Whitney Biennial Takes America’s Pulse in New Home

Larry Bell’s Pacific Red II

Moving into a new home often gives a new perspective on life, and it’s true of this year’s Whitney Biennial. The open, flexible spaces allowed significantly more creativity above the High Line than at the old confines of the Madison Avenue building — Larry Bell’s 2017 “Pacific Red II” installation lording it over The Standard, Asad Raza’s 26-tree installation with the skyline beyond, Cauleen Smith’s banners in the daylight downstairs, and light streaming through the faux “stained glass” window by Raul de Nieves.

Yes, interior spaces are filled with concept art, video installations, slide shows, and paintings, but the glimpses of light and sky serve like punctuation breaks from the sometimes-intense experiences about race, society, rising personal debt (even for artists!), and a throw-away cuture.

Caretaker explains growing trees for Asad Raza’s Root sequence, Mother tongue

The word on the street is that this is one of the most enjoyable Biennials in the show’s history, which is not to say that the curators have avoided challenging work. They haven’t.

Tension…disorientation…protest are all there in reflections on today’s social issues, censorship, social memory, marginalization of populations, and obsessions over the role that too-much-digitalization plays in our hectic lives.

But there are aspirational pieces, too – hopefulness, sincerity, and healing.

Classroom inside the Whitney by Chemi Rosado-Seijo

Think about the (concept art) school set up inside the Whitney. It’s the idea of Puerto Rican artist and educator Chemi Rosado-Seijo, who tried the same displacement between school and museum in his hometown – an experiment that the kids there are still talking about. For the Biennial, Chemi arranged for Lower Manhattan Arts Academy high school students come to the Whitney for classes one day a week; in exchange, work by Whitney artists is moved to the school.

Take a look at our Flickr album, which includes photos of Chemi and some of the other artists from the press preview.

The Whitney has done a spectacular job of documenting all the artists, their statements, and work on their website.

The museum has produced a beautiful testament to this year’s survey. Take a look and witness art history. Seventy-eight years and going strong:

For Royals Who Have Everything

Intricately carved boxwood rosary owned by King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, 1509-1526

What do you get royals who have everything? If you lived in the early 16th century in Europe, you get a Netherlandish woodcarver to create an amazing, theatrical scene inside a prayer bead or a letter of the alphabet. Fifty amazing treasures from Europe are currently on display at the Met’s Cloisters in the exhibition Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures, closing May 21.

The artists worked on a microscopic scale and packed enough figures into a tiny space that you’d think you were seeing a replication of the finale to a grand opera – main characters, side stories, worlds within worlds.

If you owned one, you’d receive an exquisitely carved boxwood bead that opened to reveal a dramatic scene (usually Biblical), a protective case, and a leather-lined velvet pouch. If you had something like a boxwood altarpiece for your private chapel, the whole thing would fit into a custom-fitted custom case in case you wanted to transport it to your country castle.

You can take it with you; from the Rijksmuseum

Right as you enter the lower-level gallery at the Cloisters, you encounter the largest object in the show, a rosary with 12 immaculately carved multi-sided beads that was owned by Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. The theme was the Apostle’s Creed, with each bead telling the story of one of the first apostles – obviously received by the newlyweds before their historic split, which created the Church of England.

The stories behind the fascinating works cannot hold a match to the wonder of seeing these masterpieces in person. One of J.P. Morgan’s donations to the Cloisters – a single bead that reveals layers and layers of figurative sculptures – is always a highlight. It’s incredible that the Cloisters and its partners pulled together some of the best boxwood carvings in the world.

Take a look at the Met’s photo archive, where their high-res digital wizardry allows you to enlarge the photo on your screen to see all of the fine, intricate, tiny detail. Each one of the nearly 50 objects. Also, take a look at our Flickr album of the show.

Letter P opens to reveal the legend of Saint Philip, 1500-1506

Click on the link below to see the video that shows how these incredible small worlds were made: http://players.brightcove.net/911432378001/SkBUku4V_default/index.html?videoId=5249656214001.

