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.

Virtual Visits with a Fashion Icon and Rock History

Poster Inspiration with Anna Sui at Poster House

There’s no fashion designer more rock-and-roll than Anna Sui, who will be (virtually) at Poster House tonight (October 19) to show posters from the Sixties and Seventies and explain how they’ve inspired her eye-popping, fun, funny, and magical runway looks.  Take a peek at our Flickr album of her retrospective this year at MAD Museum, and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

Poster House, New York’s newest museum, has one of the best line-ups of virtual events in the City, so get in on this special “Poster Inspiration” event with Anna tonight at 6:30pm. Tickets are only $5, so chip in a few dollars extra to keep their programming rolling.  This week, Poster house is also hosting “Lippert & Lowry: Fireside Chats” on Instagram (October 21) and a virtual tour of their fantastic poster archive on October 22.

Anna Sui channels Sixties Fillmore psychedelic in her MAD Museum show this year

Continue the rock-and-roll vibe with Thursday’s morning virtual tour of “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” by the New-York Historical Society (October 22). Revisit the legendary Fillmore East and West. Find the links to this and so many other great museum events on our virtual events page here.  Here’s a few:

  • A double header on Agnes Pelton’s show at the Whitney: On October 20, curator Barbara Haskell will answer your questions live, and she’ll be back on October 22 with the panel that had been postponed, “Seeing Agnes Pelton.”
  • On October 20, makers are invited to a panel at the Cooper-Hewitt on to learn how to launch a design project, which is part of National Design Month.
  • On October 23, the Met will host artist Dred Scott speaking about Jacob Lawrence.
  • On October 24, horticulturalists can get an insider’s look at the medieval gardens as the Fall season begins at the Met Cloisters.

    Gardens at the Met Cloisters

There are also more chances to catch the Morgan Library’s virtual tour of the Hockney show, a full line-up of paranormal goings on at the Merchant’s House Museum, and more tours at the Tenement Museum. Take a look and register for as many of the topics and events that you can fit into your schedule.

Most events are free, but an extra thank-you donation helps everyone, big and small.

Reopening Update

Just a reminder to fashion fans that the Met will soon open its much-delayed fashion extravaganza, which should have debuted the first Monday in May.  It’s coming and we’ll keep you posted about a virtual event the Met has planned to give everyone a preview.

Agnes Pelton’s Meditation Chamber at The Whitney

Agnes Pelton’s 1929 Star Gazer, suggesting rebirth in a desert landscape. Private collection.

Have you wanted to enter a light-filled, spiritual place and be transported to another realm? Get a ticket to the Whitney Museum of American Art enter the Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, on view through November 1.

You’ll experience six decades of abstract paintings whose shapes fly, hover, and float above desert mountains and in deep space – another dimension that feels light, otherworldly, and pure. Take a look at our Flickr album.

She began developing her style in the early years of the 20th century when abstraction, the symbolic meaning of color, and spiritualism were being explored in the New York art world, and she took to heart what she read in Kandinsky’s influential 1910 treatise, On the Spiritual in Art.

1926 Meadowlark’s Song, Winter. Courtesy: Maurine St. Gaudens.

The exhibition opens with a figurative work in the style for which Agnes was first known to the New York art scene –  an ethereal artistic woman inhabiting a dreamy, semi-abstract, soft-colored landscape. Her work earned her inclusion in New York’s landmark 1913 Armory Show – the exhibition that introduced “modernism” to America – in Gallery D alongside other young American artists experimenting with bold color and abstraction.

But the Whitney exhibition (originally mounted by the Phoenix Art Museum) is actually focused on the next phase of Alice’s abstract work, which reflects her embrace of spiritualism, experience with New Mexico’s desert landscapes, and interaction with creative, like-minded thinkers in and around Taos in the Twenties. Although she often accepted commissions for portraits or landscapes throughout her life, she considered the abstract works the core of her artistic journey.

1934 Orbits. Courtesy: Oakland Museum.

Like her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes found inspiration in the Southwest desert. However, Agnes had a different artistic approach, using color, natural form, and abstract shapes to lead viewers into another realm of consciousness that exists beyond the natural world.

Agnes’s journals and notebooks are filled with lessons from spiritual teachers and with sketches for paintings with notes on what the different forms and colors mean.

Visitors to the Whitney show move slowly, taking time to digest each canvas and to appreciate the artist’s care and thought. Swooping shapes, illuminated portals, and clusters of abstracted forms take center stage, posing questions, and leading you into another dimension.

1947 Light Center, evoking one’s ability to transform. Private collection.

The center gallery features work done after Agnes moved to her desert home near Palm Springs in the Thirties, where she was transfixed by the quality of desert light.  She loved incorporating water and light into her works – two natural phenomenon that symbolize transformation and change.

