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:

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.

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.

City Dreams by Bodys Isek Kingelez

Visionary Dorothea model created from cut paper and found objects in 2007 welcomes visitors to the show.

You can see what dreams are made of on MoMA’s upper floor when you walk into a world created by a self-taught artist from Zaire who saw all the possibilities of a new nation as his country transitioned from Belgian colonization.

Closeup of 1996 Ville Fantôme, a large utopian cityscape of cut paper, packaging, collage, and paint.

Bodys Isek Kingelez: City Dreams is a retrospective of visionary cities, skyscrapers, public buildings, stadiums, and monuments created from paper, cardboard, packaging, paint, ink, bottle caps, and other stuff over his lifetime. Experience the sheer genius of it all – and a virtual-reality tour – through January 1.

Three of his eight fully realized city models are featured at MoMA – examples of work that was eventually shown in (and collected by) art museums throughout the world.

Kingelez (1948-2015), who came from a small colonial village in the Congo, was taught by missionaries early on and went on to teach secondary school. But when political change came to the Belgian Congo in the Sixties, Kingelez became determined to contribute his vision to what his country could become.  And he used the materials at hand to create models of buildings that symbolized harmony, peace, and understanding.

After his work was shown in Paris, the international art world came calling, and Kingelez had the opportunity to work full time as an artists, creating ever more elaborate cities and models. Although he never traveled out of Zaire until 1989, Kingelez always imbued an international vision to his creations.

Detail of 1992 Reveillion Federal, a temple to democracy.

The models are precise, clean-cut visions of the future.  MoMA has created a VR-headset experience where you can walk through one of the cities, fly to the top of skyscrapers, and cross bridges to the future.  It’s a great way to enter 2019.

Take a look at our Flickr album of some of the work in this amazing show.

Enjoy this video of the artist himself showing how nature and lofty ideas can be put to work in architecture, engineering, and design:

 

For more on Kingelez and his life, click here. For a soundtrack, MoMA’s assembled a great one from Zaire here.

How Cakes and Pies Got into the Museum

Thiebaud’s 1964 watercolor, Nine Jelly Apples

Treat yourself to a non-fattening way to enjoy all the cakes, pies, and goodies packed into the Morgan’s show, Wayne Thiebaud: Draftsman, on display a through September 23.

As soon as you enter, you’ll see a wall of masterful drawings of the desserts that made Thiebaud famous – luscious candy apples, cupcakes, and candy lightly sketched and drawn in watercolor in a way that makes them shimmer and glow.

The Morgan’s show is the first to turn a spotlight on Thiebuad’s works on paper, where he experimented and played.

Lunch Table, Thiebuad’s 1964 watercolor

Each section of the show illuminates how he mixed commercial art, popular culture, Old Masters techniques, and abstraction to create a unique, colorful, and joyful body of work.

Taking leave of sunny California in the Sixties, Thiebaud took his sketchbook to New York and embedded himself among New York abstractionists who were just starting to claim their place on the world stage.

Thiebuad’s 1964 pastel

He always loved pop culture, storefronts, and cartooning the lighter side of life. When confronted with the grit and angst of the New York abstractionists, he tried giving an AE spin to the storefront windows and rows of food that entertained him as he walked the streets of New York.

But with advice from the most passionate painters at The Cedar Tavern, he was encouraged to paint what he loved and what he knew.

 1964 cross-hatch drawing

Taking that advice, he used traditional techniques and a deft hand to create works that people wanted the minute they saw them. His first New York City exhibition catapulted him to instant recognition. Every painting sold.

During the Seventies, he began to teach, using old masters drawing techniques as a grounding for his students – an approach that he himself used every time he embarked upon a new subject.

The show has side-by-side examples of an ice-cream cone meticulously rendered in cross-hatch technique with more gestural pen-and-ink and watercolors of the same.

1970s Cityscape drawing

The show also includes an impressive wall of streetscape drawings inspired by the up-and-down streets of San Francisco.  The cityscape resembles tectonic plates shifting beneath finely rendered blocks of architecture.

Take a look at our Flickr album here and see more of the pieces from the show here.

Listen to a recollection on how Franz Kline’s admonishment to a young artist turned into a legacy:

Statues Converse in “Like Life” at Met Breuer

Two “ballerinas” — a costumed 1880 Degas bronze and a clothed 2007 mannequin by Yinka Shonibare. Collection: The Met and private.

Can statues talk to one another? If you visit the Met Breuer’s exhibition, Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300 – Now) before July 22, you’ll find out. The 120 sculptures on display across two floors are having some pretty major conversations among themselves.

For starters, just witness the dialog between everyone’s favorite, the dressed bronze Degas ballerina, and Yinka Shonibare’s little girl statue who mimics the ballerina’s pose with a gun hidden behind her back.

Or the “conversation” between modern installations, such as the hyper-real day-in-the-life illusions by Duane Hanson, and the Renaissance statues evoking a more classical human “ideal”.

Is “white” better than color? Does one statue appear more “noble” than other? Do you “like” one better than another? The questions in your head keep flowing as you make your way around corners and bump into other provocative pairings.

Duane Hanson’s 1984 bronze, “Housepainter II.” Private collection

In the galleries devoted to the “presumption of white” theme, you will see and experience what happens when classicists decided apply colored wax to otherwise “white” statues’ to create a more “real” illusion. Does it work?

Witness John Gibson’s 1850s “Tinted Venus.” Victorian audiences were shocked that it looked like a “naked lady” and not like the popular, idealized goddess.

Will this show be the first time you encounter the contemporary life-size Jeff Koons porcelain of Michael Jackson and his pet primate, Bubbles? If so, it will probably stop you in your tracks. It’s right next to an 18th-century painted plaster experiment by Canova. Just what is it about this pairing that seems so “off”?

1894 marble sculpture of Louise Gould by Saint-Gaudens with wax version commissioned to “bring her back to life”. Private collection.

The show pulls from a wide range of collections within the Met – contemporary, European, and the Cloisters – and beyond. It’s all designed to pull art out of its historical context, ask questions, and encourage you to look at historical sculpture in a new way.

What happens when Medieval sculptures of the saints become overtly muscle-bound? How do artists incorporate clothes, hair, and real human teeth to give their creations a different form of life? How to contemporary artists riff on ancient forms to start a new conversation?

1989 reproduction of 1765 mechanized “Sleeping Beauty”. From Madame Tussaud’s, London.

Look at some intriguing selections from the show in our Flickr album.

The Met has convinced other museums to contributed show-stoppers that normally don’t travel – a costumed 18th-century bullfighter from Spain, an eerie 16th-century Florentine “Saracen” mannequin used for jousting, and a highly disturbing life-sized sculpture of 19th-century UK philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which contains his actual body.

The other floor explores “proxies” for the human body, such as life-size mannequins and sometimes creepy artist “dolls.” Sculpting in wax is a tried and true artist technique that gives the appearance of flesh.

Examine the light-breathing mechanized wax beauty from Madame Tussaud’s of London, and the bust of Mrs. Gould that Saint-Gaudens crafted for her bereaved husband so that he could pretend that she was still there.

The journey through the show evokes a range of genuine emotion, strange attraction, and shock, just as the artists intended.

Listen as the curators provide a brief tour of the exhibition:

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: