Aesthetic Energy, Autumn back East

General Sherman by Augustus St. Gaudens.
General Sherman by Augustus St. Gaudens – Central Park, NYC.

It takes five years to organize an art exhibition which means this year’s fall lineup was created in 2008, the big financial dip. With that in mind I headed East to hug grandchildren and see what was aesthetically pleasing. Husband Dave, who had just completed Carl Batrreall’s digital photography course at the Anchorage Museum, was eager to try out his new skills.

We landed in Philadelphia and headed to the airport Embassy Suites—they get a big hug from us. Dave got food poisoning after a night of watching the World Series at a local bar. The Suites went out of their way to assure us we could stay until he regained his composure. All better, we took the light rail downtown to Union Station and walked along the embankment of the Schuykill River imagining rowers sculling their shells under bridges once depicted by the artist, Thomas Eakins.

We walked about a mile along the bike path to the neoclassical entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. PMA owns Walter Arensberg’s collection of Marcel Duchamp’s work featuring the sexually charged Bride Stripped Bare of Her Bachelors, Even. – a large glass window embedded with an abstracted bride and her nine bachelors. Duchamp decided that the cracked glass, damaged from poor packing, would become part of the piece.

"Houses" Leger (1922).
“Houses” Leger (1922).

Philadelphia’s Fall show, Leger Modern Art and the Metropolis shows paintings, theater props, films and architectural mock-ups from artists working in France while reacting to the aftermath of Europe’s Great War. Tubular monochromatic abstracted shapes dominate the galleries. World War I had seen the Industrial Revolution bursting out of factories and walking across Europe with destruction on its mind. Early art films (filming Paris while elevating up the Eiffel Tower) play on walls as marionettes dance in cases surrounded by art deco signage. Charlie Chaplin is the rage, a safety razor becomes art, and a shop window is filled with tennis togs. I was disappointed that Leger didn’t dominate the show as his name is highlighted on the museum’s frontage and web site. They should realize that whenever you put Picasso and Mondrian in an exhibition, they take over.

Dave and I headed to DC to hug our grands, Tess and Kai (ages seven and five). We spent an afternoon at an Alexandria pool watching them swim laps and attempt racing dives. The chlorine smell reminded us of years spent with our children at West High’s natatorium timing races while making sure feet touched the pool’s end during the flip turn portion of a race. Nick, our DC son, lives close to the Metro so we subway’d to the Hirshhorn on the Mall where Barbara Kruger’s exhibition, BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY was also one of the phrases plastered on the museum’s main floor and walls.

The show is all adhesive red/white or black/white rolls of vinyl embossed with banal phrases like GIVE YOUR BRAIN AS MUCH ATTENTION AS YOUR HAIR AND YOU’LL BE A THOUSAND TIMES BETTER OFF. I love this; I am always getting accused of having tangles. Kruger is an 80’s Conceptual artist, a second generation Postmodern Feminist. I found being surrounded by gigantic lettering was suffocating, maybe the point. Enlarged verbiage lost its meaning and became an art composition. Or it was like being shown only the name of the paintings while you are forced to arrive with your own pictorial imagery. Overloaded from oversized words with undersized meanings, Dave and I walked across the Mall to the National Gallery’s café where we ate soup and a sandwich adjacent to an indoor waterfall — a DC aesthetic bargain.

Taking Amtrak to New York City avoids the hassles of flying. Within four hours you arrive at Penn Station. When not staying with relatives, we find a Midtown hotel so we can walk or subway to restaurants and museums and avoid paying for taxis. You can eat expensively and bed down for thousands, but you don’t have to. Belonging to a university club is a great way to reduce hotel costs.

We like to start our day with coffee and a danish at Grand Central Station’s food court. Finding a table amongst the tourists and yes, the vagrants, is all part of the city experience. After breakfast it’s a flight up to the subway.

We took the six train uptown to 86th Street and walked from Lexington across Park Avenue to Fifth where many of the famed museums reside. Walking past expensive boutiques and brownstones while dodging dog walkers, is a way to experience NYC’s trendy Upper East Side for free.

Balthus was on view at the Met (5th and 82nd). He’s a modernist painter of adolescent girls and lurking felines–he should have stuck to painting cats. His palette of dirty reds and greens seemed monotonous. Lewis Carroll, who allegedly stepped outside boundaries when it came to interacting with pre-pubescent girls, is none the less recognized as a renowned writer. Similarly, Balthus’ somewhat lurid paintings also deserve consideration, with caution. He painted realistically in an era of abstraction and decorative motifs. Our thespian daughter Maddy remarked Degas was abusive to women but his exquisite compositions and use of oranges against blues and greens put viewers in denial with less fuss than Balthus receives. I applaud the Met for letting the museum-goer decide.

"Untitled" Motherwell (1943).
“Untitled” Motherwell (1943).

Dave and I walked a few blocks to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim (5th and 89th) which resembles soft ice cream oozing onto Fifth Avenue. Tucked away in one of their side galleries adjoining the mammoth rotunda was Robert Motherwell’s Early Collages. Motherwell was an Abstract-Expressionist painter. His father was a president of Wells Fargo so he had money to do the Grand Tour and eventually studied at Columbia with the famous art historian Meyer Shapiro. Motherwell’s line quality (fat, thin, drippy) is very sensual and ties together his collages made from torn maps, pre-printed paper, and even pasted wood veneer—essences of Matisse and Picasso linger.

Wright didn’t seem to care much about building bathrooms –the few are hiding in the columns that hold up the building. Lunch can also be problematic as the Gugg’s former café has been upscaled so those wanting a quick bite must buy hot dogs from sidewalk trucks. A block away, sandwiched in the foyer of the Church of the Heavenly Rest, is a to-die-for café. We sampled chicken pot pies underneath a vaulted Gothic ceiling, and yes, the church allows diners to use their restrooms.

Walking downtown on the Central Park side of Fifth Avenue is to experience autumn in New York like the 1934 Broadway song by Vernon Duke. The leaves rustle under your feet (wear running shoes) as you pass Samuel Morse’s nineteenth century statue. Taxis and limos roar by as you look across Fifth to the few remaining nineteenth century mansions shoved in between white-brick apartments with doormen. We passed the gilded equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman trampling Georgia Pine boughs– symbolizing the North’s victory over the South. We dodged the famed horse carriages that take passengers around Central Park—they are expensive. The Plaza Hotel was covered in scaffolding as we walked past Bergdorfs, and a line of tourists waiting to get into the Hollister clothing store—why get in line for tee-shirts? Netflix the 1947 movie Life with Father, which depicts late nineteenth century New York, a great way to visualize the city’s evolution.

We arrived at MoMA (53rd between 5th and 6th) to view Magritte, The Mystery of the Ordinary, one of the best shows in this fall’s aesthetic line-up. Magritte was an early twentieth century Belgian Surrealist playing with reality and illusion, Alfred Hitchcock-esque. Freud, Impressionism, Cubism and Europe’s devastation after two world wars affected his work as did his mother’s suicide. He’s also known for word play juxtaposing imagery. Ciel shows a painting of sky next to a painting of the word sky. Ceci n’est pas une pipe, or this is not a pipe, is another play- on-words. Featured above the verbiage is a picture of a pipe.

"The Humane Condition" Magritte (1933).
“The Human Condition” Magritte (1933).

My favorite painting was, The Human Condition (1933). Depicted is a landscape of grass, trees and sky that blends into the imagery outside the painted window. The legs of Magritte’s painted easel and drapery pull the viewer inside to the fictitious room while the panorama superimposed upon the identical outdoor scene pulls the viewer outside to the fictitious landscape. The viewer pauses to discover the clamp that holds the painting onto the easel and a side glimpse of the stretchered-stapled edge that isn’t real either—everything is imaginary, or is it? We grabbed tea and a cookie at MoMA’s Café 2 before heading back to our Midtown hotel. Well, this fall’s aesthetic energy was passable, but Autumn in New York, “It’s good to live it again.”

The catalogs for Leger, Balthus, Motherwell and Magritte are available on Amazon. Mailing art books in the Post Office’s flat rate boxes is a good deal and avoids having the TSA rummage through bags and tear pages which happened to me on a recent art trip.