Fast Forward to the Eighties at The Whitney

Kenny Scharf’s When the Worlds Collide, 1984, atop Keith Haring Pop Shop design

When the elevator doors open at the Whitney, you almost feel blown back by Kenny Scharf’s super-sized painting hanging atop Keith Haring’s busy black-and-white wall. So much action, color, and crazy coming right at you.

In the Whitney’s tribute to a decade of no-holes-barred life at full tilt, Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s, closing May 14, the oversized, in-your-face welcome seems right.

For painters entering the world of the punked and burned-out East Village scene in the 1980s, their medium – paint on canvas — was supposed to be dead, eclipsed by performance, ephemeral, and trash-assemblage art. As this show demonstrates, painting indeed lived.

Close-up of Keith Haring felt-tip marker drawing on synthetic leather

What’s a curator to do with a vast archive of stuff that the Whitney collected in the Eighties? A brilliant solution: Give the superstars (Basquiat, Scharf, and Haring) top billing at the entrance and pull audiences back into the galleries that illuminate three themes – the heroic, the personal journey, and the abstract.

First, the mega-famous: Basquiat’s LNAPRK is a selfie-magnet, but the surprise is Haring’s felt-tipped-marker-inscribed synthetic leather hide. The Whitney snapped it up when they saw it mounted it in an early Eighties downtown gallery, and it hasn’t seen the light of day since. It’s everything that everyone loves about Keith – whimsical, meticulous, imaginative, mesmerizing, hand-drawn line interlocked with social commentary. How did he do it?

Close up of brushwork on Julien Schnabel’s 1982 velvet on velvet painting, Hope

Monumental history-painting-sized canvases by Golub, Fischl, and Schnabel dominate one gallery. Troubling topics are portrayed at a scale typically reserved for the Louvre. Getting up close to the Schnabel, however, reveals his sheer joy of paint, colorful swaths of brushwork swooshing across lush blue velvet. They could only have been painted with broad, heroic strokes. Painting, even in the rapidly transforming Soho, was not dead.

Salon-sized paintings and drawings dot the wall in the second gallery, evoking the roaring East Village art scene of the Eighties. Larger works hang on the surrounding walls, all personal narratives with a smattering of pop culture – a series evoking the troubles of Elizabeth Taylor, the internal journeys of Jonathan Borofsky, and the cultural conundrums that fueled crash-and-burn work by David Wojarowicz.

Detail of Moira Dryer’s 1988 Portrait of a Fingerprint

Abstraction rules the third gallery, personal and grand – the thick impasto of bio-inspired works by Terry Winters, Susan Rothenberg’s painterly eminences, and Moira Dryer’s fingerprint abstractions.

For more about the painters’ personal journeys, listen in on the audio tour of this satisfying trip back in time. To see the brushwork, go up close on our Flickr site.

Mark Leckey Mixes It Up at MoMA PS1

Mark Leckey’s 2013 Felix the Cat, a tribute to TV’s first celebrity.

Mark Leckey’s 2013 Felix the Cat, a tribute to TV’s first celebrity.

It’s the last weekend to take a walk through the output of the creative mind of an award-winning British artist MoMA PS1, which has dedicated its top two floors of the schoolhouse to Mark Leckey: Containers and Their Drivers. Film assemblages, appropriated pop images, and funky juxtapositions are served up to everyone plucky enough to climb the stairs and peek around corners.

Visitors take an eclectic journey through a labyrinth of video galleries, movie rooms, and installations. The highlight is his 1999 breakthrough film about UK trance-dance culture, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, using found footage.

Several small rooms include meditations on RCA’s first TV transmission in 1928 using a Felix the Cat. For added punch, Leckey adds his own inflatable oversize Felix to the gallery.

Mark Leckey’s 2001-2001 Sound System sculptures, which communicate all on their own

Mark Leckey’s 2001-2001 Sound System sculptures, which communicate all on their own

The intimate viewing experience is punctuated by large-scale installations of provocative work that asks visitors to reconsider their experience of everyday objects.

One major room contains towers of low-range, mid-range and high-range frequency speakers that emit tweets and signs, programmed to converse. Their range of sounds make one recollect times in Leckey’s early career, when he used his speaker-towers in showdowns with other large, inert behemoths, such as gigantic quarry rocks or Henry Moore sculptures. Visitors slow down to get close to the structures and wait for them to speak.

Installation view of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (Machine), with costume, Lego ship, copy of a 1959 Soviet space dog suit

Installation view of The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things (Machine), with costume, Lego ship, copy of a 1959 Soviet space dog suit

Other large-scale installations are from Leckey’s recent project to “collect” interesting art and artifacts inside his computer, assemble them into virtual installations, and then reproduce it all in 3D. Leckey’s multi-part project, The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, is depicted in the Flickr album here. The objects are carefully placed but it takes a (literal) scorecard in the gallery to discern what you’re seeing – a copy of a work by another young artist, an engineering model, or fantastical emanation of Leckey’s own mind.

The two ends of a mysterious, dark gallery with fluorescent painted figures are anchored by archeological fragments of the mythological past, except that the fragments are 3D-printed copies.

Traversing one floor, sounds emanate from Leckey’s 2010 green room/shrine. Enter to find a large fluorescent fixture above, a quiet crowd just taking it all in, and the focal point — a talking Samsung smart refrigerator that steals the show. The refrigerator holds court, surrounded by fantasy videos of itself hurtling through time and the cosmos.

Check out Leckey’s 2010 video of the GreenScreenRefrigerator to hear what’s inside the mind of his smart appliance and contemplate a future dominated by the Internet of Things.

Stuart Davis: Way Before Pollack and Warhol

Little Giant Still Life (1950), which predates Pop Art. Collection: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Little Giant Still Life (1950), which predates Pop Art. Collection: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Jazzy colors and Pop Art fun are run amok in the joyful Americana tribute Stuart Davis: In Full Swing at the Whitney Museum of American Art through this weekend. The Whitney curators have 75 of his best, extending back to the Edison lightbulb years, but mostly from Davis’s post-1950s output.

You’d never know from the flat-out modernity that this Whitney favorite had his start in the Armory Show era in New York at a time when The Eight (Ash Can School) still ruled. In fact, at 21, he was the youngest painter to exhibit in the Armory Show, encouraged by his teacher, Robert Henri, who impressed him with the need to depict everyday life in his art.

1924 painting of electric bulb and package. Collection: Dallas Museum of Art

Electric Bulb (1924) with package. Collection: Dallas Museum of Art

But the exposure to the European avant-garde was profound. As you walk through the gallery, you see and feel his exhilaration about how the European upstarts were shaking things up.

Picasso and Matisse inspired Davis to start depicting everyday objects with a flattened, multiview twist. He used packages of Lucky Strikes, Edison lighbulbs, and eggbeaters instead of absinthe glasses, interpreting them on funnily upturned tabletops.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney in 1931, was a fan. She included his work in a group show in 1915, welcomed him into the Whitney Club in 1918 (alongside Edward Hopper and Mr. Prendergast) and facilitated the talented Davis’s sojourn to Paris ten years later.

When he returned to New York, he repaid Gertrude in paintings – just the beginning of The Whitney’s portfolio of his work. Captivated by the magic of movies, the birth of radio, and air travel, technology seemed to be transforming America.

 House and Street (1931) with two simultaneous views of Lower Manhattan.

House and Street (1931) with two simultaneous views of Lower Manhattan.

He went on to experiment with simultaneous city views, jamming the Third Avenue El into corners of lower Manhattan where it really didn’t belong. All was fair in the jazzy, roaring New York Twenties.

