Artwork of the Week for June 1, 2009


Keltie Ferris
Super Friend (2008)
Medium: Oil, acrylic and sprayed paint on canvas

Ferris’ work is bold, gestural and urban. Some want to see masks, others numbers, still others maps in Ferris’ cacophonous paintings. Soft-edged forms blur against razor-sharp lines. Rigid geometry and artistic expression layer to create canvases that you just can’t take your eyes off. Her work is addictive, and for the New Yorker reminds us of too many morning-afters.

On June 24th, as part of a fundraising event for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, Super Friend will be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The Rema Hort Mann Foundation is an incredible organization that both sponsors upcoming artists and ensures cancer patients have family with them during treatment. I encourage you to attend and view Ferris’ work along with 70 works by other artists dedicated to the Foundation’s dual mission.


Kykuit — a home fit for a Rockefeller

The Facade of Kykuit

The Facade of Kykuit

On an uncharacteristically warm Day in May, I stood in the parking lot of Philipsburg Manor, New York State’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg, waiting for a shuttle to usher me up to another Hudson Valley historic site: Kykuit, the Rockefeller family home for over four generations. Because of its picturesque setting along the Hudson River and its close proximity to New York City, Westchester County has always a retreat for Manhattan’s elite; the case of the Rockefeller home is hardly an anomaly in this respect. Numerous country estates filled to the brim with art, curiosities, family lore, and regional history, dot the county map. Many are often frequented locations of musical performances, art shows, field-trips and high school graduations. Yet Kykuit, perhaps the grandest of the Hudson River leisure estates, remains a relative unknown. As I stood there waiting for the shuttle, I became quickly aware of why Kykuit would be in regional tour books, but would not necessarily be an obvious choice for a local looking for a bit of history and perhaps Culture: Kykuit is just not an easy place to get to nor is a visit a leisurely, self-dictated adventure.

Access to the estate is both restricted and controlled, thereby limiting the ways in which visitors can experience the home and grounds of the famous Rockefeller family. All guests must buy tickets in advance for one of seven tour options ranging from the one-hour family oriented tour to the three-hour grand tour. Spots in any given tour group are limited to 15 and there are no student discounts on the $28 ticket value. Cars cannot be driven onto Kykuit’s vast grounds. Instead visitors leave their car at Philipsburg Manor and a New York State Parks bus transports them fifteen minutes through a hilly suburban town and through the Rockefeller estate. A general history of the Rockefeller clan plays through the loud speaker introducing the characters who built the home and its art collections.

Once on the grounds, the shuttle follows former carriage roads, still on an uphill course, until it reaches the highest point on the estate and the site of the Grand House, a three-story, sixty-foot by sixty-five foot stone structure in the beaux-arts style. Originally designed in 1907 under the watchful eye of John D. Rockefeller, the house was situated lengthwise along an ESE-WNW axis in order “to reap maximum benefit from the best light the seasons had to offer.” Problems with the positioning of service entrances and with the slant of the roof required adjustments to be made to the structure in 1912, not long after completion. JDR wanted a home that would allow him to take in the beautiful vistas of the Hudson River and the Palisades that the property’s elevated position offered while also being a respite from city life and a quiet spot for contemplation. This explains both the positioning of the Grand House along a particular axis as well as the rerouting of noisy delivery trucks away from the living spaces of the residence.

kykuit 2From an artificial grotto to a private golf course, the estate lacks no amenity. An extensive post-war art collection, housed in the poorly lit and narrow subterranean basement, speaks to the Rockefellers’ patronage of MoMA and the visual arts in general, while the extensive collection of Oriental porcelain and well appointed rooms are a testament to taste and worldliness. It is clearly the home of one of the most moneyed and powerful American families. However, despite the extravagant displays of wealth, the Hudson River Valley landscape takes center stage at Kykuit, just as JDR had intended. The main house is itself modest but the surrounding terraced gardens and hills seem endless. Today, from the porch of Kykuit, the Trump apartment buildings and the sparkling all-glass Ritz-Carlton hotel recently added to the White Plains skyline jut out above the tree line like sore thumbs. These eyesores make it apparent that before the coming of modern skyscrapers and big-name real-estate moguls to the suburbs, Kykuit was immersed in nature.

Unlike the home of Henry Clay Frick, built around the same time as Kykuit’s Grand House, the Rockefellers had not intended to turn their estate over to the public as an art museum. It was first and foremost a residence. Sculpture was the passion of JDR Jr. and therefore dominates the family’s art collection. While the silkscreen portraits of Jackie Kennedy by Andy Warhol and the extremely rare Picasso tapestries hang in the narrow basement corridors, the Rockefellers’ extensive sculpture collection is thoughtfully displayed within the surrounding gardens and rolling hills. Situated in the outdoors, with ample space to walk around pieces by such seminal artists as Picasso and Moore, the visitor contemplates the great works of man within nature, the great work of God.

All these encounters with Kykuit, its house, gardens, and art happen in a conveyor-belt like motion. The guide ushered us from one room to the next, briefly summarizing the décor or pointing to particular objects of interest. A delicately painted John Singer Sargent painting of the fountain at the Grand House’s entrance caught my eye, but I was not allowed to linger in front of the small canvas. Another group was on their way up to the house and we had to move on to the basement galleries to make room for the new guests. We moved the gardens, watching for slippery rocks, on to the golf-change rooms, and back up to the main entrance to meet the shuttle to the carriage house. There we had a short tour of the stables, the carriages, and the Rockefeller collection of antique automobiles before boarding the shuttle bound for the Philipsburg Manor parking lot. The two and a quarter hours tour for which we had tickets only ran over by three minutes. In many ways, such a controlled and hurried experience of the house contradicts its main function as a location for quiet and leisurely immersions in nature. However, it is important to note that the estate still functions as a residence for the Rockefeller family, who continues to celebrate Christmas and family events at the estate. The grounds are expansive and the Grand House small in scale, making it necessary to monitor not only the number of people within the house at any given time, but to also prevent the defacing of art works situated throughout the property. The estate is also a nature preserve, so to keep the grounds open to the public poses some potential threats to the various species of flora and fauna that make the landscape so intoxicatingly beautiful. All the same, as both an art and nature fanatic, I would have appreciated a little less “Move along” and a little more quiet time to take in the stunning summertime views of the Hudson.

A Change…

There’s a lot of pressure on a blogger when they decide to add a “Something A Day” to their blog. The Artwork of the Day bit that I’ve taken to is fun, but after nearly a week of such posts, I think Artwork of the Week would suit “Meet Me in the Drawing Room” better. So there will be no Artwork of the Day for Sunday May 31. I will resume on Monday, June 1 with Artwork of the week.

Artwork of the Day, Sat. May 30, 2008

daniel buren within in and beyond the frame

Daniel Buren
Within and Beyond the Frame
1973 at the John Weber Gallery, NYC

In the 1970s, French artist Daniel Buren attacked art as an institution. He began with plastering industrially produced striped canvases all over Paris and art galleries. His work was a calculated attack on painting, everything painting stood for and the cult of personality that rose around painters and their work. The industrial canvases stripped his installations of the evidence of an artist’s hand — no brush strokes, just mechanically produced lines at even intervals. In 1973 Buren installed a string of these through the John Weber Gallery and over the street. The dimensions of the gallery’s windows determined the dimensions of the canvases, exposing the gallery as system of power that directs artistic vision.

The great thing about this work is the contrast between those canvases in the gallery and those hanging over the street. The canvases in the gallery remained calm and protected while the ones over the street were slowly eroded and slowly faded over the course of the installation. What Buren revealed is that the museum/gallery is a space the protects art, perhaps even sterilizes it. In the end, Buren’s installation is a work of spatial politics — it is a work that calls into question inside and outside, inclusive and exclusive, and site specificity.

Oh, Craigslist and your humanity.

From Missed connections tonight:

By now you’ve realized that I have a huge crush on you – m4w
Reply [Errors when replying to ads?]
Date: 2009-05-28, 8:20AM EDT

But I can’t say anything even though I think about you all the time.

Really?! You’ve wasted your missed connection on this?! Seriously, Mister. Save it for that hott brunette you share glance with on the subway but who gets off before your stop.

