Anarchist Revolutionizes Modern Art at MoMA

1890 pointillist portrait of Fénéon by Paul Signac

He wasn’t an artist, but MoMA has given him a show that has everything – joyous post-Impressionist canvases, Moulin Rouge posters, color wheels, African masterworks, Italian futurists, street riots, manifestos, explosions, and mug shots. 

Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, an exhibition on view through January 2, will introduce you to a writer, critic, anarchist, and dealer living in turn-of-the-century Paris who championed Seurat, gave Matisse his start, coined the term neo-Impressionism, and went to jail for a few months after he was accused of setting off a bomb in a restaurant frequented by government big shots.

1891 painting by Paul Signac, Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing, Adagio, Opus 221

This gorgeous show was inspired by Signac’s pointillist portrait of Fénéon, which features swirling color wheels referencing their shared passion for Japanese design, pattern, and the science behind art. Books and ephemera by influential color theorists are displayed nearby, but it’s hard to keep your attention there when paintings by so many modernist masters are vying for your attention around every turn.

1894 Bonnard poster for the avant-garde journal Fénéon edited

Fénéon used his critical bullhorn to turn many artists into household names. Think Seurat and Signac, two of Fénéon’s early favorites. The first gallery is full of their beautiful seascapes and figurative work. Read the curator’s essay about the artists he promoted, and see our favorites in our Flickr album.

The curators let us know that these peaceful images and exuberant dance-hall posters were made at a time of serious social unrest and profound economic hardship for working-class Parisians by interspersing Fénéon politics-charged writings and socially conscious works by Vallottin and Pissarro.  Disruptive protests, nightlife, zines, and art all went hand-in-hand during the 1890s.

1905-1906 painting by Matisse Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)

Fénéon spent several years as the editor-in-chief of a leading avant-garde journal, orchestrating contributors such as Bonnard, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton, and collecting their work along the way.  So, it came as quite a shock to everyone when the independent critic announced that he was taking a full-time job with a prestigious but conservative gallery in Paris.

Entering the second gallery of the exhibition, you see immediately how Fénéon used his notoriety and avant-garde chops to build up a contemporary art business and lure old-line clients into taking a chance on something new and modern.  He signed contracts with artists he had long championed, and gave an up-and-comer named Henri Matisse his first show in 1910.

Late 19th-c mask by a Guro artist from Cote d’Ivoire with 1920 Bonnard. Private collection; Musee d’Orsay.

It’s exciting to see a room full Matisse’s early work (including three that were in that initial show) and work by other artists that Fénéon both collected and sold, including a wall full of ethereal Seurat drawings.

Like many others in the avant-garde, Fénéon was a passionate collector of art from Africa and Oceana, and it’s thrilling to see so much of his original collection – now scattered throughout the world – reassembled inside MoMA.

Fénéon hated colonialism and railed against calling this portion of his collection “primitive art.” He lamented that the names of the artists who created such dynamic, inventive work were unknown and disliked having such evocative pieces relegated to ethnographic museums. 

19th-c cap by Tin Dama artist from Papua New Guinea (Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac) and Balla’s 1910-1911 futurist work.

He hoped that one day “art from faraway places” could take its place in the art pantheon right up there with works in the Louvre.

It’s satisfying to examine dramatic, powerful sculptures and masks from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Democratic Republic of the Congo against the backdrop of Modigliani, Matisse, and Italian Futurist paintings.

The worlds of ancient mythic power, modernism, and emotive color seem to be spending their time at MoMA having an active conversation – just the way Fénéon would have wanted.

Enjoy MoMA’s fast-pace introduction to this revolutionary modernist:

And now meet MoMA director Glenn Lowry and Starr Figura, curator of the exhibition, who show works from the exhibition and discuss why they mounted this show:

If you can’t get to MoMA, listen to the audio guide here, and enjoy the “colors”  playlist that MoMA designed.

Selfies for the 99%

1800 black-ink portrait of Alexander Hamilton painted by itinerant silhouettist William Bache

Before cameras or iPhones were invented, Americans yearned for a cheap, quick way to record an image of themselves.  Enter the 18th-century physiognotrace invention and masterful cutter, who could produce a likeness in just a few seconds with a flick of the scissors.

It’s the story told by the New-York Historical Society in its exhibition, In Profile: A Look at Silhouettes, on display through November 29.

Drawn from the NYHS collection, the show tells the story of how the mania for classical images (think Greek urns) morphed into a democratic art form practiced by itinerant artists, French Revolution expats, showy raconteurs, and everyday people in the early part of the 18th century.

