April 27, 2014

Back to the Future @ The Guggenheim

Italian Design has long been recognized as the gold standard in the fields of fashion, automotive and industrial design, and interior decoration and architecture.  This predilection for avant-garde taste-making is not just a recent talent, the Italians have long championed innovations in art and culture that have left their mark on the global imagination.

Like, for instance, the Futurist Movement.  Begun in 1909 with F.T. Marinetti's "Futurist Manifesto", the group was inspired by all things modern - speed, machines, the industrial city and revolt - and interpreted this new culture in literature, art, design, advertising and theater. 

Umberto Boccioni, "Unique Forms of Continuity in Space", 1913

For the first time in the United States, the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue & 89th Street is presenting a comprehensive overview of this important 20th century movement.  Over 300 items by 80 different artists have been assembled to present museum goers with an exhaustive look at the movement from its inception until its end in 1944 with the death of its founder.

Futurism is built on energy.  The ideas of speed and motion are expressed in fractured forms, swirls, repetition and simultaneous imaging that put the viewer at the center of the art with the image or performance radiating outward.  The dynamism is palpable - the painted canvas becomes a motion picture right before one's eyes.

Benedetta Cappa Marinetti "Speeding Motorboat", 1923-24

"Reconstructing the Universe" is a wonderful show.  Set in the modernist snail of Frank Lloyd's Wright's iconic building, the exhibition unfolds chronologically presenting outstanding examples of sculpture, oil paintings, printed posters, ceramics, textiles, photography and stage sets.  Works by such luminaries as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Fortunato Depero and Gino Severini all exemplified the movement's dedication to break with the past and embrace the future.

Fortunato Depero, "Skyscrapers and Tunnels", 1930

The exhibition's curator, Vivien Greene, also addresses the issues of the movement's association with war and Fascism.  Founded as a rejection of classicism, the Futurists were by their very nature reactionary vowing to "destroy the useless glories of the past" through revolt and renewal.  This is reflected in the group's initial tendency to break down traditional subjects into disjointed images, their adoption of all things modern and mechanical (arte meccanica) in the 1920s and their fascination with aeropittura as the prospect of aerial warfare loomed in the 1930s and 40s.  Throughout the 35 year existence of Futurism (a long time by art movement standards) its practitioners remained true to their ideas of speed, technology, nationalism and modernity.

"Italian Futurism, 1909-1944:  Reconstructing the Universe" remains on view until September 1, 2014.

April 20, 2014

"Audubon's Aviary - Part II"

As one might expect, the New York Historical Society is a treasure trove of art and artifacts having to do with the Empire State.  But few people realize that its original mandate was as a museum for both natural history and art.  In fact, it served this dual purpose until 1870 and along the way became the largest repository of Auduboniana in the world, making its very urban location on Central Park West the epicenter for ornithologists and amateur birders alike.

 Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
Havell Plate # 211, 1821

The jewel in the crown is the Society's complete set of original watercolors by John James Audubon for the 435 plates reproduced in his magnificent album "The Birds of America".  This large-format (double-elephant) size folio was Audubon's life achievement - it took eleven years to publish (1827-38) and remains the quintessential reference book for birds of the Northern Hemisphere.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785, the illegitimate son of a French privateer and his chambermaid/mistress.  After immigrating to the United States in 1803 to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic wars, John James soon began to follow his true passion - the study and registry of indigenous bird life.  He began the first bird-banding on the continent and soon used his artistic talents to make detailed drawings and watercolors of the species he observed.  While his endeavors were scientifically interesting they were not sufficient to support his young family and he relied on taxidermy, fur trapping, portrait painting and his wife's school teaching to make ends meet.

Whooping Crane (Grus americana)
Havell Plate # 226, 1821

In 1826, at the age of 41, he sailed to England with a portfolio of his watercolor paintings to try to generate interest in a deluxe publication of bird books.  The response was overwhelming and before long he had enough financial backing to begin what was to become his legacy - "The Birds of America".  It was an ambitious project - 435 hand colored engravings printed on the finest paper and featuring 1037 life-size species of birds at a cost of  $116,000 (over $2 million today).  It was also a logistically challenging one with Audubon traveling the US and Canada to seek out bird specimens and ferrying the watercolors to London to be reproduced by the master engraver Robert Havell, Jr.  The book was to be sold by subscription offering 87 monthly fascicles each containing five prints - one very large, one medium and three smaller size - and was a huge success with subscribers on both sides of the Atlantic.  However, the high cost of production as well as Audubon's expenses for research and travel meant that he was never to realize a profit for his efforts.

