FIT’s Fun, Flirty Historic Lingerie Show

Unusual combination: Sleeves on a silk corset with whalebone stays, circa 1770

Unusual combination: Sleeves on a silk corset with whalebone stays, circa 1770

After sifting through hundreds of corsets, petticoats, slips, nightgowns, knickers, baby dolls, and stockings, the FIT curators have selected 70 key pieces from the archives that lay out trajectory of ladies’ underthings in Exposed: A History of Lingerie, on display through November 15.

The upstairs gallery – usually reserved for gems from FIT’s spectacular collection – takes you on a journey through four centuries of shape-shifting garments that really contributed to the silhouettes of yesteryear. Remarkably, many look totally “today”. The first room pairs underwear and outerwear to make the point.

Hard corsetry items follow next – bustles and corsets from the 17th and 18th centuries, including two that are reckoned to be some of the first examples (at least, in FIT’s collection) of “underwear as outerwear” – a delicate, lavish petticoat and a spectacular 17th century whalebone corset. The telltale signs: If you weren’t showing them off, why would you own a corset with sleeves or a petticoat with such fine hand-embroidered detail?

1969 Pucci Lycra-Spandex body stocking for Formfit Rogers

1969 Lycra-Spandex body stocking by Pucci for Formfit Rogers

Predating flappers by more than a century, you can gaze upon the unstructured “natural corset” that 1815 fashionistas wore under their white Grecian-style muslins. One hundred years later, underwear history repeats itself with the 1920s silk underwear designed to be worn under the “corsetless” styles of the Roaring Twenties.

Then it’s on to many more 1920s intimate-fashion innovations – hostess gowns, boudoir mules, French cami-knickers sold at Saks, and the ultimate in period bohemian luxury, the Fortuny tea gown.

Retail history is noted in the 1930s section. Alongside the languid lounging pajamas, negligees, and lingerie-inspired evening gowns, you’ll learn that in 1935, Bergdorf Goodman became the first Manhattan retailer to open up a specialty store within the store specifically devoted to lingerie.

1949 overwire and a 1951 nylon net and silk taffeta petticoat from Dior.

1949 overwire and a 1951 nylon net and silk taffeta petticoat from Dior.

In the 1940s section of the show, special honor is given to Dior’s structured nylon petticoats that gave the New Look’s iconic silhouette its shape, the role of the overwire bra, and the sensation caused by the 1940 debut of nylon stockings – a fashion must-have that quickly became impossible to acquire during WWII.

Historic intimate gems keep appearing through the exhibition, culminating in more recent innovations, such as the Gaultier’s girdle dress, Rudi Gernriech’s no-bra bra, and the revolutionary Wonderbra, as well as up-to-the-minute styles by La Perla, Agent Provocateur, and Victoria’s Secret.

Want to know more? FIT again gives us a stellar on-line exhibition site organized by decade. On each decade, click on “more images” to see nearly the entire exhibition. FIT’s exhibition blog contains the backstory on a dozen or more pieces from the collection.

Even if you’re able to get to Seventh Avenue this week, why not take a walk-through with Coleen Hill, the curator who created this beautiful, thoughtful, and delight-packed show?

Sinclair Dinosaur Sneaks In and Out of Grand Central

Entrance to the show, featuring the 1964 monorail, transport of the future

Entrance to the show, featuring the 1964 monorail, transport of the future

Although he’s featured at the back, the famous Sinclair dinosaur from the 1964 New York World’s Fair has generated a lot of attention inside the New York Transit Museum’s show Traveling in the World of Tomorrow: The Future of Transportation at New York’s World’s Fairs, closing today.

Drawn in by the spectacular photo of the monorail, commuters and tourists visiting Grand Central have been roaming through the gallery and gift shop, checking out the photos, murals, and Dinoland movie that whisk them back to the transportation pavilions of the history-making 1939 and 1964 New York world’s fairs. What’s a dinosaur doing in the World of Tomorrow? It’s all about the car.

The 1939 World’s Fair was built on top of the Corona garbage dump during the height of the Great Depression, putting visionary architects and day laborers to work.

A 1964 New York Times photo of the Sinclair Dinosaur and Stegosaurus passing by the Empire State Building on their way to the Queens fairgrounds

A 1964 New York Times photo of the Sinclair Dinosaur and Stegosaurus passing by the Empire State Building on their way to the Queens fairgrounds

A futuristic subway station was built to deliver visitors to the fairgrounds from the A Line. You could enter a spaceship-shaped Flash Gordon amusement ride and watch the first 3D Technicolor movie ever produced inside the Chrysler pavilion.

The best was the legendary Futurama, where people could imagine a time where everyone owned their own car. The ride took them to the faraway year of 1960. Superhighways and curly exit ramps bisect acres of tall skyscrapers, with cars traveling on autopilot at the amazing speed of 55 miles per hour. Incredible!

Dinoland brochure from the Queens Historical Society

Dinoland brochure from the Queens Historical Society

Fast forward: The Sinclair dinosaur is part of the 1964 experience. By then, every family owned its own car. Sinclair’s long-necked, supersized Brontosaurus was a familiar icon to any family stopping to gas up along the newly completed interstate highway system, so why not mix a little magic, promotion, and science?

Sinclair built Dinoland and populated it with life-size replicas of nine dinosaurs. The exhibition has plenty of Dinoland souvenirs along with a movie clip of families seeing the Jurassic giant for the first time.

Robert Moses and Walt Disney look at the model of the 1964 World’s Fair. From MTA Bridges & Tunnels archives

Robert Moses and Walt Disney look at the model of the 1964 World’s Fair. From MTA Bridges & Tunnels archives

The show also pays tribute to the man who also brought another group of Mesozoic superstars to life inside the fairgrounds. Walt Disney designed four of the fair’s animatronics displays, including the robot cavemen and dinosaurs glimpsed in the Ford Motor Company’s “Magic Skyway” ride. There’s a terrific photo of New York’s Robert Moses alongside Walt, looking out over the model of the 1964 fairgrounds, and you can see the actual model itself, right inside.

Missed the show? You won’t see all the movies and hear the soundtracks that made the exhibition so exciting, but you can take a look at the galleries on our Flickr feed.

The 1964 car that everyone wanted — the Ford Mustang, which debuted at the fair

The 1964 car that everyone wanted — the Ford Mustang, which debuted at the fair

36 Hours of Jeff Koons at The Whitney

Inflatable Flower and Bunny, a cheeky take on minimalist work NYC galleries showcased in the 1970s

Inflatable Flower and Bunny, a cheeky take on minimalist work NYC galleries showcased in the 1970s

It’s the last 36 hours, and the Whitney is taking it’s Jeff Koons retrospective out with a bang – all day, all night fun-filled wonder on all four floors, letting the crowds take in his irreverent porcelains, 70s inflatables, whimsical fool-the-eye aluminum sculptures, and giant billboards. It’s the first proper retrospective that Koons has had in New York and the last show to be mounted on Madison Avenue before the Whitney moves to the High Line.

Any day of the week, lines of art-seekers have snaked out the door of the Whitney, past the pretzel carts on Madison and around the corner along 75th Street, waiting for admission into this no-holes-barred finale.

The curators and crew have done a spectacular job with the installation – no mean feat, since those big bulbous “inflatables” on the top floor are really highly polished, super-heavy hunks of stainless steel. Oh, and don’t get any fingerprints or scratches on the highly polished surfaces…it will break the illusion that these are just Mylar balloons!

Ten-ton stainless steel Balloon Dog with Moon (Light Pink) (1994-2000)

Ten-ton stainless steel Balloon Dog with Moon (Light Pink) (1994-2000)

The show starts strong on the second floor with a light-filled room of recreated works from the late Seventies – actually inflatable flowers, bunnies, and what-not. Everything uses angled mirrors.

You can’t get the joke unless you trod the floors of those West Broadway galleries in Soho way back then and saw the Minimalists and Earth Works guys in full force.Think Barry Le Va, Heizer, and Smithson who arranged rocks or dirt in a few square feet of gallery space and added a mirror or two to make a statement about nature, art, reflection (i.e. art viewing), and formal criticism inside the art world.

