November 29, 2009

The Bauhaus - Modernity at MoMA

Many of us are at least vaguely familiar with the clean, industrial look of the Bauhaus - the boxy white buildings, the tubular steel chairs, the geometric printed graphics. But not many Americans are aware of the history of this avant garde movement or of the profound influence it had on art and design as we know it today.

For the first time since 1938, New York's Museum of Modern Art is mounting a major retrospective of the Bauhaus School - its incarnation, theories, products, importance and ultimate demise. "Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity" presents over 400 objects tracing the development of the movement and its acolytes from its inception in Weimar in 1919, through the move to Dessau to its final home in Berlin before being shut down by the Nazis as "un-German".

The Bauhaus School was founded by the architect Walter Gropius who proposed a new look at the concept of applied arts as opposed to fine art. His belief, based on the principles of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, bestowed no special status on painting, drawing or sculpture. Rather he suggested that the same aesthetics be applied to more practical crafts and items that served everyday uses. To this end, he and his followers designed buildings, furniture, decorations, household objects, textiles and books that held their own among works of "fine" art. Carpets, chairs, tea sets, lamps and baby cribs were as much a part of the interior décor as the paintings, photographs and prints that adorned the walls. Practical designs by Marianne Brandt, Anni Albers, Marcel Breuer and Gunta Stöltzl existed side by side with works by Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Vassily Kandinski and Oskar Schlemmer (see "Bauhaus Stairway", 1932, oil on canvas, left). It was a true collaborative effort - a lifestyle project - that thrived on the inter-pollination of ideas.

Unfortunately the fate of the Bauhaus School was very closely tied to the changes in government in Germany during the Post World War I Weimar years. When the Liberal powers in Thuringia were voted out in 1925, so went the funding for the school and it was forced to relocate to Dessau, a city that was eager to develop a cultural identity of its own. When the same fate befell these city leaders in 1930, the school once again lost its support and attempted to re-establish itself with a new director, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in Berlin. As Germany became less tolerant of new ideas and more suspicious of "nonconformist" activities, the school was officially sealed off by the National Socialist Party and the Berlin Police and was closed by its directors shortly afterward.

But the seeds of Modernism had been firmly planted and even though the school was officially shut down the ideas continued to propagate. The Bauhaus aesthetic continues to inspire architects, designers, decorators and artists in a way that would make Walter Gropius and his colleagues proud!

"Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity" continues at MoMA until January 25, 2010.

November 21, 2009

Mad About Man (Ray)!

"I paint what cannot be photographed, that which comes from the imagination or from dreams, or from an unconscious drive. I photograph the things that I do not wish to paint, the things which already have an existence." So said Man Ray in a 1970s interview later published in "Man Ray: Photographer". For an already difficult to categorize artist, this did nothing to clarify the matter, but it does give an interesting look into the psyche of this fascinating character. Painter, sculptor, photographer, poet, Dadaist, Modernist, Surrealist, American, French and Avant Garde genius, Man Ray lived his life in the shadow of famous friends and colleagues like Duchamp and Breton. Since his death in 1976 the world has begun to recognize his accomplishments and his major contribution to 20th Century art. Now, thanks to two concurrent exhibitions, we can delve much deeper and get a firmer grasp on this enigmatic artist.

Just opened at The Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York is "Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention". Now, few people think of Man Ray as a "Jewish artist" in the same way that Marc Chagall is identified with his religion. In fact, Man Ray went out of his way to distance himself from his Russian Jewish heritage, but there is no getting away from one's genes. Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia, PA, Man Ray's flight from his identity was never 100% successful and his sense of "otherness" was a profound influence on his work. His need to both hide and reveal himself, a desire for both notoriety and oblivion, can been seen throughout his career from early New York Dada works, his personal and professional reinvention in his adopted city of Paris, his exile in Hollywood during World War II and finally his return to France where he eventually died.

Mason Klein, the curator of this exhibition, is to be commended on his scholarly and objective handling of this aspect of Man Ray's life and career. Through an outstanding selection of works from early paintings, photography, "ready-mades" (objects), films and the eponymous "Rayographs", this show is a comprehensive and fascinating look at who Man Ray was and what made him such a master of reincarnation. "Alias Man Ray" continues until March 14th.

For a totally different angle on the inspiration of Man Ray, hop on the shuttle and head to Washington DC where The Phillips Collection is now showing "Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens". Focusing exclusively on Man Ray's work in photography this exhibition explores how he was influenced by, and promoted a new appreciation of, African sculpture and artifacts and their effect on the Modernist aesthetic.

French and Belgian colonial conquests in Africa opened up a new world of culture, one that was eagerly absorbed by the artistic and avant garde community at home in Europe. The discovery of these exotic forms and materials was like an electric current for Man Ray and his contemporaries and their photographs of these masks, figures and objects became stunning art works in an entirely new category. Wendy Grossman, the exhibition curator, has assembled photographic masterpieces of the 1920s and 30s by Man Ray, Stieglitz, Evans and Beaton, and presented them alongside the African objects they depict. It is a remarkable opportunity to better understand the creative process from influence, conception, manipulation to finished product, and witness the transformation from "Primitivism" to Western ideals of beauty and art. "Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens" is on view until January 10th when it goes on tour to Vancouver, Albuquerque and Charlottesville, VA.

Although we look back now with 21st Century eyes and sensibilities, it remains true that Man Ray was an artist ahead of his time. We can speculate with some certainty on the circumstances that influenced him, be they genetic or environmental, but there is no doubt that Man Ray was a force of nature driven by a great intelligence, an innate creativity and a marvelous sense of humor. These two exhibitions are a testament to the conundrum that was Man Ray!

November 09, 2009

A Visit Aboard the USS New York

If you've noticed a lot of activity on the New York waterfront this past week and wondered what was going on, here's the answer! Presently docked right next door to the Intrepid is the latest addition to the U.S. Navy's fleet of "LPD's" or "Landing Platform, Dock" amphibious support vessels. Ordinarily this would not be cause for much excitement, but this ship is special. Forged in the bow of the USS New York is 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the World Trade Center towers. The ship's motto "Strength forged through sacrifice. Never Forget" is a compelling reminder of that terrible September day but with the promise that out of the rubble comes strength and fortitude.

Here are a few statistics. The USS New York (LPD 21) is 684 feet long and 105 feet wide which allows the ship to pass through the Panama Canal. It can travel at a speed of 22 knots or 24.2 miles per hour. The skipper, CDR Curt Jones, is in charge of a crew of 360 including 28 officers and the ship can transport up to 800 troops. The craft was built in the Northrup Grumman's Avondale Louisiana shipyard and christened there on March 1, 2008. It should be mentioned that when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, 1,200 shipyard workers continued production with minimal interruption.

The ship was commissioned here in New York on November 7th as a tribute to not only our superb military but also the brave men and women who lost their lives on 9/11. After all the pomp and circumstance the general public was invited to come on board and check out the bells and whistles. And come they did, myself included, to view this impressive vessel, salute our fine seamen and reflect once more on the terrors on that day and how precious our freedom is. Old and young, veterans and civilians, firemen, policemen, priests and just ordinary people like yours truly who thought this was too good an opportunity to pass by.

Visitors lined up at the gangplank and were greeted by some very welcoming sailors who were clearly proud of their ship and happy to show it off. It was very exciting to actually board a military vessel and have a close up look at the equipment they use every day. Tanks, humvees, two hovercraft landing craft, an Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter, various smaller choppers and a platoon of artillery were all on display and could be climbed into and around while personnel stood by to answer any questions. This is not a fighting ship, it is a support vessel and its capabilities were astonishing to a layperson like me. I was not only impressed with the machinery and the ship shape maintenance, I was also very moved by the numerous shrines to those who perished on September 11.

On this Veteran's Day I would like to take this opportunity to salute our fallen heroes and commend those who continue to fight for our liberty. If the young service men and women I met on board the USS New York are any indication, our future is in very good hands.

November 05, 2009

The Print Fair '09

Aficionados of printed works on paper have reason to celebrate this weekend - it's the annual Print Fair sponsored by the International Fine Print Dealers Association. Once again the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street has been transformed into a print lovers paradise with 84 dealers from the United States, Canada and Europe exhibiting the finest examples of works from Old Master etchings to Contemporary Artists' Books.

My favorite booths at the fair include The Fine Art Society, London, with its lovely selection of works by Whistler and Sickert and Kunsthandlung H.H. Rumbler, Frankfurt, showed its usual magnificent inventory of works by Rembrandt, Dürer and Goya and Ursus Books and Prints, New York, covered an entire wall with a 1735 plan of Paris in which every building was drawn. Galerie André Candillier, Paris, presented European masterworks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Picasso. Hirschl & Adler, New York, offered very fine American prints by Mary Cassatt, Gustave Baumann and Childe Hassam. And The Redfern Gallery, London had the back wall filled with colorful Modernist woodblock prints by British artists.

There is something for almost everyone at this year's Print Fair! So if you're aching for an aquatint, eager for an etching or longing for a lithograph, the Seventh Regiment Armory is THE place to be!