December 29, 2012

A Perfect Year-End Visit - "The Clock" at MoMA

As 2012 dwindles down to the last few days and hours and I was casting about for an appropriate year-end blog topic, a spur of the moment visit to the Museum of Modern Art provided an ideal solution!  A perfect combination of past and present, literal and abstract, familiar and foreign, and a commentary on the passage of time during this season of reflection and looking forward.  I'm talking about "The Clock" a film installation by video artist Christian Marclay that is playing for a limited time in the Museum's Contemporary Galleries on the second floor.

I was particularly pleased to discover that "The Clock" was being shown again in New York so soon after I missed it this past summer at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center.  Frankly, I had no idea what it was about and found the whole concept confusing until a friend said "GO" but by then it was too late.  It was a serendipitous second chance for me to redeem myself and experience what all the fuss was about!

In a nutshell, "The Clock" is a 24-hour montage of thousands of scenes culled from the last century of cinema.  The kicker is that the 24 hours are passed in real time with each scene containing an indication of the hour and minute, for example a glance at a watch, all synchronized to the actual time.  There is no need to sneak a peak at your cell phone to see what time it is - you are always aware of the exact hour and minute and often second as on-screen chronographs and conversations keep a running account of its passage.

But it's not as dry as simply looking at timepieces ticking away.  Mr Marclay, a Swiss artist born in 1955, took three years to assemble and arrange mountains of film scenes to present a somewhat cohesive but totally fantastic assemblage that takes 24 hours, exactly.  There is no real start or finish.  At midnight the loop just starts again with events and activities ranging from the mundane like dining or catching a train to the more exciting bank heist, car chase or tryst!  He has gathered material from movies as varied as "High Noon", "When Harry Met Sally", "Easy Rider", "In the Mood for Love" and "The Silence of the Lambs" and joined them together in a masterpiece of film editing that might just be the most compelling movie experience you have ever had.

Not that you have to stay the entire 24 hours, mind you!  Visitors to MoMA must queue up (the line moved remarkably quickly) to gain entry into a very comfortable viewing room complete with sofas that seat four.  There is no time limit - although one is always acutely aware of how much time is passing - and the action on the screen, held together only by the constant ticking of the clock, is mesmerizing.  Due to practical reasons, visitors are generally limited to the opening hours of the Museum, but for New Years Eve one can reserve tickets to a very special 24 hour screening, complete with festive food and drink, and revel in the pure pleasure of this continuously surprising juxtaposition of movie scenes.

As 2013 draws swiftly closer, and we reflect on the past year and our desires for the next, "The Clock" is a marvelous metaphor for the relentless march of time, but with no end - although you only have until January 21st to catch it at MoMA!

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank my loyal readers for another great year in the blogosphere and to wish you good health, happiness and success in all you undertake in the New Year!

December 22, 2012

It's Christmas Time in the City!

Even the most jaded, or frazzled, New Yorker, has to admit that the city absolutely dazzles during the holidays.  After all, there is a reason why there isn't a hotel room to be had as tourists from around the world come to enjoy the shopping, the activities and the sights of the city at Christmas.  I have a few personal favorites, but this year I made an effort to check out some of the great holiday displays that line the avenues this December.

From the Ralph Lauren Children's boutique on Madison at 71st comes the charm of the Teddy Bear Christmas...

Across the street at the Ralph Lauren flagship store is a more sophisticated celebration of the season...

Moving downtown to the intersection of 57th and Fifth Avenue we have the jewel-box vitrines of Tiffany & Co., each window a gem..

Across 57th Street is the overall light show on the Burberry facade...

While down Fifth Avenue, Harry Winston Fine Jewels turned its townhouse into a sparkling bauble complete with "diamonds" set over the windows...

Another famous jeweler that always decorates for Christmas is Cartier.  The big fabric ribbon has been replaced with LED lights and the illuminated Cartier panthers on the side and at the top of the building are a new addition and very dramatic too...

When people talk about "The Tree" they are usually referring to the one at Rockefeller Center.  This year's choice is an 80-year-old, 80-foot-tall Norway Spruce, decorated with 45,000 lights and crowned with a star made of Swarovski crystals...