Koons turns all this on its head with silly found inflatables and similarly formalist presentation. It’s kitchen sponges instead of Richard Long’s rocks! Thanks, Whitney and Mr. Koons, for giving us this walk down memory lane.

The main space on Floor 2 is devoted to a spectacular low-light installation of favorite Koons pieces from the early Eighties. Several double-decker and triple-decker vitrines house illuminated and never-used Hoover vacuum cleaners, which Koons assembled to illustrate the feeling of “newness” in American society.

Billboard and illuminated Hoover vacuum cleaners, the essence of “newness” from 1983

Billboard and illuminated Hoover vacuum cleaners, the essence of “newness” from 1983

It’s a beautiful, magical room dominated by a gigantic billboard on The New, all of it from his first window-display installation on 14th Street and Fifth, when Marcia Tucker had her New Museum there back in 1983, just before the move to Soho.

Speaking of moves, it seems fitting to come full circle – spectacular early works by Mr. Koons that debuted on 14th Street as the finale to the Whitney’s long run on Madison Avenue, just prior to its move back to its new 14th Street neighborhood.

Missed the show? Take a look on our Flickr feed.

The Paper Bag Was Her Design

MoMA honors Margaret Knight, 1870s inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag

MoMA honors Margaret Knight, 1870s inventor of the flat-bottomed paper bag

What will the MoMA curators pull out of the design collection next? Designing Modern Women 1890–1990, running through October 19, puts the spotlight on furniture, textiles, graphics, performance, kitchens, and even inflatables designed by some innovative women over the last century. How can you not love a show that begins with 1890s modern-dance provocateur Loïe Fuller and ends with 1980s pop icon Grace Jones?

The crowd last weekend was loving every bit of it, pausing to watch videos sprinkled throughout the show and marvel at designs – some 80 to 100 years old that are as modern today as they were at their creation.

The next time you carry away your morning muffin from the coffee counter in that little white paper bag, ponder that the flat-bottomed paper bag was invented in the 1870s by Margaret E. Knight and Charles B. Stilwell. Ms. Knight not only invented this classic, but also invented the machine that made it and was one of the first American women ever to receive a patent.

1901 dinner service by Jutta Sika and Koloman Moser

1901 dinner service by Jutta Sika and Koloman Moser

No, the dinner service is not from Pottery Barn. It was created in 1901 by the Austrian design team of Jutta Sika and Koloman Moser. Didn’t I just see a copy of Eileen Gray’s 1927 adjustable table at the D & D Building? Open shelving in your new, modern kitchen? Yes, that was Charlotte Perriand’s idea, and MoMA has (for the first time) installed this full-size, fully efficient, ground-breaking kitchen from her 1952 project with Le Corbusier.

And what about the Slinky? Invented by Betty and Richard James in 1945. You’ll have fun peering into the design cases and learning more about the women behind some remarkable things.

Slinky was designed by Betty and Richard James in 1945

Slinky was designed by Betty and Richard James in 1945

In the 1960s portion of the show, you’ll see those famous Fillmore posters designed by Bonnie Maclean. And there’s an entire wall filled with iconic pop and punk graphics – all created by female designers – that should be familiar to anyone that traversed the downtown CBGBs scene.

There’s no digital media to accompany this fantastic show, so take a walk through our Flickr site. All of the items are from MoMA’s own collection, and we’ve taken slight liberties by arranging the photos in the show album in chronological order of the year that each design debuted.

And to bring it all back to the beginning of this design innovation tribute: Here’s a glimpse of 1897 Art Nouveau performance art by Loïe Fuller, courtesy of the Lumiere Brothers. The color you see here is a result of hand-tinting the film, but her actual perfomances used new theatrical stage lighting for which she held numerous patents. Listen to the MoMA curators explain her influence, but get over to MoMA (or the Flickr site) to take in this super-fun tribute to 100-plus years of smart women who thought differently and made it happen.

