November 29, 2011

A Visit to the Florida Everglades

With all the hype around the 10th edition of Art Basel Miami Beach, I thought I would give you an alternative view to the scene here in South Florida. Not one to follow the hoards from chi-chi opening to chi-chi party, I decided to do probably the most un-cool thing imaginable and drive two hours south to Homestead, home of the eponymous Speedway, Rodeo and Air Reserve Base, and the gateway to one of this country's greatest National Parks - the Everglades.

Comprising over 1.5 million acres of subtropical wilderness, the area known as the Everglades began as Royal Palm State Park in 1916 but did not officially become a National Park until 1947. It made news headlines in 1992 and again in 2005 when the area took direct hits from Hurricanes Andrew and Wilma respectively, both storms causing massive devastation. But on this November day, early in the region's dry season, the temperature was a mild 75 degrees and skies were brilliant blue - perfect for touring this marvelous park.

With only one afternoon and not quite sure of what to see and do, I consulted the knowledgeable volunteers at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center located just inside the Park entrance. Armed with a map and a list of suggestions I felt confident that I could get a pretty good feel for the Park and its special attractions even in a short time. The adventure was about to begin!

First stop was the Royal Palm Visitor Center where I parked the car and hoped that the huge vultures lurking nearby would not really be as vicious as the posted signs warned (they weren't). Close by was the beginning of the Anhinga Trail, a half mile loop of raised boardwalk that passed over crystal clear water that was just the opposite of how I thought swamp water should look.

The trail is named after the anhinga bird, quite a large waterbird with a swan-like neck that is plentiful in this area. There were also many snowy white egrets and ebony black crows. But what we had all come to see were the alligators and we were not disappointed!

I was walking along the boardwalk with my eyes open for a sighting when I noticed a very unusual looking log in the water. Sure enough it was a big alligator quietly watching and waiting for lunch. A little farther along and a little tiny baby turtle was crossing the walkway. Still farther and there was a "teenage" alligator sunning himself beside the path.

He drew a few spectators but no one was going to get too close!

At the end of the Anhinga Trail is the Gumbo Limbo Trail, another short loop that passed through a tropical hardwood "hammock" filled with lush vegetation. Gumbo limbo is an indigenous tree that features an unusual reddish brown bark. Other native trees included Spanish oak, palms, mangroves and cypress but what was most remarkable about this forest were the bromeliad plants that had attached themselves to the tree trunks and branches and were thriving on their adopted "parent".

A short drive away was Pa-hay-okee Overlook, another short boardwalk trail that leads to a "treehouse". From this elevated deck visitors can see for miles and truly appreciate the vast expanse of sawgrass growing in freshwater sloughs (pronounced "slews") and prairies interrupted only by hardwood tree islands or "hammocks". It was an impressive sight.

Although many of the trees looked dead, it turned out that these are deciduous cypress trees and they naturally lose their needles and look this way during the dry season.

The next stop was the Mahogany Hammock Trail, another short loop but this one was like walking through a jungle. Here the plant life was so dense that huge trees that had fallen over and could barely been seen with all the new growth that had taken over.

Finally I came to the end of the road, the Flamingo Visitor Center and Marina, a 38 mile drive from the entrance of the park. This was the most developed area of the park but facilities were limited. I enjoyed a snack of trail mix sitting on a dock watching manatees frolicking in the water and hoping to glimpse a crocodile. Unfortunately it was too late for a boat ride but I had already seen and learned a lot of new and interesting things. The sun was getting low in the sky and it was time to head back to the urban sprawl of Miami Dade but with a totally new appreciation for the Everglades and its remarkable ecosystem.

I leave you now with a nifty bit of information that I'll bet you didn't know. How can you tell the length of a grown alligator without actually measuring it (a rather dangerous proposition)? I'll tell you! The number of inches between the eye and the tip of the snout is roughly equal to the number of feet between the snout and the tip of the tail. One of those surprising facts that just might come in handy sometime!

November 25, 2011

"de Kooning: A Retrospective" at MoMA

Now that Thanksgiving dinner has been reduced to a few leftover turkey sandwiches, it's a good time to get out and see some museum exhibitions! Probably the major show of the season is a retrospective of the Dutch-born but considered New York School artist Willem de Kooning that runs through January 9, 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Although considered one of the most important artists of the 20th Century and a figurehead of the Abstract Expressionist movement, it is not until now that a comprehensive survey of his career has been presented. To make up for this oversight, New York's Museum of Modern Art has devoted the entire sixth floor, approximately 17,000 square feet of exhibition space, to showcase nearly 200 drawings, sculptures and paintings covering all eras of de Kooning's work.

To answer a question that I know is lurking in the back of many readers' minds, readers who may be a little cynical about Modern Art being "art" at all - the answer is yes, Mr de Kooning is a very accomplished academic artist. In fact his formal training in Rotterdam comprised both commercial and fine art applications and his earliest works, two of which are on view here, are traditional still lifes of the finest quality. How, one might wonder, did he go from classical to abstract with such verve?

"Being anti-traditional is just as corny as being traditional" said Willem de Kooning when asked about his early work. Indeed, he is one of very few Modern artists who simultaneously worked on figural works and abstractions sometimes fusing the two ideals in one painting making it a bit of a hybrid. After emigrating to the U.S. in 1926, de Kooning emulated his colleagues Matisse, Gorky and Stuart Davis as he searched for his own voice. It did not take long to find. By the time de Kooning was 40, he was already an important figure in the New York art world and was successfully merging portraits (his series' of "Men" and "Women" paintings) with abstracted and fantastic interiors and exteriors. His method included applying layers and layers of paint over charcoal and pencil drawings giving an ethereal quality to the images underneath and allowing him to add more complexity to the final painting.

"I am not interested in abstracting or taking things out or reducing painting to design, form, line and color. I paint this way so I can put more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space". One look at his 1950 masterpiece "Excavation" and you will see what he means...

By the mid-1950s de Kooning was engrossed in one of the major transformations of his career. He began to open up his painting to a looser, more painterly approach that often combined subject with background, i.e. women with interiors or landscapes. His new "full arm sweep" approach was a dramatic change and one that cemented his reputation as the master of abstract expressionism. His colors became brighter, the feeling more joyous, and he explored new mediums such as lithography and bronze sculpture. It was a marvelous period in his work.

"Two Figures in a Landscape", 1967

By the 1970s de Kooning was showing signs of Alzheimer's and years of excessive drinking had also taken their toll. His painting style became much sparer, less exuberant, and almost graphic in quality. Willem de Kooning died at his home on Long Island in 1997 at the age of 92 but his legend lives on in the history of 20th Century art.

November 22, 2011

What's On at the Neue Galerie

In honor of the tenth anniversary of one of the most beautiful museums in New York, the Neue Galerie has stepped outside its stated mission of presenting early 20th Century German and Austrian Art and is exhibiting the private collection of its co-founder Ronald S. Lauder. And what a collection it is! Aside from the obvious masterpieces by artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka and decorative objects by Koloman Moser, Dagobert Pesche and Josef Hoffmann that we have come to know and love, it turns out that Mr. Lauder has a passion for collecting that extends well beyond these parameters!

As my regular blog readers know, I am a huge fan of the Neue Galerie and visit almost every new exhibition. Inside the elegant surroundings of the 1914 mansion on Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile are treasures of the Wiener Werkstätte, Bauhaus, German Expressionism and the Blaue Reiter movements. This jewelbox of a museum is the brainchild of the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky and the businessman, philanthropist and art collector Ronald Lauder. Though Mr. Sabarsky did not live to see his dream become a reality, his friend Mr. Lauder fulfilled the vision with a passion for excellence that reflects his devotion to the project. Now, as part of the anniversary celebration, Mr. Lauder is sharing works from his personal collection with us, the museum going public.

It turns out the Mr. Lauder was bitten by the collecting bug at a very young age and he indulged his addiction to art in a wide range of areas. Indeed, the great surprise in this exhibition is the variety of objects and eras. From medieval arms and armor to Dégas pastel drawings - the works may be disparate in theme but united in quality. Sleek, steel, 16th Century shaffrons (helmets for horses) look as sculptural as Constantin Brancusi's marble and wood "Mademoiselle Pogany II", 1919. Portraits of men spanning nearly a century including Paul Cézanne's "Man with Crossed Arms", 1899 (right), Egon Schiele's "Mime van Osen", 1910, and Gerhard Richter's "Study for Serial Number 324 (Freud)", 1971, are certainly varied in style but share a level of artistic caliber that is first rate.

This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to take an intimate peek into the private world of an avid collector. However much we think we know about Mr. Lauder and his art collection, this show demonstrates that there is much more to the man and his collecting passion than one could ever imagine. "The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections from the 3rd Century BC to the 20th Century / Germany, Austria, and France" is on view until April 2, 2012.

November 20, 2011

"Stieglitz and His Artists" at the Met

It is my theory that when the economy is down museums turn to their own collections to put together shows. This is actually a very good thing for the museum-going public as there are often treasures tucked in the bowels of museum storage or hanging in obscure galleries that one would never have the opportunity to see if curators were not forced to look in their own storerooms rather than secure loans from outside sources.

This is certainly the case now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where, for the first time ever, they are displaying a major portion of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection bequeathed after the artist's death in 1946. This is a two-part exhibition underscoring the remarkable achievements of Stieglitz as both a photographer in his own right and as an arbiter of Modern Art.

"The Metropolitan Museum has opened its sacred halls to photography" wrote Alfred Stieglitz to a friend in December 1928, boasting "My photographs have performed the miracle." This was not merely braggadocio - it was Stieglitz's gift of 22 photographs that opened the sealed doors of this illustrious institution to the concept of photography as a legitimate art form on a par with traditional painting, drawing and sculpture. To honor this legacy, the Met is showing "Photographic Treasures from the Collection of Alfred Stieglitz" - a selection of superb vintage photos by Edward Steichen, Frank Eugene (see his portrait of Stieglitz, right) Clarence White, Gertrude Käsebier as well as gorgeous prints by Stieglitz himself.

While photography was invented in the 1820s, it was not until the early 20th Century when Alfred Stieglitz, equipped with a hand-held Graflex camera and therefore unencumbered by a heavy tripod, began to explore the medium as an art form rather than for purely documentary purposes. His concept of "Photo Secession" that promoted "Picturesque" photography generated a number of followers and the resulting body of work - the work that Stieglitz himself promoted in his galleries (The Little Galleries, 291, and, An American Place) - eventually formed the nucleus of the Metropolitan's magnificent collection of photography. It is a very special treat to view the forty eight works now on display - a testament to Stieglitz's acumen and a veritable "who's who" of early photographers.

But Alfred Stieglitz was a multi-dimensional person and photography was only one facet of his vision. Two years after closing "The Little Galleries" and opening "291" as a showcase for the Photo Secessionists, he expanded his exhibition manifesto to include figurative drawings and prints by European artists. Seeking to shock the Puritanical Americans, Stieglitz exhibited works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin and Rops and later the Masters of Modernity Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and the Futurist Gino Severini.

With The Armory Show of 1913 and the introduction of Marcel Duchamp's scandalous "Nude Descending a Staircase" the shock value of Stieglitz's European imports wore off and 291 was faced with stiff competition. Stieglitz responded by refining his mission and turned his focus exclusively on American Modernists.

It was a very clever move. Stieglitz became the champion of American artists John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth and most famously, the artist who would also become his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe. All were true Modernist painters - the likes of which had not been seen on this side of the Atlantic and might never have reached their levels of achievement without the tireless devotion of Alfred Stieglitz. And while his galleries were never financial success', his collection of art, many pieces having been gifts in lieu of repayment of loans to his artists, was astonishing.

In fact, when Stieglitz died of a stroke, his personal art collection numbered over 850 works plus 3000 prints of his own photographs and 580 prints by other photographers. It took three years for his widow to sort and organize his Estate and eventually make significant gifts to major institutions including George Eastman House, The National Gallery of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fisk University, Library of Congress and, of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alfred Stieglitz believed in American art and he believed in the ability of American artists to stand on a par with their European counterparts in the field of Modernism. His collection, which we have the privilege of enjoying until January 2, 2012, is a testament to this unique perspective and exceptional foresight.

P.S. For anyone who has ever been curious about just exactly how they make that fabulous Christmas Tree - here's a quick behind-the-scenes preview...

November 01, 2011

It's Print Week in New York!

There has been a lot of excitement in New York City lately. First a freak snowstorm that dumped three inches of snow in Central Park and took down a lot of beautiful trees. Then Hallowe'en which is always a spooky experience. And now, for the really big's New York Fine Art Print Week!!!

Okay, maybe Print Week is not as exciting as this Sunday's New York Marathon, but for lovers of fine prints and works on paper it is the week we wait for all year. This edition is shaping up to be bigger than better than ever and if last night's preview of the International Fine Print Dealers Association Print Fair at the Park Avenue Armory was any indication, the art of the print is alive and well and thriving in New York.

Featuring 90 dealers from around the world, the works presented at this fair range from 16th Century Dutch engravings to Contemporary American carborundum pieces where the ink has barely dried. From Dürer to Warhol from Hokusai to German Expressionism, these prints are of the highest quality and rarity and appeal to the most discriminating of collectors.

A few blocks down Park Avenue, at the Lighthouse International Conference Center, is the Fine Print and Drawing Fair. Now in its second year, this satellite fair features 25 dealers from the U.S. and Europe including yours truly! With a wider range of works on paper, this fair is not quite as print-specific as the IFPDA show. Here collectors will find all manner of mediums from posters to drawings to traditional prints at a price point a little friendlier to the average buyer's budget.

For devotees of contemporary art, the Editions Artists' Book Fair is going on this weekend in Chelsea. This show is dedicated to new prints and artist's books and is a great snapshot of what's going on in artists' studios right now.

All of these fairs end on Sunday evening, but if you can't get in to New York this weekend, or you just can't get enough, many local museums and institutions are offering special exhibitions relating to prints and print-making. Check out the IFPDA website for an up to date schedule of events and see just how exciting the print world can be!