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?

Fencers Step Out to Save Lives

On September 17th, members of the Fencing Masters NYC team joined forces with Esmeralda Williamson-Noble to raise awareness about suicide and to promote mental health and well-being. At the inaugural Get Your Wellness On! fair fencing was presented as a form of “alternative healing” — a sport that strengthens both the mind and body while also providing a supportive community people can turn to in times of need.

Members of Team Fencing Masters NYC at the Get Your Wellness On Fair (Kathleen, Kurt, Tim, Daria, Melvin)

Inspired once again by Esmeralda’s endeavors, Fencing Masters NYC stepped out on the town on October 28th to use the sport of fencing to help save lives.  After losing their infant son Alexander to SIDS, Esmeralda and her husband Hugh began the Windflower Charity Ball as a fundraiser for First Candle. Over a decade later, the well-attended Charity Gala, with its live and silent auctions, is the organization’s major annual fund-raising event.

To help First Candle in its efforts to unite parents, caregivers and researchers nationwide to advance infant health and survival, the Fencing Masters NYC co-chairs (Tim Morehouse, Daria Schneider, & Kathleen Reckling) donated 2 VIP tickets to our Hammerstein Ballroom event on November 17th. To compliment the auction winner’s introduction to fencing, Olympic Silver Medalist Tim Morehouse donated an hour fencing lesson.

Tim poses with the auction item winner! His 5 daugthers can't wait for their fencing lesson with Tim or to attend Fencing Masters NYC on Nov. 17th

The total package was valued at $750… and as the night began, Tim and Kathleen crossed their fingers! Please! Someone! Bid on us!

Do we have $500? Yes!

How about $1,000? Yes!

Can we have $1,250? Sure!

What about $1,500? SOLD!

At the end of the night, we had met several former fencers and children of fencers — a neat reminder that everyone does in fact know someone who fences. The most exciting parts of the evening? Seeing the Fencing Masters NYC donation become one of the few lots to exceed its estimated value and watching the sport of fencing raise $1,500 for First Candle and SIDS research.

Tim & I were honored to be the Williamson-Nobles’ guests and were proud our donation was able to support First Candle”s mission to “provide every baby with the best possible chance to survive and thrive.”

For those of us working on Fencing Masters NYC, there is nothing more invigorating than sharing fencing and using it to serve others. The auction results are a testament to the power sport has to do good in the community — an athlete doesn’t have to be a Peyton Manning or a Lance Armstrong to raise awareness for a cause, they just have to be ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Rumble in the City: Taking the Sport of Fencing to the Streets of NYC

I remember the first time the elevator doors opened onto the New York Fencers Club. I could hear the fencing before I could see it. The clangs and clacks of the blades, the thuds of people lunging, the John Cage-esque random boooop of the scoring machines — you could feel it; it was electric.

This past June, while the FIFA World Cup was raging in South Africa, another World Cup was underway here in New York. Olympic medalists. National Champions. Champions in the making. Yes, the best and brightest fencers in the world converged on the Brooklyn Marriott, only a short subway hop away from downtown Manhattan, and you missed it. An opportunity to see Olympians in action and fulfill your inner-child’s Star Wars/Robin Hood/Three Musketeers fantasies, and you missed it.

Fencing Masters NYC comes to the Hammerstein Ballroom Stage on Nov. 17

But have no fear, fencing is back for the New York public in a BIG way. The Olympians are coming, and  they’re doing it up for you in style.

On November 17, 2010, the Hammerstein Ballroom will be home to a landmark fencing event. Featuring the living-legends of the sport, Fencing Masters NYC is a celebration of fencing’s history, honor, and athleticism. Olympic champions from around the world will square off against members of Team USA in a quest for the title of Fencing Masters Champion. The event will include dinner, cocktails, an interactive expo, and special performances. The producers of Fencing Masters NYC have pulled out all the stops to make this an elegant, high-quality, memorable event. It will be a night of top-caliber fencing, special tributes, and above all, fun and excitement!