Saks Fifth Avenue faces Rockefeller Center and at night the entire front is illuminated with a light show of dancing snowflakes with the snowflake theme echoed in the window displays...

Lord and Taylor has never sacrificed tradition for fad in their holiday windows, and this year is no exception.  Although updated, they remain true to the theme of Christmas past and present in New York City.  Judging from the smiling crowd of onlookers, they continue to delight...

Finally, we come to the Upper West Side and the newly renovated plaza at Lincoln Center.  The Christmas tree that used to be outdoors in the empty fountain, is now inside the Metropolitan Opera House on the Grand Tier level with a large toy train circling its base...

With all hustle and bustle of the season it's easy to forget that Christmas is a time of magic and mystery and celebration.  I wish you and yours Peace and Joy at Christmas and throughout the year ahead.

December 16, 2012

A (Quick) Visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

With all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, I can highly recommend a little interval to visit some of the smaller temporary exhibitions now on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Less crowded than the big headline shows, here are a few gems that will give you a worthwhile art-fix without eating up too much precious time.

For a break with a smile, check out "Faking It:  Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop", a survey of images from the 1840s to the early 1990s that make the viewer wonder "what the heck???".  Using techniques such as over-painting and retouching, collage, multiple exposures and creative cropping, photographers have been doctoring photographs since the process was invented - long before re-dos could be easily done on any home computer.  For reasons ranging from vanity to propaganda, advertising to art, photographic images have been systematically enhanced to simply improve their appearance or to overtly deceive the beholder.  On view are over 200 photographs ranging from the bizarre to the laugh-out-loud funny that completely destroy the myth "The Camera Never Lies"!

Let's move downstairs to the The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas where a tiny but remarkable temporary exhibition is now on view.  "African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde" explores the enormous impact ethnographic artifacts had on the art scene in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. 

New York emerged as the platform of the modern art movement after the groundbreaking Armory Show of 1913.  This trailblazing show, coupled with the outbreak of World War I, opened up transatlantic art commerce and put New York City firmly at the center of the avant-garde movement.  Galleries such as Alfred Stieglitz's "291" began to show African sculptures and objects alongside "real" works of art thereby elevating them to the level of modernist icons.  Artists such as Picasso, Brancusi, Matisse and Picabia were all fascinating with this new aesthetic and quickly incorporated them into their own œuvres.  This exhibition presents some fabulous examples of ethnographic works, primarily from the French and Belgian colonies, alongside works of modern art which they inspired.  Especially interesting are the vintage photographs of gallery installations and inside private New York collections where the two cultures exist in perfect harmony.

For me, no holiday season is complete without seeing the Met's fabulous Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Crèche, a New York tradition since 1964.  Situated in the museum's Medieval Hall and resplendent with its fifty silk-robed angels surrounded by a massive baroque crèche, the Metropolitan Christmas Tree is a magical sight to behold.  As I walk around the base admiring scenes like the Nativity, the procession of the three Magi and the daily lives of colorful townspeople and peasants, I am always amazed at the minute attention to detail and at the gorgeous dress of each figure.  Add to that the beautiful music playing in the background and I can almost forget about the cards and the shopping and myriad other things that still remain to be done!  Happy Holidays to All!

December 08, 2012

A Visit to Vizcaya

Hello from Sunny Florida where I am enjoying the sun and surf and, oh yes, there are some art fairs going on too!  But today I took a break from the Art Basel Miami Beach scene and visited a local National Historic Landmark that I think you will enjoy.

Spectacularly situated on Biscayne Bay, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens offer a stark contrast to the gleaming skyscrapers and ultra-modern container port that have come to symbolize the Miami area.  In fact, when Mr. James Deering engaged designer/visionary Paul Chalfin, architect F. Burrall Hoffman and landscape architect Diego Suarez to build his winter home, he deliberately set out to create an antique-looking estate, albeit with every conceivable modern convenience.

But I'm getting ahead of myself!  Let's go back to the early 1900s when James Deering (1859-1925) had retired from the family business (the Deering Harvester Company, later International Harvester, the largest manufacturer of agricultural machinery in the U.S.) and was looking for a location to spend the cooler months that would compliment his homes in Chicago, Evanston IL, New York City and Paris, France.  His father, William, and his half-brother, the philanthropist Charles Deering, had already purchased property in Coconut Grove, Florida, and James was so taken with the area that in 1910 he acquired a 180 acre bay front site with lush sub-tropical vegetation.

