Grant Wood Puts Sophisticate Spin on American Myths

1930 American Gothic, which Grant Wood modeled on his sister and dentist – an “invented” couple. Collection: Art Institute

Travel the world, but paint what you know.

It seems to be the philosophy that guided the artistic development of our homegrown American painting virtuoso, as told in the Whitney’s revealing exhibition, Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, on view through June 10.

Although the Art Institute never lets American Gothic leave the Windy City, the famous couple has been having quite a time on the High Line, surrounded by a wealth of beautiful paintings, crafts, furniture, magazine covers, book illustrations, drawings, and lithographs. See our favorites in our Flickr album.

Since Wood’s iconic masterwork burst upon the scene at the Chicago Art Institute in 1930, it’s surprising to know that this is only the third time that Wood has had a one-man show in New York. Whitney curator Barbara Haskell and her staff decided to give Wood the props he deserved by assembling this satisfying and revealing tour of his life’s work.

1930 Arnold Comes of Age, a European-inspired birthday portrait of his studio assistant froom Lincoln’s Sheldon Museum

It’s clear from the start (after you pass the corn chandelier) that Cedar Rapids, Iowa treasured their native son, handing him design and ad commissions galore. Although he always lived close to his mom and sister (the model for the mysterious “Gothic” gal), his artistic direction was solidified fairly early on by trips to Paris and Germany as a young man.

Forget impressionism and expressionism. Wood was captivated seeing the works of Durer and Memling, whose style matched his own precise painterly tendencies.

Returning home, he embarked upon a series of portraits that were completely local (e.g. his mom, art students, neighbors), but harkened back to the centuries-old European style – precisely rendered central figures and metaphorical symbols scattered across shrunken landscapes. Straight out of the 1400s.

1931 folk-inspired The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere from The Met’s collection

When Gothic appeared on the cover of the Chicago Evening Post in 1930, his fate as the quintessential “American” painter was sealed. And he committed himself to staying in the Midwest, painting what surrounded him.

The show takes us through his journey from there: interpreting and busting American myths, celebrating the hometown and ordinary, and sometimes veering into the visual language of folk art to create a feeling of a simplified time.

Cover illustration for Time magazine commemorating famed aviator Wiley Post, September 23, 1940.

When World War II began to brew, Woods was even more convinced that the power of his images could be harnessed to engender a call for action among everyday Americans. Deceptive simplicity on the canvas only underscores his highly sophisticated understanding of the power of symbols, craft, and art history.

Woods embraced many types of WPA and commercial commissions, while keeping up his fine-art output, including selling lithographs (“affordable art”) by mail order. Although one of a naked farmworker got him in hot water with the United States Postal Service, the accusation of “porn in the mail” really didn’t hurt his reputation.

The final two galleries of the show assemble his highly precise, fully modern farm landscapes from a ten-year period – rich, colorful, and geometric until they aren’t. The curators have interspersed gorgeous but melancholy graphite drawings of barren, snow-covered fields. Their presence captures the melancholy of Grant Wood’s final years – grappling with illness and life in Iowa as a closeted man, who died far too young.

1940 charcoal drawing March from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Even with the somewhat sobering feel, it’s a glorious gallery to end the show – one that leaves visitors marveling about the skill, talent, and magic wrought by an artist whose they feel as if they are discovering for the first time.

The Whitney persuaded lots of other Iowa museums to contribute to the show, too. They shipped everything but the WPA building mural (click here to see a silent video) at the University of Iowa Ames library.

Take a virtual walk through the show with the audio guide and see photos of the different work as the curators talk.

Listen to the brilliant curator Barbara Haskell, as she puts this man’s work into context:

Gold and Other Ancient Luxuries at The Met

Gold crown, headband, and ear flares worn by high-status person from Peru’s Northern Coast (Chongoyape), 800 – 500 B.C. Collection: NMAI, Smithsonian.

What constitutes luxury? Something wildly extravagant, made of expensive and rare materials, and incredibly intricate and beautiful.

There’s plenty on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, running through May 28.

The show, which returns to New York after a run at the Getty in Los Angeles, is a fulfilling journey that takes you over 3,000 miles through North and South America and across the years – from 1200 B.C. to the Spanish conquest of mighty kingdoms.

