July 27, 2011

"Savage Beauty" At the Met

In my attempt to stay au courant in the worlds of art and style, and to keep you, my dear readers, up to date on the latest and hippest, I undertook a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's summer blockbuster "Savage Beauty". Now usually a trip to The Met is a pleasure and something I approach with enthusiasm, but this exhibition was a little outside my realm. Not to mention the fact that the queues were reputed to be horrendous no matter what hour of the day one chose to visit. But realizing that this is a show that "must" be seen, I recruited my most fashionable friend, Betty, to venture with me over to Fifth Avenue and wait the hour and a half in line before confronting the masses of visitors intent on seeing the life work of Alexander McQueen.

Alexander McQueen burst onto the British fashion scene in 1992 at the age of 23 and remained a "pedal to the metal" superstar until his death by suicide last year. Not without controversy in both his designs and his personal life, McQueen was known for drama and extravagance on the catwalk and his collections were sought after by celebrities around the world. For the Met's annual Costume Institute show, they have chosen to honor the late designer's creativity with a retrospective of his work presented in a suitably dramatic setting.

Within galleries titled "The Romantic Mind", "Cabinet of Curiosities", "Romantic Exoticism" and "Plato's Atlantis", the curators have presented collections ranging from "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" to "Highland Rape" from "It's Only A Game" to "Widows of Culloden", each in a highly decorated, sensory-overloaded environment.

Take for example the spinning, mirrored disco-gone-crazy gallery meant to represent a music box but a far cry from the little plastic ballerinas I grew up with! Or the mannequins posed alongside natural history objects in display-cases like a museum within a museum but with films of fashion shows playing non-stop. Or the video installation of a glass coffin appearing out of the ether with glass silently smashing to expose a reclining nude covered with insects to accompany McQueen's "VOSS" collection. The outfits too were crafted out of unusual objects including steel skeletons, balsa wood, dried flowers, bird heads, razor clam shells and football helmets.

There were moments of clarity however, even for a non-fashionista like me. The ode to McQueen's Scottish heritage (and his revolt against British "oppression") featured garments with a tartan theme that I do actually remember from the magazines and some of them were quite lovely and wearable. The video of his fashion show where the models moved about a checkered board as if in a chess game was inspired and beautiful. And the hologram of Kate Moss dancing in a white gown with hundreds of floating layers was breathtaking indeed.

I make no pretensions about my sense of style - I am decidedly un-fashionable - but I do appreciate good design. My strongest reaction to the exhibition was that Alexander McQueen, apart from being overtly homosexual, did not like women and his clothes were in no way intended to accentuate or beautify the wearer. I was, however, thoroughly impressed with the Met's fabulous installation and ultimately glad that we waited in line to see the show.

July 25, 2011

Summer Reading

Looking for a good book to settle down with in front of the air conditioner this summer? Something not just historic but pre-historic? A true story that is stranger than fiction? I have the perfect choice for you! Newly released this spring is "Boneheads: My Search for T. Rex" by Sausalito based author Richard Polsky.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I know and like Richard Polsky and he kindly gave me a copy of this book. He is probably best known as an art world writer with two well received and very engaging non-fiction works to his credit "I Bought Andy Warhol" and the sequel "I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon)". Richard had mentioned that he was working on something completely different but I was not prepared for "Boneheads" when I picked it up on a recent afternoon when the mercury was well above 90.

It turns out that Richard, beside being a contemporary art aficionado, has long been fascinated with dinosaurs and having reached a crossroads in his personal and professional lives decided to pursue a life-long desire to search for the Holy Grail of paleontology, a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. In this quest, Richard takes us on an adventure covering territory from the Badlands of South Dakota to the annual Gem, Mineral and Fossil convention in Tucson, Arizona. We meet characters such as Maurice Williams who discovered Sue, the biggest T. Rex skeleton to date, Henry Galiano owner of Maxilla & Mandible, a fossil store in New York, not to mention the self-declared "Fossil King", Bob Detrich. And we share in Richard's highs and lows as he attempts to crack the inner circle of this rather eclectic group of dinosaur hunters or "Boneheads" as they are affectionately known.

