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?

Okay, I admit it, I have a bit of a book problem

particularly when it comes to art books, and especially when it comes to museum catalogs. Between October 2009 and January 2010, I acquired 10 exhibition catalogs and a handful of critical/survey texts. They’re beautiful books with lush illustrations and scholarly writings — not your typical coffee-table art books you find at B&N.

1. American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915 (The Met)

2. Drawings & Prints: Masterpieces from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

3. MoMA Highlights (MoMA)

4. Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity: 1919-1933 (MoMA)

5. Playing with Pictures: The Art of the Victorian Photocollage (The Arts Institute of Chicago)

6. Tim Burton (MoMA)

7. James Ensor (MoMA)

8. Kirchner and the Berlin Street (MoMA)

9. Claude Monet: Waterlilies (MoMA)

10. Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art

11. A Century of American Printmaking: 1880-1980 by James Watroux

12. Modern Art in Common Culture by Thomas Crow

13. Bauhaus by Magdalena Droste

This might explain why 1. I’m broke, and 2. I had to order another bookshelf.

Meet me in the Bauhaus

a newspaper shelf by Walter Gropius. I'd love to sit a stack of Sunday Times on this

Okay, confession time again, folks: I’m an art historian who knew didly-squat about Bauhaus, one of the most important and influential design movements of the modern era.  And frankly, I didn’t care to know much more than it happened in Germany and that it was important. Man, was I ever missing out…

MoMA’s fall exhibition Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity, 1919-1933 sandblasts misconceived notions that German design is gray and industrial. It is a stunning exhibit, beautifully curated and cock-full of stuff to covet (there’s a few textiles I’d love to own as skirts and several pieces of furniture would look smashing in my dream flat). Illustrated books, ceramic pots, paintings, photographs, bookcases, light fixtures, tables, puppets, tea kettles, and chess sets — Bauhaus artists had their fingers in everything, and at least one of everything is on display on the 6th floor of MoMA.

a colorchart study by Paul Klee

Bauhaus was formed in Weimar in 1919 and was the brainchild of architect Walter Gropius who envisioned a school of design that brought the worlds of fine arts and industry into one. It was a Renaissance idea — all branches of the arts working harmoniously together — reborn in the 20th century in an economically devastated Germany. Over the next decade and a half, the Bauhaus would become home to some of the best-known names in 20th century art and design — Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Laszol Moholy-Nagey, to name but a small few. It would relocate twice, once in 1925 to Dessau and again in 1932 to Berlin, before being closed by the Nazi government in 1933. The exhibit is organized along these three periods in Bauhaus’ history, and the changes in leadership over time and place are easily traced through the works on display.

Color and shape abounds in “Bauhaus: Workshops in Modernity”; geometry and color charts are both toys and tools of the artist. Where “Tim Burton” is MoMA’s show for the masses, “Bauhaus” is its exhibition with more academic aims. The curators, Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman, got their hands on objects from the Bauhaus archives that haven’t seen a public venue since they were made. Undoubtedly, Bauhaus is a scholarly show — the catalog costs $75 and features essays from the leading scholars on the school. This is not to say the exhibit requires some sort of background in the history of 20th century art or Germany to be enjoyed. Rather, it manages to be both scholarly and approachable (I think the colored walls help a lot — yes, orange walls in a museum!).

Oskar Schlemmer. Bauhaus Stairway. 1932.

Of all the exhibits on display at MoMA over the fall and winter months, Bauhaus is the shining jewel in the program’s crown. It has been called “one of those exhibits that comes along in a rare while,” and indeed it feels like a one-in-a-lifetime-landmark-kind-of-show. Bauhaus should be slowly savored, and luckily with everyone crammed into Burton, you’ll probably have most of the 6th floor gallery to yourself. So get going and tell a friend to meet you in the Bauhaus.

Tim Burton bombards MoMA

Untitled (cartoon series), c. 1980-1986. (Cupid's true colors)

“One person’s craziness is another person’s reality,” iconic director Tim Burton once said. And if you happen to find yourself in MoMA’s fall/winter exhibit “Tim Burton,” you’ll discover Burton’s reality is pretty crazy.


“Tim Burton” is a ground-breaking and staggering exhibit. Ground-breaking because it’s the first time a major fine arts museum is exhibiting Burton’s non-cinematic work — the first time a Hollywood A-list director is being elevated to the status of fine artist. Staggering because there are so many doodles and drawings to peruse. There are hundreds of parts and their sum is a weighty and intimate look into the relentless imagination of one our generation’s best-loved filmmakers.

NYTimes critic Ken Johnson clearly doesn’t believe a museum like MoMA should be using gallery space on an artist like Tim Burton… because Burton isn’t a graphic artist, he’s a filmmaker. Leave him in the theaters, is essentially Johnson’s message. “To be a popular Hollywood moviemaker and to be an interesting fine artist in today’s terms are very different propositions” he writes, “and it’s no knock on Mr. Burton that he’s not great at both. Nobody is that good.” Johnson had some excellent points in his review — indeed, the exhibition could have done with about a hundred fewer drawings (I believe there are upwards of 400 hundred) — but to call it a “letdown” means he had the wrong expectations.

The majority of the works are cultivated from Burton’s personal sketchbooks and private collection. The reality is, these hundreds of drawings, doodles and cartoons were never meant for public display. With this in mind, they are not so much works of fine art as they are a visualized stream of consciousness.

If you’ve ever seen a Burton film — which unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen at least 3 — then you’re already familiar with his gothic and distorted figures. Proportions are stretched and shrunk, edges are sharp and humour is black.

It’s hard in this economic climate not to look at an exhibit like “Tim Burton” without questioning MoMA’s integrity. Museums have cut their operating budgets, endowments and donations are down. But before “Tim Burton” even opened, MoMA had sold out of its first printing of the exhibition’s catalog. Lines have already been forming round the block of people waiting to pay the $20 admissions fee to the museum. It’s the jackpot exhibit every museum hopes for.

But regardless about how you feel about MoMA and Burton and fine art, “Tim Burton” is a special. Sure we can go over the exhibit’s shortcomings. But I think that’s just silly. MoMA should be praised for having the balls to weather the naysayers that thought mounting such an exhibit was contrary to its mission. And let’s be honest, the greatest measure of the success of an exhibit is its popularity. The number of people flocking to the 3rd floor are testament enough — “Tim Burton” is brilliant.

Edward Scissorhands, representative of Burton's prevalent theme of lost childhood and dysfunctional human relationships

Jane Austen on Exhibit

Okay, this is super exciting

The Morgan Library here in NYC is home to the largest deposit of Jane Austen correspondences (only a small number have survived the centuries). They’ve also gotten their hands on a few of her manuscripts. All of it is on display in “A Woman’s Wit: Jane Austen’s Life and Legacy,” November 6, 2009, through March 14, 2010. So Austenites, Let’s Go!


MoMA Now Part III — New Photography 2009


Walead Beshty, "Three Color Curl"

“New Photography 2009” is jarring. Not so much because of the content of the installed works, but because these brightly colored, mega-prints stand as loud foils to the petite black and white historical photographs that line the preceding galleries. Toto, we’re not using film anymore.

Photographer as Artist, that is, the photographer as the creator of an image rather than a mere recorder of a scene, has been a subject of discussion since photography’s inception. In New Photography 2009, there is no question that the photographers are the brains and eyes behind these images. Walead Beshty’s monolith fluorescent prints are produced entirely in the darkroom without ever using a camera. They’re like a neon-visualization of a John Cage composition — their patterns are entirely random. Leslie Hewitt’s upside-down still-lives drive home that she is in control of her art while Daniel Gordon’s grotesque collage figures remind us that beauty is a construct, in this case of the photographer.

New Photography is interesting, mostly for the contrast between the recent works and the older photographs. While the galleries are short on art historical contextualization (there seems to be little sense of evolution from the early tintypes to the contemporary prints), the new installation is still captivating.

To me, Photography is a dying art. Maybe that’s not fair. It’s a certainly a changing and troubled art. Photography has moved so far away from its beginnings that today’s “art photographs” are almost unrecognizable as photographs. The 6 artists of New Photography fabricate their own scenes, tinker with them, photograph and rephotograph, photoshop and rephotoshop, until their vision is conveyed in a chromogenic print that may or may not look like something out of the real world. Whatever happened to photographers capturing fleeting moments or the soul of their sitter in a single frame? Sure there’s a lot of talented people with cameras doing that, but the artists seen this fall at MoMA are not among them.

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