The Arts Seen in NYC (New! Improved? MoMA Edition)

Well the Missus and I trundled down to the Big Town to go a-museuming for a few days and say, it was swell.

Just our luck, we arrived on an official Gridlock Alert Day, which meant it took us fully 60 minutes to crawl from 71st and 1st to 32nd and 5th.

Undaunted and safely ensconced in our moderately priced hotel, we headed out to see what we could see. (As per usual the itinerary was set by my ever-loving Swiss Army Wife.) First stop: the FIT Museum to catch Paris, Capital of Fashion (through January 4).

Paris is widely regarded as “the most glamorous and competitive of the world’s fashion capitals” (to quote The New Yorker). But how and why did Paris acquire this reputation? The history of Paris fashion is usually presented, simplistically, as a genealogy of genius, dominated by “the great designers,” “kings,” or “dictators of fashion.” Paris, Capital of Fashion was the first exhibition to explore the cultural construction of Paris as the capital of fashion.

Curated by Dr. Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at FIT, it featured approximately 100 objects, dating from the 18th century to the present. The exhibition was accompanied by a scholarly book, Paris, Capital of Fashion (Bloomsbury, 2019), edited by Steele, who is also the author of Paris Fashion: A Cultural History.

(Not sure why the exhibit is already in the past tense – maybe to save on editing once the show closes.)

It is/was a terrific exhibit, “presenting an original couture suit by Chanel together with a virtually identical licensed copy sold by Orbach’s department store . . . [ demonstrating] how the idea of Paris fashion ‘works’ across fashion cultures, appealing to elite American women and making money for American manufacturers and retailers.”

Special bonus visuals.

Also showing at FIT is Power Mode: The Force of Fashion (through May 9), which I skipped in order to get a donut but which the Missus said was okay. Here’s the trailer.



Power to the purple!

From there we subwayed uptown to the Bard Graduate Center to catch French Fashion, Women, and the First World War (through January 5).

In moments of great upheaval—such as in France during the First World War—fashion becomes more than a means of personal expression.

As women throughout the country mobilized in support of the war effort, discussions about women’s fashion bore the symbolic weight of an entire society’s hopes and fears. This exhibition represents an unprecedented examination of the dynamic relationship between fashion, war, and gender politics in France during World War I.

As is typical at the Bard Center, the exhibit was both engaging and illuminating. Here’s the timeline featured in the exhibit, which was captured on video by a steady-handed individual who goes by “theObjectified” on YouTube.



And a few pages from the catalogue.




No wonder we (art) New York.

• • • • • • •

Early next morning it was cold as hell (a phrase that makes absolutely no sense) so instead of walking the 21 blocks to the Museum of Modern Art as we normally do, we ducked into the subway.

The $450 million expansion of MoMA – which enlarged the museum by 165,000 square feet – either a) “adds one-third more gallery space to the institution’s 80-year-old complex on West 53rd Street and integrates it more seamlessly with the public realm,” as Sydney Franklin wrote in The Architect’s Newspaper, or b) “[is] a supersized MoMA tote bag—very capacious, very useful, but in the end worthwhile only for what’s inside,” as Martin Filler put it in The New York Review of Books.

Whatever, we started on the 5th floor, which contains artworks from the 1880s to the 1940s – MoMA’s sweet spot. What’s not so sweet to many critics is the absence of the traditional “isms” in organizing the works, as Filler notes.

The only “isms” on full display here are revisionism and Surrealism, which was spared in this thoroughgoing purge perhaps because it is a favorite of theory-oriented academics who might denounce any toying with their hobbyhorse. Thus in place of Dadaism we now have “Readymade in Paris and New York,” as if laypersons know that specialist term for the innovation of appropriating a found object and declaring it a work of art—exemplified by Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913/1951) and the snow shovel he named In Advance of the Broken Arm (1915/1964), both seen here in facsimiles recreated by the artist after the originals were lost. We also have “Masters of Popular Painting,” a designation more befitting Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth than the Outsider artists unknown during their lifetimes and happily displayed here (including the magical Bill Traylor).

Here’s how the 5th floor looks gallery by gallery.







We spent a good – a very good – two hours traversing those galleries and thought most of the changes were for the better, even the rumpus rooms like “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which has been roundly criticized for pairing Picasso’s breakthrough 1907 painting with Faith Ringgold’s 1967 depiction of a race riot.

One of the best changes is the extra 47,000 square feet of gallery space, which allows MoMA to exhibit many more of its 200,000 works. (Every six months, Martin Filler tells us, one-third of the museum’s permanent collection will rotate.)

What decidedly has not changed is all the idiots who would rather take a selfie with the artworks than look at them. Yeesh.

As we departed there was also a moment of MoMA drama at the coat check. The garment on my hangar was someone else’s, a not inconsequential matter since it was 13˚ outside. After the coat checkers fruitlessly spun the carousel around several times, one of them ventured into the back of the room and discovered that my coat had taken up residence on the conveyor belt for god knows how long.

Once we thoroughly defuzzed the coat, I put it on and we wandered out.

Our next stop was the Museum of Arts and Design to enter The World of Anna Sui (through February 23).

Born and raised in Detroit, educated and discovered in New York, Anna Sui reinvented pop culture fashion with her signature rock-and-roll romantic label in the 1990s and has remained a design icon ever since. Beginning with her premiere catwalk show in 1991, Sui has shaped not only the garments, textiles, accessories, cosmetics, and interiors that comprise her design universe, but also the course of fashion history by popularizing the boutique fashion look . . .

Unlike other popular American designers, Sui is driven by telling stories head-to-toe about the worlds of cowgirls, grunge girls, hippie chicks, hula girls, Mods, pirate rock stars, Pre-Raphaelite maidens, and surfer nomads.

Trippy in the extreme, Sui in many ways is unlike other popular American designers. You could even say she’s sui generis. But, of course, you wouldn’t.

Also on exhibit at MAD is Burke Prize 2019 (through April 12), “[an] exhibition of works of the 2019 finalists and winner of the Museum’s Burke Prize, awarded to a contemporary artist under the age of forty-five working in glass, fiber, clay, metal, and/or wood.”

The works themselves have yet to be posted on the MAD website, but I managed to track down the winner: BODYWARP: Casting Series by Indira Allegra. It’s a film/installation combination that the artist describes semi-clearly.

BODYWARP explores weaving as performance and calls for a unique receptivity to tensions in political and emotional spaces. The work investigates looms as frames through which I as the weaver become the warp and am held under tension, as I perform a series of site-specific interventions using my body. Like the accumulation of memory in cloth, in BODYWARP, looms and other tools of the weaver’s craft become organs of memory, pulling my body into an intimate choreography involving maker, tool, and the narrative of a place.

The tour guide who led us through the exhibit said that all the Burke Prize judges had significant reservations about the work, but unanimously voted it the winner.

Kinda warped, no?

From there we moseyed up to the American Folk Art Museum, which has returned – a victim of its own ambition – to its original home at 2 Lincoln Square after selling its fabulous 53rd Street building in 2011 to MoMA, which wasted little time in demolishing it for the museum’s latest expansion.

New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin chronicled the sad tale in this valedictory piece.

When a new home for the American Folk Art Museum opened on West 53d Street in Manhattan in 2001 it was hailed as a harbinger of hope for the city after the Sept. 11 attacks and praised for its bold architecture.

“Its heart is in the right time as well as the right place,” Herbert Muschamp wrote in his architecture review in The New York Times, calling the museum’s sculptural bronze facade “already a Midtown icon.”

Now, a mere 12 years later, the building is going to be demolished.

In its place the adjacent Museum of Modern Art, which bought the building in 2011, will put up an expansion, which will connect to a new tower with floors for the Modern on the other side of the former museum. And the folk museum building, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, will take a dubious place in history as having had one of the shortest lives of an architecturally ambitious project in Manhattan.

The major exhibit at the museum is Memory Palaces: Inside the Collection of Audrey B. Heckler (through January 26), a remarkable and wide-ranging assemblage of folk art pieces.

The collection of Audrey B. Heckler is emblematic of the growth of the field of self-taught art in the United States, which manifests a strong interest for African American artists, a consistent attention on American classics, a curiosity for European art brut, and a search for international discoveries. For the last twenty-seven years, Heckler—a long time and committed patron of the American Folk Art Museum—has surrounded herself with excellent examples by the most significant artists associated to this art niche, among them Emery Blagdon, Aloïse Corbaz, William Edmondson, August Klett, Augustin Lesage, Martín Ramírez, Thornton Dial, and Anna Zemánková.

Our favorites were the carved wooden figures by Charlie Willeto, a Navajo medicine man who, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum website, “broke with traditional taboos against carving sacred images into wood, and created dreamlike men, women, owls, and spiritual creatures from old pieces of pine.”



The exhibit features 160 works by more than 70 artists, along with lots of artists’ statement, oral histories, and archival material.

Here’s what New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote back in September: “The American Folk Art Museum is the most underrated cultural resource in Manhattan. Show after show, mounted with grit, intelligence, and love in the museum’s difficult lobby space, luxuriates in the glories of self-taught visionary artists. This fall, see a deep dive into Heckler’s magnificent collection of their work.”

