Amazing, no snow, the first week of April in New York City! The thermometer read mid-thirties, surprisingly colder than Anchorage as I subway’d around Manhattan in search of art. A former professor once told me “find me something I haven’t seen before.” It took some scrounging around as the downturned economy has reduced exhibitions. Good news: many shows are staying up longer and there appear to be bigger crowds in galleries and gift shops than last fall.
The Metropolitan Museum just reopened their American painting and sculpture galleries. It’s well designed, walls are not over-stacked, and sculpture is nicely tucked into corners. The experience feels less claustrophobic for visitors strolling through who can look ahead into adjacent rooms and not get lost in a maze of small galleries. And hurrah, there are benches. Viewed from almost every direction is Emanuel Leutze’s gigantic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) which has been cleaned so that the receding line of supply barges complete with teetering horses are once again visible behind the skiff of a standing Washington and his standard bearer.
And John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” (1883-4) has also returned. The story goes, Sargent painted one of Madame Gautreau’s spaghetti straps seductively sliding off her shoulder. This shocked Parisians so he repainted it. Nonetheless, “Madame X” continues to entice onlookers in her slinky black gown below her sharply turned profile and triangular nose.
Mid- nineteenth century artist Lilly Martin Spencer, who supported her family by crafting Genre paintings, always has an ironic twist. On display was “Young Husband: First Marketing” (1854) illustrating a stressed spouse slipping on wet pavement as he sharply turns to mount the steps of his walk-up—intact chickens and vegetables fly everywhere. Behind the gawky husband, a man with an umbrella chortles as he walks by. The Met’s refurbished galleries reside over the American atrium where food is served among classical sculpture, all overlooking Central Park.
Down Fifth Avenue, at the Museum of Modern Art, is a photography show by Cindy Sherman. She is part of the seventies’ Picture Generation, baby-boomers who artistically expanded ideas of popular culture by parodying themes from film and television. Sherman continues to work alone in spite of the latest trend towards collaborations. She is the protagonist in her narratives, donning wigs and prosthetic body parts to poke fun at movie clips, classical artworks and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Sherman, who entered college as a painter and left as a photographer, illustrates humor and sadness as well as opulence and hypocrisy employing the art of the Gaze. Her photographs appear as homages to the likes of Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett or just the girl next door as in Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie.” Unlike the Metropolitan’s American wing, this show will close (Cindy Sherman’s catalogue on Amazon.com).
Over on Madison Avenue, the 2012 Whitney Biennial was ongoing. Perhaps a knock-off of the famed Venice Biennale, it began in 1932 as an annual exhibition and was considered cutting-edge for the trends in American art. Today there are many biennials and fairs worldwide, which may be why this year’s Whitney appeared lackluster. Absent were long lines down the block. OK, I am sick of seeing canvases that hold a few squares of color or household debris arranged to look like a room in your house in need of a good clean-out. It becomes the emperor’s new clothes as viewers have to pretend to like works or profess not to like the art while listening to pseudo-intellectuals snicker nearby.
Sloppy artworks, and not many of them at that, were basically all there was in this biennial. One entire floor was devoted British choreographer Michael Clark’s dance piece called “Who’s Zoo” (2012). Apparently, Clark performs occasionally, but most of the time lesser-known dancers call upon passers-by to remove their shoes and gyrate–like a sing-along of Handel’s Messiah when those who volunteer can’t sing. To digress, this building, designed by Marcel Breuer, opened in 1966 and is drab, drab, drab as rough concrete exteriors are also the rough concrete interiors. The point is, battleship grey walls surrounding amateur dancers don’t add up to something new and exciting. Maybe reality television has invaded fine art land too.
It gets weirder! I wandered into an adjacent gallery that resembled a dressing room, which was apparently an art piece. The wall tag read: Sarah Michelson’s “The Dressing Room” (2005). The room/artwork was made of lattice boards, the kind you find at Home Depot. Inside these see-through panels were make-up tables, and an area for shoe removal—presumably for getting ready to dance in the other room. It continues to get weirder! Visitors who read the wall placard would then walk into the dressing area for a closer look, there was no “don’t enter” signage. Next, a guard would appear and shoo away the startled crowd, rudely telling them to get out of the dressing room. When I pointed to the wall placard, the guard insisted this dressing room was not artwork. Meanwhile visitors who had volunteered to dance non-chalantly strolled in and out of the latticed-room, appearing oblivious to their semi-nakedness.
Many post-modern art pieces are designed to spoof on-lookers. Carl Andre’s floor tiles quietly reside on modern art museum floors challenging visitors to walk on the tessellations, defying expected rules about not touching the art. Back at the Whitney, the guard who was in charge of this dressing room/artwork was either playing a nasty trick on museum-goers or had never been told about this work’s duality. Suddenly a visitor/mother drove her stroller into the dressing room and proceeded to clean out her vomit coated baby conveyance, while the guard chastised her to no avail. Now, I call that a performance piece of art!
I continued to look for something different and came across Elaine Reichek’s “Paint Me a Cavernous Waste Shore” (2009-2010). A large tapestry made on a digitized Jacquard loom sports a line from the TS Eliot poem, “Sweeney Erect” (1919). The image is a reproduction of a Titian painting “Bacchus and Ariadne” (images on Google). In Greek mythology, heroine Ariadne’s ball of thread helped Theseus escape the Minotaur. Reichek updates this classical narrative that might have been hand-woven into a tapestry but now is sewn using computerized mechanization. Like Cindy Sherman, Reichek studied painting in college but felt the medium was restrictive. In the seventies, when Feminist art began to be recognized, elevating stitchery to “high art” was a way to illustrate how women have traditionally received no credit for their craftsmanship.
My search for the best art of this season ended with an hour subway ride from mid-town Manhattan to the Brooklyn Art Museum. This edifice is an example of late nineteenth century Beaux-Arts construction by famed McKim, Mead and White. Built to be the biggest museum in the world, it suffered financially along with Brooklyn in later decades. Although it has a collection of American art often found in textbooks, its main focus has become the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. On view was Britain’s Rachel Kneebone’s sculpture exhibition “Regarding Rodin.” Kneebone juxtaposes Rodin’s rugged bronzes with her delicate white porcelains. But these aren’t pretty images found in a gift shop. Kneebone cracks apart neo-classical pedestals allowing torsos, resembling bleached-out Barbie doll appendages, to drip towards the ground. Other pieces have body parts that twist and crowd classical urns only to fall into an abyss (brooklynmuseum.org). Lunch at the Brooklyn Museum and a stroll in the adjacent Botanical Gardens is an inexpensive day in New York City.