November 28, 2010

A Visit to Mr. Morgan's Library

Even by the over-the-top standards of New York's Gilded Age, John Pierpont Morgan stood alone. Probably the most vilified of the Robber Barons, J.P. Morgan's financial and steel empires were, at their zeniths, the richest and most powerful institutions in the United States and by extension, the world.

But there is another side to this captain of industry - he was a zealous collector of art and literature - and New Yorkers have benefited enormously from his philanthropy in these fields. A visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will see Mr. Morgan's name listed over and over as donor of treasures from Chinese porcelains to Gobelin tapestries to Della Robbia terra-cottas and Gainsborough paintings. All of the finest quality and all hand selected by Mr. Morgan himself for the sheer joy of owning beautiful objects.

However, Pierpont Morgan is probably best known for the small but very impressive institution that bears his name - The Morgan Library & Museum on Madison Avenue at 36th Street. Competed in 1906 by the architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White, this magnificent structure with the Tennessee pink marble exterior was built as a library to house Mr. Morgan's growing collection of rare books and manuscripts. Even more opulent on the interior, the building featured a rotunda, Mr. Morgan's study, a librarian's office and a library all decorated and furnished with the finest money could buy, and Mr. Morgan had very deep pockets!

A visit to the Morgan Library had always been a rewarding experience. From the permanent collection of three (that's correct, three) examples of The Gutenberg Bible, a copy of The Declaration of Independence, two altar piece panels by Hans Memling and the jewel encrusted Lindau Bible there is always something absolutely fabulous on view. Special exhibitions included a memorable show of French bindings in the 1990's and more recently, a presentation of rare musical scores by Mozart among other luminaries to commemorate the opening of the Renzo Piano designed addition in 2006 (see my blog review).

Today there is something new to celebrate. On October 30, 2010, the Morgan Library re-opened after a short hiatus to restore the interior of the 1906 library to its original splendor. For the first time, visitors can step into the librarian's office, view the inside of the vault, and actually see the full three levels of the library's impressive holdings (see above). Beside extensive cleaning and restoration of the gorgeous ceilings, a new, state-of-the-art lighting system has been installed so visitors can truly appreciate the fine detail and beauty of the architecture. A 19th Century Persian rug now graces the library floor as a replacement for one long lost and original lighting fixtures have been rescued from deep storage and re-hung with care.

The Morgan is showing off these cosmetic improvements with several new temporary exhibitions. In a "Greatest Hits" worthy of a much bigger institution, The Morgan is presenting such diverse subjects as "Degas: Drawings and Sketchbooks", a selection of 20 drawings culled from the collection, "Anne Morgan's War: Rebuilding Devastated France 1917-1924" as seen through documentary photographs from the collection, "Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress" featuring 120 manuscripts, rare books. letters, notebooks, diaries, photographs and drawings of and by the author, also from the collection, and finally, "Roy Lichtenstein: The Black-and -White Drawings" the only installation borrowed from another institution and the first time an exhibition has been dedicated solely to the early black and white drawings of this celebrated American Pop artist.

If this isn't enough variety, you have only a short wait until the original red leather bound manuscript of "Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol" goes on view for the holiday season! All this set in some of the most extraordinary surroundings in town, refreshed and ready for the 21st Century!

November 27, 2010

What's On At the Neue Galerie

While most of America headed to the mall for the annual Black Friday shop-a-thon, I did one of the things I like to do best - visit a museum! It was a strategic decision - I chose a museum that would allow for a nice walk through Central Park, would be relatively uncrowded and was presenting something that seemed amusing and totally fresh. I found the perfect destination in one of my favorite institutions, the temple to German and Austrian Modernist Art, the Neue Galerie!

In what seems like a total departure from the usual fare of Schiele, Klimt, Kokoschka and the like, the Neue Galerie, in conjunction with the Musée du Louvre, Paris, is now showing the work of a relatively unknown 18th Century sculptor. "What could have possessed them?" one may legitimately ask, but the answer is clear after a few short minutes in the exhibition.

Until January 10, 2011, visitors have the rare opportunity to explore the work of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, a fascinating Bavarian born, Austrian artist who worked in Vienna in the late 1700's. His career began in Vienna as portrait sculptor to the Habsburg court where he made fine but relatively ordinary busts of the aristocracy in the Baroque style. Around 1770 his fortunes changed due in part to the death of his patron and also to a presumed psychotic breakdown.

He left Vienna and wandered for six years before settling in Pressburg, or Bratislava as the city is now known, and began work on a series of "character heads" that would become his life's work. Of the 60 sculptures in alabaster or metal, 49 are still extant and nineteen of those are here on display. In an effort to rid himself of resentful spirits, Messerschmidt would pinch himself and contort his face while looking in the mirror and later record these expressions in sculptural form. The result is a series of bizarre, but to 21st Century eyes humorous, life-sized heads with contorted facial expressions.

With descriptive titles such as "The Ill Humored Man", "The Yawner" (above left), "The Vexed Man", "Afflicted With Constipation", "A Strong Man" and "A Hypocrite and Slanderer" (above right) there was not a visitor in the gallery without a smile on his or her face! The final vitrine containing the only true self-portrait in the exhibition entitled "The Artist As He Imagined Himself Laughing" was almost bitter sweet. Condemned as "insane" by early 20th Century historians, Messerschmidt had been described as a "modest and disciplined man...a person of unusual strength of mind and body - in his art an extraordinary genius" by his contemporaries. I guess it has to do with the times one lives in - what was common in the 18th Century comes across as crazy today - makes you wonder what our ancestors will think of us!

Sane or insane, Messerschmidt was a gifted artist who left behind a small but intense body of work which we are fortunate to be able to enjoy today.

Moving downstairs to the second floor, where beautiful objects in porcelain and silver are usually on display, is another small but lovely exhibition of Wiener Werkstätte postcards from the collection of Mr. Leonard Lauder. This is the first major museum show dedicated solely to postcards produced during this period and it is a perfect showcase for both the medium and the era.

The Viennese Workshops, or Wiener Werkstätte, was founded in 1903 by Josef Hoffman and Koloman Moser with the objective of creating practical objects of exceptional design and craftsmanship. This included furniture, fashion, ceramics, jewelry, silverware, architecture and printed objects such as posters, books and a series of postcards begun in 1907. Almost all of the designers of the movement contributed to this series and when production ceased in 1920, 925 different postcards by 57 artist had been published.

Mr. Lauder is recognized as a pioneer in this field of collecting and through his prescience has amassed what is probably the most complete ensemble of this œuvre in the world. On view are many fine examples selected for their graphic design, marvelous coloration and overall charm. Various themes include fashion, portraits, fairy tales, dogs, cigars and cigarettes and interiors as interpreted by such luminaries of the movement as Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Moriz Jung and Maria Likarz-Strauss (see above left). All the postcards are numbered as part of the series and all are printed using chromolithography.

In a perfect demonstration of turning mass-marketed objects into works of art, the Wiener Werkstätte artisans succeeded in making boring documentary postcards into little jewels of design. I think you will agree, a visit to the Neue Galerie is a precious experience not to be missed!

November 21, 2010

A Visit to the South Street Seaport Museum

For all their natural curiosity, New Yorkers often tend to stick to their neighborhoods, and I am no exception. For me, a trip downtown is a big event. I get lost in the streets with descriptive names instead of numbers and feel like I'm visiting a totally different city instead of riding a few subway stops from home!

Yesterday broke bright and beautiful and a great day to head down to the financial district and visit the South Street Seaport Museum where several interesting shows are on view. So I emerged from the Fulton Street Station and walked to the riverfront, past the huge Christmas tree now being installed on the square to # 12, the site of Schermerhorn Row built in 1810 to accommodate the many merchants who once traded there and now home to the Seaport Museum.

This historic setting is the perfect atmosphere to view the Seaport's current exhibition "Alfred Stieglitz New York" an assembly of 39 gorgeous vintage photographs not seen together since 1932 when they were shown by the artist himself at his midtown gallery. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) is probably the most famous photographer in American history. He is known as the father of art photography, as opposed to documentary, and also as the husband of another American art icon Georgia O'Keeffe. A pioneer in the use of the hand-held Graflex camera, Stieglitz was no longer encumbered by a heavy tripod and could take photographs far more freely and casually. He was an active promoter of photography as an art form, vice president of The Camera Club, publisher of various photography periodicals including Camera Work, and founder of several galleries including The Little Galleries, 291, and An American Place.

In 1902 Stieglitz curated a ground breaking exhibition at The Arts Club called "Photo Secession". What was unique and hugely successful about this show was that for the first time ever photographers judged pictorial photographs as fine art. At this time in his career, Stieglitz was exploring "Picturesque" photography that shrouded the subject in clouds, snow, mist or darkness and created a softer, more atmospheric image (see "The Flatiron", 1903, above right). With this technique, Stieglitz was able to take away the harshness and dirt of the city and replace it with a dreamy, mysterious, ethereal metropolis that was far more appealing than the reality.

As The Gilded Age was replaced by Modernism and then The Great Depression, Stieglitz changed his view of his beloved New York to reflect the times. The sprouting of skyscrapers, the ultimate symbol of progress and innovation, inspired an edgier look with angles and shadows as viewed from his apartment on the 30th floor of The Shelton Hotel. And finally, as his health deteriorated along with the global economy, his despair and isolation are clearly evident in the grimmer and darker portraits of the city. It was the end of an era.

Which brings me to the second exhibition on view at the Seaport Museum - "DecoDence: Legendary Interiors and Illustrious Travelers Aboard the SS Normandie".

Launched in the middle of the Depression, in 1935, the SS Normandie was the epitome of style and chic. Exceptionally fast and commodious, this luxurious ocean liner could whisk passengers across the Atlantic in record time and complete comfort. At a time dominated by bread lines and Hitler, the SS Normandie was known for the finest of French luxury service, food, drink and décor.

The SS Normandie featured a crew of 1,339 and could hold 1,952 passengers, most in First Class. It had 1,100 telephones and a grand dining room that could seat 700 and was larger than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Table service included silver by Cristofle and Puiforcat and crystal by Lalique amid wall panels by Jean Dupas and furniture by Ruhlmann. No wonder everyone from Sonja Henie to Douglas Fairbanks wanted to sail on board this magnificent ship!

With the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939 the SS Normandie ceased to be a civilian transport and the next year it was taken into protective custody by the United States and renamed the USS Lafayette. When America entered World War II the U.S. Navy decided to retrofit the vessel to convert it to troop transport as it was docked in New York Harbor. In February 1942, by complete accident, a spark from a welder's torch landed on a pile of kapok filled life vests which ignited a blaze that could not be extinguished and this mighty ocean liner capsized and sank ignominiously at her berth on Manhattan's Pier 88.

The silver lining in this sad story is that prior to the renovation most of the furnishings and decor had been removed to clear the way for a more practical purpose. Today, in a minimalist but very effective exhibition, visitors can almost relive the glamor of this bygone age. Through the actual dining tables and chairs, china and crystal services, uniforms, menus and ashtrays we can imagine being passengers on board, entering the dining room in a bias cut satin gown with a glass of champagne in hand!

Of all the marvelous artifacts on view, one in particular sticks in my mind. It is a clutch purse, commissioned from the House of Hermès as a memento for First Class passengers on the inaugural voyage. A black leather ship is fastened on top with three silver "smoke stack" clasps and the sleek lines of the bow recreated in black stitching. A fabulous souvenir and typical of the inventiveness, elegance and whimsy that typified this iconic ship.

I thoroughly enjoyed my venture downtown and hope that you too will take a ride on the A train and step back to the early days of Old New York!

November 19, 2010

The World of Khubilai Khan - At the Met

Long ago and far away, the great leader Khubilai Khan ruled the vast Mongol Empire during what became known as the Yuan Dynasty (1215-1368). It was a time of unparalleled growth and freedom in art and religion and its impact reverberated throughout the world for centuries to come. For a limited time we can explore this remarkable period in a landmark exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the Yuan Dynasty all roads led to Dadu (now Bejing) the city built by Khubilai Khan as the capital of the empire. Chinese theater flourished as did architecture, the applied arts, painting and calligraphy. Men and women wearing elaborate head pieces and magnificently embroidered or woven silk robes were free to travel and to pursue their devotion of choice. Zen Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Islam were practiced and accepted although Esoteric Buddhism, a Tibetan influenced hybrid, was the most prevalent religion. It was a period of prosperity, creativity and progress.

Through loans from many leading Asian museums, the Metropolitan has assembled a wealth of marvelous objects to give visitors a first hand look at the sumptuousness of the era. Huge stone statues, delicate carved jade hat ornaments, classic blue and white porcelain serving platters, painted silk hanging scrolls and deeply sculpted red lacquer boxes are evidence of the sophistication of this ancient culture. More unusual items included a porcelain pillow with a glazed, three-dimensional scene of a celestial celebration under the head rest and a tea cup with a chi dragon handle done in an ethereal bluish finish called qing bai ware. Each of the artifacts on display was a superb example of a very advanced and cultivated people that treasured beauty.

"The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty" is a fabulous exhibition and will remain on view until January 2, 2011.

November 03, 2010

It's Print Week in New York!

Aficionados of fine prints and works on paper have a lot to enjoy this weekend!

New York's Fine Art Print Week kicked off last night with the gala opening of the International Fine Print Dealers Association's annual extravaganza, The Print Fair, held at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 67th Street. This is the 20th anniversary of the show and judging by the crowd mingling in the booths and aisles, it is very much a going concern. The IFPDA Print Fair continues to be the premier showcase for fine prints from Old Master through Contemporary, from Japanese woodcuts to French Surrealist illustrated books. 87 dealers from across the United States and Europe bring their finest wares hoping to entice a very knowledgeable public with something rare and essential to add to their collection!

I've worked in this field for over 20 years and I know a lot of the pieces and people, but this fair is always very special. Beside being a chance to see some of my favorite dealers and collectors, it is an opportunity to discover a treasure. This year was no exception with the star (for me at least) being a very early and exceeding rare and beautiful work by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner on the stand of Theobald Jennings, London. This tiny color etching was one of the first pieces created by the German Expressionist in his most famous series of street scenes and is one of only two examples, the other being in a museum collection in Davos, Switzerland.

A new fair, running concurrently and with the blessing of the IFPDA, is the Lighthouse Way Fine Print & Drawing Fair opening Friday evening at the Lighthouse Conference Center on 59th Street at Park Avenue. I am proud to be among the 25 dealers from the U.S., England and France who will participate in this inaugural show and am looking forward to seeing some old collecting faces and meeting some news ones too. Visitors can expect a very fine selection of works from Old Master through Modern and everything in between. I will be bringing a group of prints, drawings and watercolors from the Victorian Era through Art Deco with pieces by such artists as Helleu, Tissot, Chahine, Delaunay, Lepape, Bottini and many others. Please visit my website for an overview of my collection and if you would like a ticket, just drop me an email!

So if you're daffy for Dürer, wild about Whistler, or passionate for Picasso, this is a great time to see some wonderful works on paper!