Stuart struggled financially through the Depression, but not artistically. Inspired by improvisational riffs in jazz, he created canvases using line as music, twisting real objects and landscapes into primary-color layerings that remained flat as a pancake.

Twisting and turning ribbons of color pre-dated Mr. Pollack’s all-over style by at least a decade. The centerpiece of the show is an all-over mural, “Swing Landscape”, that twists Gloucester fishing schooner masts into a kind of “Broadway Boogie-Woogie”. This flat-style masterpiece was way too energetic for the WPA Art Project, which declined to hang it in the subsidized Williamsburg apartment complex for which it was intended. Thankfully, it’s in the place of honor here.

Swing Landscape (1938), a mural commission for the WPA Federal Art Project. Collection: Indiana University

Swing Landscape (1938), a mural commission for the WPA Federal Art Project. Collection: Indiana University

When he saw Matisse’s big-size cut-outs in 1949, Davis was inspired return to his roots. He focused on unexciting, everyday objects but added brand names and super-sized everything. Way before Warhol, Davis was doing improvisations with Champion sparkplugs and matchbook covers, toying with color, gray, and repetition.

Did Davis pave the way for Pollack’s all-over approach and totally branded pop-art masters of the late 20th century? Take a walk through the Whitney, admire the output of one of Gertrude’s favorites, and decide for yourself.

The Paris Bit (1959), a retro Twenties Leger riff. Collection: The Whitney

The Paris Bit (1959), Davis’s retro Twenties Leger riff. Collection: The Whitney

Check out some of our favorites on our Flicker album.

See the show at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., running November 20 through March 5, 2017.

Hear the curators talk about different works in the exhibition on the Whitney’s “Watch and Listen” section of the exhibition page.

Meditative Eyeful at El Museo del Barrio

Detail of Argentine painter Miguel Vidal’s 1975 Equilibrium from the OAS Museum

Detail of Argentine painter Miguel Vidal’s 1975 Equilibrium from the OAS Museum

Mystical, transcendent, hypnotic visions from the Sixties and Seventies dot the white walls, all part of The Illusive Eye at El Museo del Barrio, closing this weekend. It’s a tribute to a corner of modern art history that’s sometimes overshadowed by the larger-than-life, attention-grabbing Pop Art movement – the global movement of Op Art and Kinetic Art.

The inspiration for the show is MoMA’s 1964 ground-breaking show, The Responsive Eye, which paid tribute to the global community of painters and sculptors using geometric purity to dazzle and confound the eye.

Many of the same artists are reunited here, with an emphasis on the spectacular contributions from Latin American artists who shuttled between South America and Europe, mixing it up with superstars like Vasarely and Biasi. Click here to see our Flickr album.

Other works seen through the1965-2009 plexiglass and steel piece by Carlos Cruz-Diez

Other works seen through the 1965-2009 plexiglass and steel installation by Carlos Cruz-Diez

American color-field legends Stella and Albers are featured, but the curators have put the spotlight on stars from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia as well. As the artist biographies demonstrate, most were leading geometric art revolutions in their own countries – like Chilean artist Matilde Perez and Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, who wrote an influential book on color theory in the Eighties and whose works essentially open and close the show here.

Except for the dramatic room-sized vinyl spiral by Italy’s Marina Apollonio, most of the works are on a small scale that invites close inspection. Move back and forth in front of Cruz-Diez’s entryway work and see the colors appear and disappear.

Walk past the shimmering black-and-white lines of Venezuelan artist Jesus Rafael Soto’s 1975 mixed media work of paint, wire, nylon, and wood. Spend time with the barely-there tower of gold thread by Brazilian sculptor Lygia Pape in the back gallery.

Detail of Generative Painting Transparencies (1965), by Argentine innovator, Eduardo Mac Entyre

Detail of Generative Painting Transparencies (1965), by Argentine innovator, Eduardo Mac Entyre

The American and European works were gathered from a variety of small and personal collections, but the curators have pulled from the extensive holdings of two museums to populate the rest of the show – the OAS Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Buenos Aires (MACBA).