The dark walls of the center gallery enhance the glowing nature of her spiritual canvases. Her technique is masterful, with layers of translucent washes applied to give the white ovals nearly a three-dimensional feel, like looking into the void of an Anish Kapoor sculpture, except that Agnes achieves the effect with simply a canvas.

Here’s a talk recorded last year at the Phoenix Art Museum in which Notre Dame professor Erika Doss explains Agnes Pelton’s spirituality and puts her work in the context of the modernist movement:

Reopening News

 The Whitney has just announced that the large outdoor public project on the Hudson waterfront by David Hammons will open this fall.  The other big announcement is that a one-year Biennial postponement will give artists and curators more time to view and prepare work that was put on hold by the shutdown. Read more about upcoming shows here.

At 7:00pm on October 20, Whitney curator Barbara Haskell will take your questions about Agnes in an online “Ask a Curator” event. Check our Virtual Museum Event page for all of the museum’s nearly daily virtual tours, talks, and walks on this and other exhibitions.

If you’re in New York, you can visit the Whitney five days each week, Thursday through Monday, with extended hours every Friday until 9:00pm. All exhibition spaces are open, including the magnificent collection show, which features mini-shows by Jacob Lawrence, Hopper, and Calder. Here’s our previous post about this fantastic exhibition.

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.

Couture Nirvana at The Met

1957-58 satin “Du Barry” evening dress by Christian Dior

Walking through the Costume Institute’s show, In Pursuit of Fashion: The Sandy Schreier Collection, closing September 27, you can feel the care and attention that Sandy gave to choosing exquisite fabrics and impossibly precise handwork in the pieces she chose for her archive.

The dresses and accessories that Sandy’s chosen to donate to the Met are pristine – a tribute to her true love, appreciation, and care for couture masterworks. She didn’t collect to wear the clothes, but to preserve and admire them as genuine works of art – duchess satins, intricately painted velvets, and incredible beadwork from the best French embroidery houses. Take a look some of the details close-up in our Flickr album.

A transition to ease – a lavish 1913 evening dress by Jean Victorine Margaine-Lacroix for the House of Margaine-Lacroix

The beautiful show opens with an array of postwar couture by superstar designers Dior, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent alongside creations by less shown couturiers, such as Jean Dessès and Jacques Griffe. It’s a joy to behold Sandy’s reverence for sumptuous fabrics and dramatic silhouettes.

It’s equally exciting to encounter lavish early 20th century gowns and discover new names, such as Madeline & Madeline or Jean Victorine Margaine-Lacroix, who were blazing the trail for a new kind of liberating dress for women at the same time that suffragettes were marching to gain the vote. Sandy’s gift brings these ground-breaking female designers into the Met’s collection for the first time, too.

The show also calls attention to at-home ease and glamour of the Thirties from innovative, sought-after American female designers – a tea gown of simplified perfection by Jessie Franklin Turner (who Poiret called “a genius”) and a virtually sheer dinner dress by Valentina created from layers and layers of netting.

1939 chiffon tea gown by Jessie Franklin Turner and 1940 net dinner dress by Valentina

Both pieces show masterful construction, nearly invisible handwork, and style that enabled an understated hostess to sweep through her own private event like a movie star.

The back of the gallery showcases some of Sandy’s earliest acquisitions – nearly a dozen coats, dresses, and capes from the Twenties by two legends of textile magic – Fortuny and Maria Monaci Gallenga. Each had their own secrets techniques for applying intricate, metallic Renaissance-inspired patterns on lush velvet and silk. The creations are a master class in artistic dressing.

Many couture feats demanding close examination are encountered in the third major portion of the show – delicate flowers on a tulle dress by Vionnet, diaphanous, layered embroidered chemises by Boué Soeurs, and sparkly flapper dresses by Poiret and others that are beaded beyond belief and look as if they were made yesterday.

1925 lame and lace dress by Paul Poiret and 1925-28 evening dress with paillettes, beads, and crystals

There’s a tongue-in-cheek gallery with Sandy’s collection of sartorial puns from the Eighties by Stephen Sprouse and Patrick Kelly, alongside and fool-the-eye hats and accessories by Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy. (Turkey feathers painted to look like butterflies, anyone?)

Alongside a watercolor portrait of Sandy, there’s another hint to what her collecting will add to the Met – a works-on-paper collection from the early 20th century, featuring pen-and-ink illustrations that were how fashion houses showed their clients what each season had to offer. It will be exciting to see more from the print portfolio that Poiret created with star illustrator Georges Lepape for his best clients.

Enjoy this brief glimpse into a space where Ms. Schreier’s gift provides beauty, delight, and reverence for masterful makers around every corner.

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.

Cardin Sees the Future Through Fashion

The Brooklyn Museum’s latest blockbuster fashion exhibition Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion, open through January 5, presents the work of a French designer who continues to be inspired by the belief that simplicity, design, and science are essential ingredients for a world that lives in peace, treats men and women equally, and looks to the horizon.

Geometric minidresses and men’s ensembles worn with tights and over bodysuits from the revolutionary 1964 Cosmocorps collection

Cardin came of age as a designer in the 1950s creating luscious swing coats, lasso-backed draped suits, and prim (but red-hot) looks for Jackie Kennedy. But he shot to “influencer” status in the early 1960s with unisex looks, bodysuits, collarless jackets for the Beatles, reliance on a fashion-forward Japanese model, turtlenecks (for men and women), hoods, felt helmets, and body jewelry – in other words, all the basic building blocks that would be used to clothe the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

1957 “lasso back” suit, 1968 bodysuit ensemble, and Cosmocorps photo with video showing the unisex Star Trek costumes it inspired in 1966

The Brooklyn show begins with a chronology of Cardin’s young life – soldier, costumer, and Christian’s first employee at the House of Dior in 1946 – but rapidly gives way to a sensational array of tubular, unisex clothing from his mind-blowing Cosmocorps collection, which had so much impact on Sixties culture. Take a look at our favorites in Flickr album.

1968 wool and vinyl minidress, 1966 aluminum statement jewelry, a 1970 wool crepe “Kinetic” dress, and Avedon photo of Penelope Tree wearing a 1968 evening dress and collar

Although several other European designers could be credited with the evolution of the miniskirt, no one channeled the Space Age like Pierre Cardin when it came to shape, form, and use of new fabrics and materials – lenticular plexiglass, vinyl, Dynel pressed into 3D forms and shaped for the body, and parabolic structures that underpinned evening gowns, men’s jackets, and skirts. Pierre even went so far as to visit Houston and slip on an Apollo 11 astronaut’s suit.

1969 lenticular plexiglass and vinyl “armor” dress, 1968 heat-molded Dynel dress, 2007 jersey coat and suit with rubber, and 1991 jersey evening ensemble with parabolic shoulders and hat

It’s clear that the Sixties and Seventies fashions in the show reflect what was going on in the art world at the time – bright, bold colors of Pop Art, pared-down minimalism, an embrace of non-traditional materials, and kinetic art. (Carwash dresses, anyone?)

Even Cardin’s forays into furniture design reflect his belief that his hand-made contemporary works genuinely functioned as art first and utilitarian additions to the home second.

1968 circle coat and hat, next to 1979 Junior Unit, and 1977 Serge Manzon lamp

The final gallery in the Brooklyn show is a darkened room populated with mannequins in shimmering gowns and suits, electrified dresses and sportswear, and pieces embellished with parabolic hoops and flourishes – sheer Space Age magic. Slight swoops across the space, framing the last 20 years of Cardin’s output with an other-worldly, visionary feel.

2008 evening dress with parabolic hem, 2003 evening gown with plastic tubes, 1994/2000 velvet evening dress with Swarovski crystals on the orbital sleeves, and 2013 silk/lame evening dress with Swarovski crystals

A surprise inspiration is the revelation that Cardin at 97 is still designing and looking toward the future.  His predictions? That people will be on the Moon in 2069 wearing his Cosmocorps look, women will be sporting tube clothing and Plexiglass cloche hats, and that men will be wearing kinetic tunics and elliptical trousers.  Why not?

Watch as the curator explains how Cardin envisioned the future…

…and why this retrospective of his work is just right right now:

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

MoMA Activates Sensory Landscape Daily

Large moveable sculpture covered in tiny bells

MoMA’s open again, and as the sun comes down daily, a sparkling, tinkling, gleaming landscape created by Korean multimedia artist Haegue Yang comes alive in the Museum of Modern Art’s multistory atrium.

Giant, stylized animalistic sculptures glide across the space, carefully guided by a black-clad dozen performers who appear every day at 4 p.m. for the one-hour activation.

Handles is a dreamscape world, where six large sculptural pieces inhabit an atrium enlivened by reflective biomorphic shapes climbing playfully up the walls.

When the performers move them, the giant sculptures, sheathed in a neat layer of bells, subtly chime to a soundtrack of tweeting birds and a tranquil symphony. Magic that soothes museum goers into a contemplative state.

A team of performers activate the installation daily

The piece reflects Haegue’s growing interest in using choreography and sound to build a sensory experience for art viewers. Gradually, she’s incorporated performers moving in geometric patterns, pulling oversized sculptures across and around the space, in a modern take on utopian Triadic Ballet-style movement.

Environmental phenomenon, geopolitical stresses, and modern art pioneers all factor into her work. Read MoMA’s interview with her here.

There’s plenty of time to see Handles, which will be activated for MoMA visitors through April 12, 2020.

See more photos of the installation on Flickr and watch a few moments of the performance here.

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: