World-Class Design Inspired by Natureb

Mischer’Traxler’s Curiosity Cloud installation

Visitors are immediately drawn into front room of the Carnegie Mansion to enter a magical environment in which insects appear to be fluttering inside hand-blown glass bulbs in the entry to Nature: Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, on display through January 20.

But it’s actually artificial insects that are creating the commotion, programmed to activate as a visitor approaches – all replicas of extant and extinct species of New York State created by Austrian design team Mischer’Traxler.

This Curiosity Cloud installation serves as the introduction to an expansive show that presents how innovative designers are applying new technical solutions inspired by nature to architecture, agriculture, textiles, construction materials, and robotics.

In cooperation with the Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade, Netherlands, the show highlights the work of over 60 international design teams who explore biomimicry, new materials, and artificial intelligence as they create solutions to climate challenges and sustainability in the real world.

2019 Fantasma”garment by design studio Another Farm from transgenetic glowing silk

Among the highlights, shown in our Flickr album – textiles printed by rain and pigment-producing microbes, a fruit tree grafted with dozens of fruit varieties, a biodegradable Michelin tire, a personal food computer, and a robotic bionic ant programmed to interact autonomously with other similar ants, just like they do in real life.

The showpiece on the second floor of the exhibition is the concept garment by design studio Another Farm from transgenetic glowing silk, manufactured by Kyoto’s Hosoo textile company. The silk was engineered by injecting DNA from bioluminescent coral into silkworm eggs and using it to create the fabric. Visitors used special glasses to see the other-worldly glow.

Another favorite is the Cosmic Web project by Kim Albrecht, based upon the scientific research on 24,000 galaxies. Take a look:

To spread the good work, the Cooper Hewitt and Cube are installing a portion of the show at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January, hoping to inspire global thinkers to look into the future of possibilities for a changing world.

Listen as one of the Cooper-Hewitt curators introduces the exhibition and hear contributing artists talk about their work in a video produced by ALL ARTS as part of the documentary series Climate Artists.

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:

Back in Time with Wolf Nation at the Whitney

1-4 Wolf Nation at The Whitney

2018 Wolf Nation video, featuring endangered red wolves in New York and evoking the vanished Lenape (Wolf Clan) of Manhattan and New Jersey

The darkened room with the plaintive cries of the wolves is the heart of Alan Michelson: Wolf Nation, at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 12, but the other three installations created by the internationally renowned Mohawk artist take you back to experience what the Lenapes saw over 400 years ago on the very ground upon which you stand.

It’s subtle and it’s outside the pace of today’s bustling Meatpacking District, so take your time and slow down.

1-1 Wolf Nation at The Whitney

Sapponckanikan (Tobacco Field) that allows visitors to walk among ritual tobacco plantings in the museum lobby, near the Lenape’s original field

The first experience is right inside the entrance – an augmented reality (AR) piece that transforms the busy lobby into a tobacco field that historians say was planted over 400 hundred years ago by the Lenape people where Ganesvoort Street ends today.

Through an iPad (or by downloading AR co-creator Steven Fragale’s app), visitors can watch and walk through a field of lush tobacco plants that the original inhabitants of Manhattan used for rituals and ceremonies.  Different from the commercial tobacco that was grown for export, the virtual plants are based upon the type grown by Michelson’s sister in her upstate garden.

It’s an effective experience that causes visitors to stop and think about nature, history, indigenous cultures, and cycles of life in an ultra-modern, hyperactive environment that is typically untethered to the ancient or natural.

On the fifth floor, the experiences continue in a hallway and theater just off the Rachel Harrison retrospective.

1-5 Wolf Nation at The Whitney

Mt. Vernon-inspired wallpaper backdrop for 2019 Town Destroyer AR installation that evokes memory of 1779 destruction of the Haudenosaunee people in New York State

A second AR installation, Town Destroyer, uses a genteel, upscale, Mount Vernon-inspired colonial interior to educate visitors about a particularly gruesome removal of 60 settlements of Native people during the early years of the American Revolution in upstate New York.

The wallpaper image of General Washington becomes a 3D marble bust when seen through the AR app, upon which is projected a map of the lands taken from the Haudnosaunee, upon his orders, by the Sullivan Expedition in 1779. Projections of State historical markers tell the sad tale, reminding viewers of the forgotten history of displacement, violence, and greed endured by New York’s First Nations…even at the hands of our Revolutionary heroes.

Visitors who see the installation rush over to read the label copy to get better informed about this forgotten history and to wonder what else was left out of American history books about the vanquished people.

Wolf Nation_AR Images

Historical markers and maps about 1779 Continental Army aggression against Native Americans in Town Destroyer AR installation

The large, comfortable dark theater has an enormous wide-screen video of several of New York’s most endangered species – red wolves. You’re seeing them at night in their native habitat upstate, or so it seems. In actuality, you are seeing residents of a captive breeding colony maintained in the hopes of increasing the remaining population of 17.

It looks like a mysterious nighttime scene, shot with a surveillance camera. The pace is slow, with different members of the group arriving, listening, and leaving, fully alert. Sounds of their calls in the distance fill the room.

The effect is hypnotic, allowing viewers to slow down, see the wolves at their eye level, and reflect upon status of our indigenous wildlife and people.  The Lenape, who first colonized Manhattan and New Jersey, identified as Wolf Clan. The color and shape of the cinema projection evokes wampum, the purple and white clamshell beads strung by the Lenape as gifts or to seal treaties.

All of Michelson’s work here requires visitors to slow down their pace and see their surroundings through the eyes of people who stood right there 400 years ago.

1-3 Wolf Nation at The Whitney

Shattemuc video in which a boat’s searchlight illuminates the Hudson River shoreline at night

Shattemuc, a quiet video does just that.  Sit for a while, and see what the Hudson River looks like, illuminated only by a circle of light from a boat that is making its way slowly through the waters in the dead of night. No skyscrapers, no water taxis, no giant clocks.  Just shoreline, trees, cliffs, an occasional small settlement, small boats, and a small, up-close personal feeling.

Then later, as you take in the magnificent view Hudson from the west windows of the fifth-floor Whitney, Michelson’s work allows you to envision what the Lenape saw.

So, despite the distance in time, did Native Americans truly vanish from the shores of New York? Actually, the city today hosts one of the largest populations among big cities in the United States, including many working artists and cultural scholars.

Michelson is one of the leading voices advocating that museums and galleries reflect the work of the first Americans, and congratulations to The Whitney for making this a priority. See Michelson’s seminar on this here.

Urban Indian: Native New York Now at the Museum of the City of New York, running through March 8, testifies to the continuing vibrancy of the First Americans in the cultural capital.

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.

Women Rise Up for Cruelty-Free Hats

1885 satin evening dress embellished with swans’ down. Collection: Brooklyn Museum collection, The Met.

While early 20th century American women were still lobbying for the vote, activists first scored a victory for the environment – convincing the United States government to change the laws to protect wildlife and lobby the millinery industry to remove the mania for birds and feathers from the fashion equation.f

The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife, running through July 15, presents a neat three-gallery exhibition that tells a forgotten tale of the citizen uprising and activism that led to a major environmental win for wildlife. Take a look at some of the items in our Flickr album.

The exhibition uses its Audubon watercolor collection to maximum effect.  The final gallery of the show displays JJ’s life-sized depictions of gorgeous water birds in their native habitats, providing an emotional counter-punch to the dozens of disturbing 19th-century hats, muffs, fans, and headgear adorned with plumage of the same creatures in the first gallery.

Must-have 1894 accessory, a gold aigrette with diamonds and feathers from breeding Great Egrets. Collection: MCNY

The show tells the story of the fashion feather craze that swept the world of high society in the 1880s and 1890s across America and Europe – a mania that resulted in large-scale destruction of birds, nesting grounds, and habitats. Destined for millinery shops in major cities, birds were shot and nests ransacked for exotic plumage, fluffy down, and entire bodies of wild and domestic birds that could be artfully arranged across shoulders and on brims.

Aigrettes, a delicate diamond-encrusted tiara, with wisps of egret feathers, were fashion accessories in extremely high demand. Hunters laid in wait for Great Egret males during mating season just to get these little wisps for the European and American trade.

Audubon’s portrait of the majestic male hangs in the final gallery. Its label states that in 1902, London alone received shipments of 1.5 tons of this wispy plumage, representing a sacrifice of about 200,000 birds and perhaps three times that number of trampled Great Egret eggs.

Audubon’s life-size 1821 watercolor of the then-endangered Great Egret. Collection: NYHS

Audubon’s Birds of the World could only be purchased by super-wealthy patrons, but smaller, individual prints of the massive, famous set were widely available and people loved them. Armed with binoculars and inspired by Audubon’s journeys, societies of bird enthusiasts took to pastures and woods to document and enjoy local species across the eastern United States from the 1880s on.

Gallery 2 tells the stories of these early environmental leaders, such as publisher George Grinnell who pioneered Audubon Magazine and Mabel Osgood Wright of Connecticut who used photography to document local bird species and educate others about them.

But even as they enjoyed the diversity of bird species around them, bird lovers, scientists, and environmentalists of the 1890s were horrified by the magnitude of the destruction.  Every fashionable woman on the street was wearing or carrying some accessory with a bird, bird part, or feather. The magnitude of the problem, they knew, was unsustainable.

Contemporary reproduction of an early 20th c. Audubonnet, which uses ribbons, not feathers

They faced daunting odds, since the millinery trade employed thousands, retail giants were benefiting, and the average fashionista simply didn’t want to know.

Emboldened by the activist strategies surrounding suffrage, the concerned women and men protested, lobbied, and offered solutions. One solution was the Audubonnet, a wildlife-friendly design approach that advocated dramatic ribbons and bows to replace wildlife on hats.

Copy of a 1900s newspaper ad selling featherless ladies’ hats.

By 1904, the fashion and retail pendulum swung in favor of the activists. Saks and Gimbels started promoting Audubonnets, and the industry agreed to abandoned the use of exotics and restrict itself to domestic birds and fowl, such as pigeons, doves, crows, hawks, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, and the like.

Buyers felt good about moving away from destructive fashion and sporting eco-friendly looks. The ribbon and artificial flower trade boomed. By 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed, banning bird hunting and killing and protecting all bird parts, feathers, nests, and eggs of hundreds of species.

Naturalists, scientists, activists, the Supreme Court, and Theodore Roosevelt all played a part in shifting environmental consciousness and politics of the time – a larger story than this exhibition tells but one that’s outlined in the first-floor TR galleries across the street at the American Museum of Natural History.

Audubon’s 1833 life-size watercolor of the Common Eider, once endangered by down gatherers disturbing eggs and nests in the wild. Commercial farms now raise them and collect their down.

The AMNH’s historic 1902 diorama of the Pelican Island water bird habitat, created to inspire New York audiences to protect endangered wildlife, is long gone from the museum.

But what a pleasure to see the NYHS Audubon watercolors continuing to do the job that JJ intended them to do — amaze, inspire, and bring the wilderness and the birds he loved to life on Central Park West.

Native Inventions in Spotlight as imagiNATIONS Center Debuts in New York

Sixth graders listen to explanation of Native American innovation map

The sixth-graders were having the time of their lives cramming into the rocking kayak, finding secret treasures from far-away cultures in the drawers, and comparing sturdy lacrosse sticks made from natural materials.

It was all part of the joyous opening day of the new imagiNATIONS Activity Center, on the ground floor of the Smthsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, right off Bowling Green in downtown Manhattan.

NMAI officials blessed the proceedings with percussion and chant, but the genuine thrill was seeing the kids pour into the new center to listen to and experience a new take on science, math, and engineering.

Tip of a contemporary surfboard – originally invented by Hawaiians.

When you walk inside, a wonderful wall summarizes the story – a map of North and South America populated with technical inventions by Native Americans over the last several thousand years! It’s a brilliant summary of the fresh ideas that you’ll encounter around the corner.

Although this sparkling, new, inspirational ImagiNATIONS Activity Center was conceived for children, rest assured that any adult museum lover will be blown away by discovering the technical innovation story too.

Although the first settlements in Manhattan and Broadway itself were created by native populations, city dwellers often get so overwhelmed by towering skyscrapers that they don’t immediately connect native cultures with what exists downtown.