You’ll find meditation and stillness at every stop in this beautiful, contemplative, and exciting show that mesmerizes the eye and brings together a body of work that will be enjoyed by anyone who takes the time to get to Fifth and 104th. No content, no distraction — just pure, simple, engaging form that quiets the mind and shifts the attention to your own, inner capability to perceive and get lost in line.

Take a walk through the exhibition with the museum director and see what we’re talking about:

Whitney’s Left the Building — Turner and Friends Move In

Marcel Breuer building on Madison, once the Whitney, now The Met

Marcel Breuer building on Madison, once the Whitney, now The Met

Start your engines – the doors to the Met Breuer swung open last week, and it’s a celebrity-studded, jazz-filled opening. The Met has turned Marcel Breuer’s brutalist masterpiece on Madison into a showcase for everything that’s cool, digital, live, and happening.

First, the art: Superstars from the last 500 years of art history are throwing it down in a big, bold, can-you-believe-who’s-here, two-floor mash-up extravaganza, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible.

Imagine turning a corner and finding a room packed with the Holy Grail of 19th-century “abstraction” – five barely-there masterworks by Mr. Turner, fresh off the plane from London. It’s not taking anything away from Titian, El Greco, or German Expressionists, who are in the show. It’s just that it’s rare for Gothamites to get up close and personal with this painter’s painter without buying a ticket to London and trekking to Millbank. Once word gets out, hopefully the Breuer downstairs admissions desk will be as jammed as the return line for Hamilton.

One of five late masterworks by Mr. Turner from the Tate

One of five late masterworks by Mr. Turner from the Tate

Yes, it’s strange to encounter Renaissance masters or a monumental Picasso when the gigantic elevator doors open on the upper floors. The fresh juxtapositions of old and new, familiar and unknown make your head spin, but in a good way.

The show features Renaissance masters, 19th century gods (see Matisse and Van Gogh’s side-by-side country cottages), and 20th century hot shots from international collections, MoMA, and 81st Street. The curatorial throw-down is something only the Met can do – scale, scope, and smarts – asking accessible questions and responding with wit from its own collection and other top institutions that have agreed to give their masterworks a trip to New York.

First view of Unfinished

First view of Renaissance masters in Unfinished

Eight years ago, when the Whitney Museum of American Art began planning its move to the Meatpacking District, its board approached the Met and asked if it wanted to take over the famous Breuer building on Madison Avenue.

The answer was “yes” but only if the takeover would be done the Met way – using the full scope of the Met’s holdings, leveraging its interest in new digital and performing arts, and showcasing international modern artists who might not have received the recognition here (in the United States) that they deserved. In other words, turn old-world institutionalism on its head. And they’ve done that.

Just look at the first one-woman show in the United States for Indian modernist, Nasreen Mohamedi. The delicate drawings evoke Klee, Malevich, and Agnes Martin purity and line and shed a whole new light on how modernism was being transformed on the subcontinent in the Seventies and Eighties.

 

Coffee CupSecond, the live arts element: Since it will be open late on Thursday and Friday evenings, hopefully it will become new Upper East Side’s version of the Rubin’s K-2 Lounge two nights a week – a fun, lively hang-out for music, performance, and art lovers. The rear first-floor gallery has been turned into a contemplative, cool showcase for jazz, programmed by Met Live Arts. Take a look at what’s up through the end of the month with Relation: A Performance Residency by Vijay Iyer.

 

Welcoming crew with the digital wall

Welcoming crew with the digital wall

Third, the new: So what else has changed at 75th and Madison? The pile-up of art books is gone from the reception desk, and the welcome wall is ablaze with a classy digital marquee offering glimpses of the world’s most precious treasures at each of the Met’s (now) three locations.

In a nod to those stupendous Lila Acheson Wallace bouquets in the Met’s Grand Hall, there’s also an oversize spring arrangement gracing the welcome area.

Fourth, the familiar: People who know the old Whitney well remember the tiny clay colony that resided in a corner of the stairwell next to a window overlooking Madison Avenue. At the press preview, art critics kept pausing on the stairwell landing to marvel at the fact that the beloved Charles Simmonds piece, Dwellings, is still there on loan from the Whitney.

Dwellings, an installation by Charles Simmonds in the stairwell (and across the street), still on loan from the Whitney

Look for Dwellings, a 1982 installation by Charles Simmonds, in the stairwell (and across the street), still on loan from the Whitney

Look out the window and you’ll see the tiny clay and sand Dwellings nestled into the chimney and roof of the Apple Store across the street, same as they have been since 1982. Like the rest of the new Met Breuer, it might be the same place, but you’ll see lots of well-loved modern art in a new, fresh way.

And be sure to download Soundwalk 9:09 by John Luther Adams, commissioned by MetLiveArts for visitors to enjoy as they trek between 81st Street to the Met Breuer — two audio tracks from which to choose, depending on whether you’re making the nine-minute walk uptown or downtown.

New York Artists Celebrate Coney Island

Steeplechase Funny Face, the symbol of a famous amusement park.

Steeplechase Funny Face, the symbol of a famous amusement park.

How did a strip of pristine, white-sand beach turn into one of the most fantastical, lurid, menacing, and whimsical destinations in the United States? You won’t find a sociological essay, but you’ll experience a lot of evidence in the Brooklyn Museum’s Coney Island extravaganza.

See Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008 through March 13 and visit Stephen Powers: Coney Island Is Still Dreamland (To a Seagull) on the Fifth Floor through August 21.

The crowds filling the galleries last Saturday night savored the experience of the sky-high towers of contemporary hand-painted, Coney-inspired signs by the collaborative, ICY SIGNS. You could stand for an hour, just taking in all the messages, philosophy, and witty send-ups of contemporary life, curated by TED-talking artist Stephen Powers.

Through the door, however, another world waits. Seeing Coney Island’s gaudy jumble today from the air or Q train, it’s hard to imagine how it looked in the mid-1800s in the post-Civil War era.

Chase’s 1886 oil, Landscape, Near Coney Island

Chase’s 1886 oil, Landscape, Near Coney Island

The show, organized by Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, opens with tranquil landscapes of the aspiring middle-classes enjoying the salt air and low-key entertainments and diversions on the beach – maybe having a photo taken by an itinerant photographer, or sampling some sweet treats. Back in these more genteel times, the sandy shores were open to a mix of races and nations, or so the oils by William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman attest.

How times changed! A giant vintage black-and-white film clip of romance on a roller coaster draws you into a world of more visceral wonder – carousel horses and gambling wheels interspersed with a hundreds of works by famous American artists that explore the magic, mayhem, and malevolence that made Coney such a phenomenon.

Detail of Joseph Stella’s 1913-1914 Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras from Yale University.

Detail of Joseph Stella’s 1913-1914 Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras from Yale University.

Figurative work from Reginald Marsh and others catapult you back to bawdy bathers and burlesque scenes brought to life last year in Broadway’s On the Town. Photographs by Arbus, Weegee, and Walker Evans provide close-up views of what it was like above and under the boardwalk.

Much of the shows’s fun is driven by the jarring injection of super-cool modern abstraction next to the flotsam and jetsam of the actual historic artifacts.

Edwin Porter’s 1905 silent movie Coney Island at Night gave nickelodeon viewers a novel way to see Edison’s incandescent lights in all their glory.

It’s startling to see Joseph Stella’s Futurist-inspired tribute to Coney Island’s Mardis Gras and realize that it’s from the same 1910-1914 era in which Jimmy Durante played honkey tonk piano for newcomer Mae West. It was all happening at the same time as the Armory Show.

1991 acrylic painting featuring iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops by Arnold Mesches.

1991 acrylic painting featuring iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops by Arnold Mesches.

Frank Stella’s 1950’s abstraction holds its own amidst the sideshow banners and relics that inspired his jarring color bars and mystery portal. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that right around the corner you come face-to-face with the real-life Coney landmark – the Cyclops who lured riders into America’s largest dark ride, Spook-A-Rama. The curators have placed him right next to his menacingly large portrait by Arnold Mesches.

Take a walk on the wild side of history, art, and sideshow performance while you can in person or via our Flickr album.

The Stephen Powers installation runs through the summer. Here he is explaining the allure of Coney Island as a contemporary inspiration:

Warhol Moved Out So Picasso Could Play

Bronze She-Goat, 1950, who usually lives outside in MoMA’s garden.

Bronze She-Goat, 1950, who usually lives outside in MoMA’s garden.

To mount the blockbuster Picasso Sculpture show, closing February 7, MoMA cleared out Andy, Roy, Jasper, and all the Judds from the Fourth Floor and let in an array of whimsical animals, personnages, and concoctions. If you couldn’t get in the front door of the show or were discouraged by the crowds, take a look at our favorites in our Flickr album.

The surprise is that every one of the dozen or so galleries is filled with the most delightful Picasso creations. You don’t really need a guidebook or an understanding of the history of modern art. You can just look and smile. Just like Picasso did.

Even he needed a break from his Blue Period, and the first gallery shows two little wooden “dolls” carved in 1906 – a response to Gauguin’s shockingly primitive Tahitian wood carvings that rocked Picasso’s world when he encountered them in gallery. Rough, painted, angular, and shamanistic – a good way to work out the creative kinks at the same time you were creating the Demoiselles downstairs. Pure primitive…no gallery guide needed.

Carved wooden Doll inspired by Gauguin, 1907. From Gallery of Ontario.

Carved wooden Doll inspired by Gauguin, 1907. From Gallery of Ontario.

Next door (directly upstairs from the gallery where the Demoiselles hold court), Picasso’s having his fun with his crazily patterned and painted bronze absinthe glasses, spoons, and fake sugar. The curators have gathered together enough from different collections to have a party. Cubism with a twist of polka-dot fun.

Next, it’s monumental heads carved from plaster. Why do they all seem to be in on a joke? It’s the room where Andy and Roy’s Pop masterpieces usually hang, but Pablo’s big, bulbous curvy heads from the 1930s are just as wry and enjoyable. (See the videos below.)

Already declared “degenerate” by the Nazis in 1937 and featured in their historic touring show, Picasso had his own quiet joke on the oppressors as he lived through the occupation of Paris in 1940-1944. While the Nazis were melting down bronze statuary in Paris to use in their war manufacturing, Pablo somehow managed to sneak into a foundry to make a big, bronze sculpture of large kitty cat on the prowl and other metal works.

Figure, 1938, made of found stuff -- wood, nails, and screws with string, wire, and hardware

Figure, 1938, made of found stuff — wood, nails, and screws with string, wire, and hardware

The kitty, the bicycle-handlebar bull, and the napkin dog are just two among a host of lots of other contraban he defiantly created before liberation.

The rest of the galleries show how Picasso’s wartime scrounging spurred him on to new heights of making something out of nothing and finding delight in transforming somebody’s junk into funny, fool-the-eye sculptures. The She-Goat (usually found hanging outside in MoMA’s garden by The Modern), the car-baboon, a metal owl, goose, and other creatures hold court in the bigger galleries.

Well-wishers crowd around taking feel-good photos and parents show the kids how the artist took everyday objects and turned them into such fun critters.

The stick-people Bathers at the finale are partially made of pieces of painting frames and other found wood, painted and finished with the same rough technique and hand that characterized the “dolls” in the first room. It’s the great Modern Master going rogue channeling outsider art.

The Bathers, 1956. From the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

The Bathers, 1956. From the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

By the time you get to the model of the monumental head that’s become one of Chicago’s icons (in the last gallery), the crazy sculpture — Picasso’s last —  feels  kind of normal.

