Melon", 1918
flanked by 19th century Santos

Emil Bisttram
"Mexican Wake", 1932

Mabel and Tony continued to host the artists' colony at Taos for over forty years, making Los Gallos a true mecca for the visual and literary arts.  When Mabel died in 1962, she was universally recognized as having put Taos on the map as a cultural oasis and as having practically created the school of Southwest Moderism.  Taos remains a sanctuary for a special breed of artist, both Native American and Anglo, and The Harwood Museum of Art is another great reason for a visit.

August 19, 2016

Women of the Southwest - Georgia O'Keeffe

It's been a hot and humid summer in New York City, so to beat the heat and have a few days break before the autumn season starts, a quick trip to beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico was just the ticket!  The desert climate, the magnificent scenery, the blend of Indian and Spanish Colonial cultures and of course the decadent margaritas, made a perfect escape from the dog days in Manhattan.

One of the region's most iconic denizens and the artist probably most identified with the Southwest, is Georgia O'Keeffe.  Born on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, Georgia O'Keeffe's career as an artist was almost predestined.  At the age of 20 she was enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where her remarkable talents were recognized and encouraged.  By 1916, her unique  abstractions had caught the eye of the eminent photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz who not only showed them in his avant-garde gallery "291" but developed quite a personal interest in the young artist as well.

"Number 22 - Special", 1916-17

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  As a young woman and developing artist, Georgia O'Keeffe taught art at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, and later in Texas at the West Texas State Normal College, now West Texas A & M University.  The wide open vistas of the Texan landscape proved a profound influence on her work and remained evident throughout her very long and prolific career.  In recognition of these formative years, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe is presenting "Georgia O'Keeffe's Far Wide Texas", a special installation in addition to their important permanent collection.

"Train at Night in the Desert", 1916

At a time when realism was the norm, O'Keeffe's forays into abstract forms - bold lines and colors expressing feelings as well as objects - were radical to say the least.  In Texas she found her voice, later saying "I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught - not like what I had seen - shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down."

"Sunrise and Little Clouds No. II", 1916

Lured back to New York by Stieglitz with the promise of financial backing and exhibitions in his popular gallery, O'Keeffe left Texas in 1918.  Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe were married in 1924 and lived in a suite at the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue during the winter and spring, and at the Stieglitz family compound in Lake George for the rest of the year.  Each continued to actively pursue their individual careers and before long O'Keeffe had become one of America's most important painters with her husband managing and promoting her work.

In 1929 O'Keeffe took her first trip to New Mexico and fell in love with the magical landscape of mesas and adobes.  In 1949, three years after the death of Alfred Stieglitz and after innumerable visits to the area, she moved permanently to Abiquiu, outside of Taos, and later to Ghost Ranch, a little farther north.  Again, she found inspiration in the Southwestern landscape, and her later drawings and paintings draw heavily on the barren yet rich environs.

Pencil study and finished oil painting of "Road to Pedernal", 1941

Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New Mexico for the rest of her long and productive life and her name has become as synonymous with the region as her paintings have come to represent the terrain.  The O'Keeffe ideal of "filling a space in a beautiful way", so radical when first presented, is now iconic of American Modernism as she herself has become an emblem of feminism and independence.  But it all started a century ago in a small town in Texas where the beauty and possibilities of the wide open spaces were seemingly endless.

"Lavender Hill with Green", 1952

August 02, 2016

"Manus x Machina" @ The Met Fifth Avenue

One of the most eagerly anticipated events on the New York social calendar is the annual Met Gala where glitterati from the worlds of fashion and entertainment gather to officially open The Costume Institute's spring/summer exhibition.  This year the theme was "Manus x Machina:  Fashion in an Age of Technology" and the show has been such a success that it was extended until Labor Day.  Not wanting to get caught in a mad crush at the end of the run, I took advantage of an overcast Monday to head over to Fifth Avenue and check out the sartorial splendor on display.

Karl Lagerfeld/House of Chanel
Wedding Ensemble, Autumn/Winter 2014/15, Haute Couture
Scuba knit dress with gold, glass, crystal and leather trimmings
Scuba knit and silk satin train with rhinestones and pearls on a gold metallic pigment

"Manus x Machina" explores the differences between haute couture (clothing custom made for an individual) and prêt-à-porter (mass produced, ready-to-wear garments) through the dichotomy of hand-made (Manus) versus machine-made (Machina).  Traditionally, hand-made symbolized better quality, more exclusive and personalized while machine-made implied cheaper, more ordinary and industrial.  But in fact, as the exhibition demonstrates, couture has always relied on an element of the machine-made, and with advancements in technology and techniques, off-the-rack clothing has become more sophisticated and desirable.