Yup’ik kayak frame created by Bill Wilkinson of Kwigillingok, Alaska from spruce, cedar, driftwood, and walrus bone

OK, maybe no one is reading the news on steles in Mayan hieroglyphics anymore, but the much of the work displayed here is made by living, breathing native artists. The next time you’re stuck on a subway because of a signal malfunction, consider the fact that in the Andes, the community assembles each year to repair their chasm-crossing fiber foot bridges. Now, that’s a commuter maintenance plan!

Or consider that Arctic kayaks are custom designed to suit each individual’s weight and shape.  Or that cool surfer dudes in Hawaii are simply carrying on a wave-riding tradition that extends back thousands of years.

Cold weather waterproof kayak-hunting system

Every step makes you stop and think.  How is it that the Mayans were one of three cultures to invent concept of zero in mathematics? What brilliant minds perfected making waterproof parkas from carcass leftovers or salmon skin?  Or the engineering it takes to design watercraft that doesn’t tip?

Sixth graders learn how igloos are engineered.

The mannequin in the corner displays recently crafted components of “system dressing” for hunting from kayaks in freezing waters.  The parka has waterproof stitching and attaches to the kayak opening.  The visor includes walrus whiskers that aren’t just decoration – they transmit subtle, silent vibrations to the visor that tell expert hunters that their prey has shifted course.

Everything you experience in the center was designed to help teachers inject something new to supplement schools’ math and science curriculums. But the fun factor for learners of all ages is truly off the charts.

You’ll experience how all the significant contributions made by native people in food, architecture, sports clothing, agriculture, and engineering really add up in day-to-day modern life. You’ll want to get into the kayak and open all the drawers yourself.

Port Authority executive Janice Stein and colleague who loaned steel cables from the Bayonne Bridge

From attending the opening, we were able to meet the people from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who donated a piece of repair cable from the recently upgraded Bayonne Bridge for the engineering display. Perfect for seeing and touching to see how Andean fiber cables compare to urban steel.

We also heard the story of how the kayak overhead made a 4,000 journey on a sea plane, a ship, and a truck from the workshop of Bill Wilkinson in Kwigillingok, Alaska to Anchorage to Seattle and to New York City.

Take a look at our Flickr album and make a trip to the Battery as soon as you can. The center, like the NMAI, is free, fully staffed, and open seven days a week.

Exploring drawers of textile samples.

Take your own kids, your neighbor’s kids, or your inner child and get your hands on that igloo downtown and think about what you owe the people living south of the border for the invention of chocolate.

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:

Gold and Other Ancient Luxuries at The Met

Gold crown, headband, and ear flares worn by high-status person from Peru’s Northern Coast (Chongoyape), 800 – 500 B.C. Collection: NMAI, Smithsonian.

What constitutes luxury? Something wildly extravagant, made of expensive and rare materials, and incredibly intricate and beautiful.

There’s plenty on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, running through May 28.

The show, which returns to New York after a run at the Getty in Los Angeles, is a fulfilling journey that takes you over 3,000 miles through North and South America and across the years – from 1200 B.C. to the Spanish conquest of mighty kingdoms.

The star attraction is gold, which was hammered and fashioned into portable ornaments worn by high-net-worth individuals centuries ago. Crowns, ear flares, and nose ornaments from Peru’s northern coast, made sometime between 800 and 300 B.C., are on display right at the start of the show.

Front of a headdress from Peru (Moche), 300 – 600 A.D. Collection: Lima’s National Museum

But as you wind your way further through time and cultures, many more virtuoso works are displayed – a gold sheet octopus for the front of a headdress and the dramatic crescent-shaped burial ornamentation for the Lord of Sipán, both Peruvian pieces from the Moche culture made 600 years later.

In the center gallery, you encounter whimsical gold sculptures from Colombia made nearly a thousand years later by Colombia’s Muisca people, who “sacrificed” some of these precious items to the gods by tossing them into lakes or cenotes – a practice that unfortunately led the Spanish to believe that the mythical El Dorado really existed.

Incan tunics for votive figures, 1460 – 1626 A.D. From The Met, Field Museum, and AMNH.

Curators segment the show by highlighting the various approaches to luxury by different indigenous cultures – intricately woven textiles, feathered shirts and temple wall hangings, carved jade, monumental stone portraits of royalty, and even a lime container in the shape of a jaguar that is partly made from platinum.