Groundbreakers App Ties History and Beauty Together

AppTitle

The New York Botanical Garden carved out an ambitious agenda in its Groundbreakers show – to tie the stories of six women of landscaping history, present a two-gallery recreation of an historic garden, pay tribute to the contributions of several landscapes within NYBG itself, create a poetry walk, and wrap it up with the history of early 20th-century photography and high-gloss publishing. They did it with GPS and an iPhone app, courtesy of Bloomberg.

Closing this weekend, Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them is still worth downloading from iTunes, just to get a glimpse into the lives of six landscape-gardening pioneers, see their work, and understand the popularization of American gardening long before the dawn of HGTV or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Here’s the link.

Photos of Ms. Johnston (left), lantern slides and projector, and Beals (right) on NYC street in 1902. Courtesy: NYBG

Photos of Ms. Johnston (left), lantern slides and projector, and Beals (right) on NYC street in 1902. Courtesy: NYBG

Here’s the story: back in the day (early 1900s), garden design and photography were two of the few career avenues available to women.

Way before Instagram, Photoshop, and two-way phone cameras, documenting the lush gardens involved lugging a gigantic, large-format camera up and down garden paths and around water features, processing black-and-white negatives into prints, turning some into newly-invented lantern slides, and having each slide painstakingly colored by hand. It helped if you had a car and an able-bodied assistant to help navigate the flagstone-lined paths with all the heavy gear.

Six American landscape pioneers who changed the course of American gardening. Courtesy: NYBG

Six American landscape pioneers who changed the course of American gardening. Courtesy: NYBG

Also, after the Industrial Revolution, aesthetically minded women (predating Lady Bird Johnson) felt it was time for American homescapes to get a little more spruced up.

The rich and famous were beginning to hire landscape designers to fix up the areas behind their East Side townhomes and acreages around their country estates. Why not document this and inspire upper middle class homeowners to follow suit?

The exhibition gives us a look at how artist visionaries, authors, and the publishing industry worked in tandem to record how landscape architects were creating romantic backyard landscapes and popularize beautification. Although seeing actual lantern slides, projectors, and gigantic tripods is amazing, one of the highlights is a recreation of the slide show by Frances Benjamin Johnston that basically blazed the trail of a new vision of what was possible – one image after another of gorgeous, visionary landscapes on the grounds of homes on the East Coast, California, England, and France.

NYBG recreated the evocative Moon Gate from the Rockefeller garden, inspired by their experience of the Forbidden City and designed by Beatrix Farrand

NYBG recreated the evocative Moon Gate from the Rockefeller garden, inspired by their experience of the Forbidden City and designed by Beatrix Farrand

In the Conservatory, the team at NYBG recreated Mrs. Rockefeller’s garden, originally designed by Beatrix Farrand, to highlight how the garden was conceived, used, and enhanced by the Asian art Mr. and Mrs. John D. collected. Since Farrand took on this project in 1926, NYBG has the sounds of America’s Jazz Age wafting through the galleries. Take a look on our Flickr page.

Another great feature of this show and the app – NYBG’s GPS feature shows you where you are in the expansive garden and encourages you to visit features where these groundbreakers had a hand – such as Marian Coffin’s ornamental conifer collection and Ferrand’s Rose Garden.

Get a closer view of the spectacular Groundbreakers in NYBG’s news-style video:

If you have a bit more time, listen to this curator lecture on the Beautiful Garden movement in America in 1900 and see the photos used by Johnston home to show suburbanites exactly how it should be done. You’ll witness garden images that hadn’t been seen since 1930. Take a look and get inspired:

Click here for other videos: a lecture about Beatrix Farrand created Mrs. Rockefeller’s garden and how the NYBG team recreated it in the stunning Victorian conservatory.

Stunning Jewelry at Met Reflects Contemporary Art

These stunning creations of Eugene and Hiroko Pijanowski are made from paper cord and canvas

These stunning creations of Eugene and Hiroko Pijanowski are made from paper cord and canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has not only reinstalled its American Modernist wing on the first floor, but it’s given over the design gallery right inside the door to Unique by Design: Contemporary Jewelry in the Donna Schneier Collection, on view through August 31.