The star attraction is gold, which was hammered and fashioned into portable ornaments worn by high-net-worth individuals centuries ago. Crowns, ear flares, and nose ornaments from Peru’s northern coast, made sometime between 800 and 300 B.C., are on display right at the start of the show.

Front of a headdress from Peru (Moche), 300 – 600 A.D. Collection: Lima’s National Museum

But as you wind your way further through time and cultures, many more virtuoso works are displayed – a gold sheet octopus for the front of a headdress and the dramatic crescent-shaped burial ornamentation for the Lord of Sipán, both Peruvian pieces from the Moche culture made 600 years later.

In the center gallery, you encounter whimsical gold sculptures from Colombia made nearly a thousand years later by Colombia’s Muisca people, who “sacrificed” some of these precious items to the gods by tossing them into lakes or cenotes – a practice that unfortunately led the Spanish to believe that the mythical El Dorado really existed.

Incan tunics for votive figures, 1460 – 1626 A.D. From The Met, Field Museum, and AMNH.

Curators segment the show by highlighting the various approaches to luxury by different indigenous cultures – intricately woven textiles, feathered shirts and temple wall hangings, carved jade, monumental stone portraits of royalty, and even a lime container in the shape of a jaguar that is partly made from platinum.

Because materials were sourced so far from where the luxury items were crafted and preserved, the show weaves a rich tale of trade. Networks for jade far from Guatemala, tropical birds far from the Amazon rainforest, and ocean shells far from the dry Andean highlands.

Pair of gold, shell, and stone ear ornaments from Peru’s North Coast (Moche), 200 – 600 A.D. Collection: The Met

The mosaics, beadwork, and of multiple precious-stone inlay are dazzling, both in their visual impact and when you stop to consider the South American supply chain.

The magical properties of shells were acknowledged by everyone in these ancient kingdoms – from the rulers and lords that sported patterned multicolored shell collars to priests using shell-shaped ceramics for ritual offerings to everyday farmers who ensured sufficient rain by scattering broken shells in their fields.

Mixtec mask of spondylus shell, mother of pearl, and turquoise, 1200 – 1521 A.D. Collection: Italy’s MIBACT Museum of Civilization

Spondylus shells – the ultimate in marine adornment – only came from the oceans near Ecuador or northern Peru. Rulers just had to have them.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the level of artwork was at an all-time high. A particularly virtuoso inlaid Mixteca mask is shown toward the end of the show – one so beautiful that it came into the hands of Count Medici and is on loan from a museum in Italy.

Take a look at the beautiful items on the Met’s exhibition website and our favorites on our Flickr album.

See what’s behind the golden door by taking a peaceful video walk through this gorgeous show. All you’ll hear are the magical Mayan cenote bells:

Find out more by listening to the audio guide of the show here.

When Jewelry Has Its Own Idea

Organic geometry: Kazumi Nagano’s brooch of folded linen paper and other materials.

Can jewelry actually speak? The Cooper Hewitt curators thought so when they went through the expansive collection that a donor had assembled, as shown in Jewelry of Ideas: Gifts from the Susan Grant Lewin Collection, on view in New York through May 28.

Lewin, who donated her collection to the Smithsonian, was passionate about collecting fairly conceptual wearable art pieces – works that reflected pop culture, or held great symbolic meaning, or told a story that was significant to the artist.

Around 150 bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and rings are on display in the show. They’re all intriguing works on their own, each telling a story, but the selections are nicely classified into sub-groups, such as Nature, Symbol and Metaphor, Memory, and so on.

Nature: Daniel Kruger’s necklace with pressed flowers and leaves.

Some groups tell the art-for-art’s sake story; other groups are made of materials with charged significance. But all reflect the deep thought that jewelry artists give to their work and the delight the wearer has in either sharing the story of the piece or just keeping its secret to themselves.

The show emphasizes how ground-breaking artists have conceptualized jewelry to go beyond the constraints of simply pretty, glitzy, or decorative ends.

For example, the paper necklaces by Kiff Siemmons speak to the artist’s interest in pulling dramatic shapes out of lowly materials and in cross-cultural collaboration – in this case, working with artisans from Oaxaca’s Arte Papel who are expertly reviving pre-Columbian paper making technology with traditional, plant-based dyes.