Because materials were sourced so far from where the luxury items were crafted and preserved, the show weaves a rich tale of trade. Networks for jade far from Guatemala, tropical birds far from the Amazon rainforest, and ocean shells far from the dry Andean highlands.

Pair of gold, shell, and stone ear ornaments from Peru’s North Coast (Moche), 200 – 600 A.D. Collection: The Met

The mosaics, beadwork, and of multiple precious-stone inlay are dazzling, both in their visual impact and when you stop to consider the South American supply chain.

The magical properties of shells were acknowledged by everyone in these ancient kingdoms – from the rulers and lords that sported patterned multicolored shell collars to priests using shell-shaped ceramics for ritual offerings to everyday farmers who ensured sufficient rain by scattering broken shells in their fields.

Mixtec mask of spondylus shell, mother of pearl, and turquoise, 1200 – 1521 A.D. Collection: Italy’s MIBACT Museum of Civilization

Spondylus shells – the ultimate in marine adornment – only came from the oceans near Ecuador or northern Peru. Rulers just had to have them.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the level of artwork was at an all-time high. A particularly virtuoso inlaid Mixteca mask is shown toward the end of the show – one so beautiful that it came into the hands of Count Medici and is on loan from a museum in Italy.

Take a look at the beautiful items on the Met’s exhibition website and our favorites on our Flickr album.

See what’s behind the golden door by taking a peaceful video walk through this gorgeous show. All you’ll hear are the magical Mayan cenote bells:

Find out more by listening to the audio guide of the show here.

Americas Prehistory Revealed in Places No One Has Looked

Fun Greater Coclé monkey plate from Panama’s Rio Coclé del Sur (AD 700 – 850)

It’s easy to think that that prehistory in America is all about the grand architecture of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs. But the National Museum of the American Indian wants you to think differently.The current show at NMAI’s Customs House in New York, Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed, on view through May 20, takes you deep into the rain forests of several countries to show how colorful clay pots reveal a rich story of artistic complexity, style, and cross-cultural trends.

The achievement of the show – a multiyear exhibition that began its run at the NMAI in Washington, DC in 2013 – is telling a story through the humble material that nearly every village home knew how to shape. The everyday nature of the items stands in sharp contrast to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current Golden Kingdoms show that focuses on the luxury trade.  Yet, it tells a similar tale.

Mayan rain god Chaac makes an appearance on a Guatemalan incense burner (AD 250 – 900)

In skilled hands, artisans over the last three thousand years transformed their clay into whimsical daily objects, powerful ritual tributes, technological implements, and shockingly intricate storytelling media.

NMAI took a ground-up approach to uncovering history, focusing on six relatively unknown sites where discoveries are being made by universities and students in Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama.

The focus is on the pottery, although you also see jade pendants that the Mayans threw into cenotes as offerings in Guatemala and upscale gold and spondylus shell necklaces excavated in Panama’s Greater Coclé sites.

The show emphasizes the style that each cultural group brought  –Mayan incense burners from Guatemala with dramatic portraits of the rain god Chaac, storytelling painted vessels from Honduras, and vessels, plates, and icons depicting monkeys, tapirs, vultures, frogs, and birds of the surrounding rain forest.

Ulúa River jaguar-paw bowl from Honduras (AD 850 – 950)

The sites where these clay treasures were found functioned primarily as agricultural villages, not grand palaces; however, many sites show paved roads leading in and out.

The artistic and archeological evidence makes it clear that local artists were adapting and interpreting the lore, myths, histories, and styles picked up along the bustling trade routes through Central America, where birds, jade, gold, cacao, and humble pots were being traded, used, and refashioned.

Lempa River artists from El Salvador near Palacio, Cuscatlán made armadillo pots and lots of other animals (AD 900 – 1200)

You don’t often link ancient pottery and mass-market production, but at least one case shows a ceramic mold from El Salvador that was used by the artist to crank out Mayan-style pendants about 1,500 years ago.

There’s also a case showing how pottery stamps were used to embellish textiles even further back in time. These stamps are from Honduras and Costa Rica, but you can be sure that techniques to make your everyday cotton tunic a little nicer was fairly widespread.

