Catholic Inspiration for Fashion at the Met

Balenciaga’s 1967 silk wedding dress in the Romanesque Chapel at the Met Cloisters

The brilliant installation of haute couture in the historic halls of the Met Cloisters, Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, closing October 8, also serves as a surprising showcase for the spectacular medieval art residing in the same space.

Curator Andrew Bolton’s thoughtful placement and narrative creates a genuine conversation between European couture and religious-themed works made over 500 years ago at both the Cloisters and the Met’s Fifth Avenue location.

The Cloisters show starts spectacularly with Balenciaga’s 1967 wedding dress dramatically casting shadows across the floor of the largest room at the Cloisters, the Romanesque chapel with its outsized arch and crucifix.

Closeup of Jean Paul Gaultier’s 2007 evening ensemble printed with 15th c. image of the Virgin by Jean Fouquet.

The jeweled pieces of German stained glass are echoed by Gaultier gowns, and Craig Green’s avant-garde ensembles created from Islamic prayer rugs are at home amidst the 13th century tapestries in the Hall of Heroes. Looking at each contemporary expression fully reflects the magnificent artwork resting just a few feet away.

Hidden spaces, leafy cloisters, underground tombs, light-filled corridors, and dark, secret corners of the Treasury all provide surprises and context for exploring visitors – Valentino’s Garden of Eden dress, Galliano’s Machiavelli gown for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana’s gold silk-and-metal macramé wedding ensemble, and McQueen’s crown-of-thorns headpiece.  Seek and you will find.

Sleeve detail of monastic paper taffeta 1969 evening dress by Madame Grés.

Take a look at our Flickr album to see many close-up the details of all the clothes and surrounding artwork.

The Met has gone all out to make the connections between clothes and the Catholic themes explicit, providing innovative high-res photos, several brief videos and blog posts. Read more about the themes here.

Andrew Bolton, the show’s curator, gives an overview of all the inspiration and documentation of the exquisite clothing, jewelry, and inspirational art work in the show in this video here.

Closeup of Olivier Theyskens’ 1999 evening dress with a hook-and-eye closure in the shape of the cross. From the Crusades section of the show in the Gothic Chapel.

Click here to walk through every room of the Cloisters with Andrew Bolton and hear him explain how he made the selections according to the surrounding artworks.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

The Fifth Avenue portion of the show is, like so much of Catholic pageantry, more of a public event, filling the Medieval hall with fashions inspired by angels, secular clergy, nuns, Mary, and saints, all dominated by an Ecclesiastical Fashion Show.

Highlights include a procession of works from Gianni Versace’s last collection, Gaultier’s hologram votive dress, Mugler’s floating angel, and the loft high above it all, populated by ethereal figures wearing choir robes by Balenciaga.

1984 dress by Thierry Mugler from his Winter of Angels collection, part of the Celestial Hierarchy at Fifth Avenue

Here’s a link to the Met’s walkthrough video.

An important part of the Met’s undertaking is a spectacular mini-exhibition of incredible works of clothing art from the Vatican, which took significant negotiation. Here, Andrew shows highlights of the items on loan from the Vatican, some of which have never been displayed abroad before.

Walk through the Met’s Vatican section of the show here.

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:

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

Nick Mauss Brings NYC Modern Art/Dance Influences to Life at The Whitney

Dancers strike poses inspired by the surrounding works of art in a piece collaboratively choreographed with Nick Mauss

Cecil Beaton’s 1937 Vogue photo of poet Charles Henri Ford in a costume by Salvador Dali

Go when the dancers are there. Entering Nick Mauss: Transmissions, installed on the top floor of the Whitney through May 14, you’ll see them moving behind a transparent scrim as the elevator doors open.

The artist had a vision and the Whitney curators gave him the freedom to scour their deep-storage archives, delineate a space for dancers, install works of art, and write scintillating details about the fruits of his research.

Nick’s vision was to create a visual conversation about the collisions between modern art and dance in New York between 1930 and 1950 – a time when bon vivants, peripatetic painters, scandalous artistes, and boundary-pushing dancers expressed themselves in every manner possible.