ArtWork of the Day for Friday, May 29, 2009

Chase, Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler_1

William Merritt Chase,
Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (1883),
Cleveland Museum of Art

Dora Wheeler was a successful textile designer who in her student years, studied painting under William Merritt Chase in New York City. Chase’s painting of Wheeler was intended as an exhibition piece — neither Wheeler nor her family commissioned Chase to paint the portrait.

The portrait follows typical 19th century conventions for depicting female sitters posing the sitter seated in a 3/4 position. One hand cradles her face as she stares blankly out at the viewer while the other rests on the arm of the chair set against a blue vase painted in swirling brush strokes. The placement of the hand so near the vase draws immediate attention to the daffodils springing from its mouth. As direct references to her sexual presence as a woman, the flowers, the vase (a round vessel!) and the sensual fur trim of her blue dress make the artist Dora Wheeler into an entirely feminine being. Note also the echoes between the coloring of her dress and the coloring of the vase. She is a professional artist, yet there are no references to her profession except perhaps the wall-hanging. Similarly, the composition’s undeniable reference to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, already canonical by 1883, further feminizes Wheeler by associating her with the woman’s role of motherhood (again, the vase!).

I love to look at this painting next to Chase’s earlier Studio Interior. In Studio Interior, yesterday’s artwork of the day, the woman serves as a decorative object in the artist’s studio. Here, Chase has taken an artist, an active being, and objectified her in much the same way. The oriental textile was a background popular in portraits of the day and Chase could have positioned his sitter in front of his collection of paintings to make the reference to her occupation more explicit. Above all, this portrait is an exhibition piece, meant to be looked at for its beauty and the its depiction of late 19th century femininity. The sitter’s biography and character are rendered irrelevant.

What does a Museum do?

contemplating a modern painting at NYC's MoMA

contemplating a modern painting at NYC's MoMA

I firmly believe that you never know a place until you’ve eaten its food and visited its museum (thank you museum cafes!). Museums are not simply temples in which we worship great art. Museums educate visitors about the society that built them. They are storehouses of cultural “treasures” and thus venues that tell us about a society’s enduring or changing values.

Last summer the US Treasury granted me permission to travel to Cuba. Flying into Havana, I bought with me a vision of Cuban culture shaped around images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, 1950s automobiles and Ernest Hemingway sipping a mojito. Touring the galleries of the Museo de Bellas Artes, I learned that Havana had been a cosmopolitan city with a sophisticated elite. I learned that Cuban painters followed the same path as their American contemporaries — sojourning abroad to visit the great depositories of Western art and to study at the famous ateliers of Paris. They participated in the art movements of their day and developed their own avant-garde. In the years following the revolution, art and museums became vehicles of propaganda as pop-art paintings of Che and Castro glorified the men and their revolutionary actions. As I walked through Havana’s museums, filling in the gaps of my knowledge and making connections to cultures I knew better, the disparities I saw between American culture and Cuban culture suddenly seemed less disparate.

What I learned in Cuba was not only that museums can have a point of view, but that museums can help balance point of views. They put history into perspective by granting us access to material evidence from eras past and present. Artists like Marcel Broodthaers and philosophers like Michel Foucault challenged the role museums have played as institutions of power that classify objects within hierarchies. Indeed, museums are the institutions that build canons, but they are also the venues in which these canons are challenged. Museums are as much catalysts of dialogs as they are homes to fine art.

a painting in the museo de la revolucion

a painting in the museo de la revolucion

As our world rapidly digitizes, globalizes and hybridizes, museums face the challenge of keeping pace while continuing to attract visitors. How can museums employ their permanent collection in new ways to educate people through art? How can museums compete in a global market for ideas and information? How can museums stay relevant? In order to engage a broader audience through new technologies, institutions like MoMA have already begun to make their collection digital, added computer terminals to exhibition galleries and designed exclusive online exhibits. Website features like the interactive “What is a Print?” or the video introduction to the exhibition “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective” engage a broad audience and prepare museum-goers for their visit.

While museums must engage with the new technologies to grant the public access to their collection, museums must also remain what they have always been – venues of learning and questioning. Through the presentation of artworks, museums and their curatorial staff grant us the intellectual freedom to critically evaluate a society and its power structure. Whether or not curators Twitter or Facebook, MoMA’s Mission Statement remains the same.

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