The result was Villa Vizcaya, a spectacular home built to accommodate its owner and his many guests in style and comfort both indoors and out.  James Deering and his right hand man Paul Chalfin spent four years traveling throughout Europe in a quest for both architectural ideas and elements such as doors, wall coverings and furniture, that could be incorporated into the future home.  Construction began in 1914 and two years later, Mr. Deering welcomed his first guests to a Christmas feast in his marvelous enclave.

What makes this historic home different from the many others that were built during the Gilded Age but now operate as tourist attractions?  I think there are several answers, starting with the location.  Ideally, the Vizcaya Mansion is entered from the sea - via the stone barge with its Venetian striped poles - into the open East Loggia.  Modern day visitors are relegated to the car park but still arrive at the main house through a beautiful indigenous forest and then through gardens and fountains to the Entrance Loggia.

Vizcaya was intentionally built to look antique, specifically a 400 year old Italian villa, and one that had seen generations of family come and go.  To this end, the home was filled with decorations and furniture from the 15th through the 19th centuries with a few Roman antiquities thrown in for good measure.  Mssrs. Deering and Chalfin were very creative.  If they could only find one appropriate mirror they would have a replica made to complete the pair.  If the fireplace was not tall enough, they commissioned stone carvers to add a few extra feet.  Roman columns were electrified to create light fixtures and a 16th century religious oil painting was cut in half to create an aesthetically appealing cover for the pipes of Mr. Deering's organ.

As well as these antique (both real and faux) treasures, the house also contains some very modern amenities for 1914.  For example, Vizcaya boasted the first electric telephone exchange in the Miami area.  It also featured a burglar alarm, an electric master clock system, elevators and my personal favorite, a central vacuum system!  The kitchen was state of the art and Mr. Deering's private bathroom not only had the best views in the house, but his bathtub had hot and cold running fresh and salt water spouting from gold plated taps!

Today visitors can enjoy 34 decorated rooms including the public salons and the more private bedrooms and baths as well as the behind the scenes facilities like the pantry and food preparation areas (complete with dumbwaiters, silver safe, and a salt water refrigeration system).  Stepping outside the main house onto the East Terrace offers a wonderful view of downtown Miami and one can almost imagine arriving for a party on board a gondola and disembarking at the stone barge.

The gardens are just as imaginative as the main house with grottoes, fountains, a maze, a theatre, a secret garden and an orchidarium, all filled with plants and statues and birds and animals.  There is something charming to be found around every corner and it continues to be a verdant refuge - a garden of earthly delights - much as it must have been in its heyday.

The name Vizcaya is a made up one, much like the perfect universe created by Mr. Deering.  It is a combination of "Biskaia", a province in Spain, and "Vizcaino", a Spanish explorer, thereby referencing both geography and history in a very pretty-sounding word.

You may have the idea that Mr. Deering was a sort of "bon-vivant" or a turn of the century Donald Trump, but actually the opposite was true.  Despite his privileged upbringing and extravagant lifestyle he was a very thoughtful and private man.  He built a swimming pool, tennis courts, a bowling alley and billiard room in the hope that his nieces and nephews would visit.  He was a patron of the arts and friends with painters John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn who visited Vizcaya.  The gardens were open to the public on Sundays and his staff were very well looked after to the point of having their own private beach on the property.

Unfortunately James Deering did not enjoy his creation for long.  His health had been precarious for many years, and he died quite suddenly during a Transatlantic crossing on board the SS City of Paris in 1925.  As he had never married, the estate passed to two nieces but after being severely damaged in the hurricanes of 1926 and 1935, the sisters sold much of the acreage for development and the house and gardens to Miami-Dade County at a very reasonable price.  The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens have been open to the public since 1952 and thanks to the generosity of its many public and private donors, this magnificent retreat is impeccably maintained and restored.  A visit to Vizcaya in all its bygone splendour is a worthwhile stop on any South Florida itinerary.