Gertrude Stein is holding court in the far back gallery with some of Mr. Stieglitz’s treasures, but on your way to see them, check out the high-class, high-gloss presentation of masterworks of wearable art from the 1960s through today.

The thesis of the show is contemporary jewelry doesn’t exist in a vacuum and often reflects the prevailing art of the day — Pop, Minimalism, Abstraction, and so forth.

In 2007, Ms. Schneier donated 130 of her favorite pieces to the Met – just a small fraction of the collection she has been building for over 30 years. Here, these gleaming, surprising, artful, fun pieces are grouped to highlight their context within various themes of recent contemporary art.

Kiff Slemmonds Sticks and Stones and Words

Kiff Slemmonds Sticks and Stones and Words

As you marvel at each one, you’ll be thinking back across decades of gallery shows and installations of minimalist art, performance art, funky found art, and 3D printing.

Check out the gold neckpiece right inside the door. You might think it’s a riff on the Met’s room full of Columbian gold across the hall, but this treasure is actually made of paper and canvas by the Pijanowskis (Eugene and Hiroko).

Marvel at what seems to be Native American-inspired breastworks by Kiff Slemmonds. Her art piece is fabricated with a lot of stuff but mainly No. 2 pencils in the “narrative” portion of the show.

If you like self-referential playfulness, consider Gijs Bakker’s piece – a real diamond mounted on a PVC-laminated photo of a diamond. Recyclable art? Check out Robert Ebendorf’s brooch made from crushed auto window glass, beach glass, and a vinyl record.

Ted Noten’s clever Fashionista necklace made of tiny resin high-heeled shoes

Ted Noten’s clever Fashionista necklace made of tiny resin high-heeled shoes

And if you think it’s fun to poke around the history of contemporary art through jewelry that’s neatly tucked inside a single room, don’t ignore the fact that right beyond this gallery door is another art-history tour-de-force-in-a-box: The Met is displaying Mr. Duchamp’s famous green case, which is full of many of the same visual and conceptual challenges – “what is art?”, “what is play?” “what is hidden?”, and “everything you see is not as it appears.”

What would Rose Sélavy herself choose to don from the next room if the Met and Ms. Schneier gave her chance?

Peek at a few of the choices on our Flickr site, but enjoy wandering through the gallery and deciding for Rose and yourself.

 

Sailing Life Rafts into Brooklyn’s Submerged Motherlands

The tree touches the top of the Cantor Gallery. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

The tree touches the top of the Cantor Gallery. Photos: Brooklyn Museum

The view is dramatic, but the story is it evokes is even bigger than what’s in the room. There’s still time to travel out to the Brooklyn Museum to have the immersive experience of Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands, closing August 24.

The pictures here just don’t do justice to the super-high wrap-around effect of this walk-through take on the emotional side of rising tides throughout the world. A photo can’t take it all in — a sheltering, 60-foot tree with cut-out paper leaves with some day-after-the-Flood rafts parked down below, all decorated with sketches of the peoples and mothers of the world.

And did we mention that Brooklyn visionary Callie Curry (a.k.a. Swoon) actually built and lived on those rafts for a while? Several years ago, she sailed them up and down the Hudson, on the Mississippi, and across the Adriatic.

Close-up of one of Callie’s rafts. Photo: Brooklyn Museum

Close-up of one of Callie’s rafts.

You’ll get to see these jerry-rigged but seaworthy concoctions up close, and examine the drawings, cut paper, and torn, coffee-stained textiles draping walls, floor, and shelters in this dramatic space.

The feeling it evokes makes you wonder if we’re ready for rising seas and climate change. It’s beautiful, monumental, and reminiscent of our recent lights-out experience of Hurricane Sandy, which tore at the edges of Brooklyn, Long Island, and Staten Island just two years ago – exactly what inspired Callie to take this work in this direction.

Hear what it took for Callie to create this fantastic walk-through installation on Brooklyn’s top floor:

 

You may also want to hear what Callie has to say about being a working artist in the real world – outside the four walls of a gallery – in her talk from TEDxBrooklyn in 2010. She will show you her rafts in action at Minute 5 and tell you what it felt like to arrive on a hand-built raft in Venice, her projects in post-earthquake Haiti, and interacting with people from the neighborhood as she creates art on the sides of Brooklyn buildings. Truly inspirational.

Folk Art Geniuses Take a Trip

Brooklyn’s Lion, carved in 1910 by Marcus Charles Illions, who worked at the carousel shop and later set up his own studio

Brooklyn’s Lion, carved in 1910 by Marcus Charles Illions, who worked at the carousel shop and later set up his own studio

The American Folk Art Museum knows how to put on a show and take it on the road. After today, the staff will be packing up Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum and letting the Brooklyn Lion, Connecticut’s Weathervane Elephant, Chicago’s Sideshow “Radium Girl”, and a baseball old-timer from Centre Street see what’s up in Davenport, San Diego, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Saint Louis, and Tampa. We’re betting that there will be crowds waiting to greet them.

The museum’s staff has brought out its best to show off four centuries of made-in-America maker art – furniture, sculptures, textiles, painting, and what-not. It’s genius that they’ve put the spotlight on “genius” because their collection is jam-packed with some truly remarkable artists, visionaries, and craftsmen. Get the full view on the Museum web site and some close-ups on our Flickr page.

The curators say that the United States was a make-it-up-as-you-go-along democracy, so they felt “self taught” was right in line with this unique Americana theme – having a vision and making a masterwork.

Empire State Building, carved in New Jersey in 1931 from precious cherry wood. Auriti's Palace is just behind.

Empire State Building, carved in New Jersey in 1931 from precious cherry wood. Auriti’s Palace is just behind.

Yes, there are some true eccentrics in the mix, but let’s momentarily focus on the People with a Plan from the section of the show on “Achievers”. Their works are immensely pleasurable and intense, and they’re right inside the entry.

You could spend hours contemplating the detail and work that went into the monumental Empire State Building made from cut cherry wood pieces in New Jersey in 1931. No one knows who created it, but legend has it that it was an ironworker that actually worked on that 13-month wonder and couldn’t let go of the achievement.

Consider The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, created by Maurino Auriti, an auto body worker who just loved designing and building architecture. Mind blowing. If his visionary campus was actually constructed, the skyscraper would be taller than that spire in Dubai.

The Encyclopedic Palace, created by Maurino Auriti, an auto body mechanic, in the 1950s from from wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, and hobby kit parts

The Encyclopedic Palace, created by Maurino Auriti, an auto body mechanic, in the 1950s from wood, plastic, glass, metal, hair combs, and hobby kit parts

If you get to Lincoln Square today, you’ll enjoy one amazing treasure after another, but if not, check it out the beautiful web site archive created by the museum team for the tour. Browse by time period, theme, or artist.

And check out the Museum’s other brilliant online solution to letting you in on the world’s interpretation of these works. They’ve assembled all the media written and produced about the pieces in the show, which have often served as a springboard for scholarly research. This is a fun, serious treasure chest of work, so probe to your heart’s content — baseball folk art, mourning pictures, 18th century folk-art Washington portraits, and even more recent works.

What will it take to take this show of masterworks on the road? Last year, Auriti’s The Encyclopedic Palace was chosen as the theme of the  55th International Venice Biennial, so it got to go on its first trip to Italy.

Get a glimpse of where the folk art lives when it’s not on display and see how art gets packed to take a trip.

Baseball statue from 114 Centre Street and the sideshow’s Radium Girl banner from Chicago in the 1930s

Baseball statue from 114 Centre Street and the sideshow’s Radium Girl banner from Chicago in the 1930s

Dissident Artist Leaves Brooklyn for Second Time

The artist in Williamsburg, 1983. From his New York Photograph Series (1983-1993). Courtesy: the artist

Then: Ai Weiwei in Williamsburg, 1983. From his New York Photograph Series (1983-1993). Courtesy: the artist

If you haven’t yet trekked to Brooklyn to see one of the world’s most famous international provocateurs, go this weekend to see Ai Weiwei: According to What? and get to know the work of the artist who was incarcerated a few years ago by the Chinese government for pulling the veil off its bureaucratic repression and dishonesty. Closing August 10, it’s the last stop on the show’s North American tour – a fitting finale since Ai Weiwei first lived in Williamsburg when he moved to New York back in 1983.

