If You Can Only Visit One (Painting) Exhibit at the Met this Month

Make it George Bellows.

Like athletes? He paints ’em. Like seascapes? Yeap, does that too. Religious paintings? Why not. What about rough and tumble street life? He’s a pro.

"Stag at Sharkey's" 1909, one of George Bellow's most recognized paintings.

“Stag at Sharkey’s” 1909, one of George Bellow’s most recognized paintings.

Forget Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It’s a flat-liner. I know, I know, you love Matisse, and of course you do. Matisse is a blue-chip crowd-pleaser,  but the assemblage of paintings reveal nothing new nor nothing unique to Matisse. It is, effectively, thoroughly expected. He painted the same subject over and over. His style changed. He reworked paintings. It has the feeling of a student exhibition — here’s a thesis and here are all the paintings  in our collection (plus a few on loan from friends) that support it.

Instead, wander up to the second floor, where George Bellows waits to knock your socks off.

Once again, Dr. H. Barbara Weinberg struts her stuff as the most formidable curator in Pre-1945 American Art. Well paced and smartly edited, the exhibition is the first comprehensive retrospective on Bellows in half a century.  On display is his artistic range, revealing subjects in his oeuvre often subsumed to his find-them-in-every-textbook painting of boxers caught mid-bout.

George Bellows (1882-1925) died of appendicitis when he was only 42. His career and life were short, his artistic achievement, almost immeasurable.

"The Big Dory" 1913

“The Big Dory” 1913

He is best known as a core member of the Ashcan School — a group of New York painters, mostly students and associates of Robert Henri, whose style and subject matter confronted both the academy and American Impressionism. They were urban realists who painted gritty street scenes of the New York City’s working class, the city’s modernizing landscape, current events, and portraits with dark palettes and expressive brush work. Rather than art for art’s sake, they worked by Henri’s creed: “art for life’s sake.”

Bellows is the most recognizable of the Ashcan School, and his paintings are usually invoked as representative of their overall style. If you’ve picked up a textbook on American Art, his paintings and lithographs of boxers and the development of Pennsylvania Station get prime billing.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

His paintings of the excavation of Penn Station are among his most recognized.

What you don’t typically see are his landscapes, his seascapes of Camden, Maine, his moonlight scenes of Riverside Park, or his religious allegories. The exhibition begins by introducing us to Bellows through what we know best and using his education at Ohio State University and talents as an athlete (legend goes he could have gone pro) as context for the subject that would later become his historical calling card.

"Riverfront, No. 1"

“Riverfront, No. 1”

And then you turn the corner to learn something new, see something unexpected. The first vista onto every new gallery is a view onto another showstopper, but also another a look into another chapter of Bellow’s career.

It’s the kind of exhibit that demands a long linger, as it reveals as much about a particular period in New York City’s history as it does about a canonized artist and the art world he negotiated.

"The Studio" -- catch the references?

“The Studio” — catch the references?

the shore

“The Shore.” No, it’s not Hopper. It’s George Bellows, a Jack of All Trades

What Tim Burton and Alexander McQueen Taught Me about Running a Museum

The dress that made me an Alexander McQueen fan for life. There's no doubt he's an artist

When I was an intern at MoMA, the museum launched a mid-career retrospective of the filmmaker Tim Burton. It was met with skepticism. Burton’s iconic status as a mainstream blockbuster-maker, with a cult following, had critics and fine-arts-lovers questioning MoMA’s integrity. It was an exhibition that displayed process, the evolution of process, and a mental stream of consciousness. But are doodles by a director art? Is Burton a mega-museum worthy artist?

When I considered the exhibition at the time, I decided “Tim Burton” was brilliant. From a museum-marketing, public relations point of view, I still believe “Tim Burton” was brilliant.

After witnessing the line-ups and the crowds, and after mingling with the audiences, I saw the value in a marquee art venue like MoMA hosting a mass-appeal exhibition. New audiences entered the museum, memberships increased, and because the exhibition had timed entry tickets, museum-visitors had time to kill by viewing the other galleries. The meatier, more academic, more stunning show “Bauhaus” was on at the same time. I don’t doubt that the increase in the number of under-20-somethings strolling the gallery had a lot to do with Tim Burton.

2+ years later, people are still talking about it. 2 years later, the number one search term that drives people to my blog is “Tim Burton at MoMA.” It was an exhibition that had staying power in the public’s mind.

Then came “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — an exhibition with the same mass-consumer appeal.

Burton and McQueen are household names in a way Frans Hal and Lyonnel Feininger will never be.

I began following McQueen’s career when he catapulted into the fashion headlines in 1990s. He revived avant-garde haute couture and breathed a much-needed breathe of the rebellious artist into a humdrum fashion world. So, of course, when the exhibit opened in May, I promised myself I’d go.

people were lined up to get into the musem for blocks! records must have been set

“Savage Beauty” closed yesterday, and all  I saw of it was a line of waiting people stretching south along 5th Avenue and fading into Central Park. I can’t, therefore, comment on the show itself. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on “Savage Beauty.”

Drawing on global culture as much as on his native Scotland, McQueen’s career echoes those of artists like Matisse and Picasso who took the history of their medium and infused the traditional with a sense of the exotic, the other-worldly. For anyone that has ever seen a McQueen show or seen his clothes in a Vogue spread, there is no doubt that McQueen is an artist. The Costume Institute is an integral part of the Met’s collection and exhibition schedule. Fashion as art and the art of fashion is, essentially, part of the museum’s DNA.

A retrospective at the Met on McQueen was not only natural, but inevitable.

always the showman, his work was as carnal and disquieting as it was beautiful

But what about the management of the exhibition? My understanding is that there were no timed tickets for “savage Beauty” — if you wanted to see it, you had to wait your turn. Standing in line for 2-5 hours — did that permit visitors an opportunity to tour the museum? I’d be interested to see gallery counts. Thousands lined-up, thousands saw McQueen. Did thousands see “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask?”

Membership increased, but then the Met stopped granting early morning member-exclusive previews. Considering that the Met’s ticket price is technically voluntary, the only benefit to becoming a member is the privileged viewing. I bet there were some very angry new members. Were refunds requested? Were they granted?

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see a line thousands deep waiting to get into a museum of fine art. On the other, you can’t help but wonder, if that’s the only exhibit they get to see, will they be back?

Don’t Touch the Money Bunny!: Artwork of the Week Makes a Comeback

"Jeff Koons is a big Blow Hard," Ray Beldner. Sewn US currency (after Jeff Koons's Rabbit, 1986)

If my gallerinas and I said it once, we said it 100 times a day — “Please don’t touch the money bunny!” There’s no denying that there’s something cuddly about Ray Beldner’s rabbit made out of sewn dollar bills. Maybe it’s the tilted head and the carrot that screams “pat the bunny!” And then you read the wall label and take note of the title, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, and suddenly it’s not so cuddly.

Commentary on the nature of the art market and the subsequent commoditization of art and artist, Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard attacks the blue-chip popular artist Jeff Koons while asking the question: what makes a work of art valuable — the artist, the medium, the subject, or the market?

The soft sculpture effectively renders the dollar bills useless as currency. The bills are no longer tradeable on the market they were designed for. They enter a new market with a new value — as art. Each bill is meaningless. Their value exists only stitched together as an entire work of art. Their value becomes what a collector will pay for them as a unit entitled Jeff Koons is a Big Blow Hard, by Ray Beldner.

Meanwhile the piece asks a number of other questions:

Is Jeff Koons a sell-out — sculpting lite subjects that people want to buy — or a veritable “Pop-Artist” whose work actually comments on the nature of the art collecting as its being collected?

And then again, what about Ray Beldner? Where does he fit in? Is he capitalizing on another artist’s reputation? Is his copy of a popular sculpture a work of art, a statement, or simply a pile of mutilated, worthless dollar-bills?

Learning to Read the Berliner Morgenpost

Kirchner, "Street Berlin" 1913

Once again, I find myself doing what I have done far, far too many times before — I have financially and emotionally committed myself to a cause in the name of love.

I have a thing for Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and it’s more or less his fault that I’ve shelled-out $500+ for a 10-week crash reading knowledge course in German. Sure, the North Rhine city of Recklinghausen is my namesake, and sure German it’s a requisite language for art historians, particularly ones who intend to have careers in the New York museum world. But if I hadn’t developed a fascination with Kirchner’s Die Brucke buddies, their prints, and the little-known Leipzig Expressionists, or if I hadn’t come home from Germany with 5 catalogs in its national tongue, I would have gladly put off learning the language til I was happily settled in a PhD program.

If you looked at my high school and college transcripts, or traveled with me abroad, you would think I have a knack for languages. For some reason, I’m the designated “communicator” whenever I travel. I must have a look of recognition or understanding on my face, because people always assume I know what they’re saying and expect me to parlay it to my companions. My Korean fencing coach thinks I’m secretly Korean.

In high school, I thought it wise to learn Latin in addition to French. My school offered an accelerated Latin course — 3.5 years crammed into 2. Somehow, I managed to learn my declensions well enough to nail a perfect score on the International Latin Exam. I received a nice letter (in Latin), 2 gilded certificates, a gold-medal, and a Latin Dictionary. When my Latin teacher proudly handed me the Fedex package containing all these goodies (she got a medal too), I thought I was destined to work at Pompeii… or in a church.

The truth is, I have no knack for languages. Any success I had was wholly due to excessive quantities of flashcards and in-class drilling. I’ve traveled to a Spanish-speaking country every year since I was 8, and I still can’t say or understand much beyond “hola.”

Learning a foreign language when you’re older and not a full time student is hard. If you’re in school everyday from sun-up to sun-down, and have quizzes every Friday, it’s easy to compel yourself to memorize verb conjugations. When I started taking French in junior high, vocabulary built slowly and we spent months learning how to talk out of our noses and roll our r’s while we built a middling-size repertoire of colloquialisms.

What I learned in 3 years of French class, I learned in 4 hours at NYU’s Deutsches Haus. Gott helfe mir.

My official textbook meets the D.I.Y library

Man ist was man isst. You are what you eat, and right now I’m eating up lots of German. I am 6 weeks into my class and up to my eye balls in translations. I can’t say “good morning” or “how are you?…I’m okay,” so don’t try to have a conversation with me. If we’re lost in Bavaria, I can’t ask for directions. But hand me a newspaper and I’ll give you a pretty good summary of all the news that’s fit to print.We all have our uses.

As I stare at the stack of translations due this Wednesday, I can’t help but ask myself: Wie gut war Kirchner?

Artwork of the Week April 26, 2010: Russian Tea

Irving R. Wiles

Russian Tea

about 1896, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.,

In this interior scene, three elegantly-clad women and a young girl await the piping-hot cup of tea being prepared in an imported Russian samovar. Wiles’ painting exhibits exactly what we’d expect from a portrait of Gilded Age America — an opulent decor with equally opulent sitters and leisure activities combined with a new brand of internationally-minded consumerism.

Perhaps more interesting than the extravagant subjects and the imported ritual, is the artist’s study of light. In an age of plein aire and Impressionistic landscapes, canvases depicting domestic interiors always feel unusual — where did all the sunlight go? But Wiles’ painting, though not the expected Impressionist garden scene, is Impressionist indeed, but not just in its painterly style. At the heart of this work is a study of light. Here, Wiles examines how candle light, rather than natural light, illuminates a space. The warm but limited light from the lamps cast a soft glow on the porcelain-like skin of our feminine subjects while the cinched form and pink colouring of the shades seem to mimic the corseted bodies. The candle lamps are intrusive, their shades dominate the composition and obscure the figures so that we can’t ignore their role in setting the scene.

Redrawing Lilith: Canadian Painter Jon Tobin’s New Vision of the First Woman

She was the first that thence was driven; With her was hell with Eve was heaven

– “Eden’s Bower,” by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

Lilith – Adam’s First wife, a temptress, a demon, the architect of Man’s fall from Eden. As the embodiment of “the perilous principle in the world being female from the first,”* she has captivated writers and artists since the dawn of civilization. Her image has become standardized, traditionally cast as a woman of supreme beauty, an un-aging seductress ominously entangled with the Serpent and the Tree. Yet Canadian painter Jon Tobin has envisioned a new Lilith – a psychological being and a woman of raw, primal emotion, journeying through darkness, as much tormented by her inner demons as humanity is by her deception.

Tobin’s Lilith is introspective. As she ages, she becomes increasingly aware of her true self. The blindfold present in each image in the series represents self-contemplation as well as her blindness to the havoc she wreaks. She is also carnal and raw – a “woman in exile who has returned to her body/ as one would return from a country on the other side of the Sun.”**

“The Lilith Series,” an ongoing study of the character, visualizes the artist’s personal interpretation of the Lilith Myth in the style that is signature Jon Tobin. The artist is known for his ethereal canvases that pulsate with internal energy, and Lilith emerges out of Tobin’s autographic palate of subdued hues, masterfully manipulated to create startling contrasts and tactile depth in darkness. The palate ultimately harmonizes to create a ghostly figure of Lilith that is mysterious, captivating, and haunting.

Tobin studied Fine Art and French-Canadian Literature at University of Waterloo. Besides serving on the Board of Directors of the Waterloo Regional Arts Council, Tobin teaches aspiring artists and lectures on the techniques of “tactile media.” His paintings have been widely exhibited at galleries in Toronto, Montreal, and his hometown of Kitchener and collectors have been quick to recognize the sublime yet subtle beauty of Tobin’s artistic vision.

*Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Correspondence of 21 April, 1870.