Which brings us back to this blog.  In 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, the New York Historical Society was able to purchase nearly the complete set of the original watercolors from Audubon's widow Lucy.  Thanks to the generosity of later donors, the Society eventually came to own all of the extant watercolors, plus a large group of watercolors of other birds and mammals, and the final model for "The Birds of America".  It is an impressive collection but a fragile one and therefore seldom available for public viewing which was why, when I heard that the NYHS was presenting a portion of their watercolors on view, I wasted no time in heading over for a look.

Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
Havell Plate # 242, 1832

"Audubon's Aviary:  Parts Unknown (Part II of the Complete Flock)" showcases all 129 watercolor models for fascicles 36-61 of "The Birds of America".  This is the second of three exhibitions and is focused on the species Audubon observed and painted during his 1831 voyage to Florida and his 1833 expedition to Labrador, Canada.  It is a beautiful installation with the framed watercolors grouped in the order in which they were engraved, five per fascicle, each with corresponding bird calls on the audio guide!  Audubon was a masterful artist and a devoted naturalist and his magnificent birds look ready to take flight.

Although John James Audubon achieved moderate recognition during his lifetime, it was nothing compared to the legacy he left behind.  "The Birds of America" is considered one of the greatest color plate books ever produced as well as a pre-eminent natural history document.  Audubon himself was a pioneer environmentalist who recognized the importance of nature and its preservation at a time when America's wilderness seemed unlimited.  His scientific research and discoveries led to a far better understanding of the ornithology of North America and its place in the ecosystem.  And his paintings are just plain gorgeous.  You have until May 26, 2014 to see "Audubon's Aviary:  Part II" before it flies back into deep storage.

April 06, 2014

The 54th Annual Antiquarian Book Fair

Some of my readers may know that I got my start in the print world nearly 25 years ago in the field of illustrated books.  While I am no longer directly involved in the book business, it is a mixture of treasure hunt and nostalgia that brings me back to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, or indeed almost any good book fair, whenever the opportunity presents itself.  This year's edition was bigger and better than ever and I spent several very happy hours exploring the booths and talking with some of my chums from this former life.

The name "book fair" is almost misleading.  While each and every one of the over 200 exhibitors are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America or its international equivalent, the merchandise offered for sale includes all manner of works on paper from maps to autographs to illuminated manuscripts.  Even within the realm of books the variety is staggering - miniatures, first editions, fine bindings, children's books, artists' books, natural history books, bibles, private press and trade catalogues, in every language and on every topic you can imagine.

Here are some highlights.  On the stand of Ursus Books, New York, was a stunning large format album illustrated with 52 chromolithographs commemorating the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.  "Dickinson's Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851" is a visual tour of this important international trade show.

Heritage Book Shop, Los Angeles, offered a complete set of first edition James Bond novels in their original cloth bindings and dust jackets.  Published between 1953-1966, the 14 volumes are in beautiful condition with one book, "For Your Eyes Only", signed on the flyleaf by Ian Fleming.

Ian Brabner - Rare Americana, Wilmington, devoted much of his stand to an 800 piece archive of "Roaring 20s" artwork by cartoonist Faith Burrows.  Dating between 1927-1935, this incredible collection features original pen and ink drawings and proof sheets featuring "Flapper Filosofy" a cartoon character epitomizing the chic and sophisticated, free-spirited women of the Art Deco era.

My personal favorite was a first edition, first impression of the beloved Canadian novel "Anne of Green Gables", on the stand of Peter Harrington, London.  This pristine copy of Lucy Maud Montgomery's iconic story of the red headed orphan Anne Shirley, was enhanced with seven illustrations by M.A. and W.A.J. Claus, and was published in Boston in 1908.  Having grown up with "Anne of Green Gables", it was a real pleasure to discover.
Whether you are smitten with Shakespeare or dedicated to Dickens, there is something for everyone with a passion for printed material at the 54th Annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair!