May 25, 2014

"Charles James: Beyond Fashion" at the new Costume Institute

From its humble beginnings in 1937 as the Museum of Costume Art, to its most recent incarnation as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always offered an extensive repository of apparel, textiles and accessories for fashion aficionados of every ilk.  Today, the department features a 35,000 piece inventory of men's, women's and children's garments covering seven centuries, an extensive fashion library and a state-of-the-art conservation center.  It is one of largest and most important collections in the world and a center for the study of fashion and costume in relation to art, history and culture.

Because of the fragile nature of textiles, there is no permanent exhibit on view.  Rather, The Costume Institute presents one very special exhibition every year, timed to open with the social event of the season - the Costume Institute Gala Benefit.  Since 1995 this affair has been co-chaired by Anna Wintour, a Museum trustee, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue and a style setter extraordinaire.  Invited guests are an A+++ list of stars, fashionistas and high rollers who come to see and be seen, to publicize the show and to raise a lot of money for the Museum.

This year's exhibition is dedicated to the Anglo-American designer Charles James, who, though not so well known today, was considered the king of couture in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  He is credited with the invention of the wrap dress, the strapless dress and the down-filled jacket while his ball gowns were worn by the likes of Millicent Rogers, Babe Paley and Lily Pons.  Typically his designs are defined by a sculptural, almost architectural, quality that made them works of art far beyond mere dresses.

Charles James was born in England in 1906 to a British military captain and his American heiress wife.  His childhood was one of privilege and fostered his life-long love of all things luxurious and extravagant - an obsession which he often had difficulty in supporting.  James began his fashion career as a milliner but soon moved on to dressmaking where he could more fully express his visions of beauty and opulence.

Always one small step ahead of the bill collector and sometimes in hot water with his clients for failing to deliver on time, Charles James nevertheless remained a highly sought after couturier for society ladies.  The reason was simple - a Charles James gown was unlike any other and the wearer would look like a fairy tale princess.

The Met's exhibition is divided into two sections located about a five-minute walk from each other on different floors of the Museum.  I'm going to begin on the ground floor, in the newly renovated Costume Center, where two galleries give us an introduction to this famed designer.  The first, smaller, room is filled with patterns, press clippings, photographs, other ephemera and a few early designs including his one-of-a-kind eiderdown jacket.

The second, larger, downstairs gallery is divided into four themes - "Spirals and Wraps", "Drapes and Folds", "Platonic Form" and "Anatomical Cut" each illustrated not only with examples of his clothing on dressmakers' dummies, but enhanced with video screens demonstrating how each "look" was created.  For example, the 1932 "Taxi" dress - a simple wool wrap dress thus named because it was so easy to put on, a woman could get dressed in a taxi - is virtually dissected and reassembled so even a viewer with no sewing skills could understand how it worked.

Now let's move upstairs to the Museum's main floor, just off the Greek and Roman Galleries, where we enter a foyer with a group of "muslins" or mock-ups on mannequins posed around a butterfly sofa.

Just beyond is the high point of the exhibition.  In a large, dramatically lit room, are fifteen stupendous examples of Charles James' ball gowns, each posed individually on a small, round stage.  There are no mannequins to distract from the magnificence of these creations.  Each design, including the "Four Leaf Clover" (see below), "Tree", "Lampshade", "Swan" and "Butterfly" is a masterpiece of technical ingenuity using seams, boning, frameworks, layers and draping to enhance the properties of the fabric itself.

How do we know what lies underneath the sumptuous examples of sartorial splendor?  In an amazing application of fashion and technology, the Met's curators have installed video monitors at each station that act not only as information placards but also, and here is where we dive into the 21st century, use robotic arms to scan and analyse the gowns.  The robot provides a schematic blue print of the structure of the dress, then fast forwards, step-by-step, through to the finished product.  Here is where the magic unfolds, like, for instance, in the "Umbrella" dress, where we can see exactly how James used a rod system, very similar to an umbrella's ribs, to create intricate folds in the skirt of an evening gown.

In what can only be described as marvels of engineering, Charles James transforms yards of taffeta, velvet, satin and chiffon into the most incredible evening creations a woman could dream of wearing.  It is truly, as the title suggests, "Beyond Fashion", where style meets sculpture and a dress becomes a work of art.

May 20, 2014

Oscar Murillo "A Mercantile Novel" @ David Zwirner

One of the pitfalls of working from home, especially when the weather is lousy, is the tendency to stay confined within a limited radius.  New York is a big city with many diverse neighborhoods most of which are just a bus or subway ride away.  So to celebrate this beautiful spring day and to see what all the fuss was about, I ventured down to Chelsea and explored some of the contemporary art galleries that now populate the area between 14th and 28th Streets from Tenth Avenue to the Hudson River.

Thanks in large part to the High Line (see my blogs of January 13, 2013 and January 1, 2010) and the profusion of apartment buildings, hotels, restaurants and boutiques that have sprung up around it, the area that was formerly known as the Meatpacking district is now one of the chicest and most expensive in Manhattan.  It has almost become a victim of its own success as galleries and artists who fled the high rents of SoHo, are now facing exactly the same situation in the territory that they pioneered 15 years ago.

But I digress.  Armed with a Chelsea Gallery Guide, I spent a very pleasant afternoon checking out some of the exhibitions and installations now on view, while marveling at the fabulous gallery spaces that showcase this contemporary art.

I saw some neat things but one show stood out above all the others.  Now on at David Zwirner is a large scale installation piece by the Colombian born artist Oscar Murillo entitled "A Mercantile Novel".  This tribute to the artist's homeland and childhood is a complete re-creation of a local candy making factory where several generations of his family, including his parents, were employed in various capacities.

The artist's mother, Virgelina Murillo (center) working
at the Columbina factory in La Paila, Colombia, in 1988

Created in co-operation with Colombina, one of the major food producers in Colombia, the art gallery has been transformed into a working candy factory, complete with skilled employees, a production line and special packaging for their signature "Chocmelos" confection!

The candy factory played an important role in Oscar Murillo's youth as it was the main employer and therefore a major part of the community in which he lived.  Although he left Colombia to study art in London, he retains strong ties to his homeland and uses art installations such as this one to honor his heritage while exploring themes of migration, displacement, globalization, community and relationships.

One can easily imagine this turning into a rant against big business and exploitation of the working classes, but that is not at all the case.  Rather, the chocolate covered marshmallows in their special smiley face packaging are being given away for free to gallery visitors who in turn are invited to pass them on and record their sharing experiences on special social media sites.

I certainly availed myself of these complimentary candies and I am sharing my experience with you now.  They are delicious!  And I would urge you to visit David Zwirner's gallery at 519 West 19th Street before June 14th so you can experience them for yourself!

P.S.  Another famous Colombian, race car driver Juan Pablo Montoya, will be defending his Indianapolis 500 title this weekend after a 14 year hiatus! 

May 15, 2014

"Gaugin: Metamorphoses" at MoMA

Mention the artist Paul Gauguin and the immediate impression that springs to mind is of his brightly colored Modernist paintings of native women in tropical landscapes.  But these well known works are just the tip of the Gauguin iceberg, and a visit to MoMA's current exhibition, entitled "Metamorphoses", will reveal that there is a whole lot more to this artist's œuvre than most people realize.

The exhibition focuses on the later years of Gauguin's life - after his stint as a stockbroker, after his brush with the Impressionist painters, and after his forays into Symbolism, Japonism and Synthetism.  By the late 1880s his disenchantment with all things European had driven him to explore more "unspoiled" lands - a quest that took him first to Martinique and later to Tahiti, French Polynesia and the Marquesas Islands where he died in 1903.

"Hina and Fatu" c. 1892
Wood sculpture

Remarkably, Paul Gauguin had no formal art training yet his natural talent and a curious mind led him to explore a wide variety of expression.  His desire to remove himself from his bourgeois background freed him to proceed along a less orthodox path, and he made many discoveries along the way.  This exhibition is a revelation of sorts as the curators emphasize not the famous Modernist paintings, but rather the lesser known but equally powerful prints, transfer drawings, totemic sculptures (see above) and ceramics.

Divided into the periods of his two extended trips to the South Pacific, "Metamorphoses" presents a fascinating mix of art forms that complement each other with their primitive yet accomplished style.  Gauguin embraced his new habitat and this passion is clearly evident in his portrayals of the local scenes, deities, women and customs.  His study of printing processes - lithography, zincography, woodcuts and monotypes - opened up a new spectrum for expression and while the subjects may have mirrored his paintings, the process of printing allowed him to experiment with elements of tone, color and shading in a totally different way.

Take, for example, his interpretations of Oviri, or "savage" in Tahitian, an imaginary figure with which Gauguin felt a strong personal affiliation.  His fixation on Oviri manifested itself in sculpture...

in oil painting..

"E haere oe i hia (Where are you going?)", 1892

in a watercolor monotype with watercolor highlights...

in a woodcut...

and in a woodcut with watercolor coloration...

The exhibition "Gauguin:  Metamorphoses" was a true surprise in its scope and its emphasis on works other than traditional painting.  I found it fascinating and enjoyed the chance to observe the imagery evolve as he developed and re-worked various themes and models.  It is a trip to an exotic land right here on 53rd Street!

May 11, 2014

Sturtevant - RIP

The artist Sturtevant passed away this week - an event that was remarkably under-reported in the art world news despite her huge contribution to the contemporary scene.  Often difficult, always passionate and occasionally extremely funny, Sturtevant was an artist ahead of her time and paved the way for today's generation of artists and students.

If you are not familiar with the work of Sturtevant you have nothing to be ashamed of.  Her genre can be described as "appropriationist" a term she despised, almost as much as being referred to as a "woman" artist.  Basically, she studied other artist's works and recreated them herself, often so well that they were indistinguishable from the original.  This was not an effort to deceive or to create a forgery, it was a comment on the concepts of originality, reality and authenticity.

Since the 1960s, Sturtevant's copies of masterpieces by Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenberg, among others, were meticulous to the point where when a Jasper Johns "Flag" painting was once stolen from an exhibition the artist himself turned to Sturtevant for a replacement.  In the 1980s, she created more sculptural installments by the likes of Anselm Kiefer and Félix Gonzáles-Torres, and most recently concentrated on video presentations.  Sturtevant was a superb technician and a very talented artist, but it was her ideas and intellect that made her art, art.

I had the privilege of meeting Elaine Sturtevant around 2000 when my husband and I visited her studio in Paris with the idea of acquiring some of her work.  Despite her reputation for gruffness and a low tolerance for "dumb questions", we had a great time and it became routine to visit each other when in Paris or New York.  Whenever possible we attended her gallery openings and museum exhibitions and, even knowing her reluctance to scrawl her signature, I would implore her to autograph the catalogue or poster which she did without a moment's hesitation.

When Sturtevant's name comes up in conversations with colleagues it is usually greeted with a roll of the eyes and a crack about how abrasive she could be.  Yes, I had certainly seen this side of her but I always viewed it as a self-protection mechanism and it had never been directed toward me.  I viewed her simply as Elaine, a brilliant and marvelous artist and woman and someone I will deeply miss.  Rest in Peace, the battle is won.

Sturtevant, 1930? (Lakewood, Ohio) - 2014 (Paris, France)
Photo courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris

May 10, 2014


Once again New York is the epicenter of the contemporary art world as FRIEZE New York opened its massive tent on Randall's Island this past Thursday.  The American offshoot of the London fair held each October in Regent Park is now recognized as not-to-be-missed event in the art world calendar. 

Part of its allure is the unusual location - Randall's Island is situated just over the Triborough Bridge, in the East River.  It is an expensive taxi ride, or a twenty minute trip on board the New York Waterways Ferry which docks at 34th Street and offers its passengers a superb view of the East Side of Manhattan.  Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate this year and the tops of the buildings were shrouded in fog, but the idea is a lot of fun.

Once on the island, the fair is housed in a specially constructed serpentine-shaped tent designed by the Brooklyn architectural firm SO-IL.  It is a tremendous structure with beautiful light and windows over the river, and it is easy to forget that this is a temporary building.

This year, there is even a hotel incorporated into the design, albeit a small one!  Al's Grand Hotel is a reconstruction of a conceptual art work originally created in 1971 by Allen Ruppersberg.  It features a lobby with a small bar and two guest bedrooms (one a bridal suite) where guests can actually spend the night and have breakfast before the crowds arrive!

The 190 galleries participating in this year's event represent 29 countries including Brazil, Mexico and China.  The work spans no more than a 50 year radius from pop art, think Warhol, and conceptual art, think Rauschenberg, to the latest entries in the art scene, think paint barely dry.  As contemporary art is not really my field, I thought I would just show you some photos of what I thought were eye-catching pieces, most of which I can't begin to understand but hope you enjoy.

Like this 2013 version of the Rockettes, by Jonathan Monk and titled "All The Possible Combinations of Eight Legs Kicking (One At A Time)"...

Or Gabriel Kuri's "self portrait as a virtual symmetry chart", 2014...

And Zoe Leonard's installation piece "Vintage suitcases, for every year of the artists' life one suitcase is added", is one I can identify with, especially when waiting at baggage claim...

New York gallerist David Zwirner dedicated his entire stand to the polka dot princess Kusama...

While A Gentle Carioca, Rio de Janeiro, presented the work of Maria Nepomuceno...

If you, like I, find some of this a little outside your comfort zone, here is something especially for us...

Good advice actually, it makes us sound like old fogies and besides, it's hard to complain when it's so much fun being here! The FRIEZE tent comes down on Monday, May 12.