Amen to that.

Our last stop of the day was the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to catch In the Company of Harold Prince (through March 31)

No one did more to define the American musical today than Harold “Hal” Prince. His resume included some of the most important titles of the past century: West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, and The Phantom of the Opera. In the Company of Hal Prince will explore Prince’s reinvention of musical theatre from the script- and score-based model created by Rodgers and Hammerstein and George Abbott to a more visual, almost cinematic art form in which the director is auteur. Prince acknowledged that fruitful collaboration is the foundation of theatrical genius, and this exhibition will illuminate the team of designers, stage managers, press agents, composers, and writers Prince assembled to create so many history-making shows.

The exhibit is a lot of fun, but note to curators: Too many of the audio clips bleed into one another, creating a bit of a cacophony. Mr. Prince would not be pleased, we think.

• • • • • • •

Next morning it was off to The Frick Collection to take in Manet: Three Paintings from the Norton Simon Museum (through January 5).

The Frick presents three Manet canvases from the collection of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. As three distinct views of the artist’s life and work, the canvases demonstrate the range of Manet’s pioneering vision: Fish and Shrimp (1864) focuses attention on the paint itself; The Ragpicker (ca. 1865–71; possibly reworked in 1876–77) highlights the artist’s engagement with art history and contemporary visual culture; and Madame Manet (ca. 1876) prompts consideration of his biography.

Édouard Manet is to Impressionism what Robert Johnson was to the blues: hugely influential, too often overlooked.

But those three Manets are definitely arresting.

Also at The Frick: Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence (through January 12) and Henry Arnhold’s Meissen Palace: Celebrating a Collector  – both worth a look.

From there we sashayed up Fifth Avenue to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which offered up its usual cornucopia of engaging exhibits.

First we visited Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet (through January 26), which could just as easily have been titled Printer of Disquiet given Vallotton’s distinctive and slightly disturbing woodcuts, which both revitalized and revolutionized the art of wood engraving.

Here are some representative samples from Vallotton’s 1897-1898 Intimacies series of woodcuts, all infused with ambiguity and tension.


Upon his arrival in Paris in 1881 at the age of 16, Vallotton flirted with Les Nabis (Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard) and produced paintings like this one.



Vallotton may have flirted with Les Nabis but he married money, specifically the wealthy young widow Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, leading to a life rich in resources but poor in, ironically, intimacy.



Regardless, as the Met’s website notes, “Witness to the radical aesthetics that gripped Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vallotton developed his own singular voice. Today we recognize him as a distinctive artist of his generation [thanks to] his lampooning wit, subversive satire, and wry humor.”

Next up was In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection (through May 17), which “features promised gifts from Sandy Schreier, a pioneering collector, who over the course of more than half a century assembled one of the finest private fashion collections in the United States. The show explores how Schreier amassed a trove of twentieth-century French and American couture and ready-to-wear, not as a wardrobe, but in appreciation of this form of creative expression.”



While the clothes are absolutely fabulous, the back story is a total hoot, as related to New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman by Schreier.

[W]hen I was little there were no nurseries and my mother was busy with my little sister, so my dad would take me to work with him [at Detroit’s high-end department store Russeks]. I’d just sit on the shop floor, and I fell in love with fashion: The staff would dress me up, and I would look at all the pictures in the magazines. At that time, it was no longer fashionable to pass clothes down, and my dad’s clientele saw how much I loved the clothes and started sending me their couture after they had worn it once, or sometimes not at all. Their drivers would bring the boxes over.

Wait — how old were you?

Three or four. I never really thought of what I was doing as collecting, though. I was just acquiring these wonderful things.

Those wonderful things now number 15,000, most of which Schreier is donating to the Met. So the 165 pieces on display in this exhibit are just a first course.

Bon appétit!

Our next exhibit was pretty much the polar opposite of velvet and silk.

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I examines the profound significance of European armor at the dawn of the Renaissance, through the lens of Emperor Maximilian I’s (1459–1519) remarkable life. On view only at The Met, The Last Knight coincides with the five-hundredth anniversary of Maximilian’s death, and is the most ambitious North American loan exhibition of European arms and armor in decades. Including 180 objects selected from some thirty public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, The Last Knight will explore how Maximilian’s unparalleled passion for the trappings and ideals of knighthood served his boundless worldly ambitions, imaginative stratagems, and resolute efforts to forge a lasting personal and family legacy.

It’s an amazing exhibit, but not nearly as eye-popping as Making Marvels: Science & Splendor at the Courts of Europe (through March 1).