Spearheaded by members of the fencing community, Fencing Masters NYC is an important and much needed event for the sport. For too long, fencing has stood on the margins of professional-caliber athletics. Those who have taken up an epee, foil, or sabre already know what a dynamic and engaging sport fencing is, and the aim of Fencing Masters NYC is to broadcast these qualities to the public on a national scale. Indeed, Fencing Masters NYC has single-handedly changed the way the media looks at the sport! For the first time since 1980, fencing will be televised outside the Olympics. The event will be syndicated to 14.5 million homes in the tri-state area thanks to a partnership with SNY, television home of the NY Mets.

Fencing Masters NYC is first and foremost a vehicle for garnering financial and moral support for 2012 Olympic hopefuls. Fencing, while amateur in the United States, is a professional sport. American athletes striving for London 2012 pursue full-time training schedules and drop thousands of dollars annually on travel and related expenses. Despite historic medal wins in 2004 and 2008, fencers still lack major corporate sponsorship to support their Olympic dreams.  As a not-for-profit organization, proceeds from the Fencing Masters NYC Hammerstein event will go to sponsored fencers on Team USA.

Interested in joining us? You should! Check out the Fencing Masters NYC website for a complete roster of competitors and ticket information.

Click here: Fencing Masters NYC

Artwork of the Week for January 11, 2010

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823-1906)

In the Studio, 1888, oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

In keeping with this month’s theme of the Art of Art History (artworks that draw on or deal with the canon of Western Art), a painting about the art of painting.

What is it about the studio that makes it such an appealing subject for artists to depict? By the end of the nineteenth century, the constructed image of the down-trodden bohemian was no longer en vogue among artists. While this romanticized artistic type continued to intrigue writers and poets, artists themselves wished to portray a different sort of persona. Reliant on patrons and sales for their livelihood, artists were just as much businessmen as real-estate agents or steel-barons. “By the 1850s,” explains Neil Harris, “the artistic life was no longer merely a foil to materialism and economic selfishness; it had been captured to exemplify the virtues of industry and material success which dominated the business community.” It was the nineteenth-century reality that art making and selling was just another venture in capital.  Therefore, when it came to images of self-representation, artists were caught between maintaining an artistic persona of a sophisticated outsider and expressing a sense of corporate professionalism. Enter the artist’s studio.

Self-portraits by artists allowed for them to assert a sort of gentlemanly character, but images of their studio were perhaps more emphatic declarations of an artist’s potential value. His cultural sensitivity and material success along with his process and skill could be captured in a single image of the artist’s workspace. Here, Stevens’ uses the subject of the studio to assert his familiarity with both the great paintings of the past and the trendiest artworks of the present.

Stevens’ “In the Studio” is something of a “greatest hits” collage. Velazquez, Whistler, and Monet are all appropriately referenced. The mirror in the background, which shows a hint of the artist at work, along with a miniature portrait to its right are citations of Velazquez’s famous “Las Meninas” (1656), the most famous painting about painting. Also scattered across the wall in the background are references to contemporary trends in visual tastes: Japanese fans, umbrella, and scrolls — it was the age of Japonisme — and an assortment of painted portraits.

Most captivating are the women in the foreground, all of whom are characters from contemporary 19th century paintings. Whistler gets several nods in the foreground, including the fur carpet which is stolen from his“Symphony in White No. 1” of 1861. Often discussions of “In the Studio” call it an image of interrupted portrait-painting session, with the woman standing to the right as the artist at pause. I beg to differ. The standing woman is placed in front of a golden wall adorned with cherry blossoms. Her region not only further emphasizes a consumer taste for Japanese-inspired adornments, it quotes Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland” (1871-74). She is all the more interesting because in one hand she holds an artist’s palette and a brush as she leans gingerly on a partially painted canvas. Ah! But her hands are not the hands of an artist, they are too idle. They are the hands of a muse. The three women are not engaged with each other — their gazes are internal to the painting, but are detached from any particular object or person. Their only relationship is that they are all inspiration for the artist that paints them, and that artist is Stevens.