You know him either from his collaboration on the famous “bird nest” stadium at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, smashing Han Dynasty vases as an art project, or from having bulldozers sent by the Chinese government to eradicate his studio in 2011 and being put into house arrest for 81 days – an event that made front-page news and sparked an international outcry – museums and political leaders took out protest ads, made videos, placed flowers on his public works, and called for his release all over the world.

Close-up of R itual, one of the six dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), inspired by his 2008 incarceration. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei

Now: Close-up of R itual, one of six dioramas of S.A.C.R.E.D. (2011-2013), showing his 2008 incarceration. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei

Even before you hit the admissions booth, you’ll see his response to all of this – a series of six large, mysterious boxes that make up his work, S.A.C.R.E.D. You climb up to peer into them, right inside Brooklyn’s entrance. Inside, you’ll see everyday depictions of what it was like for him in detainment – eating, sleeping under the watch of the uniformed guards, and interrogations.

Upstairs, you’ll see an expansive show filled with thought-provoking works along with some black-and-white photos of his East-Village life in the 1980s, where he hug with Tan Dun, Xu Bing, and other artists-on-the-move and artists-on-the-run from a conformist Mainland.

At a distance, his sculptures seem like simple, cool contemporary installations. Read the label copy and you realize the subversive is at work. It looks like some found-art piece, but the room is actually filled with the full contents of a young woman’s home. Ai Weiwei found her and all her stuff on the side of a road after the authorities evicted her.

Straight (2008-2012) is made from 70 tons of rebar reclaimed from the Sichuan earthquake and hammered straight back into rods. © Ai Weiwei

Straight (2008-2012) is made from 70 tons of rebar rods, reclaimed from the Sichuan earthquake and hammered straight. © Ai Weiwei

A single room is devoted to Straight, a monumental installation made up of rebar, metal rods used to strengthen concrete calls. Except that this is the actual rebar from the 2008 earthquake that claimed 5,400 young lives in Sichuan Province when the schools collapsed due to shoddy construction practices. He bought the scrap rebar from those buildings, spent four years hammering to straighten them out, and assembled the rods into a 70-ton sculpture. Nearby, he’s listed the names of every school child – something that the Chinese government never did.

Performance art: dropping a Han dynasty vase (206 BC-220 AD), along with other historic ceramic pieces altered by a dip into modern industrial paint (2007-2010). Photo: C. Carver. Courtesy: the artist

Performance art: dropping a Han dynasty vase (206 BC-220 AD), along with other historic ceramic pieces altered by a dip into modern industrial paint (2007-2010). Photo: C. Carver. Courtesy: the artist

How and why does he do it? Find out by listening to Ai Weiwei’s answers to visitors’ questions. You’ll have quite an insight to his thought process, since there are 45 pages of video Q&A. Well worth the time to meet this brave, inspirational artist-activist.

He’s simply one of the top contemporary artists working today and you owe it to yourself to experience work that literally takes on the world. Kudos to the Brooklyn Museum for also publishing the amazing teacher’s guide, which asks students to ponder and think about news, authority, and speaking out.

Watch as the Brooklyn crew assembles Stacked, Ai Weiwei’s 2014 sculpture made from 700 bicycles, a comment on the transportation traditionally used by Chinese commuters until the dawn of the smog-inducing automobile. It’s all happening under the watchful Egyptian eye on Brooklyn’s main floor:

The Sistine Chapel of Fashion Virtuosity

Clover Leaf Ball Gown – a 1953 silk faille, shantung, and black lace sculpture by Mr. James. Part of the Brooklyn Collection at The Met

Clover Leaf Ball Gown – a 1953 silk faille, shantung, and black lace sculpture by Mr. James. Part of the Brooklyn Collection at The Met

When the Brooklyn Museum handed its fashion archive over to the Met in January 2009, the first thought that crossed everyone’s mind was the mind-bending masterworks that would now be sheltered under the protective wing of the Costume Institute’s crack conservation team — “Oooh, maybe the Met will do a Charles James show!”

We’re glad to report that the Met has done this master proud and given his humble admirers a fitting place to worship in its triumphant two-gallery show, Charles James: Beyond Fashion, which ends this weekend, August 10.

1952 portrait by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine. Courtesy: The Met;  Library of Congress

1952 portrait by Michael A. Vaccaro / LOOK Magazine. Courtesy: The Met; Library of Congress

Mr. James is credited with being among the first to perfect the strapless gown in the 1930s, an inspiration for Mr. Dior’s “New Look” in the 1940s, and the epitome of Vogue glamour dressing in the 1950s. He could do things with fabric that others simply couldn’t do or wouldn’t dare…well, maybe except for Madame Gres. He pushed silhouettes and fabrics further than most anyone could conceive and had the temperamental nature, drive for perfection, and uncompromising attention to detail that characterize any of history’s greatest, most passionate artists.

You always look at his creations and ask yourself, “How did he do it?” How did he get a spiral of fabric to stand out as it wraps sinuously around a sleek, strapless electric green silk mermaid dress? Is that sexy Thirties frock actually cut from one scarf?  How did he create virtual moving sculptures from the world’s most expensive fabric?

Innovative digital display tells the back story of Mrs. Hearst’s Clover Leaf Gown – too big for Ike’s inaugural, but just right for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation

Innovative digital display tells the back story of Mrs. Hearst’s Clover Leaf Gown – too big for Ike’s inaugural, but just right for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation

Long known for his innovative engineering, the Met came to a brilliant solution to explain the magic that Mr. James wrought over his decades of no-two-alike work – hire an architectural firm to show us.

Enter Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who have mounted these sculptures in silk inside an infinity-room gallery and paired each masterpiece with its own personal robot and humongous iPad-type display. Look at the dress and refer to the screen as the dress digitally deconstructs and is assembled again.

Cecil Beaton’s 1955  photo of Nancy James in the Swan Gown. Courtesy: The Met; Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Cecil Beaton’s 1955 photo of Nancy James in the Swan Gown. Courtesy: The Met; Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The crowds waft from dress to dress in no particular order, clustering silently to watch digital magic, see where the robot is pointing, and view photos of Mrs. Randolph Heart, Jr., Gypsy Rose Lee, or Josephine Abercrombie in said gown. The robot with the 1954 Swan Ball Gown captivates viewers by moving underneath to televise close-up views of some of the 1,080 square feet of tulle that Mr. James used to create the oomph.

The mirrored walls of the upstairs gallery and the see-through dividers downstairs are emblazoned with the wisdom of the man himself. He seems to be talking right to you as you wonder how he made the fabric do what it’s doing (“It’s the air that’s sculpted, not the silk”) or how he thought about the world of fashion (“We who have been ahead in style have usually been ahead in our thinking”).

Downstairs gallery, newly named for Ms. Wintour, filled with James creations

Downstairs gallery, newly named for Ms. Wintour, filled with James creations

The second gallery (welcome back, ground floor Costume Institute!) displays his wool creations and sharply shaped cocktail wear. It’s interesting that James considered some of these genuinely more innovative than his often-photographed gowns. The curators have placed another of his “first” in a room at the back – the predecessor of today’s puffer coat. On loan from the V&A, it remarkably dates from the 1930s – his soft, sensual, silky answer to the boxy fur jackets that Ms. Schiaparelli was showing in Europe at the time.

We have to thank Mr. James for his vision and for making sure the Brooklyn design lab had so many examples of his masterpieces to teach and inspire future generations of Seventh Avenue designers. As he says, “In fashion, even what seems most fragile must be built on cement.”  Lesson learned.

The Met’s a great steward. Just listen to the love in the tour of the show by its curators:

If you have more time, hear what Zac Posen has to say to the co-curator about The Master: