The Met’s Deep Dive Under the Surface of Camp Fashion

2009 ensemble by Indian designer Manish Aurora.

The clothes are witty, glittery, and scandalous at the Met’s blockbuster fashion exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, on view through September 8, but make no mistake – the fun and frivolity are packaged (at least in the opening galleries of the exhibit) in a way that asks visitors to go deep beneath the surface and look at the three centuries of societal norms that provocateurs have shattered through style, clothes, and living large.

The kaleidoscope of outrageous fashion in the final gallery is the sensory payoff to the journey, but visitors who race through and don’t read the label copy in the first part of the show will have missed the point: the show is a chronology of how some brave (or rich) rule-breakers did things that have become stereotypes for gay and camp sensibilities and dress in the 21st century.

1998 ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier merging menswear with a woman’s 18th c. corseted gown.

The pose of male models inspiring Renaissance bronze statuary, the balletic inclinations of Versailles’ Sun King, the cross-dressing Brit couple whose families shunned them, and the proclivities and scandals of literary genius Oscar Wilde are used to tell the roots story of “camp” sensibility that went viral in Madonna’s Vogue, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Cardi B’s appearance in Mugler at this year’s Grammys.

To drive the point home, the curators have matched ancient treasures (Renaissance sketchbooks, Versailles costume sketches, and Wilde manuscripts from Oxford) with modern fashions by designers who spoof classical statuary (Westwood), out-do Versailles excess (Lagerfeld), and create dandies (YSL).

Peter Hujar’s 1975 photo of Sontag and her 1964 manuscript of “Notes on Camp.”

The beating heart of the show is the presentation of Susan Sontag’s 1964 listicle of “camp” sensibility. Her original marked-up manuscript is flanked by works and tributes by her fanboy Warhol.

Sontag and Andy hold court over a room filled with treasures of the Met’s collection that illustrate her definitions and classifications – Art Nouveau, 19th century Gothic sensation, 17th century court fashion, flapper dresses, Tiffany lamps, and wispy gowns created from all-over feathers. Dozens of divine objects are there to enjoy while listing to the stabbing rhythm of Sontag’s typewriter keys. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of her work that captivates visitors who diligently work their way around the room.

Judy Garland’s 1938 Ferragamo sandals and 2018 resort shoes by Alessandro Michele for Gucci.

A great approach is the “high camp” and “low camp” corridor, which illustrates designers’ unintentional icons of camp, paired with over-the-top takes and sartorial commentary.

Just compare Judy Garland’s Ferragamos with athletic-inspired Gucci resort shoes by Alessandro Michele, or Poiret’s 1912 touch of mink on an Asian-inspired evening ensemble with Mary Katrantzou’s blatant Orientalist snark in 2011.

An interesting curatorial decision: the celebrity fashion is not obviously identified – you have to “know” that it’s the Duke of Windsor’s evening suit, that the turban belonged to Carmen Miranda, or that the bejeweled Bob Mackie was worn by Cher.

Mugler’s 1995 Venus – an embroidered bodysuit + a velvet and satin dress.

Younger visitors have no trouble linking the vintage Mugler to Cardi B, but at least one young man pointed to a bejeweled suit and said, “That’s so reminiscent of Liberace” without realizing that the jacket had actually belonged to the iconic superstar.

The finale room is so packed with over-the-top couture and campy statement pieces that the IDs really don’t matter. It’s a Coney Island of camp with dozens of creations vying for your attention overhead, up and down, and in the middle of the room.

People wander every which way, trying to take it all in – a futile endeavor.  Even on the second, third, or fourth visit, you’ll find something you’ve never noticed before.

Fashions in the Camp Eye gallery, including Moschino’s TV Dinner dress.

The room is alive with color, quotes, cultural references, social statements, and an explosion of unconventional materials – Patrick Kelly channeling Josephine Baker’s banana dance, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino gown channeling Budweiser’s graphics, dresses that look like Tiffany jewelry pouches.  It’s over the top and all too much, which is the point.

Congratulations to the curators for presenting Wilde’s prison tome, De Profundis, on loan from the UK, and the vintage vogueing video that shows Pose fans the source material from the Harlem ballrooms.                                                                                 

Look at our favorites here. If you can’t get there, read the Met’s essays on each gallery, see their picks, and read the quotes on the walls.

Here’s the promo produced by the Met that explores answers to the question, “What is camp?”

And here’s a 2-minute look back to how this year’s celebrity invitees answered their invitation to the May gala. Bravo:

Raw Punk Graphics Kick It at MAD

The vibrant, irreverent, and rule-breaking cacophony of the London and downtown New York punk scenes is brought to life in the Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics, 1976 – 1986 exhibition, residing on two full floors of the Museum of Art and Design through August 18.

Being surrounded by black walls plastered with DIY flyers and silkscreened posters of famous acts in long-gone clubs brings back memories of prowling CBGBs in the 70s and 80s, leaning about the next great act playing in a hole-in-the-wall club from a screaming poster, and getting grimy from paging through cheap, low-budget music zines on newsprint.

1974 poster for Patti Smith’s six-night run at Max’s and Gary Panter’s logo on a 1978 poster for the LA electro-punk group Screamers

Looking around the room, you’ll see posters and flyers for Patti Smith at Max’s, Pere Ubu at Harrah’s, and an array of bands at Amsterdam’s Paradiso – some handmade, some barely drawn, and others that you’ll recollect as stand-out graphic signs of the times, like Gary Panter’s iconic logo for the Screamers.

In the center of the room, MAD has thoughtfully presented boxes of albums and turntables, allowing every visitor to experience the ultimate 1970s interactive music experience. Just flipping through the albums covers brings the excitement and wonder of this pre-Internet music era roaring back to life.

Cover of 1978 Punk Magazine Calendar designed by John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil

The show presents Andrew Krivine’s extensive collection of punk posters, buttons, and other stuff that he began as a teenager hanging out in his cousin’s punk shop Boy on the King’s Road in London. Fascinated by arresting designs and wild typography, his collection expanded beyond the DIY ethos of the early punk aesthetic to more thoughtfully designed creations by emerging graphic-design stars in the UK.

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

It’s easy to enjoy this show, which is not grouped by history or music styles; rather, it’s a celebration of the vast influences on graphic practice during the punk and New Wave era – newsprint, cut-and-paste collage, hand-crafted designs with rub-off Letraset letters, and high-art references to Russian Constructivist, Bauhaus, and Pop Art masters.

1979 album cover by Jill Mumford

Listening in to conversations among rapt visitors in the busy gallery provides additional reference to anyone too young to have lived through this era in New York. Music connoisseurs will point toward a poster and inform anyone listening, “That’s more ‘New Wave’ than ‘punk’…I don’t know why this is all on the same wall.”

But everyone is having a grand time seeing images, hearing the bands’ music, and watching film footage of this rebellious period that left its mark on music, fashion, and culture at large.

1977 poster by Jamie Reid and David Jacobs

The Sex Pistols, who started it all in 1976, are well represented in the show. John (“Johnny Rotten”) Lydon, who spoke at the opening, reflected back on the days when rule-breaking start-ups like his had no advance men, no tour promoters, no corporate backers, and created all their own posters, graphics, and flyers.

Forty years ago, he reminded, there were no computers or Google searches, so you had to be able to hand-stencil and hand-draw everything yourself.  “I went to the library and learned how to draw and paint and read,” he added, “and best of all, the library was free!”

1978 record cover by Laurie Rae Chamberlain using Xerox images

By the time bands from this era “grew up” and moved toward world tours and more commercial success, innovative graphic artists were tapped to create thought-provoking, stand-out work – Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Tibor Kalman, and Barney Bubbles all have multiple works in the show.

Be sure to hang out and enjoy the raw energy bursting forth in the clips from the 16mm documentary “The Blank Generation,” featuring live 1976 club performances by the downtown legends who defined New York punk.

Jarring type and photo defacement on edgy 1983 Talking Heads poster

 Thanks to MAD and Andrew Krivine, who let Cranbrook Art Museum curator Andrew Blauvelt bring his collection to life for an appreciative audience.

Beer Makes Pots Sing at Met Breuer

Vessels from a range of eras, wired to amplify their ambient tone

Take 5,000 years of ceramic vessels from the Met’s collection, give them to art-installation genius Oliver Beer, and he’ll create something that will never let you think about fired clay or cast bronze the same way again.

Beer has unleashed the “voices” of 32 precious objects in the beautiful, unforgettable installation Oliver Beer: Vessel Orchestra, in a fifth-floor showcase at the Met Breuer through August 11.

Beer recognized that ceramic and metal containers each have their own distinctive ambient note. It took him three years of searching through the Met’s collection to find which vessels among thousands could emit precise notes.

Oliver Beer at the mixing board and keyboards, demonstrating how the voices of the vessels are activated.

When you enter the Met Breuer gallery, you’ll meet his perfect cast. Beer has a sound mixer and keyboard to activate and amplify different combinations of sound from the 32 installation stars. A single microphone captures the natural, ambient sound of each vessel.

After spending decades on the Met’s shelves and in storage, each vessel’s distinctive voice is brought life in contemporary performance. As Beer and other artists play the keyboard, objects created in different eras and cultures blend their singular voices. They sound perfect.

Met LiveArts has invited guest artists to perform on Friday nights throughout the run of the show. When we were there, Helga Davis, a soloist who has triumphed in avant-garde operas like Einstein on the Beach, explained why she found the sensation so satisfying.

Vocalist Helga Davis

She said that she loved feeling her own voice “disappear” when the note she sang blended with a vessel’s own singular note. Listen in on our video clip.

Recently, the Brooklyn Raga Massive collaborated with the vessels in live performance to create a meditative, transcendental experience. Upcoming collaborators include composers Nico Muhly (August 4) and John Zorn and company (August 9).

Vessels in the orchestra — Qing Dynasty porcelain vase (1644-1911) and the back of one of Betty Woodman’s 2003 series The Ming Sisters.

When live performers are not present, Beer has programmed the keyboard to activate his ensemble. A little light on the cord running to each vessel illuminates when the vessel is singing, so viewers can see exactly who’s contributing to the ambiance at any given moment.

The vessels are quite an elegant crew, including a sinuous art nouveau porcelain, a sleek modern bronze portraits by Lachaise, and a monumental angular slab pot by American master William Daley.

Visually, the vessel presentation is clever. Betty Woodman’s whimsical 2003 ceramic trio The Ming Sisters knocks a bit of seriousness off their otherwise tightly controlled neighbor — turquoise-and-gold Qing Dynasty porcelain masterwork.

Vessels wired to amplify their ambient tone, including a female effigy (7th – 6th c. B.C.), Beatrice Wood’s fish, an Iranian storage jar (3800 – 3700 B.C.), and a Canaanite jar (1500 – 1400 B.C.).

And Beatrice Wood’s 1947 fish pot is swimming, singing, and bringing the fun out of a totally ancient threesome – an old, tipped-over Canaanite jar, an ibex wandering across a 4th millennium B.C. Iranian pot, and a 7th century B.C. lady.

Some things that look ancient aren’t. A simple, unassuming, unembellished creation seems to have been made at a more primitive, far-away time. But it’s a 1975 stoneware pot created by artist Juan Hamilton, Ms. O’Keefe’s friend and assistant, who taught her how to make pots in her later years at Ghost Ranch.

There’s so much to hear and see in this show, so be sure to experience this extraordinary ensemble before August 11. See close-ups of some of our favorite Met singers on Flickr.

Here, the engaging and brilliant Oliver Beer explains how it all comes together:

Bigger Field of Vision in Sixties Color Painting

Color Field: Fritz Scholder’s 1965 oil New Mexico Number 21 in the MoCNA show

When curators from two different museums in two parts of the country wanted to tell new stories about paintings from their collections, both chose to look at big, bold colorful work done by known and less-well-known artists in the Sixties and Seventies.

The Whitney Museum of American art created Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s, which is on view through August 18, to showcase new acquisitions that tell a more complete story about painters using splatters, drips, and jazzy figures with in-your-face colors.

The AIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe created Action/Abstraction Redefined, on view through July 7, to highlight the way young Native American painters – some of whom went on to have major art careers – channeled the zeitgeist of the East-Coast gallery scene into something with which they could make a personal mark.

Sam Gilliam’s 1968 pored-paint, draped canvas at The Whitney

The curators at both institutions were thinking along similar lines.

Although Spilling Over features Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and other icons of the wall-sized color painting movement sweeping through New York galleries in the Sixties, the curators wanted to make sure that the public understood that there were female, Native American, and African-American color painters experimenting with these trends, too.

The Whitney has given Sam Gilliam’s draped and splattered canvas a place of honor at the end of the two-gallery vista. He was one of the few African-American artists to gain coverage in Artforum back in the day, but is largely unknown to younger art-going audiences.

At the opposite end of the space, the curators showcase an electrifying neon canvas by Alan Loving, the first African-American to have a solo show at the Whitney in the late Sixties.

1970 acrylic by Alan Loving, the first African-American given a solo show at the Whitney

Color-figure work by Cherokee artist Kay Walking Stick is featured alongside other painters like Harlem’s Edith Amos and Alex Katz, who slathered color across figurative canvases. It’s all about introducing art-lovers to new faces in the canon of American Art.

While women and artists of color were trying to get their work on the walls of New York museums and galleries, up-and-coming Native American abstractionists were waging a different type of battle for acceptance – a struggle that led to the birth of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in the early Sixties.

Hard-edged 1968 acrylic by Hopi/Pima artist Frances Makil, incorporating cultural motifs in the MoCNA show

Contemporary abstract work by Native American Modernists in the late 1950s was typically rejected from competitive and museum-curated art shows. Juries and curators were clearly biased toward traditional forms of expression, and young innovators bristled at being told to “stay in their place.”

When the Institute of American Indian Arts opened in 1962, the next generation seized the opportunity to put their mark on what was setting the art market on fire – big, expressive abstraction; atmospheric color field works; and geometry.

These works, some of which were accessed into MoCNA from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tell quite a compelling story about early-stage experimentation and the opportunity that the arts-education initiative provided to emerging artists out West. The years spent making work at IAIA gave a kick-start to careers of some of the best-known native artists today – T.C. Cannon, Fritz Scholder, and George Morrison. Judge by the results you see here.

Gesture and expression: 1965 pastel by Hopi/Choctaw artist Linda Lomahaftewa

The MoCNA curators also wanted to make space for women in their exhibition, too, such as Frances Makil. The 1965 pastel by Hopi/Choctaw artist Linda Lomahaftewa uses the artist’s own culture as inspiration, but the lines and spirals echo some of the Whitney’s own abstract, meditative canvases by Lee Krasner, who also drew energy from spirit worlds.

Both shows open the doors to new faces to widen the conversation about color-painting history, and these paintings all have a lot to say.

Listen to Whitney curator David Breslin and artists explain how a collection show can reframe conventional art history, and learn more about the artists in the audio tour here:

When the Avant-Garde Took over Corporate Branding

Entrance to the show at Bard Graduate Gallery

With the world turned upside down by World War I, artists in the European avant-garde eagerly embraced new ways of looking, thinking, and creating.

Museum-goers are familiar with the innovative edge that Constructivism and Bauhaus thinking brought to painting and architecture, but few realize it extended so directly into corporate identity and industrial sales in those post-war years.

Bard Graduate Center tells this previously untold story through a young man’s collection who was at the center of it all in its exhibition, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography: Graphic Design Between the World Wars, on display through July 7.

Cover of 1923 Bauhaus exhibition catalog by Herbert Bayer. Courtesy: MoMA.

Recent grad Jan Tschichold, a talented young typeface designer calligrapher steeped in the art of fifteenth-century letterforms, took a quick trip to the Bauhaus in 1923 and was blown away by what he saw coming out of the print shop and the minds of artists at the interdisciplinary hothouse.

Being a works-on-paper kind of guy, Jan was entranced by the book designs and letterheads – modern san serif letters, asymmetrical page layouts, and letters used as design elements on the page. In particular, he saw an essay by Moholy-Nagy that coined the term “new typography”.

El Lissitzky’s 1920 children’s book About Two Squares, which teaches post-revolutionary ideals through interactions of abstract shapes. Courtesy: MoMA.

These rule-based design principles clearly appealed to him, and Jan soon began corresponding, organizing, sharing, and exhibiting with an energetic network of innovators like Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky. Starting in 1925, Jan was the most vocal proponent of this “new typography.”

“Graphic design” was starting to become a “thing” and Jan found himself in the center of it. Jan began collecting anything with asymmetrical layouts, eye-catching photo-montages, and letters running wild — postcards, catalogues, book designs, business cards, brochures, promotional catalogs, and posters.

By 1928, Jan had seen and designed so much ground-breaking work that he decided to write a book that would summarize how any graphic-arts practitioner could blow up past conventions of graphic design, letters, and photography and repurpose them for industries and pop culture.

Title page of Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book, “The New Typgraphy,” which had essays by Moholy-Nagy, Dexel, and others.

Jan’s book, Typographische Gestaltung, went viral among the 80,000 members of the German print workers union, showing everyone how to juice up advertising layouts, movie posters, and industrial brochure designs in a more modern way.

German industries were just beginning to make a comeback after the war. Brochures about pumps, valves, and machinery all had a modern twist that created an identity for corporations to make a comeback. Inexpensive designs on paper — what a way to make a statement! What a way to glamorize and sell ergonomic chairs, new motorcycle engines, lathes, and metal parts!

“Dwelling and Workplace” poster – an event identity campaign by Johannes Molzhan for the 1929 exhibition by Deutscher Werkbund, the German design association. Courtesy: MoMA

Curator Paul Stirton’s show shines a spotlight on this early move toward modern corporate branding, identity, industrial brochures, and the day-to-day business of simply selling things. Just like today, even avant-garde designers had to make a living!

One of our favorites is Dadaist-in-chief Kurt Schwitters’ marketing brochure to explain his design agency’s services for corporate logos, brochures, and and other types of design.

Eventually, Hungarian and Czech designers started adopting what Jan was advocating. His influence largely bypassed the United States and the English-speaking world (except by osmosis), since it took decades for his book to be translated into English.

1930 marketing brochure by Kurt Schwitters to potential corporate clients. Courtesy: MoMA

Perhaps one of the most intriguing features of this show is that nearly everything on display is from Jan’s own collection, which is labeled as in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. But ironically, much of the corporate marketing stuff on display here (and seen for the first time!) almost didn’t survive.

Jan amassed acres of his colleagues’ work in the Twenties, but had to leave the majority of his collection behind when he fled Germany in the run-up to World War II and ultimately landed in the United States.

Strapped for cash, Jan happily sold his poster collection to MoMA in the 1930s, but in the 1950s, MoMA said no to the rest of Jan’s remaining collection. Who needed that much work on paper from the Twenties when you were collecting wall-sized post-war American abstraction?

Jan Tschichold’s 1927 movie poster “The Woman Without a Name,” for Berlin’s Pheobus-Palast.

When Philip Johnson heard that MoMA refused to take Jan’s letters, catalogs, books, postcards, and other ephemera from Europe’s greats, he tracked down the California bookseller who acquired it, paid $350 for 800 pieces, and donated it to MoMA.

So, although MoMA’s closed for the summer, you can still see a capsule collection by a 20th century innovator that’s never been displayed as a whole before.

Take a look at our favorites on Flickr and watch the curator’s talk here.

MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors that turned the corner and entered the gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

New York Says Good-bye to Basquiat

Grid of 1982 works on the second floor

The toughest ticket in town for several months has been the free admission ticket to view the superb Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the new Brant Foundation art study center in the East Village, on view through May 15.

Since few have been lucky enough to get in the door, we’re giving you a peek inside through our Flickr album, featuring some of our favorite works on all four floors of the renovated space along East Sixth Street.

The show features over sixty of Basquiat’s works, primarily from 1981-1982. The paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created just after Basquiat stopped spray-painting building surfaces and doorways. It was a rough-and-ready time in the East Village, nearly a decade before the neighborhood became immortalized in the first draft of Rent.

1982 acrylic Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump

Basquiat became known to downtown New Yorkers by signing his ubiquitous graffiti with “SAMO”.  Although he dropped that signature in 1979, he never truly put away his spray can, shifting instead a more gestural mix of spray paint, crayons, and acrylics on wood panels and canvases that display his painterly genius, urban smarts, and social commentary.

The wide galleries and large, airy windows of the gallery space contrast to the voice and vision screaming out from every large work on the wall.

Section of 1981 oilstick and acrylic Per Capita

Many skulls, spirits, pop references, classical allusions, punky lettering, and gestural color are from 1981, the same year Basquiat had his first solo show in Modena, Italy. Per Capita brilliantly mixes sports, race, and economics with messy, riotous references to a deified African-American Olympic boxing legend and scratchy, handwritten national income statistics.

Basquiat’s 1982 work continues in the same vein – the year he was included in a prestigious solo show in glamorous Soho back home. The exhibition includes – but does not identify – the famous 1982 Basquiat skull painting acquired in 2017 by Yusaku Maezawa for $110 million, which was the subject of a one-painting show last year by the Brooklyn Museum.

1982 Dos Cabezas from a private collection.

The second floor displays a high-rise grid of Basquiat’s work from 1982, including a double portrait of himself and Andy.

Witnessing the scale and scope of this output by this 21-year-old genius is astonishing…just a fraction of the thousands of works he created before expiring just six years later.

Several later works are included. Two spectacular works from 1984 are Gold Griot, a magical man-spirit painted on a massive slatted wood panel, and Grillo, an elaborate three-dimensional installation on loan from the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which co-sponsored this exhibition.

Detail from 1987 Unbreakable, loaned from a private collection.

Unbreakable from 1987 finishes up the show just before you exit through the back door beyond the gift shop, walk between the ancient buildings, and emerge onto East Seventh Street.

Enjoy walking through the show here.

The Long Run at MoMA

Frank Stella’s 1984 mixed media painting

Is it a premonition of what we will see when the Museum of Modern Art reinstalls its massive collection later this year?

The Long Run, on display through May 5, is an epic recasting of the galleries normally used to display contemporary and recent the most recent chronology of Modernist works. MoMA’s curators disrupted the chronology by pulling unseen works from storage and using them to show what artists with relatively long careers (think O’Keeffe, Rosenquist, Stella) were producing later in life.

1980-1989 wire sculpture by Lee Bontecou

The work is spectacular and compelling – wire “drawings” suspended from the ceiling (Gego and Bontecou), engaging installations (Fischl & Weiss and Joan Jonas), wall-size paintings and drawings (Joan Mitchell and Robert Morris), and personal meditations (Brătescu and Martin).

Walk through the show on our Flickr album.

The beauty of the show is that MoMA has mixed famous with not-so-famous geniuses and selected works that exemplify how artists switched it up mid- to late-career.

1975 self-portrait by Philip Guston

It seems that many successful artists feel compelled to take a new tack somewhere along the line. They just rethink their desire to crank out the same old thing.

A few examples that this show demonstrates: Guston left pure, pretty abstraction for biting, messy satire of himself and society. Agnes Martin left the gritty Seaport district amidst the junk-as-art era and began creating spiritual masterworks in Taos. Stella abandoned minimalism to maximal, wild impact.

Some galleries have loose themes — urban landscapes (Oldenburg monuments, O’Keeffe monoliths) and mixed media “found” art (linking 1930s Kurt Schwitters and 1980s David Hammons). But mostly visitors enter each white space confronted by works they’ve never seen before.

1999-2000 installation Things from the Room in the Back by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Most visitors are confounded by the Fischli & Weiss installation.  Many wonder whether it is a place inside the museum that’s under construction, because it appears to be scattered plaster buckets and paint pans. It’s actually a witty “fool the eye” sculpture that the team hand-crafted from polyurethane.

One of the most magical experiences is the Joan Jonas installation with twinkling crystals, sparkling facets, and mystical mountains – a poetic experience reflecting her lifetime of exploration, collaboration, media experimentation, and life work.

If you have the time, watch this video of the seminar about this amazing show and the longevity of the creative drive:

Remember: MoMA will be closed for three months from June 15 to October 21 for the reinstallation of the museum.

2010-2013 Joan Jonas video and crystal sculpture installation Reanimation

Hilma af Klint and Innovations in Large-scale Abstractionist Art

“Adulthood,” from Group IV, the Ten Largest on stages of life,  developed in 1907 via mystical revelations during sceances.

Over a decade before Kandinsky and Malevich discovered the transcendence of non-objective painting, a spiritual thinker in Sweden was creating hundreds of giant abstract canvases, automatic drawings inspired by biomorphic shapes, and a series of squares that predated Albers by half a century.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, the Guggenheim’s surprise blockbuster running through April 23, introduced the world to the glorious visions of a woman who believed that spirits were guiding her to create a temple laden with images that explored transcendentalism.

Armed with the best painterly education, Hilma soon abandoned her impressionist landscape leanings of the 1880s and by 1906, dedicated her life to channeling spiritual thought through references to biology, evolution, planetary discoveries, radio waves, and other scientific forms that were invisible to the eye.

1915 painting from Group IX/UV, The Dove, depicting planetary and astrological symbols

She began by creating large works representing big thoughts that she claimed were channeled to her by spirits via seances, but later developed a more personal style.

Take a look at Hilma’s work on our Flickr album. And listen to the audio tour of the show here.

And hear what the Guggenheim has to say about this remarkable, innovative, and otherwise unknown painter:

Photo-Science Pioneer Atkins Debuts Work in New York

Plate from Anna Atkins’ 1849-1850 Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

The New York literary and art world have spoken: nearly 150 years after photography pioneer Anna Atkins faded into obscurity, her work is receiving the tribute it deserves in the NYPL’s Wachenheim Gallery off Fifth Avenue – gorgeous, hand-crafted compositions of ephemeral marine flora in hand-stitched volumes, using a untested, new technology.

Volumes of Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1849-1850

Blue Prints: The Pioneering Photographs of Anna Atkins, on display through February 17, is a show that has it all – an artistic first, a publishing breakthrough, Victorian time travel back to Darwin’s day, and a resurrection story of a visionary woman rescued from history’s dustbin. Although this innovator was born in 1799, it’s the first full full-blown retrospective of her work.

The show centers on the achievements of a female amateur botanist, who came up with an ingenious method to use one of the latest technology breakthroughs to transform her specimen collection of British algae into the world’s first book illustrated entirely through photographs. It’s also the first scientific book illustrated that way.

In a day where smartphones have made image taking (and making) ubiquitous, Anna’s show takes you back to the time before photographs, where meticulously observed drawings, sketches, and a watercolor box were the only means available to record the floral wonders of the world.

Anna’s 1823 spondylus shell illustrations

As a talented young artist, her scientist father commissioned her to illustrate his translations of Lamarck.

In 1842, Anna heard about a family friend’s accidental discovery of cyanotypes – basically blueprint technique – and she had a brainstorm. Instead of making drawings of plants that would require tedious hours of replications by hand, maybe the new technique could let the sun do the work.

She treated paper with a mix of chemicals, arranged her botanical specimens on top, and exposed it to the sun.

1860s printing frame with prepared cyanotype paper and specimen

The photographic impressions were incredible – detailed and beautiful. The task of documenting her collection of complex, seaside plants now didn’t seem so overwhelming.

Although this is a tiny show, the gallery experience delivers quite an aesthetic impact  – rows of rare prints in blazing blue, delicate images of marine plants that compel close study, and exquisite hand-stitched bindings on multiple volumes, lovingly created for family and friends. It’s a maker tour de force.

In her day, Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was considered a triumph of technology, art, and science.

From an artistic perspective, you simply can’t stop admiring Anna’s work. Seaside stuff simply never looked this good. Take a look at our Flickr album.

Volume III of Anna Atkins’ 1853 publication

Most of the gorgeous books and artworks in the show have been acquired by NYPL. The curators have added a range of other items to put Anna’s achievement in context – early herbariums, Anna’s own watercolors, a frame used for making cyanotypes, and Henry Talbot Fox’s first book promoting all the ways that his “photographic drawing” invention could be applied.

To drive the last point home, the curators included a 1839 magazine that wrote about Talbot’s invention. But upon closer inspection, there’s something quite curious: No one had yet figured out how to use photographs as publication illustrations, so the magazine commissioned a woodcut to replicate what a “photographic drawing” looked like!!

Album of 74 artistic cyanotypes created in 1861 by Anna Atkins and her friend, Anne Dixon

Anna’s cyanotype techniques allow her pages to still dazzle 175 years after they were made, compared to other early photo techniques whose images have faded and remain barely visible to the modern eye.

Later in life, Anna collaborated with her childhood friend on artistic arrangements of botanical specimens that went way beyond algae.

The show is dazzling and should serve as an inspiration to anyone with a passion, a collection, and the creativity and drive to take a personal project and see it through to the end.

Walk through the show with our Flickr album.