December 27, 2013

Medieval Magic at the Met

With the presents now unwrapped and stores featuring drastic mark-downs on unsold merchandise, many New Yorker's thoughts have raced from Christmas to the New Year with barely a glance at the remains of the now-outdated decorations.  But for others, Christmastide actually began on December 24th and continues until Epiphany on January 6th when the Magi reached the manger in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In the spirit of the Christmas season that extends beyond the "Big Day", I visited a special loan exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While not strictly a Yule-themed show, the nature of the objects on display made it very appropriate for holiday visitors.  "Medieval Treasures from Hildesheim" is a very manageable selection of about fifty exquisite church furnishings from the Hildesheim Cathedral in Northern Germany that have been sent out on tour while the cathedral is being renovated.

I had actually visited the small city of Hildesheim as a teenager and again about ten years ago and well remember the massive bronze doors with scenes from the Old and New Testaments that are the signature element of Dom St. Maria (St Mary's Cathedral).  Unfortunately these doors are far too big to travel, but the bishop who commissioned them in 1001, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (960-1022), was also responsible for many other magnificent pieces that survive to this day and are part of this current exhibition in New York.

You don't have to be a devout Christian to appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of these objects.  Take, for example, the large gold and jewel encrusted Reliquary Cross on the left that purportedly holds a fragment of the True Cross in the center.  Or one of the three liturgical fans, a portion of which can be seen in the museum's announcement above, that again demonstrates the wealth of the region and the skill of the artisans who worked there.  Other examples include beautiful illuminated manuscripts, delicately carved ivory croziers that topped the Bishops' staffs and the so-called Golden Madonna, a stunning statue of the Virgin and Child resplendent in jewels and one of the very earliest three-dimensional sculptures in medieval Europe.

While little Hildesheim is far from the tourist beat, it is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site and boasts one of the finest and densest concentrations of medieval ecclesiastical art anywhere .  While today we think of Rome as the capital of such treasures, a thousand years ago it was in fact Hildesheim that claimed this title - and they have protected their riches through reformation, secularization, wars and the ravages of time.

These magnificent objects are a small portion of what Hildesheim has to offer, and it was a unique privilege to to be able to view them here in North America.  Though technically not Christmas decorations, they certainly invoke a special feeling that appeals to observers at this time of year.  And the location of the exhibition, adjacent to the Met's magnificent Neapolitan Christmas tree, makes the parallels even more evident.

During this special season, and with the new year just days away, may I again wish my readers all the very best at Christmas and invite you to join me in 2014 for another year of art and adventure.  Happy Holidays to all!!

December 21, 2013

"Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary" @ MoMA

You are probably already familiar with the mainstays of the Belgian artist René Magritte's iconography - the pipe, the apple, the clouds, the bowler hat.  Indeed they have ensured his position as one of the most recognized of the Surrealists, just behind Salvador Dali and his melting watches.  But the evolution of Magritte, from his early career as a designer and graphic artist to his rank as sovereign of the Surrealists, is an interesting one and the topic is now being explored at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the special exhibition "Magritte:  The Mystery of the Ordinary".

With a focus on the twelve year period (1926-1938) during which the artist was living among the Surrealists in Paris and working intensely on his strategy to make "everyday objects shriek out loud".  And shriek they did.  You see, despite his rather unremarkable upbringing (his father was a tailor and a cloth merchant and his mother had been a milliner before she killed herself when her son was 13), young René parlayed his artistic talent into a medium to challenge how people look at ordinary objects and situations.  Usually incoherent, sometimes violent and often disturbing, René Magritte's depictions of intrinsically benign things cause the viewer to doubt his own eyes.

Painted in a flat, illustrative style, the paintings appear at first glance to be simple and straightforward, but this is almost never really the case.  Take for example the work above, "The Menaced Assassin", painted in 1927.  What we see are three different scenes.  In the foreground we have two dark and threatening men, one carrying a bludgeon the other a net and both wearing bowler hats.  In the middle is another man in a dark suit casually listening to a gramophone while a naked woman is lying prostrate on a canape with her throat slit, and in the background are three more men peering at the scene through a window.  Though each element is clearly depicted, the scene in its entirety makes no sense.