Between 1550 and 1750, nearly every royal family in Europe assembled vast collections of valuable and entertaining objects. Such lavish public spending and display of precious metals was considered an expression of power. Many princes also believed that the possession of artistic and technological innovations conveyed status, and these objects were often prominently showcased in elaborate court entertainments, which were characteristic of the period.

Making Marvels explores the complex ways in which the wondrous items collected by early modern European princes, and the contexts in which they were displayed, expressed these rulers’ ability to govern. Approximately 170 objects—including clocks, automata, furniture, musical instruments, jewelry, paintings, sculptures, print media, and more—from both The Met collection and over fifty lenders worldwide are featured. Visitors will discover marvelous innovations that engaged and delighted the senses of the past, much like twenty-first-century technology holds our attention today—through suspense, surprise, and dramatic transformations.

Don’t believe me? Check out this video.



That ended our four-hour visit to the Met. As we rode the bus down Fifth Avenue, we debated: Nice dinner, or John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal (through January 12) at the Morgan Library & Museum?

We went for charcoal over charcoal-broiled.

John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was one of the greatest portrait artists of his time. While he is best known for his powerful paintings, he largely ceased painting portraits in 1907 and turned instead to charcoal drawings to satisfy portrait commissions. These drawn portraits represent a substantial, yet often overlooked, part of his practice, and they demonstrate the same sense of immediacy, psychological sensitivity, and mastery of chiaroscuro that animate Sargent’s sitters on canvas. The first major exhibition to explore the artist’s expressive portraits in charcoal, John Singer Sargent: Portraits in Charcoal will recognize the sheer scale of Sargent’s achievement as a portrait draftsman.

The exhibit features cracking good portraits of everyone from William Butler Yeats to Winston Churchill to Ethel Barrymore.



While the exhibit was great, the crowd was less so. First there was Mr. Pilot Fish, a creepy old guy who attached himself to us by  standing two inches away and constantly leaning in front of us in order to be as annoying as possible.

Then there were the inevitable charcoal artists sprawled on the floor and clogging the gallery at every turn.

And finally, the exhibit contained far more than the average number of know-it-alls declaiming about this and that and then . . . this and that again.

In short, it was ten pounds of pretentious in a five-pound bag.

But, man, that Sargent guy could really draw.

• • • • • • •

The next day was Saturday, so the Missus took her shabbos goy to the Jewish Museum to see Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art (through February 9), “[t]he first exhibition to explore the remarkable career of Edith Halpert, the trailblazing art dealer whose influence, eye, and passion for American art championed the work of Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, and Charles Sheeler.

Born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), Edith Halpert (1900–1970) was the first significant female gallerist in the United States, propelling American art to the fore at a time when the European avant-garde still enthralled the world. In 1926, Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery in New York City, the first commercial art space in bohemian Greenwich Village. She deliberately promoted a diverse group of living American artists, fundamentally shifting the public’s opinion of whose voices mattered in the art world. Though an outsider in many respects—as a woman, an immigrant, and a Jew—Halpert was, for over 40 years, the country’s defining authority of the American art landscape.

The exhibit features 100 works that were either owned or sold by Halpert. As Terry Teachout wrote of the “Forgotten Impresario” in the Wall Street Journal, “[the exhibit] also gives its viewers an opportunity to acquaint themselves with the history of American modernism prior to the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the ’40s. Few museums (the Phillips famously excepted) go out of their way to feature modern American art that predates the emergence of such New York School masters as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Yet the work of the earliest American modernists is every bit as exciting. To see such paintings as Davis’s “Egg Beater No. 1” (1927), Sheeler’s “Americana” (1931) and Marin’s “From the Bridge, N.Y.C.” (1933) is to witness the electrifying spectacle of ambitious American artists translating Old World styles—Cubism in particular—into the up-to-the-minute vernacular of the New World. Viewing their work in this show, you can see for yourself how the long-accepted narrative of the postwar “triumph of American painting” by the Abstract Expressionists fails to tell the full story of American modernism.”

Halpert was not only an ecumenical dealer but also a masterful marketer, pairing American Folk Art with modernist works to give the former more authority. She also was dedicated to providing access to art not only to wealthy clients but middle-class ones as well.

There’s a great audio guide on the Jewish Museum website (transcripts here) that’s well worth checking out, as is the Halpert biography The Girl With the Gallery by Lindsay Pollock.

On the way out we passed through the exhibit Rachel Feinstein: Maiden, Mother, Crone (through March 22) but we sorta didn’t get it so we kept walking.

Then it was home again home again jiggedy-jig.

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2 Responses to The Arts Seen in NYC (New! Improved? MoMA Edition)

  1. Carol Oreilly says:

    Great review of so many exhibits.
    What kind of doughnut?

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