Installed on two floors in The Met's Lehman Wing, "Manus x Machina" presents hand-made and machine-made, haute couture and prêt-à-porter, garments side-by side.  With white scrim walls and ceilings creating a cathedral effect, and an ever present sound track that one lady commented sounded like the funeral was about to begin, visitors explore the differences, similarities and convergence of these two methods with about 170 fabulous examples on view.

"Junon" and "Venus", House of Dior, 1949, haute couture
Machine sewn and hand finished foundation gown topped with
Gelatin and opalescent sequins hand-embroidered onto silk tulle
The exhibition is arranged according to embellishment technique, with Broderie (Embroidery) as the start.  Broderie, or the application of sequins, feathers, flowers or other adornment onto a garment's fabric, was traditionally done by hand using sewn stitches.  With the advent of acetates, synthetic fabrics and thermoplastic film, details can now be added by machine or simply ironed on.

Sequined dresses by Louis Vuitton, 2016, prêt-à-porter
Laser-cut silver metallic sequins machine glued onto tulle and air-brushed

Other examples of sewn-on decoration includes feathers, like this gorgeous pink silk haute couture evening dress by Balenciaga, 1965...

and its modern day counterpart, the "Straw Dress" by Gareth Pugh, from his 2016 couture collection.  Each black plastic drinking straw in cut and hand embroidered onto a black mesh overlay.

Artificial flowers have always been a popular decoration and the creation of fabric flowers is a painstaking and highly skilled process.  New machinery allows floral garnishes to be stamped and shaped with greater ease and new materials give a wider variety of effects.

 Court presentation ensemble by Boué Soeurs, 1928, haute couture
Silk tulle gown machine embroidered with silver cord
and hand-appliqued with artificial flowers and ribbons

Dress from the 2012 Louis Vuitton prêt-à-porter collection
Silk and polyester organza dress
Hand-embroidered with laser-cut plastic flowers

 Wedding Ensemble by Yves Saint Laurent, 1999, prêt-à-porter
Hand-made silk flowers with a machine-sewn silk train

Another important embellishment technique is pleating.  With the invention of the paper mold for fan production in 1760, pleating became a stylish option in garment design.  In the beginning the pleats could become flattened and patrons often had to return gowns to the fashion house to have the pleats reset.  

 Three evening gowns by Mariano Fortuny, circa 1930s, haute couture
Hand-pleated, hand-sewn and hand-embroidered embellishments

Later developments in synthetic fabrics and pleating technology resulted in permanently pleated or crinkled garments.

"Flying Saucer Dress" by Miyake Design Studio, 1994 prêt-à-porter
Machine-garment pleated and machine-sewn polyester

Popular since the middle ages is the art of Dentellerie, or Lacework, with hand-made lace being a costly and status conferring adornment for the well-to-do.  Because of the time and labor involved in making lace, industrialists developed machines to create high quality lace at a fraction of the cost and machine-made lace is used almost exclusively in both haute couture and prêt-à-porter collections.

Evening dress by Balenciaga, 1965, haute couture
Machine made lace with hand sewn fabric ruffles

A very contemporary example of lace couture is this creation by Iris van Herpen who used a combination of 3-D printing (stereolithography) and lasers, combined with hand sanding and spraying to achieve this resin dress in 2012.  I'm not sure how practical it is to wear, but it looks fantastic!

One more decorative technique is Maroquinerie, or Leatherwork, a later addition to the repertoire of the métiers involved in the fashion industry as it was not until the 19th century that tanning processes had developed to allow skins to be worked as easily as textiles.  This opened up a lot of new possibilities for ornamental elements in fashion such as cutwork, buttons and appliqué.  Probably my favorite piece in the exhibition is this 1919 haute couture coat by Paul Poiret that features a white fur collar and white leather cut out geometric designs hand sewn onto the cuffs and front panels.

With advancements in fabricated materials, dying, faux finishes and stamping, as well as laser cutting and ultrasonic welding, designers have created leather and leather trimmed garments that even a genius like Paul Poiret could never have conceived.  These two dresses from the Comme des Garçons 2014 and 2015 prêt-à-porter collections use synthetic leather that is laser cut and linked with grommets, rings and rivets.

As well as a feast for the eyes, "Manus x Machina" is a celebration of both the gifted artisans whose painstaking labor produced magnificent decorations and the creative use of technology to open up new possibilities in field of fashion.  The line between man and machine has certainly blurred in the 21st century, but this exhibition makes a very good case that both may co-exist and thrive with stylish results.