View some of our favorite items on our Flickr album.

The introductory gallery of the show describes some of the early archeological activities in Central America, which were often spurred by the powerful agri-businesses (e.g. United Fruit) that set up shop in Central America in the early 20th century.

Examples of how pottery stamps were used to print fabric since 300 BC. Here, a Honduran monkey stamp and two others from Costa Rica.

The show makes the point that the next wave of amateur treasure-hunters in the Sixties and Seventies swept a lot of the archeological finds out of the county and into US and European museums.

Today, however, the NMAI salutes the universities, professors, and students throughout Central America that are discovering ancient histories in their own backyards and developing the scientific skills to contribute to the scientific dialogue about the past.

The show leaves you with a sense that the discoveries are just beginning. Watch this video and travel deep into the rainforests and meet the next generation of Central American archeologists on the cusp of making new discoveries:

Download the catalog here to see maps of the area and get to know more about bustling prehistoric cultural production centers you never knew, like the Ulúa river valley in Honduras and the vibrant Gran Cocle in western Panama.

2012 painted Lenca vessel from Honduras — showing that artists are still going strong after 2,000 years

The Skies Have It: Thomas Cole Paints to Protect Nature

Cole’s 1936 panoramic masterpiece The Oxbow – a call to preserve the rapidly disappearing American wilderness. Collection: The Met

Awestruck by the magnificence of nature, romantic painter Thomas Cole set out to create visions so powerful that they would convince development-obsessed American to preserve landscapes and vistas for future generations.

Although the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition chronicles his artistic journey, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, on view through May 13, the subtext of the show is how he leveraged the romantic thrill of nature for a higher purpose.

Cole was battling pro-development sensibilities back then, in the same way environmentalists are fighting eco-battles today — 200 years after Cole started sketching upstate New York.

Detail from Turner’s 1829 Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus that Cole sketched in London. Collection: National Gallery

The exhibition sums up how British painters in the early 1800s were rebelling against the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, how Cole romanticized the drama views of nature, and then took the techniques that he learned on his trip to Europe to turn his painting into a call to action.

The most famous Cole works showcased at the Met – The Oxbow and The Course of Empire – are from New York City collections, but the curators have placed Cole’s artistic development into a global context by showing us the powerful Turners and Constables that actually inspired Cole on his Grand Tour of Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. Visitors get to experience them as he did.

Constable’s 1824-28 expressive oil sketch Rainstorm Over the Sea. Collection: Royal Academy

The presence of these landscape giants is exquisite – enormous masterworks with overpowering skies, majestic vistas, mythological allegories, and poignant ruins. The show also includes ethereal and dramatic cloud studies that Constable did out in the open air – works that inspired Cole to do the same.

Back in America, he founded the Hudson River school of painting – the first great art movement of the United States — and encouraged students to learn from nature. They certainly did, as shown by the dramatic landscape paintings by Chuch and Durand.

Take a look at all 76 paintings and studies in the exhibition on the Met’s website and see closeups of our favorite Cole, Turner, and Constable paintings in our Flickr album.

Cole’s 1832-1841 paint box used when he worked outdoors. Collection: Bronck Museum

The Met has given The Oxbow and The Course of Empire series positions of honor at the center of the show. To prepare these six paintings for their showcase, the conservation team did investigative work that uncovered some insights to Cole’s thinking (the video below shows what’s beneath the painted surface).

In the concluding section of the show, the curators point out that Cole’s students and followers didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the preservationist instincts of their teacher.

Cole’s romantic vision of nature fell out of fashion (for a while), replaced by big-sky and big-vista landscapes that elevated the “beauty” of building roads, harnessing nature, and seeding new towns and industries.

Industrial progress in 19th-century America was inevitable, but the experience of seeing Cole’s unspoiled vision of wilderness still shows visitors that there is value in keeping up the fight.

Take a look at the Met’s insightful film about Cole, his inspirations, and what it was like to paint in the Age of Jackson:

And for a glimpse into what the Met’s curatorial team found, watch this silent movie about about Cole’s thought process as he created his masterpiece:

If you miss this magnificent show, you can visit the room where it happened at Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. More about that trip here.

Church’s 1849 Above the Clouds at Sunrise, a tribute to Cole