510-510 B.C. Greek amphora – a classical inspiration for 18th c. artists in a new democracy.

Silhouettes were cheaper than having your portrait painted, so nearly everyone could afford to have one.  In the beginning, 18th-century painters painted black-on-white silhouettes, but later moved toward cutting profiles into white paper and backing the cut-out with black paper. The show’s first gallery presents a who’s who of early America – Alexander Hamilton, Colonel Henry Luddington on horseback (who helped create General Washington’s “secret service”), and memorials of the General himself.

But a close read of the label copy reveals a greater surprise – the artists creating the images, including Robert Fulton (later inventor of the steamship) and Major John André, the popular party-circuit man-about-town in British-occupied New York and Philadelphia who was famously hanged as a spy by the Continentals.

1795 painted portrait by French expats Valdenuit and Saint-Mémin, pioneers in using the physiognotrace

The emphasis here is on inexpensive, everyday art for the 18th and 19th-century home. A contraption invented in France by a court musician, and brought to America by two noblemen-engineers fleeing the revolution in their home country, captivated the attention of the newly democratized land.

The physiognotrace machine illuminated the shadow of a sitter’s profile on a wall. Using a pantograph, the artist could quickly scale down the life-size image, trace it, and deftly cut four silhouettes at once from folded paper.  What a performance!

Famed portraitist, naturalist, and museum-creator Charles Wilson Peale, whose natural history museum was located on the second floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, just had to have it.  From 1802 on, crowds flocked to the museum, paid 25 cents admission, and created their own selfies amidst the mammoth skeleton, minerals, wax figures, Indian artifacts, and fossils on display.

1802-1815 album from the Peale Museum

Mr. Peale charged one penny for the paper, and if you wanted a professionally cut small silhouette, you paid an additional 6 cents to Moses Williams, one of Peale’s sons, or a visiting silhouette virtuoso. Museum visitors would gather to watch the show and marvel at the furiously fast likenesses. In his first year, Willliams cut about 8,000 silhouettes, providing a really decent income for the former slave.

1824 portrait by famed freehand scissors artist William James Hubard

Since four images were made at each 6-cent sitting, the Peale Museum often asked to keep one of the duplicates. A full album of these is displayed in the second gallery, with names, dates, and likenesses of what could be called America’s first selfies.

Before photography’s invention in the 1840s, silhouettes were considered the way to go for inexpensive likenesses, and several cutting virtuosos received national acclaim, commissions, and fame.

Master Hubard, a renowned child-artist prodigy, built a highly successful gallery business cutting silhouettes and painting portraits, and William Bache, who roamed from Maine to New Orleans, offering a sliding scale of options to patrons from the most basic silhouette portrait to embellished works in gilded frames.

1841 Édouart portrait of congressman Millard Fillmore, later the US president

NYHS devotes an entire gallery to the master silhouettist of all time,  Augustin Édouart, who specialized in cutting full-length silhouette portraits freehand. His artworks placed the figures into painted settings, and the most spectacular works depicted rooms in the grand salons of America, populated with up to a dozen figures, including visiting celebrities.

The illusions and details were celebrated by art critics and the public, and ranked on a par with the most skillful portrait painters of his day. Unfortunately, just as he was concluding his US tour, photography was catching the public’s eye and the mania for black-and-white likenesses began to fade.

1870 machine-cut silhouette created for tourists flocking to Saratoga Springs

The exhibition concludes with a nod to the last wave of silhouette-making in America ­– a revival of interest in European folk-art paper cutting, the introduction of inexpensive black-on-white machine-cut silhouettes for the tourist trade, and work by contemporary artists who use silhouettes.

Enjoy looking through our Flickr album to see some of our favorites, including the epic wall-sized silhouettes of the five NYC boroughs cut by Béatrice Coron.

1870 machine-cut silhouette created for tourists flocking to Saratoga Springs

NYHS is to be congratulated on this fun, revealing presentation of this forgotten art form in the context of country’s growth into a vibrant democracy – likenesses of everyday people that could be had by anyone with either a penny or 25 cents to spare.

Studio 54 Designers Turn Swimsuits into Evening Wear

Studio 54 fashion: Fiorucci blouse by Antonio, Stephen Burrows dress, and Zandra Rhodes gown. Courtesy: Pat Cleveland

The Seventies fashions in Studio 54: Night Magic, on display through November 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, slip, slide, drape, glitter, and sometimes seem like they’re not even there.

The entire point of going to the Studio 54 nightclub – assuming you could get in – was to shimmer, startle, reveal, exude fabulousness, and shine, shine, shine in the crowd and on the dance floor.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, a masterful curatorial achievement, pumps the music, flashes the lights, and runs the videotape while showing off the wunderkinds that made the Seventies 54 scene drip with glamour – Halston, Calvin, Kamali, and Burrows.

See our photos in our Flickr album.

Norma Kamali’s swimsuit top and skirt made for dancing

Although Halston and others made custom gowns for clients (and there are plenty for Liza and Liz in the exhibition), the show highlights one of their other fashion innovations that the 99 percent adopted in the Seventies ­– the swimsuit. If you had a great body, fantastic hair, and dramatic make-up, you could just throw on a bathing suit, tie on a net skirt with little sparkle, and you were ready for the club!

Designers like Kamali and Sant’Angelo partnered with fabric companies to innovate body-hugging solutions, and turned out sexy bathing suits that doubled as disco-ready separates.

One of the galleries features the fun, transparent dance skirts Antonio designed for Fiorucci that he featured in the 1977 “Fiorucci Fantasy” event he staged at Rubell and Schrager’s Queens club, The Enchanted Garden, which predated Studio 54. A video shows how Antonio’s supermodels set the New York fashion and nightlife scene ablaze.

Studio 54 coverage in the Daily News, May 4, 1977. Courtesy: Ian Schrager

For all of its influence in pop culture, it’s hard to think that Studio 54 had a lifespan of only 33 months between 1977 and 1979. The exhibition explores all of facets of the phenomenon – paparazzi, the daily tabloid fodder, Grace Jones, Andy Warhol’s goings-on, disco jeans, Interview magazine, fashion shows, and product launches.

It’s surprising to think that Doris Duke, Alan Greenspan, Lillian Carter, and Bella Abzug were just as likely to be in the club as street performance artists, Bianca Jagger, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Halston’s 1979 beaded chiffon ensemble for Liza Minelli.

To transform the old Twenties theater and TV studio into Studio 54, Schrager and Rubell tapped into the technical and artistic community to figure out how flying disco poles, set changes, and special effects could be orchestrated into a continual surprise for the partygoers. When the musical Chicago closed, designer Tony Walton repurposed his dramatic neon “Roxy” sign as a centerpiece for 54’s stage.

Some of our favorite items are the opening night guest list, Ron Galella’s celebrity photos, Antonio’s costume sketches for opening-night show by the Alvin Ailey dancers, the slideshow of their rehearsal by Juan Ramos, and the giant sapphire that Elizabeth Taylor famously wore to the club in 1979 (it’s in a safe).

Original celebrity photo portraits and Richard Bernstein illustrations for Warhol’s Interview magazine covers

Congratulations to the Brooklyn Museum staff who found and presented this amazing exhibition that lets everyone into Studio 54 to celebrity-watch nearly 40 years after the door closed on the party, and to show us how its influence still reverberates today.

NYC Museum Virtual Events on Hockney, Pelton, and Design

David Hockney, Self Portrait with Red Braces, 2003. © David Hockney. Photography by Richard Schmidt. Courtesy: The Morgan

This week has a full line-up of (mostly free) programs featuring new exhibitions and topical issues from the art world and beyond. See the list of everything you can participate in on our virtual events page.

We welcome the reopening of the Morgan Library with this week’s most-talked-about exhibition on David Hockney’s portrait drawings from the National Gallery in London. This week’s virtual schedule gives you two opportunities (October 6 and 9) to take a virtual tour, but get the free tickets now since they are going fast!

This week on October 8, you’ll also get an opportunity to learn more from the Whitney about Agnes Pelton and her transcendentalist work from the curator herself, Barbara Haskell. Although the show originated in Phoenix and went to Santa Fe before its New York stop, the Whitney’s given over an entire floor to for you to enjoy the tranquility, spiritualism, and meditative power of Ms. Pelton’s works. Although Ms. Pelton participated in the historic 1913 Amory Show, she’s had zero recognition until now.

Agnes Pelton, Day, 1935. Courtesy: Phoenix Art Museum

Although the Cooper-Hewitt still hasn’t opened its doors, you’ll have an opportunity to celebrate the National Design Awards and National Design Month on line. This week features a virtual salon on October 8, but their website has a full roster of design, education, and maker events, too.

We also want to draw your attention to:

  • New-York Historical Society’s evening with Carl Bernstein and Maggie Haberman ($20 on October 8)
  • A live encore presentation from the New York Transit Museum on the cultural history of the 20th Century Limited (free on October 9)
  • October’s Sci Café from AMNH on hive minds and politics (free on October 8)

For Hamilton fans on October 8, Fraunces Tavern Museum will host an author who will dig up all the dirt between General Washington and his nemesis, General Charles Lee.

Last week, we joined ETHEL on the Met’s balcony on Friday night (a weekly digital event), and really enjoyed the digital effects that were added to a beautiful performance. We also dropped into the Brooklyn Book Fair courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Take a look and register for as many of the topics and events that you can fit into your schedule. Most of the events are free, but it’s always nice to add a thank-you donation.

Reopening Update

Dancing dress by Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, as shown in Studio 54: Night Magic

It was great to be back at the Brooklyn Museum this week, where the community was enjoying the sunshine on the front plaza while waiting for timed ticket entry to the fantastic exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic.  If you plan to go, budget enough time, because the time-capsule exhibition is massive.

For budget and safety reasons, only two floors of the museum are open, but that did not stop any of the art-seekers from checking out many of the special shows, study center, and permanent American gallery works. The first floor features an installation filled with amazing, inspiring photographs by a ground-breaking Parisian artist. Wow! Do not miss JR: Chronicles or Studio 54!!

Welcome back, Brooklyn!!

Amy Sillman Gets Shapes to Talk at MoMA

1957 Arp sculpture and view of works by Leger, Frankenthaler and Bonticou

A big, red blob on the fifth floor at MoMA is the welcome sign to one of the most engaging exhibitions in New York ­– the come-hither array of modern artworks in the latest Artist’s Choice show, Amy Sillman: The Shape of Shape, on display through October 4.

But here’s the catch for MoMA visitors – the show has more than 75 works but no labels, no identification, no dates. Just the clue that Amy chose works to explore the role of “shape” in modern art. Small artworks are arranged knee-level on risers (kind of like stadium seating), with larger paintings tilted against the wall.  A few are hung in the traditional way, but it feels as if MoMa’s collection is looking at you and hankering for a conversation. Check it out in our Flickr album.

Rectilinear frame conversation between 1989 Albert Oehlen painting and 1935 “Construction” by Gertrude Green

In our first visit back to the re-opened MoMA, visitors circulated through the room, looking intensively, talking about what they saw, and discussing how pieces might be connected. Although the gallery guide was available via QR code, no one during our visit appeared to seek it out. Everyone seemed quite content to parachute into 110 years of modern visuals and just go for the ride.

What did Amy choose? Abstracted forms, organic shapes, human bodies, and not-bodies – all arranged in a way that makes you feel that one is somehow related to its neighbor. You can’t quite describe why the entire room felt like a tight ensemble, even though one piece might feel like fun and the next a little scary.

It was interesting how unsettled visitors felt by 1970s works by Christina Ramburg and Julian Schnabel. This is exactly what Amy was going for, according to what we overheard her tell students in the gallery yesterday. She wanted to evoke the anxious feelings that most artists experience as they paint, draw, and sculpt and to reflect the times today without being didactic.

Along the east wall – 2008 acrylic by Charline von Heyl, 1920 Arp sculpture, and 1976 drawing by Jay DeFeo

Amy came of age during the Seventies when museums and intellectuals had given abstract expressionism its “heroic” status and crowned minimalists and conceptual artists as successors in the march of modernism. For this Artist’s Choice exhibition, Amy examined MoMA’s vast archive from a different perspective, looking at famous and not-so-famous creators whose work evoked myths, an interest in shadows, tension, anxiety, bodies, and whimsey.

Shadowy Black figures in a dark painting by Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mukarobgwa are echoed by a shadowy figure in a work by Leger. The tiny 1920 stacked Arp sculpture seems to be playing a “Mini-Me” role next to the large, layered 2008 Charline von Heyl acrylic.

Shadows also play key roles in a Lois Lane painting paired with a Kirschner wooduct. See for yourself and make a connection. Download Amy’s zine here to learn more about the works she chose and how she installed them. (She designed it during the quarantine months when the show was shut down.)

Here’s a short overview of the show hosted by MoMA painting/sculpture curator Michelle Kuo:

But you should really dig into the in-depth conversation (with over 10,000 views!) between Amy and Michelle, if you’ve ever been to art school or painted. They talk about art making, art history, Amy’s inspiration from Munch’s little-known litho of a woman hugging a bear, and the way she chose lesser-known works that could have a conversation with you in 2020:

More on MoMA’s reopening
MoMA on 53rd Street is open every day with timed ticketing, and now that the free-ticket offer has concluded, it seems easy to find a time to visit. The Queens outpost at P.S.1 is open until 8:00pm Thursday through Sunday, and is currently showing the acclaimed (and long-anticipated exhibition) Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration through April 4.

Building a Retail Empire on Wearable Art

Vera’s 1950 silk “Fish Scroll” scarf, featured on the cover Harper’s

So many of the great female entrepreneurial success stories begin at the kitchen table, and the story currently being told by the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann, on view through January 26, is no exception.

Fashionistas today may be too young to remember when the American height of chic was to sport a scarf by Vera. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, Vera pretty much had a lock on the retail market for bold, colorful silk scarves through major department-store behemoths.

The exhibition is a tribute to a woman who took her love of painting, travel, nature, and culture to the wardrobe and accessory drawers of all fashionable American households, and ended up partnering with many top manufacturers to push her aesthetic and flare into mid-century modern homes.

Vera’s silk scarves, based upon watercolors, hung as art at MAD

Although her name is not well known by young people today, MAD’s exhibition is a fitting tribute to a woman who virtually invented the concept of “lifestyle” brand. It’s hard to believe that an aspiring artist born in Connecticut in 1907 would grow up and develop her company to pack such a punch in retail.

A graduate of Cooper Union and Traphagen in the 1920s, during the Depression, Vera and her husband set up a silkscreen on their little Manhattan kitchen table and began printing her paintings on surplus parachute silk. Within a few years, her beautiful silks were being retailed at B. Altman, Lord & Taylor, and other nice shops in the city. Her joyous prints were a success!

Vera’s 1960-1965 silk blouses with paintings of blue poppies and woodland images

Building her business through the war years, Vera took her first foray into fashion in the 1950s, creating tops and blouses that she came to market as “wearable art.” Rather than simply printing yards of repeating patterns, she went a step further – engineering prints in panels, so when pattern cutters and sewers assembled her shirts, her beautiful patters would strategically appear in the final product, enhancing cuffs, collars, edges, and hems.

Of course, everything was priced for the widest possible market, so a woman seeking a bit of fashion flair could buy a Vera without blowing her budget. She followed the art-plus-commerce philosophy – a Bauhaus innovation – and maximized accessibility of mid-century modern design by expanding into home textiles, tabletop accessories, and dishes.

1979 “The Birches” china dining set for Mikasa with matching tablecloth

As her business grew, Vera came to rely upon the next generation (Perry Ellis got his start with her) to keep the design development chugging along while she traveled to Asia and other parts of the world to feed the constant demand for new inspiration for her collections.

MAD has assembled a beautiful, loving exhibition of Vera’s output, showing how her original watercolor work made its way into her commercial ventures – scarves, clothes, and home décor. Perhaps most remarkable is that this powerhouse kept traveling, painting, and channeling joy into her textiles well into her eighties – an inspirational lesson in love of life, art, craft, and culture.

1971 “Northwest Coast” silk scarf

Thank you, Vera! Long may your prints wave!

And thank you to MAD for sharing Vera’s lifetime of creations and inspiring story!

See more photos of this wonderful exhibition in our Flickr album.

Drawing with the Patience of an Astronomer

1983 Star Field III drawing, graphite on acrylic ground on paper

She’s gone where no draftsman has gone before – up into the atmosphere, to distant galaxies, across the limitless sea, and into uninhabited expanses of desert.

Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory, the two-floor retrospective at the Met Breuer through January 12, presents five decades of exacting observation of the unknowable distilled into small graphite and charcoal drawings like nothing you’ve ever seen.

1969 drawing, graphite on acrylic ground on paper

The casual observer might mistake the works for photographs, since her goal has been precise replication of waves, stars, and other natural phenomenon. Close examination, however, reveals systematic build-up of marks and erasures that have all but eliminated gesture and other indications of personality.

The experience is incredible, showing how her early years as a Southern California artist – using photographs of the freeway and her earliest memories as a child growing up in WWII in Latvia – were the building blocks for the methods, patience, and artwork of her most acclaimed body of work.

Untitled (Night Sky #10) charcoal drawing, 1994-1995

The Met Bruer’s entire fourth floor is given over to selections from her series of meticulous drawings of the Pacific’s waves, early photos transmitted back from the Moon, the night sky as seen from the desert, and the Southwestern desert itself.

Occasionally she broke from graphite drawings to make an oil painting of the night sky, creating the deepest blacks she could to let the viewer get lost in the space.

To Fix the Image in Memory I-XI, eleven stones and eleven bronze “stones” and painted to resemble the originals, 1977-1982

Visitors’ favorites are the rock samples she collected from her desert journeys. Never one to shy away from the impossible, they are presented side-by-side to nearly identical painted bronze sculptures. Which one is the actual rock? You could stand in the gallery and listen all day to the quiet deliberations among her fans.

Take a look at some of our favorites on our Flickr site, and listen to the artist discussing it all:

Fresh Look at Gertrude Whitney’s Collection

Lachaise 1912-1927 bronze Standing Woman with works acquired by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney herself

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965 is a full-floor installation that focuses on the institution’s origin in 1930 as an eclectic, lively space where of-the-moment art could make a statement to the world – the same as today.

But rather than concentrate exclusively on all of the masterworks of American art that the museum owns, this show integrates some practically forgotten works and artists that the curators feel deserve a fresh look. So, walking through this chronological show, everyone gets a taste of something completely unexpected.

See some of our favorites here on Flickr.

When the elevator doors open, the first gallery is a tribute to the passion of Gertrude Whitney, the only American artist to establish a major museum. Lachaise’s bronze beauty beckons visitors to take a closer look at paintings that Gertrude herself acquired. Photographs of the Whitney’s earliest incarnation downtown are nearby to set the context.

Anne Goldthwaite’s 1926 Rebecca, purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 

It wasn’t a museum collection in the traditional sense, because Gertrude acquired paintings and sculptures by artists that she wanted to support. Better-known works by Bellows, Benton, and Bluemner are on display here, but so is a beautiful, rarely shown 1926 portrait by Anne Goldthwaite, a women’s rights activist from Alabama whose work was included in the 1913 Armory Show, but is not that well known today.

Subsequent galleries group artists inspired by uniquely American landscapes ­– urban engineering achievements of New York (Man Ray, Stella, Stettenheimer), O’Keeffe’s evocations of nature’s spirituality, and clean, idealized visions of modern industrial campuses (Demuth, Sheeler).

Andreas Feininger’s 1940 photo of the West Side Highway

Photographs dot the walls, including Herbert W. Gleason’s other-worldly 1908 images of Walden Pond and a modern 1940 image of the West Side Highway by Feininger, which anyone can see through windows in the Whitney’s Hudson-facing interior staircase.

A dark side gallery features one of the Whitney’s greatest treasures – Calder’s Circus, which has been newly conserved and restored. The ringmaster, bareback rider, and trapeze artists – all based upon actual performers from the Twenties ­– occupy the spotlight, surrounded by Calder’s performance props, Victrola, and whistles.

Here’s a recent video containing excerpts of how Circus was brought to life by the master himself and how it’s been conserved for posterity by a team at the Whitney:

An additional highlight in another gallery is the “show within a show” of Edward Hopper works and drawings – his early work from Paris, the solitary American townscapes, and a sketchbook in which he documented every painting he made. Everyone spends time here.

Edward Hopper’s ledger book documenting all his work 

A melancholy dark gallery is hung with paintings by American émigré artists whose work evokes surrealist experimentation, the war, urban isolation, and growing societal dissonance. A counterpoint (and surprise) is a 1939 animated film by experimental film pioneer Mary Ellen Bute, a symphonic short shown to the crowds at Radio City Music Hall before movie features.

The gallery devoted to Fifties abstraction showcases the usual suspects (Pollack, de Kooning, Kline), but intersperses new acquisitions and lesser-known players, such as a 1959 abstract canvas by Ed Clark, an African-American artist who trained in Paris courtesy of the GI Bill, which holds its own against the other AE powerhouses in the room.

Ed Clark’s 1959 abstract poured-acrylic painting 

Big David Smith and Barnett Newman sculptures reign on the outdoor terrace, right next to the joyful Pop Art gallery, dominated by a massive, four-panel 1964 Wesselmann and an engaging multi-person self-portrait (with dog) by Marisol in the corner.

The walk-through is a reminder of the riches that anchored the first 30 years of the Whitney and the efforts that the museum is taking to find powerful artwork from the archive that enhances the traditional narrative of 20th century American art history.

Go soon before the team changes it out for the next collection installation, and take the audio tour on the Whitney website.

Getting a breath of fresh air: Barnett Newman’s 1966 Here III and David Smith’s 1961 Lectern Sentinel

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:

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.