Attai Chen’s paper, paint and coal necklace from Nature section of the show

In the portion of the show where jewelry reflects society and the human condition, designer Deganit Stern Schocken used crushed soda cans and zircons in a piece named after Israel’s largest checkpoint, evoking the daily West Bank anxieties of passing between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The fact that Estonian artist Kadri Malik incorporated a large shark tooth in her “It’s Getting So Dark” necklace gives the piece a voice that speaks volumes, even if the wearer doesn’t say a word. The same is true for Attai Chen’s dark riff on nature — dramatic necklace formed from paper, paint and coal.

Art Smith’s 1948 Modernette Cuff Bracelet reflecting the art world’s interest in biomorphic forms

The show also touches on the history of post-war wearable art by innovators in America and Europe, including a biomorphic piece by Sixties jewelry maker Art Smith, who was connecting the dots among the cultural influences he was seeing in painting and dance studios from his Village studio.

What about other art for art’s sake? The curators showcase collection pieces that are colorfully painted, baubles incorporating found objects, and art that simply conveys the joy of pure, clean, abstractions.

Lewin certainly had fun collecting and wearing provocative pieces, and the curators also seemed to have enjoyed displaying these fascinating works in a context that suits them.

Take a look at some of our favorites in our Flickr album.

To give an idea of how kinetic artist Friedrich Becker conceptualized his work in motion, here’s a video showing how his ring activates to convey its story when worn:

This show focuses upon an international array of artists. But for anyone that wants to dig deeper into the roots of American studio jewelry 1940 – 1970, art historian Toni Greenbaum  describes how artist-made jewelry came to its cherished place in the art and design worlds today:

Americas Prehistory Revealed in Places No One Has Looked

Fun Greater Coclé monkey plate from Panama’s Rio Coclé del Sur (AD 700 – 850)

It’s easy to think that that prehistory in America is all about the grand architecture of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. But the National Museum of the American Indian wants you to think differently.The current show at NMAI’s Customs House in New York, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, on view through May 20, takes you deep into the rain forests of several countries to show how colorful clay pots reveal a rich story of artistic complexity, style, and cross-cultural trends.

The achievement of the show – a multiyear exhibition that began its run at the NMAI in Washington, DC in 2013 – is telling a story through the humble material that nearly every village home knew how to shape. The everyday nature of the items stands in sharp contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Golden Kingdoms show that focuses on the luxury trade.  Yet, it tells a similar tale.

Mayan rain god Chaac makes an appearance on a Guatemalan incense burner (AD 250 – 900)

In skilled hands, artisans over the last three thousand years transformed their clay into whimsical daily objects, powerful ritual tributes, technological implements, and shockingly intricate storytelling media.

NMAI took a ground-up approach to uncovering history, focusing on six relatively unknown sites where discoveries are being made by universities and students in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The focus is on the pottery, although you also see jade pendants that the Mayans threw into cenotes as offerings in Guatemala and upscale gold and spondylus shell necklaces excavated in Panama’s Greater Coclé sites.

The show emphasizes the style that each cultural group brought  –Mayan incense burners from Guatemala with dramatic portraits of the rain god Chaac, storytelling painted vessels from Honduras, and vessels, plates, and icons depicting monkeys, tapirs, vultures, frogs, and birds of the surrounding rain forest.

Ulúa River jaguar-paw bowl from Honduras (AD 850 – 950)

The sites where these clay treasures were found functioned primarily as agricultural villages, not grand palaces; however, many sites show paved roads leading in and out.

The artistic and archeological evidence makes it clear that local artists were adapting and interpreting the lore, myths, histories, and styles picked up along the bustling trade routes through Central America, where birds, jade, gold, cacao, and humble pots were being traded, used, and refashioned.

Lempa River artists from El Salvador near Palacio, Cuscatlán made armadillo pots and lots of other animals (AD 900 – 1200)

You don’t often link ancient pottery and mass-market production, but at least one case shows a ceramic mold from El Salvador that was used by the artist to crank out Mayan-style pendants about 1,500 years ago.

There’s also a case showing how pottery stamps were used to embellish textiles even further back in time. These stamps are from Honduras and Costa Rica, but you can be sure that techniques to make your everyday cotton tunic a little nicer was fairly widespread.