I am not going to tell you what happens in the end, but I will promise a few hearty chuckles along the way. Who knew antediluvian pursuits could be so very entertaining!

July 09, 2011

Museuming in Manhattan

Last Saturday afternoon was a perfect summer day - sunny and warm and not too muggy - and since everybody else seemed to have left town for the beach, the ideal time to visit a few museums and catch up on exhibitions. So after lunch I strolled through Central Park and headed uptown to 92nd Street to begin my tour at The Jewish Museum.

Stepping back in time to the 19th Century, I found myself in the bourgeois Jewish household of the Cones of Baltimore. Herman and Helen Kahn/Cone had twelve children. Two of their sons, Moses and Caesar, began a textile business that became the largest supplier of denim to Levi Strauss and as you can imagine was very prosperous. Two of their daughters, Dr. Claribel and Miss Etta, became avid collectors of Modern Art and their collection laid the foundation for The Baltimore Museum of Art.

Fast forward to today and a generous loan from The Baltimore Museum that allows us this glimpse into the lives of The Cone Sisters and a chance to see a few of their treasures. At a time when Victorian ladies pursued genteel domestic avocations, Claribel and Etta traveled to Europe, hooked up with Gertrude Stein and started spending money. And how! The Cone Sisters quickly became the patrons of Henri Matisse and purchased prodigious amounts of his paintings, drawings and sculptures. But they were not limited to Matisse. Their collection included works by van Gogh, Gaugin, Pissarro, Renoir and Picasso as well as innumerable pieces of jewelry, textiles, laces, rugs and furniture picked up on their travels throughout Africa and Asia. A selection of these works, accompanied by some fascinating documentary photos and ephemera, are a testament to the far-sightedness of these Baltimore damsels.

Claribel died suddenly in 1929 and Etta passed away 20 years later. At the time of her death the collection amounted to over 3,000 works and an adjoining apartment had been rented to house both the collection and the collector under one roof. "Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore" is a look at these remarkable women and their obsession with art and is on view in New York until September 25th.

Heading down Fifth Avenue to 86th Street we come to one of my favorite museums, the Neue Galerie, whose current exhibition "Vienna 1900: Style and Identity" looks at the fine and decorative arts of the era and how they relate to the cataclysmic social shifts that were occurring at the same time. Turn-of-the-Century Vienna was a hotbed of psychological and sexual reform, think Freud, meeting with a revolution in art and design, think Klimt and the Wiener Werkstätte. Attitudes toward women and sexuality were changing dramatically as reflected in the erotic drawings of Egon Schiele, the stylized, highly decorative portraits of Klimt and the candid intellectual studies Kokoschka painted of his sitters. Things were also shifting in the world of décor and domestic appointments as the Victorian model was being replaced by Modernism and the Vienna Secession.

The third floor of the exhibition is dedicated to interior design and ranges from the pioneering forays of Otto Wagner, the godfather of Modernism, to the strict formalism of Adolf Loos to the more lighthearted and all encompassing approach of the Wiener Werkstätte practitioners Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Dagobert Peche. The Neue Galerie is endowed with probably the finest collection of furniture and household objects of this era outside of Austria and an exhibition of this sort is a golden opportunity to present these treasures to an appreciative audience. Many of the pieces I had seen before on prior visits, but by rearranging and rehanging, in effect redecorating the museum, everything looked fresh and could be viewed in a different context. If you are a fan of Modernism, this is the show for you!

Finally I headed over to Madison Avenue and 75th Street to The Whitney Museum of American Art where the first U.S. retrospective of Lyonel Feininger is now on view. To be perfectly honest this was not my first choice for a Saturday afternoon but I was very pleasantly surprised. "Lyonel Feininger: At the Edge of the World" presents the artist and his work with a charm and humanity that I found captivating and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit.

