November 28, 2008

An Autumn Walk Along the Hudson

It's the day after Thanksgiving. The stores are crowded, the movie you want to see is sold out, you've got enough leftovers for dinner, so what to do?

Put on a jacket, gloves and a hat and walk due west. Way west to the Hudson River! Down the stairs at 68th Street, look both ways before you cross the bike path, and you'll find yourself in a section of Riverside Park that extends Fredrick Law Olmstead's vision for 21.5 more acres and opens up a whole new venue for getting outdoors in the big city.

Let's go back to the beginning. In the 17th Century, the Riverside Park area was known as "Bloemendal", Dutch for "vale of flowers". By the mid 1800's New York's growing population had pushed north and the verdant countryside became more residential. A steam rail service that connected the city with upstate ran along the river's edge and in 1869 Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired the land on the water's edge and began to build the New York Central Railroad Yard.

This series of waterfront structures served as the main loading facility for cargo from ships and barges to be received or shipped out. A remarkable system of Gantry ramps allowed boxcars to roll on and off barges that traversed the Hudson River. The piers in the 60th Street Yard were angled to the southwest from the shoreline to allow trains to pull onto the piers from the north-south tracks in the yard. South of 59th Street, the piers were built perpendicular to the tracks.

With the decline of passenger rail travel and the shift of rail freight to trucks, the Penn Central Railroad (the successor to the New York Central) went bankrupt in 1970 and the yards closed. The next year a spectacular fire burned 4 of the piers and left nothing but a twisted skeleton of steel which remains to this day.

Since that time this area along the Hudson had been a sort of no-man's land until Donald Trump bought the rights to the property and began to plan a new residential and commercial development. His proposals were debated until finally an agreement was reached in 1992 that provided for several high rise apartment buildings, the relocation of part of the elevated highway and a new waterfront park.

The result is Riverside Park South - stretching from 72nd Street to 59th Street, this new section of the Park is an oasis from the hoards of people who converge on the more famous Central Park. Wooden walkways and concrete paths cut through grasses and wildflowers with plenty of benches and spots to stop and enjoy the view. A 715 foot long recreational pier is a haven for fishermen or anyone who just likes to watch the water traffic. And the hulking remains of the area's past remind us of the days before superhighways and jets when iron tracks were the city's lifeline. There is even an original New York Central steam locomotive, built in 1945 and identical to the kind that moved freight cars along these tracks years ago.

This is an amazing place to go for a walk and soak up a little history while you breath the fresh air. Sure, it's windy, but the pleasure of being outside and in a wide open space is intoxicating. The holidays are upon us. Take a little break and go! You'll enjoy it!

November 22, 2008

Homage to Philippe de Montebello

When Philippe de Montebello announced that he was stepping down as director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, it made front page headlines around the world. It was the end of an era - over 30 years of stewardship of this magnificent institution visited by millions annually. Many of these visitors left with not only increased knowledge and appreciation for art of all kinds, but also a sort of personal connection with the man whose voice guided them through the collections. It was Mr. de Montebello himself who introduced and explained countless exhibitions with a cultivated, charmingly accented delivery that seemed to speak only to you, the audio-guide renter!

How to honor a man who did so much for the Metropolitan and the City of New York? Whose tireless efforts expanded the museum's art holdings, building space, educational programs, research facilities, accessibility to the public, and world wide reputation as a major repository of artistic treasures? In a fitting tribute to this global ambassador of fine art, a forum of curators, conservators and research scientists convened and selected 300 out of the more than 84,000 objects acquired during his tenure, that best represented the ideology and character of the museum. The result is "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions" on view until February 1, 2009.

This is a labor of love and respect on the part of the staff and a chance for museum goers to say goodbye to someone who has gifted them with innumerable fabulous art experiences over the years. The exhibition is arranged by year of acquisition and this is initially confusing. However, one soon stops searching for a common thread of period, method, material or purpose and simply appreciates that each object represents the finest example of its kind, no matter what the category. The three decades fly by as one travels, figuratively, from ancient Egypt and the tiny lapis lazuli sculpture of The Creator of God Ptah, 945-600 B.C., to a Paul Poiret evening coat and gown, circa 1912. From a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci to a bronze Cambodian Buddha, from a 17th Century German "Cittern" a stringed instrument inlaid with ivory and ebony, to an American 1865 Colt Third Model Dragoon Revolver in its case, from a complete set of 52 decorated playing cards made in Burgundy in 1475 to a 19th Century Congolese Mangaaka Power Figure carved of wood with nails and other metal ornamentation, this show has everything you can imagine, and then some. Furniture, porcelain, ivory carvings, armor, carpets, jewelry and scrolls - the variety is amazing. Even within a field the span is enormous. Take paintings for example. How many museums can boast the finest works by Duccio de Buoninsegna (see above left), Vermeer (lower right), Rubens, Van Gogh, Balthus, Rothko and Jackson Pollock - all in the same suite of rooms?

Many will visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art this holiday season to see the world famous Christmas tree with its magnificent Neapolitan angels and crèche. Take a few minutes to go upstairs and get a taste of the worldly treasures that have been collected by this incomparable director and his team over the past 30 years. Mr. de Montebello, we salute you, we thank you, we will miss you and we wish you well.

November 15, 2008

"Paris/New York: Design Fashion Culture 1925-1940"

The period between the 2 World Wars was a time of warp speed progress in art and culture on both sides of the Atlantic. Paris, the capital of 19th Century refinement, and New York, the gleaming metropolis, were locked in a friendly duel for the prestige of being Number One in the fields of fashion, architecture and design. This unprecedented rivalry and exchange of ideas resulted in the 1920's and 30's becoming a golden age of sophistication and elegance. A new exhibition now on at the Museum of the City of New York explores the creative and competitive relationship between the two world capitals and the effect it had on 20th Century culture.

This exhibit looks at art and architecture, fashion, design and the performing arts and explores how ideas were exchanged between the Old World and the New. The combination of French Beaux-Arts style and New York Modernism created a new aesthetic that came to be known as Art Déco. New materials and ideas were reflected in a streamlined style - dynamic, urbane, luxurious and above all modern.

Displays of vintage furniture, fashions, jewelry and artifacts are complemented by drawings, photographs, posters and video that showcase the fascination with skyscrapers, speed and elegance. Luminary designers such as Coco Chanel, Paul Poiret, Jean Dunand, Edgar Brandt and Ely Kahn are side by side with artists Salvador Dali, George Balanchine, Christian Bérard and Josephine Baker. Although this cannot be considered a comprehensive show, it is an informative sampling of a very special time in Franco-American relations. "Paris/New York" remains on view until February 22, 2009.

No visit The Museum of the City of New York would be complete without a trip up to the third floor to see the fabulous Stettheimer Dollhouse. Created in the 1920's by Carrie Stettheimer, one of the three Stettheimer sisters who lived with their mother at The Alwyn Court on West 58th Street, it is a masterpiece in detail and charm. But what makes this dollhouse so remarkable is the miniature art gallery of original works created and given to Carrie by various artist friends who frequented the sisters' splendid salons. Small scale sculptures by Gaston Lachaise and William Zorach, tiny little drawings and paintings by Albert Gleizes and Florine Stettheimer and the most amazing piece of all - an itsy bitsy version of Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase". This is one of the little known jewels hidden away in an obscure section of a not-so-famous museum. New York is full of such treasures - you just have to know where to look!

November 08, 2008

Miró at MoMA

"I want to assassinate painting" announced the Spanish Surrealist artist Joan Miró in 1927. And with that statement began a watershed period in art history as he embarked on a 10 year period of "creative destruction" exploring new techniques, new materials and a new ideology in keeping with the revolutionary air of the time.

The Museum of Modern Art's current exhibition "Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting" focus' on this tumultuous stage in the artist's career. From 1927 when he began a series of paintings on bare, unprimed canvas, through 1937 when he returned to figurative painting but with some new twists, Miró's rebellious decade provides plenty of material for an engaging and informative show.

Joan Miró (1893-1983) had a long and glorious career and many exhibitions have been devoted to cataloguing his creative achievements. However, the MoMA show is the first time that this specific era has been explored as a cathartic period resulting in a new kind of art. Arranged chronologically, the exhibit begins at the beginning, the raw canvas works of 1927 (see above "Un Oiseau poursuit une abeille et la baisse"), proceeds through the "Spanish Dancers" of 1928, the "Dutch Interiors and Imaginary Portraits" (see right "Dutch Interior I", 1928), and "Collages" of 1929. With "Large Paintings on White Grounds", Miró says goodbye to painting and moves toward "Constructions and Objects" made of found items - a response to the financial restraints caused by Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Miró's artistic journey continued with "Paintings Based on Collages", 1933, "Drawings/Collages", 1933-34, "Pastels" and a return to color in 1934 and finally "Paintings on Cardboard", 1935. This last series was a sort of self-orchestrated retrospective as he painted 16 works in 5 months, all on identical sheets of cardboard with the objective "to attain a maximum intensity with a minimum of means" (see left "Rope and People I"). The group of "Small Paintings on Masonite and Copper", completed in 1935-36, reflect the impending disaster of the Spanish Civil War as the artist reacts to the turmoil in his homeland.

In October of 1936 Miró fled Spain for Paris where he remained in exile for 4 years. The following year marked the end of his "creative destruction" as he announced his intent to "do something absolutely different - to return to working from life". But his work, like the world around him, had undergone a sea change and he could never go back to the ways of old. This exhibition is an exhaustive look at the process of change - a revolution from within - essential to art, and life. "Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting" remains on view until January 12, 2009.

November 02, 2008

Promenades in Paris - Part II

Welcome back to our whirlwind tour of the Fall 2008 art season in Paris!

Let's pick up our circuit on the Right Bank and the Grand Palais where a retrospective of the Expressionist artist Emil Nolde is currently on view. Born Emil Hansen to a family living in the town of Nolde on the Danish/German border, he adopted the last name when he married a young actress in 1902. At this point he was already working as an artist having defied his father's wish that he continue in the farming tradition and and chosen woodcarving as a vocation. His studies took him to Switzerland where he discovered painting as a passion and a career.