View some of our favorite items on our Flickr album.

The introductory gallery of the show describes some of the early archeological activities in Central America, which were often spurred by the powerful agri-businesses (e.g. United Fruit) that set up shop in Central America in the early 20th century.

Examples of how pottery stamps were used to print fabric since 300 BC. Here, a Honduran monkey stamp and two others from Costa Rica.

The show makes the point that the next wave of amateur treasure-hunters in the Sixties and Seventies swept a lot of the archeological finds out of the county and into US and European museums.

Today, however, the NMAI salutes the universities, professors, and students throughout Central America that are discovering ancient histories in their own backyards and developing the scientific skills to contribute to the scientific dialogue about the past.

The show leaves you with a sense that the discoveries are just beginning. Watch this video and travel deep into the rainforests and meet the next generation of Central American archeologists on the cusp of making new discoveries:

Download the catalog here to see maps of the area and get to know more about bustling prehistoric cultural production centers you never knew, like the Ulúa river valley in Honduras and the vibrant Gran Cocle in western Panama.

2012 painted Lenca vessel from Honduras — showing that artists are still going strong after 2,000 years

The Skies Have It: Thomas Cole Paints to Protect Nature

Cole’s 1936 panoramic masterpiece The Oxbow – a call to preserve the rapidly disappearing American wilderness. Collection: The Met

Awestruck by the magnificence of nature, romantic painter Thomas Cole set out to create visions so powerful that they would convince development-obsessed American to preserve landscapes and vistas for future generations.

Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition chronicles his artistic journey, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, on view through May 13, the subtext of the show is how he leveraged the romantic thrill of nature for a higher purpose.

Cole was battling pro-development sensibilities back then, in the same way environmentalists are fighting eco-battles today — 200 years after Cole started sketching upstate New York.

Detail from Turner’s 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus that Cole sketched in London. Collection: National Gallery

The exhibition sums up how British painters in the early 1800s were rebelling against the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, how Cole romanticized the drama views of nature, and then took the techniques that he learned on his trip to Europe to turn his painting into a call to action.

The most famous Cole works showcased at the Met – The Oxbow and The Course of Empire – are from New York City collections, but the curators have placed Cole’s artistic development into a global context by showing us the powerful Turners and Constables that actually inspired Cole on his Grand Tour of Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. Visitors get to experience them as he did.

Constable’s 1824-28 expressive oil sketch Rainstorm Over the Sea. Collection: Royal Academy

The presence of these landscape giants is exquisite – enormous masterworks with overpowering skies, majestic vistas, mythological allegories, and poignant ruins. The show also includes ethereal and dramatic cloud studies that Constable did out in the open air – works that inspired Cole to do the same.

Back in America, he founded the Hudson River school of painting – the first great art movement of the United States — and encouraged students to learn from nature. They certainly did, as shown by the dramatic landscape paintings by Chuch and Durand.

Take a look at all 76 paintings and studies in the exhibition on the Met’s website and see closeups of our favorite Cole, Turner, and Constable paintings in our Flickr album.

Cole’s 1832-1841 paint box used when he worked outdoors. Collection: Bronck Museum

The Met has given The Oxbow and The Course of Empire series positions of honor at the center of the show. To prepare these six paintings for their showcase, the conservation team did investigative work that uncovered some insights to Cole’s thinking (the video below shows what’s beneath the painted surface).

In the concluding section of the show, the curators point out that Cole’s students and followers didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the preservationist instincts of their teacher.

Cole’s romantic vision of nature fell out of fashion (for a while), replaced by big-sky and big-vista landscapes that elevated the “beauty” of building roads, harnessing nature, and seeding new towns and industries.

Industrial progress in 19th-century America was inevitable, but the experience of seeing Cole’s unspoiled vision of wilderness still shows visitors that there is value in keeping up the fight.

Take a look at the Met’s insightful film about Cole, his inspirations, and what it was like to paint in the Age of Jackson:

And for a glimpse into what the Met’s curatorial team found, watch this silent movie about about Cole’s thought process as he created his masterpiece:

If you miss this magnificent show, you can visit the room where it happened at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. More about that trip here.

Church’s 1849 Above the Clouds at Sunrise, a tribute to Cole

FIT Challenges Designers over Shape, Physique, and Fashion’s Future

Red carpet looks for curvy women: Roberto Cavalli’s ensemble, LaQuan Smith’s see-through for Kim Kardashian, and Christian Siriano’s dress for Leslie Jones

Against the historical context provided by examples of how women (and men) have pushed and pulled their bodies into fashionable silhouettes since the 1750s, The Museum at FIT asks a broader, more contemporary question:  Why don’t designers today create attractive clothes for women who don’t fit into a size 2?

The exhibition, The Body: Fashion and Physique, on display through May 5, begins with a thoughtful video in which young New York designers, including Christian Siriano, call for change in the industry to give plus-size women fashion-forward off-the-rack options that project youth, style, and pizzazz.

As usual, FIT has an excellent website for the show, where you can step through 250 years of fashion history in sequence to see and read about how the concept of the “ideal” body has changed.  For some of our favorite items, see our Flickr album.

1845-1855 corset with metal eyelets and 1865 Scottish dress buoyed by hooped crinoline

The 1800s fashions on display from the FIT archive pair undergarments – like corsets, crinolines, and bustles – to demonstrate how fashion emphasized the importance of tiny waists through most of the 19th century. The swags covering protruding bustles eventually gave way to the no-corset looks of early 20th century artistic women who worshipped the exotic excesses of Paul Poiret.

The curators focus on the roots of fashion-induced body issues back then, too. An iPad shows the proliferation of fashion illustrations that draw women with impossibly tiny waists. Nearby, they show evidence from their collection to bust the myth that all corsets were laced tight enough to achieve an 18-inch waist. Simply not true. The illusion of that “ideal” was created with wide skirts and pouf sleeves.

When powerful structure was in: a 1981 dress by Mugler and 1986 jacket by Donna Karan

From there, the show moves through the next 100 years, providing examples of tube silhouettes of the Twenties, languid body-skimming styles of the Thirties when women used girdles to achieve the “ideal” body, the built-in structure of Dior’s New Look, and through to more recent times.

Although the intricate architectural cut of a Thierry Mugler dress would not normally be paired with a soft-tailored jacket by Donna Karen, the curators note that the “ideal” shape for women in the 1980s was athletic, fit, and toned. The pairing of these two designers shows how the impact of powerfully shaped fashion worked for equally well for Grace Jones or for powerfully shaped women who inhabited the C-suite.

In more recent times, the show makes the point that designers and image-makers increasingly shifted the “ideal” shape to the super-young and super-slim, encouraging completely unrealistic expectations about women’s bodies. Men and women obsesses over diets and fitness to achieve body shapes that are fairly impossible goals.

Two padded looks: a 1996 statement dress by Rei Kawakubo and the 1994 Wonderbra

The show concludes where it started – with a conversation about how designers, fashion fans, and the rise of social media are influencing and showing how real women dress today.

A fantastic red-carpet evening gown that Siriano designed for Leslie Jones after a Tweet storm ensued about designers not offering to dress a larger woman serves as the cornerstone content of the show. One dress says it all – class, elegance, beauty, sass, and bravery all summed up in one statement-creation.

Listen to what Christian and the other passionate young designers have to say about where fashion must go for the good of all:

If you have more time, listen to the conversation between Valerie Steele and Tim Gunn, which led FIT’s all-day seminar on this topic. This conversation digs deeper into lack of industry and designer support for less-than-ideal-sized women and concludes with ideas on what emerging designers can do to bring about change.

Nick Mauss Brings NYC Modern Art/Dance Influences to Life at The Whitney

Dancers strike poses inspired by the surrounding works of art in a piece collaboratively choreographed with Nick Mauss

Cecil Beaton’s 1937 Vogue photo of poet Charles Henri Ford in a costume by Salvador Dali

Go when the dancers are there. Entering Nick Mauss: Transmissions, installed on the top floor of the Whitney through May 14, you’ll see them moving behind a transparent scrim as the elevator doors open.

The artist had a vision and the Whitney curators gave him the freedom to scour their deep-storage archives, delineate a space for dancers, install works of art, and write scintillating details about the fruits of his research.