** “femme en exil revenant dans son corps/ comme on revient de loin/ de l’autre pays/ du soleil” from Michel Camus’ “Hymne a Lilith: La femme double.”

Chasing the Expressionists, Part III: 11 museums in 10 days

the 8 catalogs that traveled home with me

When was the last time you were alone in a room with a Van Gogh, let alone 3 Van Goghs, a Manet, and a Rodin? It was 4:00 on Monday, and I had “The Plain at Auvers” (1890), with all it’s luminous, obsessive, expressive brushwork, to myself. I couldn’t believe it — I was the only body in the French Impressionism Gallery of the Neue Pinakothek, one of Munich’s marquee museums. Never had I been in a museum of this stature, on a day open to the public, and been such a solitary observer of such stupendous art — I was going to soak it up until the lights shut off and security kicked me out… which they did, chirping a friendly “tschuss” as they locked the door behind me.

For the most part, my experience at the Neue Pinokothek is representative of my visit to the other 10 museums I hit while running from Germany to Austria and back again. Where were all the people? With stenciled walls and cozy lavender galleries, the museums I visited in Germany were a refreshing change from the whitewashed, tourist-packed monoliths that are my homes away from home in New York. In general, the collections are smaller, more accessible, and more focused — as long as my feet held up, it was easy to tour and digest multiple museums in one day.

I won’t summarize them all, rather here are my favorite:

The Museum der bildenden Kunst, Leipzig

the exterior of the Museum der bildenden kunst advertising the Kirchner exhibit

Leipzig is a city undergoing serious urban renewal. The oldest building in the city has been under silver sheet metal for the last 20 years and was only uncovered while I was there; the main market is being dug up while the buildings around it are being “restored.” My first wanderings around town didn’t prepare me for the treasure trove that is the Museum der Bildenden Kunst. Dedicated in large part to its native artists, the Leipzig collection is perhaps the best deposit of the work of Max Klinger (1857-1920), including his jaw-dropping monument to Beethoven. Klinger is best known outside of Germany for his portfolio of etchings entitled “Ein Handschuh” (A Glove), but he was also a brilliant sculptor and painter who melded styles and media to create truly stunning, unforgettable works of art. I was also pretty excited that there were 2(!!) Expressionist shows on while I was there — a selection of Kirchner’s drawings, on loan from Berlin, and “Vom Freber Bessen Rudiger Berlit und Der Expressionisms in Leipzig.” The space for all of this art is brand-spanking-new and fantastic — high ceilings, lots of light, comfortable galleries. It’s no wonder the German Fencing Federation chose it as the site for the Leipzig World Cup final gala.

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Das Grune Gewolbe, Dresden

The Dresden Green Diamond in its setting

The Green Vaults of Dresden are kunstkammers at their most opulent. Imagine rooms filled to the brim with objects carefully, painstakingly, masterfully crafted from amber, ivory,  silver, tortoise shell, and precious gems. I had never seen so many diamonds, so many emeralds, so many rubies — it’s a wonder there are any left on today’s market! Massive clocks with moving figurines, a cherry-pit craved with 185 individual faces (apparently, there was one in the collection with 210 faces, but it went missing… i blame a squirrel), model ships carved from ivory, a secretary that was a mosaic of amber — a never-ending collection of glitzy, showman-y “stuff.” The tour of the two vaults took approximately 2 hours, during which time my jaw was constantly dragging on the floor. The highlight? The massive 40.7 carat green diamond that sits in its own room near the exit of the New vault. It’s set with still more diamonds (one of which is 19 carats). Imagine… it’s a hat ornament! Now that’s some serious bling.

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The Wallaf-Richartz Museum & Fondation Corboud, Koln (Cologne)

the 19th century gallery

The Wallaf-Richartz Museum made me like medieval art. Yes, this Modernist finally found a place in her heart for religious icons outside the work of Natalia Goncharova.  Thanks largely in part to colored walls that enhanced the gilt of the paintings, a lack of crowds, the witty placement of pews in the galleries, and enthusiastic security guards who wanted to show me all their favorites, I gained the appreciation for the art of the 13-15th centuries that the Met failed to inspire. This was the last museum I toured in Germany and was easily my favorite. From its gift store (which would have made MoMA proud) to its lovely collection of 19th century paintings, I liked it all.

the best way to view an altar piece? from a pew of course

A few other highlights:

The Kathe Kollwitz Museum, Koln

The Pop-Art collection at the Ludwig Museum, Koln

The Sistine Madonna at the Zwinger, Dresden

Had I not scheduled Munich on a Monday — when most of the city’s museums close — and had Dresden’s Albertinum not been shut for renovations, I might have reached my goal of 15. Oh well, reasons to go back…

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