Another mystery is "Le Portrait / The Portrait" done in 1935 and shown above.  Once again we have five very simple objects, except they are not as simple as they seem.  The obvious issue is the eyeball in the middle of the slice of meat which leads to the question of our perception of daily life and rituals and the realities thereof.

Or, consider another of Magritte's famous images "La Durée Poignardée / Time Transfixed" painted in 1938 in Brussels (see above).  Here we have two symbols of time, the clock and the train, but in this case the train is a substitute for a stovepipe and conversely the hearth is now a tunnel.  All of this is a little confusing until you consider the literal translation of the title is "ongoing time stabbed by a dagger".

René Magritte was a master at creating puzzles through words and images that just do not fit our perceptions and ideas of how things should be.  Through doubling, repetition, mis-naming and other tricks of visual and language representation he forces us to take another, clearer look at what is really going on.  Consider his bold pronouncement "Ceci n'est pas une pipe [This is not a Pipe]" under a picture of what clearly IS a pipe and the challenge this presents to our reality.  And then consider his statement "you cannot smoke this pipe therefore it is not a pipe" and it starts to get a little clearer.

The world of René Magritte is witty and imaginative and provokes a lot of questions.  This exhibition at MoMA will answer a few, but will probably open a whole new can of worms the more you look. Which is why it is so much fun to visit and test your logic against the mysteries of Magritte!

P.S.  With Christmas right around the corner I would like to take this opportunity to wish my readers all the joy and blessings of the season and thank you for your loyalty over the years.  Merry Christmas to you and yours!

December 14, 2013

"Girl with a Pearl Earring" @ The Frick

One of the "must see" museum shows this season is without a doubt the special touring exhibition of masterworks from the Mauritshuis in The Hague now on view at the Frick Collection on East 70th Street in New York.  The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, housed in the former residence of Johan Maurits (1604-1679) a governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil, is currently being renovated and expanded, and during the construction shipped some of their most important paintings on an international tour.  This generous act on the part of the museum's directors means that people in Tokyo, Kobe, San Francisco and Atlanta have had the chance to view some of their masterpieces of the Dutch Golden Age.

Until January 19th New Yorkers will have the rare opportunity to view fifteen treasures from the Mauritshuis collection before they travel on to Bologna, Italy, and finally back to The Hague for the grand re-opening in June 2014.  Important works by such Dutch and Flemish masters as Frans Hals and Rembrandt van Rijn are on view as well as exquisite paintings by lesser known artists such as Jan Steen and Carel Fabritius (see "The Goldfinch", 1654,  left).  But the undisputed star of the show is Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring".

I had heard that there was quite a queue to get in to see "Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis" but I had not anticipated the crowd that I found waiting in a snowstorm to get into the Frick on a Saturday morning!  Once inside, the normally serene museum was jammed with visitors and those who wanted to see the special exhibition were diverted to the Garden Court, then ushered into the Oval Room which held only one painting, the glorious "Girl with a Pearl Earring".

Painted in 1665, the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is not a portrait of an actual person.  Rather it is a form of portraiture known as a tronie, featuring an idealized face or an exaggerated expression with an exotic adornment such as the turban worn by the girl in this painting.  Vermeer depicts this lovely young woman with her head turned and her eyes fixed directly on the viewer while her lips are slightly parted as if she is speaking.  The eye-catching element of the massive pearl earring is curious as no pearl of this size has ever been recorded.  Perhaps this can be explained by Vermeer's apparent affinity for these gems - eight of his 36 paintings feature pearls - or it may actually portray a glass drop that resembles a pearl.  In any case, the "Dutch Mona Lisa" has captured the attention of museum goers for over a century when it was donated to the Mauritshuis by a collector who had purchased the painting at auction for two guilders and thirty cents!

The other fourteen paintings on loan can be viewed in the adjacent East Gallery and for the complete experience one can re-enter the Frick's permanent collection where their own three beautiful Vermeers are now grouped together for viewing in the museum's West Gallery.

The Frick Collection is one of my favorite small museums in the world and in the 30 years I have been going I have never seen it so full.  On my way out I spoke with a guard who concurred adding that they were welcoming an un-precedented 4,000 visitors a day to see this special show.  The Dutch Golden Age lives!

December 08, 2013

A Walk Through the La Brea Tar Pits

Right next door to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in the middle of downtown L.A., is a designated National Natural Landmark - the La Brea Tar Pits.  Originally part of the Mexican land grant Rancho La Brea, this amazing natural history site would make a great Surrealist destination as a bizarre, prehistoric setting juxtaposed smack in the center of the Miracle Mile!  I had heard about the Tar Pits but had never explored them until last week en route back to the parking lot after visiting LACMA.

The word "brea" in Spanish means tar, and it is pure asphaltum, or "brea" that seeped up from the Salt Lake Oil Field that lies under much of this Hancock Park district.  In very early times, the Chumash Indians used the tar as a glue and to seal their boats.  Later, the citizens of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de Los Angeles used this tar as fuel and to waterproof their homes.  By the 1800s the area was being mined for asphalt but some clever geologists realized that there was probably oil in the ground and by the end of the 19th century the quarries had been replaced with oil derricks.

All of this became even more interesting when fossils began to be discovered in the tar and it became apparent that these pits were a treasure trove of specimens from the Pleistocene Era (40,000-11,000 years ago) to the end of the Ice Age.  It turned out that all sorts of animals, from massive mastodons to tiny beetles as well as all manner of plant life, had been trapped in the tar fields and preserved in oil.

Fast forward to today when the La Brea Tar Fields are both a glimpse into the ancient past and a very vibrant science project.  Visitors are invited to stroll in the park's verdant setting with its intermittent deposits of nasty looking tar deposits bubbling with methane gas!  All manner of leaves and dirt are stuck in the muck and there is not a chance of retrieving anything that might accidentally land there.  There is a Lake Pit where the quarries had been excavated but the oil and tar has now filled in the pit like a bubbling, dirty pond.  To make the point, there are life size models of Columbian Mammals as they might have looked while being sucked into the ooze thousands of years ago.  There is also the Pleistocene Garden planted with indigenous flora of the time - not a palm tree in sight!

Also fascinating is "Project 23" an ongoing dig with paleontologists and volunteers carefully excavating fossils seven days a week.  The "23" refers to the 23 special collecting boxes that were used to capture and transfer the fossil rich soil from the recent parking lot expansion next door at LACMA.  These cases were carefully transported to the Tar Pit site and are being meticulously unearthed, one by one, in a search for signs of plant and animal life.  The efforts have been rewarded with discoveries on an almost daily basis and the team is hoping to be able to assemble a complete Columbian mammoth skeleton from this source.

You might be wondering what happens to all the bones and fossils unearthed from the pits?  They are collected and either displayed or studied at the nearby Page Museum.  The Page boasts one of the largest collections of its kind with over 3 million Ice Age specimens, over a million of which are viewable by the public, and ranging from a the incisor of a sabre-tooth cat to a baby mouse tooth.

While the La Brea Tar Pits may fall a little afield of my usual milieu, they turned out to be a fascinating visit and a rare first hand look at pre-history in the making!

December 01, 2013

A Visit to the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art

Hello from the City of Angels where I have spent a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend.  It was a little odd to be lounging by the hotel pool rather than watching the Macy's Parade float down Central Park West on Thanksgiving morning, but a turkey dinner is equally delicious on either coast!