Nick’s vision was to create a visual conversation about the collisions between modern art and dance in New York between 1930 and 1950 – a time when bon vivants, peripatetic painters, scandalous artistes, and boundary-pushing dancers expressed themselves in every manner possible.

He succeeds spectacularly. But the show isn’t laid out in a chronological manner like a history show. It’s more of a curated, free association experience that genuinely works.

Visitors encounter Whitney works that are almost never displayed, photos from the Kinsey Institute, works from the NYPL’s Jerome Robbins Division archive, ephemera from personal collections, and Nick’s own creations.

1928 dancer-inspired sculptures by Elie Nadelman stand in front of Nick’s mirrored mural.

Nick’s put a quartet of live dancers at the center of the swirl, encouraging and challenging visitors to explore clues surrounding them – private artistic photos, Diaghilev’s calling card, costume designs by Dorothea Tanning, a video of Balanchine in rehearsal.

As dancers quietly assume poses, visitors are left to move about and make their own connections. Do the dance poses echo the quiet Gaston Lachaise or Elie Nadelman sculptures, or the over-the-top expressions of NYC ballet superstars in Carl Van Vechten’s slide show splashed across the opposite wall?

Nick’s research unearthed an extraordinary wealth of information about relationships among artists, cross-currents of artistic influence, intimate social circles, and gay life. His idea was to inject a little more color to the American modern-art narrative.

One of 830 slides taken of American Ballet Theatre dancers by Carl Van Vechten, America’s first dance critic.

When the Whitney staff read the captivating associations that Nick uncovered as he selected objects for the installation, they decided that it was too rich to simply identify things in the traditional cut-and-dried museum label card format

The curators mounted Nick’s extraordinary background stories next to the artworks, photos, stage set mock-ups, and costume designs to let visitors get inside Nick’s head and share in his fun.

The stories – like the dance quartet – encourage visitors to connect their own knowledge about the origins of modern dance and modern art in New York with what they see and read:

What impact did modern dance pioneers Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis have on 1920s sculpture? How did a Ballet Russe-obsessed cultural impresario convince George Balanchine to start the New York City Ballet?

Reflected in Nick’s mirrored mural, a monitor shows videos of Balanchine rehearsing the New York City Ballet.

What was a sophisticated dance critic doing in his studio with props, costumes, Agnes de Mille, and stars of the New York ballet world?

The beauty of Nick’s installation is that people wandering about the space are able construct their own visual and mental narratives and understand the swirl of modernism from that time in a new way. Take a look at our Flickr album to view some of our favorite works in the show.

The choreographed piece was developed collaboratively by Nick and the dancers. The complete experience is poetic, revelatory, interactive, and constantly in motion.

The dancers perform from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and also on Friday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Here’s a short clip of the quartet of dancers performing in the gallery:

And another short clip of duets:

Norell Classics, Capelets, and Culottes at FIT

1965 sequined silk jersey mermaid dress by Norell owned by Lauren Bacall

When Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Jackie Kennedy entered a room wearing a daytime or evening ensemble by Norman Norell, you noticed them and not the clothes. Wearing Norell, you could always be assured you looked like perfection personified.

Considered to be the “American Balenciaga,” the Museum at FIT pays tribute to this master in its retrospective exhibition, Norell: Dean of American Fashion, on view through April 14.

The show emphasizes his signature elements – for example, dramatic capelets on everything from evening wear to outerwear, self-belted coats with closings inspired by kimono fastenings, sailor-suit bows, and sequined mermaid dresses where each tiny disc was applied by hand to the liquid silk jersey.

Details: bound buttonholes on the bolero jacket of 1968 evening gown

Norell’s key to success was that he injected couture details into what ladies could purchase off the rack at Bergdorf’s – silk interlining, bound buttonholes, bias-cut buckram interfacing inside hems.

Although he started designing costumes for Broadway shows and for Paramount at their Astoria silent-movie studios back in the 1920s, Norell’s design education really went into high gear in the 1930s working Hattie Carnegie.

When she brought back couture from the Paris shows, Norell pulled apart each dress, lining, and gown as if he were tapping into King Tut’s tomb, breaking down each outer layer until he understood what was inside.

Norell was inspired by the exacting techniques of the master couturiers – refining, adjusting, and experimenting how to build interior structures that appeared deceptively simple but remained rock-solid when a powerful, beautiful woman entered a room.