It’s telling that MoMA didn’t even put label copy on the stuff. Just a guidebook you can pick up at the entrance, or not. No wonder it’s been the most popular show in New York.

Just when you thought understanding modern art was “hard”, one of the masters comes along, kicks sand in your face, laughs, invites you to do a little beachcombing with him, throws a few sticks together, and asks you to look at what’s right around you in a new way.

Look at a few pieces that MoMA underscores with delightful music.

Stella Leaps Off Walls at The Whitney

Long view of gallery with The Grand Armada (IRS-6, 1X) (1989)

Long view of gallery with The Grand Armada (IRS-6, 1X) (1989)

Leaping loops of bendable pipes! If you’ve never seen paintings that jump off the wall, get over to the Whitney’s Frank Stella: A Retrospective before it closes on February 7.

As Frank himself says, “Painting does not want to be confined by the boundaries of edge and surface.” Ok, no argument here. Nothing up here looks “confined”.

You emerge from the elevator face-to-face with his monumental masterpiece that’s nearly as long as the AMNH Titanosaur. It’s full of more visual nooks and crannies than a walk through Central Park and as vast as Wyoming. It’s a dazzling performance of color, line, and expanse. Before jumping into the rest of the show, the sheer size demands that you slow down to see the detail.

Detail of baroque, monumental 1999 painting, The Earthquake in Chile

Detail of baroque, monumental 1999 painting, The Earthquake in Chile

Let’s admit, however, that the busy, unconfined artworks on the right form a gravitational force field that will lure even the most focused visitor away to explore the whirly color and 3-D protrusions. The label copy says Frank was inspired by Baroque music, letting his paintings function like soundless symphonies.

Through the bays, you catch glimpses of big Protractors and other Day-Glo creations that embody the over-the-top Eighties in New York.

You’ll also encounter of Frank’s most famous geometric meditations and early works from the pre-Soho days. From every angle and position, you see, feel, and meet some mighty heavy output. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the full output of this 79-year-old powerhouse.

The Whitney’s solution to showing such a big, diverse, lively group of work was to take advantage of their new, moveable walls. The show’s designers moved all the walls away from the edges of the gallery so that visitors can see from one end to the other and glimpse the full spectrum of Frank’s artistic output.

Wall with works from the 1980s Moby Dick series

Wall with works from the 1980s Moby Dick series

Look through the show on our Flickr feed of the show, with the works sorted into chronological order, and enjoy the curator audio guide on the Whitney website.

On the far east section of the gallery, the 3-D might comes into full view with selections from the Moby Dick series, roaring, raging works that push out from the white wall. The selections are impressive, but are only a small portion of Frank’s total output from that era.

For every one of the 95 works on the wall, there are dozens and dozens of works in each series – just as big and monumental – that didn’t get into the show. The curators told us that it was the biggest problem in mounting Frank’s retrospective: Their size demands that they be bolted into place, so to borrow them for the show, the parts of each huge work must be carefully disassembled and then reassembled. Installing each piece was a challenge akin to moving the Amenemhat II colossus into the Great Hall at The Met. Thank goodness that Frank’s team provided elaborate instruction manuals and how-to drawings.

Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts, 2009 has a view of the Hudson

Circus of Pure Feeling for Malevich, 4 Square Circus, 16 parts, 2009 has a view of the Hudson

Stella’s most recent work is situated in two special places of honor: His diminutive 2009 creations are parked right next to the Hudson River view – sixteen little curvy sculptural tributes to the collision between the precision of absolute geometry (courtesy of Mr. Malevich) and whimsy playfulness, represented by Mr. Calder, the Whitney’s circus master.

At the other end of the floor, his Black Star dominates on the outdoor balcony overlooking the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel. See the video below.

Great tribute, great art, great show at the New Whitney. And thanks for publishing the full catalog and essays online.