His return to Denmark shifted his artistic focus and the new vitality in his work caught the attention of a young group of German artists known as "Die Brücke". Nolde began to paint in a frenzy of color as his urgency to succeed pushed him to new limits. Impatient with the group's progress, he separated and went on to create a massive series of religious art based on his own version of Protestantism. It was this body of work that caught the attention of the Nazis who considered it sacrilegious and included it in the infamous 1937 show of "Degenerate Art" in Munich. His work was banned, the pictures seized and he was forbidden to paint, but Nolde, a true artist who could not be restrained, continued to create "unpainted pictures seen through closed eyes" and completed a series of watercolors revealing fantastical inner worlds. After the war he returned to his homeland and lived out his life painting works inspired by the sea.

Another current exhibition featuring an important body of work created during World War II is "L'Art de Lee Miller" now on view at the Jeu de Paume, Place de la Concorde. Elisabeth Miller (1907-1977) began her stellar career as a model for Vogue in New York where she quickly became the darling of photographers Horst P. Horst and Edward Steichen. She moved to Paris in 1929 and shortly thereafter met, and fell in love with, a fellow American-in-Paris, the artist Man Ray. Lee Miller not only became his companion and muse, she also traded her position from photo subject to photo taker as she studied Man Ray's methods and techniques. It did not take long for Miller's keen eye and determined spirit to produce an impressive body of photographic works. From her early experimentation with Surrealist subjects, to high society fashion shots, to her travelogues from Egypt, Lee Miller proved to be a natural with the camera. Her work as a front line reporter for the U.S. Army during the Second World War provided first hand images of The Blitz (see photograph "Women With Fire Masks, Downshire Hill, London", 1941), the D-Day Invasion, the Liberation of Paris and the nightmares inside the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. In 1947 she married Roland Penrose and settled down to a quiet life in the British countryside, but she never gave up taking pictures. This tribute to her photographic output and fascinating life was created with the cooperation of the Lee Miller Archive, a foundation set up in 1980 by her son Antony Penrose.

Time to move over to the Place de la Madeleine and the Pinacothèque de Paris' exploration of "Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme". We are all familiar with Pollock's astonishing "drip" paintings, but how many have seen his earlier work - the work created in the 1930's and 40's influenced by the culture and symbols of Native Americans?

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, and spent much of his youth in the Southwestern states of Arizona and California before going to art school in New York in 1930. The influence of this early experience with native people is clearly evidenced in this small but thoughtful show. Early paintings are presented alongside Native American, particularly Inuit, artifacts, and the viewer can clearly see the relationship between Primitivism and Pollock's own quest for spirituality and expression. Following in the footsteps of the Surrealists, Pollock searched for the "new man" by exploring themes of fire, sun, cosmos, sacrifice, man and animal, man and woman, birth, dance and ecstasy - precursors to his ultimate ceremonial commentary, the drip paintings.

It's back to the future with a visit to the Centre Pompidou and "Le Futurisme à Paris - une avant-garde explosive" a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto" on the front page of Le Figaro, February 20, 1909. Considered to be the first avant-garde art movement of the 20th Century, Futurism sought to embrace the new century with its urban culture and technological advances. By comparing Futurism with Cubism, and exploring its contribution to Modernism, this exhibition seeks to set the movement apart as a unique and influential "ism" and a major part of the 20th century art scene.

This is a terrific show with powerful and compelling examples of why Futurism was and continues to be important. With blockbuster paintings by major contributors to the movement such as Gino Severini, Giacomo Balla, Umberto Boccioni, Kazimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp and Robert and Sonia Delaunay, this exhibition presents some of the last century's greatest hits in art and explores the question "How do we think of the future today?"

Finally, we've arrived at the present and the annual Foire Internationale d'Art Contemporain, or "Fiac!" as it is affectionately known. This year the fair was presented over two venues, the magnificent Grand Palais, for more traditional contemporary art (it's not really an oxymoron) and in a tent erected in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre for more recent works. The art at the Cour Carrée was really far out - like the 2' high elephant made of gray carpet with a vacuum cleaner hose for a trunk, or the ketchup bottle that regularly spun around spraying the onlookers with Heinz's most famous product, or the large framed collection of "wild" rabbit droppings. Old fogies like myself might be more at home among the stands at the Grand Palais where contemporary means Andy Warhol, Maria Helena Vieira Da Silva or Simon Hantaï - works where the paint had actually had time to dry. The current global financial problems certainly slowed things down, but the business of art continued - maybe as an alternative to investing in the stock market or maybe just for the sheer joy of owning an object of desire.

The City of Paris is always beautiful and the current abundance of art gilded the proverbial lily but in an absolutely glorious way! I leave you (poor exhausted reader!) with a photo I took of an installation in the Jardins des Tuileries that I hope will make you smile. These fantasy desserts are a feast for the eyes and totally calorie free! Enjoy!