To see Norell’s colorful clothes in action, watch this fashion-show sequence from That Touch of Mink, a 1962 movie starring Doris Day.

Norell hit his stride in the Sixties as slimming styles, trapeze coats, clean lines, and understated classy details set the tone for elegance, ease, and active, modern women. A-list celebrities and stars snapped up his Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear at a time when the only other option for this kind of elegance was couture.

Elegant 1961 evening culottes, a Norell invention

He even invented culottes so that women would look good getting in and out of cars, whether they were on the go around town or exiting limos on the red carpet.

Since Norell’s name isn’t that well known today, Jeffrey Banks, co-curator of the exhibition, wanted to set the record straight. Norell was ahead of his time with color blocking and mixing sequins subtly with non-glam fabrics like wool jersey. And he was the first designer in America to have his own fragrance.

Listen as Jeffrey, Stan Herman, and Ralph Rucci testify to the pretty-much-perfect vision that Norell brought to American fashion.

If you can’t get to the show before it closes, see it here in FIT’s online exhibition. Take a look at the beautiful clothes in photos by FIT and our Flickr photo album.

And here’s a look back to our post on FIT’s past tribute to the style of Lauren Bacall, who donated her entire wardrobe, including her Norell pieces, to the Museum at FIT.

How William Wegman Turned His Dog Into a Conceptual Artist

Still from 1972 video “Man Ray, Do You Want To…” featuring Man Ray’s reaction to various questions

Sometimes losing a job is a good thing. Or at least that seems to be what happened to William Wegman, when his contract to teach in the art department didn’t get renewed by the University of Wisconsin – Madison back in 1970.

Like so many others Midwesterners, he packed up and moved to sunny Los Angeles, where the contemporary art scene was just starting to take off.

It ended up being a career-making move that he didn’t see coming.

Photo of 1971 performance-art piece by California artist John Baldassari, “Hands Framing New York Harbor, from Pier 18”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Before/On/After: William Wegman and California Conceptualism”, on view through July 15, harkens back to the three years that Wegman lived in SoCal, populated by other up-and-comers like Ed Ruscha, John Baldassari, David Salle, and Vija Celmins.

The Seventies-era Chicago, Madison, and California art scenes generally had more wit, whimsy, and lightheartedness than the super-serious East Coast art scene, which was showcasing droves of red-hot Conceptual and series artists from New York and Europe, such as Hanne Darboven, Lawence Weiner,  and the Belchers.

William Wegman recollecting his early California years in January 2018

At the time, New York gallery walls were full of framed mathematical series and formulas, endlessly rigorous permutations, semiotic variations, deconstructed analyses, and meticulously documented minimalist photo series. California was the antithesis, with artists poking gentle fun and creating works that were more pop-culture-oriented head-fakes.

By 1970, artists were experimenting with video for the first time, courtesy of Sony’s invention of the Portapak. It was grainy, but you could monitor what you were shooting as you were doing it.

When Wegman arrived in LA, he planned to continue his work, including making short, witty performance videos involving props and sets. But he had an unexpected problem: his wife’s insistence on getting a large dog in LA saddled him with babysitting Man Ray, a big, busy Weimaraner that continuously investigated the props in the studio and gave him spooky, soulful looks as he performed.

Wegman’s 1972 photo series where he tries to teach Man Ray about Conceptual Art practice

When Wegman decided to involve Man Ray in the set-ups and teach him about the serial nature of East-Coast conceptual art, the short videos became insightful and engaging. The first canine art-world star was born.

Although Wegman and Man Ray left California to move back East a few years later, the collaboration was a watershed moment in Wegman’s career.  Every New York and European gallery clamored to include works with Man Ray alongside Wegman’s other photos and performance videos.

1972 Wegman photo “Dull Knife/Sharp Knife”, referring both to the object and the viewer’s own mental acuity in deciphering art

The Met’s show, near the second-floor photography galleries, is a tribute to the fun, inquisitive nature of the Southern California art scene at this turning point in Wegman’s life and was created to honor a special gift: Wegman and Christine Burgin, his wife, donated 174 of these short videos to the Met, along with some of the California photographs and drawings.

To honor this bequest, the Met has created a small black-box theater inside the gallery, where everyone can delight to 99 minutes of less-than-two-minute videos featuring Man Ray and his owner, mostly from the early years.

It’s a chance to see what everyone saw at The Kitchen and Sonnebend when Soho was still an industrial neighborhood.

Still from 1972 video of Man Ray methodically investigating a biscuit trapped inside a glass bottle

The videos are all rough low-resolution snippets that seem to have several layers of meaning. In one, Man Ray propels a glass bottle around the floor of the studio in an effort to extract a biscuit that is trapped inside. In another, the camera stays tight on Man Ray’s face to record the subtle changes in expression as he silently responds to a series of Wegman’s questions, which all begin with “Man Ray, do you want to….?”

East Coast audiences for painstaking methodological investigation and serial word-art never had it so good! Man Ray was everyone’s favorite canine conceptual artist.

The rest of the show features books and photographs from the Met’s collection by Ed Ruscha, Baldessari, and other artists that Wegman knew when he was just starting out.

Still from 1972 video featuring William Wegman in his LA studio, where Man Ray became an art star

Take a look at all of the work in the exhibition on the Met’s website, which also includes stills from many of the videos in the show. Check out the photos on our Flickr site.

But spend some time on the second floor of the Met, enjoying the early work of a witty, shaggy, out-of-the-box artist and his clever, not-so-shaggy dog.

The Met — and Wegman’s black-box cinema — is open 7 days a week and until 9pm Friday and Saturday.

Club 57 Rejects at MoMA 35 Years Later

Music poster for Club 57

They didn’t fit in to any of the scenes back in the Eighties, but now they have their own show at MoMA in a basement club all their own – just like in the old days.

Entering Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through April 8, you’ll be required to find the right way downstairs, peek behind curtains, and lurk around corners where transgressive, challenging art is on display.

The show is a tribute to the ultimate DIY art scene in Alphabet City at a time in New York when things were just plain tough.

Housed in the basement of the Polish National Church on St. Mark’s Place, the misfits invited their friends to imagine and create performance art on a regular basis.

Klaus Nomi’s cape, from his 1978 New Wave Vaudeville finale

Although Danceteria and The Pyramid Club were contemporaneous music scenes, Club 57 was the place to create characters, imagine scenarios, revel in kitsch, celebrate “bad” art, and create performance art or a DIY film festival every night.

The kids – many classmates from School of the Visual Arts – created and handed out flyers to entice the adventurous to witness the uncensored experimentation.

It’s where Keith Haring, Joey Arias, Ann Magnuson (MoMA’s guest curator), and others spent their formative years dressing up, wigging out, and pushing boundaries.

The show displays ephemera from those years and experiments, from Klaus Nomi’s transparent cape (when he appeared as the closing act in New Wave Vaudeville in 1978) to Clayton Patterson’s flyers based on the latest in new technology in 1983, the color Xerox. See it, start to finish, in our Flickr album.

Kenny Scharf’s recreation of his 1979 Cosmic Closet

The installation is on two levels, but downstairs is where it’s all happening. Silkscreened posters by John Sex poke out of the dark. A secret hideaway reveals Kenny Scharf’s black-light psychedelia “Cosmic Closet.”

Hand-crafted calendars by Ann Magnuson illustrate the variety of activities that took place nightly – film screenings, performance, music, and lady wrestling.

Collaged and Xeroxed zines, drag performances with small casts of thousands, and graffiti art jolted life into a subculture struggling to make ends meet, live in a city clawing its way back from financial ruin and high crime, and trying to make sense of the mysterious illness that was plaguing the gay community.

Richard Hambleton’s 1983 Shadowman series

One person’s trash is another one’s art. And the reverse is true — Basquiat was busy sprinkling his moniker all over the decaying walls of the East Village, and Richard Hambleton’s epic Shadowman paintings were popping up in the neighborhood where you’d least expect them. The street and the art were in an ever-renewing cycle.

This immersive journey back in time is stupendous. Be sure to hang out in the basement to watch two or three of the videos from Club 57’s heyday.

For now, take a walk through the show with Frank Holliday, one of the founding members of Club 57.

Also, watch and listen to the artists recollect club experiences during MoMA’s opening night party.