Lyonel Feininger was born in New York in 1871 but moved to Germany at the age of 16. He began his artistic career as an illustrator and caricaturist and his comic series' "Kin-der-Kids" and "Wee Willie Winkie's World" appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune in 1906. His early paintings reflected the influence of German Expressionism in their depictions of carnival characters in vivid colors but by 1912 he had moved on to Cubism and its deconstructed planes.

With World War I and the scarcity of materials, Feininger turned to the most available resource he could find, wood. Not only did he produce a beautiful series of wood cut prints, he also began crafting tiny wooden sculptures of trains, buildings and people. Although initially intended as toys for his sons, these miniatures developed a life of their own as they represented a "golden childhood" and perpetuated his obsession with a "City at the Edge of the World".

But it was after The Great War that Feininger achieved his greatest fame in the circle of the Bauhaus and its Utopian Society. His paintings of the period reflect his love of music, particularly the fugue where a single theme is built upon and expanded and modulated until it becomes magnificent. Likewise, his depictions of buildings and boats and seascapes become more complex, richer and full of emotion as layers of colors and forms are applied. It should come as no surprise that his work was noticed and decried by the Nazis as "degenerate" - an attribution that Feininger could not bear and he returned to New York after a 50 year absence.

Feininger lived in Manhattan until his death in 1956. Although he arrived as a virtual unknown in his birth city, his Modernist paintings of the skyline and the seashore slowly earned him a very respectable reputation, albeit never to the extent of his recognition in Germany. Thanks to the Whitney many more people will now discover the charisma and the power of this native son.

It's getting late and I've seen a lot of art, not to mention the miles I've walked! Time to head back and enjoy this perfect July evening with a glass of wine at an outdoor café and toast all the wonderful, diverse artists who have colored our world. Cheers!

July 05, 2011

"Betsabeé Romero: Lágrimas Negras" at The Neuberger Museum of Art

On the drive home from Katonah and its wonderful "Double Solitaire" exhibition, I took a short detour and visited the Neuberger Museum of Art on the campus of SUNY in Purchase, New York. I knew a little bit about the Neuberger and its fabulous collection of Modern Art, but their current special exhibition, "Lágrimas Negras (Black Tears)" had been highly recommended by a colleague as a "must-see" if you're in the neighborhood. So, as I did, in fact, happen to be passing by, and it was still early in the afternoon, I thought why not?

After a rather challenging tour of the campus under construction I finally found the museum entrance and went in. I had no idea what to expect of the exhibition and was very happily surprised. Betsabeé Romero is a self-described "mechanic artist" and is one of Mexico's major contemporary artists. Using the automobile as a metaphor for the evolution of cultures, the artist transforms cars and their components into works of art that explore the conflicts between traditional ways of life and modern, high-speed, society.

Now all this might sound a little strange and maybe even depressing, but in Señora Romero's hands the old tires, fenders, rear view mirrors and hoods are transformed into beautiful objects. A sculpture of six Volkswagen fenders decorated with colored industrial tape and arranged in a spiral with the lights on is entitled "Rehileta de Canela (Cinnamon Pinwheel)", and is actually a graceful and compelling work. Old tires cut into long strips with Mexican folk images carved into the treads and colored with bits of chewed gum pasted into the carvings become "Simbolos Masticados". A video shot through the decorated windows of a Mexican taxi cab turns the city into a fairyland as the car drives around and around with music playing in "La Vuelta al Zócalo en 80 Secondo (Around the Zocaló in 80 Seconds)". And my favorite, "Ciudados que se Ven (Moving Cities)", 2004, transforms used tires into linocut prints as the engraved tire treads are inked and the images transferred onto long strips of cloth suspended from the ceiling.

When I visited this exhibition I realized that I had already seen Betsabeé Romero's work, most recently in Basel at the Museum Tinguely's current exhibition "Car Fetish: I Drive Therefore I Am" where her decorated and rose-filled automobile "Ayate Car" was on display. But the single installation shown there was no comparison to the multi-media exhibition on view until August 14th at the Neuberger. Cast-off automotive parts never looked so good!