One of the highlights of my stay was a visit to the largest art museum in the western United States - the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA.  Established as an independent museum in 1961, the institution's collection of over 100,000 objects is now housed in a seven building complex situated on twenty acres in central Los Angeles.

Known primarily for their extensive holdings of Asian and Islamic art and artifacts, LACMA also boasts significant collections of Latin American and modern and contemporary works by American artists.  And with the recently opened Broad Contemporary Art Museum, housed in a Renzo Piano designed building, the museum has greatly increased its exhibition space for temporary and site specific installations.

It is these special works that I would like to share with you now - all with the aim of making art fun in the entertainment capitol of the world!

Let's start with a classic "Calder and Abstraction: From Avant Garde to Iconic" which just opened to the public last week and is drawing large crowds.  Alexander Calder (1898-1976) was an American sculptor who began working in wire but soon moved on to larger kinetic sculptures made of sheet metal.  His hanging mobiles and later "stabiles" (stationary sculptures with moving parts) were precisely engineered so the abstract forms would move on air currents making ever changing forms.  Although the museum commissioned one of his large works for their opening in 1965, this is his first exhibition in Los Angeles. 

Another American artist who works in metal is Richard Serra (b. 1939) and his 2006 steel sculpture "Band" is on view in the new Broad galleries.  This massive work is considered the artist's greatest achievement and it really is awesome.  Imagine 200 tons of steel precisely engineered into a 12-foot high and 70-foot long ribbon of subtly arcing metal that the viewer can walk into and around.  "Band" is a technological masterpiece and an incredibly elegant work despite its massive size.

Moving upstairs in the same building and we come to a retrospective of the work of California "Light and Space" artist James Turrell.  I was first introduced to Turrell's work this summer when the Guggenheim in New York presented his installation piece "Aten Reign" in their rotunda.  This is another amazing foray into the world of color and light ranging from his early projection pieces to his more recent "audience participation" works situated in another building. 

The latest work "Ganzfield/Breathing Light" involved a 45-minute wait in line and the removal of my shoes, but it was worth it.  Groups of 8 are admitted into a special elevated room where the light seems to saturate every inch and it is hard to tell up from down.  It's a little like being in a technicolor snowstorm, a mesmerizing experience where time slows down and light takes on a whole new meaning!

The next two stops are both by the same artist but are totally different in concept.  Chris Burden (b. 1946) is an American artist known for performance and installation pieces and LACMA has two great examples of his work now on view.  Inside the Broad galleries is "Metropolis II" a frenetic interpretation of a large modern city - maybe Los Angeles? - involving 11,000 tiny cars whizzing along 18 different roadways including a six-lane "highway".  The sculpture operates for an hour at a time with an attendant standing by to take care of any auto-incidents that may occur.

"Metropolis II" took four years to build with eight studio assistants helping to construct the cars, roadways and miniature buildings (including an Eiffel Tower!).  Visitors can view the work at ground level and from a mezzanine balcony for a birds eye view of this fabulous beehive of miniature madness.

Let's move outside to Chris Burden's 2008 sculpture created to grace LACMA's Wilshire Avenue entrance.  Entitled "Urban Light", the work comprises 202 authentic cast iron street lamps, restored and painted a uniform shade of grey.  The lights are more than just a nod to the city's history, they have been transformed into sculpture.  And when the sun goes down and the lights come on they are absolutely beautiful.

We're going to wrap up this visit with a look at the lighter side of art...just kidding!  "Levitated Mass" is an installation piece conceived by American artist Michael Heizer in 1969 but not completed until 2012 after a two decade search for the appropriate 340-ton rock and a three year odyssey to transport it to the site.  Now securely perched over a 456-foot long trench, the bolder challenges people to walk underneath its mass and contemplate how far we've come since the stone age.  It's a daunting invitation.

It has been a fun few days here in sunny California and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to really explore this great museum.  I am looking forward to returning when the former May Department Store, now known as LACMA West, is transformed into the Museum of Motion Pictures sometime in 2016.