Stevens quotes himself in his painting. Seated on the lush red sofa is a woman in oriental garb. In her lap is a golden platter and a curved sword. She is Salome exactly as Stevens depicted her in another painting (which was inspired by Henri Regnault’s more famous “Salome”).

Put all these pieces together, and “In the Studio” becomes a play on the relationship between the real world and the painted world, a game all the more intensified by Stevens’ highly realist style.

It is a great painting — the kind of painting that stops you in your tracks, the kind of painting old men love to explain to younger women, and the kind of painting art historians love to gush over to anyone willing to listen.

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.

I think Bravo won when it Lost Project Runway

Season 6 of “Project Runway” was a waste of 14 Thursday nights.

The season finale Bryant Park show was a lackluster display of recycled looks, average street wear, and overworked gowns. Fashion forward? Not so much.

Did anyone notice the striking resemblance between Irina’s collection and that of season 4 winner, Christian Siriano? The all-black garments, the felt hats, the dramatic shoulders, the stilettos. We’d seen it all 2 seasons ago… but Christian was a showman. I still remember those stunning bolero jackets and high-neck blouses. His collection was like a series of Rembrandt portraits — dark and powerful, modern and immortal. Irina’s collection, while cohesive and certainly well-constructed, was not particularly memorable. It was perhaps the most tired of the three lines.

Althea just looked at what’s already going on in fashion — layers, boyfriend blazers, harem pants, 80s-shoulders, and cinch-waist belts — and made her own. It reeked of a high schooler on a limited budget who embarked on a DYI fashion project. Indeed, there were several individual pieces that would become staples in any woman’s wardrobe — a cardigan or pair of pants. But did it shake up your fashion world? Did it inspire you to redo your wardrobe? No. It was a snooozefest… albeit, one that would sell well in Macy’s.

Carol-Hannah had the most compelling, though most disjointed, collection of the three. Her first dress, a short, flowing champagne-colored cocktail number, was structured and draped in a way that echoed the lancet arches of Gothic cathedrals. It was a show-stopper. As was her “13th look” — a teal, floor-length gown that simultaneously screamed Grecian goddess and silver screen siren. But there were several metallic looks in the middle that looked like bad maternity wear, even with all the stunning embellishments. Also, her signature look (a gold, fish-tale gown) was remarkably similar to Rami’s (of season 4) signature look.

Throughout the season, Irina was the judge’s favorite. She won more challenges than the other designers and rarely received negative feedback. But she has a thing for fake fur, which to me means she has a taste problem. Fake fur always looks cheap. She also likes her dresses hip-hugging and skin-tight… which to me also indicates a taste problem.

Challenge after challenge, I questioned the judges’ decisions. Michael Kors was MIA for most of the season, and I feel as a result, some looks won and some looks were overlooked that shouldn’t have. Frankly, there was nothing particularly memorable about most of the winning looks… except maybe Chris’ first winning dress that was a cascade of ruffles that stopped just above the knee. I wish they had kept him for Bryant Park… at least he would have put on a show with 12 voluminous, over inflated gowns. Anything would have been better than all that black and beige.

And can I just say, what happened to all the sleeves on all the knitwear in that final runway show? Did they stretch out on the hangers and the models, or did Althea and Irina mean for the cuffs to hit the knees? I’m all for an oversize sweater, but at some point oversize looks ridiculous.

Considering Season 5’s dullsville finale (does anyone remember who won?), I was expecting Season 6 to be a knockout on par with seasons 1-4 (I wanted every one of those winners in my wardrobe). But after two lame seasons in a row, I have to say… I’m sorry, Project Runway, you’re out. Auf wiedersehen.

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