He succeeds spectacularly. But the show isn’t laid out in a chronological manner like a history show. It’s more of a curated, free association experience that genuinely works.

Visitors encounter Whitney works that are almost never displayed, photos from the Kinsey Institute, works from the NYPL’s Jerome Robbins Division archive, ephemera from personal collections, and Nick’s own creations.

1928 dancer-inspired sculptures by Elie Nadelman stand in front of Nick’s mirrored mural.

Nick’s put a quartet of live dancers at the center of the swirl, encouraging and challenging visitors to explore clues surrounding them – private artistic photos, Diaghilev’s calling card, costume designs by Dorothea Tanning, a video of Balanchine in rehearsal.

As dancers quietly assume poses, visitors are left to move about and make their own connections. Do the dance poses echo the quiet Gaston Lachaise or Elie Nadelman sculptures, or the over-the-top expressions of NYC ballet superstars in Carl Van Vechten’s slide show splashed across the opposite wall?

Nick’s research unearthed an extraordinary wealth of information about relationships among artists, cross-currents of artistic influence, intimate social circles, and gay life. His idea was to inject a little more color to the American modern-art narrative.

One of 830 slides taken of American Ballet Theatre dancers by Carl Van Vechten, America’s first dance critic.

When the Whitney staff read the captivating associations that Nick uncovered as he selected objects for the installation, they decided that it was too rich to simply identify things in the traditional cut-and-dried museum label card format

The curators mounted Nick’s extraordinary background stories next to the artworks, photos, stage set mock-ups, and costume designs to let visitors get inside Nick’s head and share in his fun.

The stories – like the dance quartet – encourage visitors to connect their own knowledge about the origins of modern dance and modern art in New York with what they see and read:

What impact did modern dance pioneers Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Denis have on 1920s sculpture? How did a Ballet Russe-obsessed cultural impresario convince George Balanchine to start the New York City Ballet?

Reflected in Nick’s mirrored mural, a monitor shows videos of Balanchine rehearsing the New York City Ballet.

What was a sophisticated dance critic doing in his studio with props, costumes, Agnes de Mille, and stars of the New York ballet world?

The beauty of Nick’s installation is that people wandering about the space are able construct their own visual and mental narratives and understand the swirl of modernism from that time in a new way. Take a look at our Flickr album to view some of our favorite works in the show.

The choreographed piece was developed collaboratively by Nick and the dancers. The complete experience is poetic, revelatory, interactive, and constantly in motion.

The dancers perform from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and also on Friday nights from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Here’s a short clip of the quartet of dancers performing in the gallery:

And another short clip of duets:

Club 57 Rejects at MoMA 35 Years Later

Music poster for Club 57

They didn’t fit in to any of the scenes back in the Eighties, but now they have their own show at MoMA in a basement club all their own – just like in the old days.

Entering Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983, on view at the Museum of Modern Art through April 8, you’ll be required to find the right way downstairs, peek behind curtains, and lurk around corners where transgressive, challenging art is on display.

The show is a tribute to the ultimate DIY art scene in Alphabet City at a time in New York when things were just plain tough.

Housed in the basement of the Polish National Church on St. Mark’s Place, the misfits invited their friends to imagine and create performance art on a regular basis.

Klaus Nomi’s cape, from his 1978 New Wave Vaudeville finale

Although Danceteria and The Pyramid Club were contemporaneous music scenes, Club 57 was the place to create characters, imagine scenarios, revel in kitsch, celebrate “bad” art, and create performance art or a DIY film festival every night.

The kids – many classmates from School of the Visual Arts – created and handed out flyers to entice the adventurous to witness the uncensored experimentation.

It’s where Keith Haring, Joey Arias, Ann Magnuson (MoMA’s guest curator), and others spent their formative years dressing up, wigging out, and pushing boundaries.

The show displays ephemera from those years and experiments, from Klaus Nomi’s transparent cape (when he appeared as the closing act in New Wave Vaudeville in 1978) to Clayton Patterson’s flyers based on the latest in new technology in 1983, the color Xerox. See it, start to finish, in our Flickr album.

Kenny Scharf’s recreation of his 1979 Cosmic Closet

The installation is on two levels, but downstairs is where it’s all happening. Silkscreened posters by John Sex poke out of the dark. A secret hideaway reveals Kenny Scharf’s black-light psychedelia “Cosmic Closet.”

Hand-crafted calendars by Ann Magnuson illustrate the variety of activities that took place nightly – film screenings, performance, music, and lady wrestling.

Collaged and Xeroxed zines, drag performances with small casts of thousands, and graffiti art jolted life into a subculture struggling to make ends meet, live in a city clawing its way back from financial ruin and high crime, and trying to make sense of the mysterious illness that was plaguing the gay community.

Richard Hambleton’s 1983 Shadowman series

One person’s trash is another one’s art. And the reverse is true — Basquiat was busy sprinkling his moniker all over the decaying walls of the East Village, and Richard Hambleton’s epic Shadowman paintings were popping up in the neighborhood where you’d least expect them. The street and the art were in an ever-renewing cycle.

This immersive journey back in time is stupendous. Be sure to hang out in the basement to watch two or three of the videos from Club 57’s heyday.

For now, take a walk through the show with Frank Holliday, one of the founding members of Club 57.

Also, watch and listen to the artists recollect club experiences during MoMA’s opening night party.

Basquiat: A Singular Sensation

Visitors contemplate Basquiat’s 1982 Untitled

One painting in a white room in a quiet corner is all anyone really needs to contemplate the life, art, and brilliance of Brooklyn’s most celebrated art-world superstar, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Lest anyone underestimate the reverence in which art fans hold Mr. Basquiat, just observe which paintings are the biggest selfie magnets at The Armory Show or in the survey galleries at MoMA.  You’ll see a constant stream of excited fans posing one by one to record their presence with any canvas by Jean-Michel – rough, gestural, colorful, graffiti-smeared, topical, socially conscious, channeling voices and ideas in a way that’s his alone.

The Brooklyn Museum’s 2005 retrospective of Basquiat was just like that – legions coming to celebrate one of the borough’s greatest stars. Now the museum’s turned the tables – giving everyone a view of their favorite son in a completely different, audacious setting.

“Untitled”, the focal point of the show, acrylic and oil stick

One Basquiat, on view through March 11 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, provides an almost church-like atmosphere with stark white benches reverently set where fans can sit quietly and contemplate the work of this legendary Brooklyn artist. No flash, no drama – just you and a singular sensation by Jean-Michel.

Japanese collector and Basquiat super-fan Yusaku Maezawa paid a fortune for this painting at auction last May and decided to collaborate with the museum to spread the joy with other fans in Basquiat’s hometown.

Never mind that his bid was the sixth-highest ever made for a contemporary painting – when you buy something that no one else has seen in over 30 years, why not give props to its creator in the classy way he deserves – white room, solitary contemplation, just one work.

James Van Der Zee’s 1982 portrait of Basquiat

A few discrete wall panels explain Jean-Michel’s importance and context, and the little vitrine with his Brooklyn Museum junior membership card says it all about the artist-as-youngster. His mom enrolled him when he was six.

The show is lovingly bookended (outside the white room) with a monumental James Van Der Zee portrait of Jean-Michel and clips from a 1981 film showing the creative genius in action, making his mark on unadorned walls. See our Flickr album.

Get out to Brooklyn immediately to see the hometown hero’s work before it takes flight to Chibu, Japan.

Close up of Basquiat’s brushwork and drawing

Hockney Shows Flying Colors at The Met

David Hockney at the press preview of his retrospective

Through his entire life, commemorated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective, David Hockney has always let the colors fly, from his earliest years as a UK phenom to his most recent digital iPad sketches. Take a look in our Flickr album.

Hockney’s works are hung in chronological order in this big, colorful show, closing February 25 – the only US stop for this joyous celebration of one artist’s life.

The earliest paintings represent the time Hockney burst upon the UK art scene, going from grad student to gallery star in a hot second. Large canvases that explore the still-banned gay lifestyle are followed by colorful, joyful road-trip paintings that mix words, puns, flattened geography, and many exotic personnages of the American West.

Detail of A Bigger Splash, an LA acrylic from 1967

These works represent the launching pad for Hockney’s most iconic period – large canvases of lawns, pools, and sprinklers of growing and glamorous Los Angeles. Big flat Sixties spaces with blue or white water punctuated with remnants of abstract brushwork.

A gorgeous acrylic of Mount Fuji is drenched in Frankenthaler washes. It’s kind of a joke, since Hockney traveled to Japan to enjoy the scenery, but was so disappointed by all the industrial landscape that he settled on commemorating the trip by just doing a painting from a postcard and flower-arrangement guide book. Interestingly, Hockney’s Fuji-and-flower image holds the honor of being the Met gift shop’s best-selling postcard, outselling even Matisse’s haystacks or lily pads.

1990 oil Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica

Hockney’s biographical journey continues through galleries that are polar opposites – monumental, famous double portraits of celebrities and benefactors followed by a more intimate space peopled with little drawings of Warhol, other friends, and himself.

The color, size, and character of the rest of the work really crank the show up a notch. It’s like looking at Los Angeles landscapes, the Grand Canyon, or a friend’s colorful living room from the perspective of a drone hovering over it all. Every painting here makes a big, bold statement.

Hockney’s 2010-2013 iPad drawings

When the scale of the landscapes simply gets too big to manage (think Thomas Moran’s masterworks), Hockney just paints it all on a grid of smaller canvases that he can just hang in a grid. Brilliant solution .

The final room showcases Hockney’s most recent work – colorful iPad drawings. At age 80, he wakes up every morning, looks out the window, picks up the tablet, and translates his thoughts into bright, bold beautiful color.

Take a look with curator Ian Altaveer as he walks you through the show:

Divine Michelangelo at The Met

Detail of Zuccaro’s 1600 Portrait of Michelangelo as Moses

Crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been jamming into the galleries on the second floor to get a close-up look at rarely seen works by the Divine Mr. M – drawings, sketches, and sculptures pulled together from 48 institutions from across the world, including the Louvre and Queen Elizabeth’s own private collection.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, in New York through February 12, is a blockbuster that tells the story of the master’s life, loves, teachers, students, and clients from his early-prodigy works through portraits of the legend late in life through 200 works, reunited here in a once-in-a-lifetime show.  See some of our favorites on our Flickr site.

Although Michelangelo thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, the assembled works principally illustrate his mastery in two dimensions – red chalk and pen-and-ink sketches where sculptural illusions are built up on handmade rag paper in studies of nude models that would later make it into larger commissioned works.

Pen-and-ink study of a model for the 1504 Battle of Cascina

Although he burned most of this prep sketches, the 133 drawings that you see in the Met’s show evoke a studio-lab that might not be so dissimilar to Warhol’s Factory – assistants everywhere, celebrity-artists dropping in, muscled models ever-present, up-and-comers asking for guidance, and teams preparing large-scale cartoons for the next fresco that the master would finish.

Crowds make it necessary to visit the show multiple times to see all of the fine, delicate work and examine sheets where he would whip off a small drawing and ask his students to copy it. The small scale of so many works makes it easy to miss a masterpiece.

For many visitors, the high point is the spacious central gallery with a scaled-down replica of the Sistine Chapel hanging overhead and matching preparatory studies displayed below.

Red chalk study for the Sistine Chapel’s Libyan Sibyl

The crowd dissipates as people waft toward the drawings distributed across the floor. It’s quite a pleasurable path of discovery as you meet the earlier incarnations of the Libyan Sybil and even the Hand of God.

The Met curators have helpfully added diagrams to the label copy to help you find the section of the ceiling that matches the sketch you are perusing. Seeing the early and finished versions together is nothing you can otherwise experience, even if you travel to Rome.

The massive show includes several unfinished marble statues, luxury works by others that were inspired by Michelangelo’s better-known drawings, and an architectural model of his portion of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican.

Best times to visit this show at the Met are Monday mornings and dinnertime on Friday or Saturday, when the crowds thin out.

Look through works in the exhibition on the Met website, and learn about each section of the show here.

Get a preview before your visit by stepping through the audio guide of the show here.

Hear the curator Carmen Bambach speak about the joy of curating this show and how the master used drawing in his wider work:

Disorienting Delirious Art at Met Breuer

Detail of Jim Nutt’s 1967 Miss E. Knows, representing twisted expressions of Sixties angst

Do you believe that delirious times call for delirious art? This was the impetus for the Met Breuer to create “Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980,” to take viewers on an experience of vertigo, excess, nonsense, and twisted sensibilities through January 14.

About a third of the show is drawn from the Met’s own collections, but there are plenty of surprises around each corner – art from lesser-known artists who were channeling their times as well as little-known pieces from well-known artists.

The first rooms of the show explore vertigo by catapulting you back in time to the 1960s, when psychedelia and altered, fractured states drove artists to experiment and translate the feelings of social change and upheaval.

Peering into Robert Smithson’s 1965 Three Mirror Vortex

Works include the stunning, ultra-controlled, and visually disorienting op-art canvases of Edna Andrade as well as a fractured inside-out sculpture by Robert Smithson. You can even put your head inside of it and experience worlds within worlds.

In case you miss the point of all this early Sixties experimentation, the curators have the Met’s copy of Timothy Leary’s psychedelic tome on display, along with drawings done by his colleagues under trance-like conditions.

From there, the curators accelerate the feeling of delirium and disorientation by grouping works according to excess (read obsessive), nonsense (gibberish), and twisted.

Detail of Alfred Jensen’s obsessive 1978 work

You’ll see highly obsessive, ordered works, such as a monumental Alfred Jensen systems painting with rows of numbers caked in oil impasto and an all-white 3-D see-through grid installation by Sol Lewitt. All very precise but irrational, regardless whether the work is messy or clean.

Turn the corner and find that obsessive Kusama is at it again with her self-titled “compulsion furniture,” plastering an ordinary ladder with high-heeled shoes and who-knows-what. It feels as though her work is the opposite of the previous group, but it’s just as over-the-top.

Punched-paper details in Howardina Pindell’s 1977 collage

In a nice surprise, the Met pairs Kusama with obsessive, joyous, and glittering works by former curator Howardena Pindell, who channeled her experience of a 1970s African odyssey into an abstract riot of punched-out paper holes, colors, and stuff. Bravo, Howardena! (Note: Her work is also featured on the walls of the Whitney right now in “An Incomplete History of Protest.”)

The nonsense portion of the galleries feature word-play and an unusual early Oldenburg totem inspired by his old neighborhood – “Letter Tenement” is a mish-mash sturdily assembled from oil and rags. An abstract Stan VanDerBeek video pulses nearby.

Impermanence and found-object inspirations are represented by letterset, photocopy art, and large-scale works made from torn Parisian posters by Jacque Mahé de la Villegié from the Tate collection. Layers upon layers of jumbled, dazzling fragments that you can get lost in.

For a walk on the wild side, visit this stimulating show. Take a look at some of our favorite works on our Flickr feed, and listen in as the curator presents highlights of the show:

Surrealist Nature Walk and Space Trip at MoMA

One of 147 images from Ernst’s first collage novel in 1929, The Hundred Headless Woman

Drawn mostly from its own collections, MoMA’s Surrealist tribute show “Max Ernst: Beyond Painting,” running through January 1, takes visitors on a nature walk and space trip through the eyes of one of the 20th century’s wildest art innovators.

Ernst cross-pollinated his Data and Surrealist works on paper with his lifelong fascination with natural history, microscopic life, and the furthest reaches of the Universe. MoMA’s showcase of Ernst’s collages, mixed-media mash-ups, and books serve up science and nature in increasingly idiosyncratic ways.

Recovering from his years of service in the German army during World War I, the mysteries of nature, science, and outer space worked their ways into Ernst’s body of work as he founded the Dada movement and transitioned into a leading light of the Surrealist art movement.

Ernst’s 1921 overpainted and embellished science teaching chart.

In the first gallery, Ernst embellished and cut up found illustrations. At a distance, they look charming, but take a closer look. In a small work from 1920, he mixes a dissected beetle and a see-through fish with an illustration from a German military manual about how to conduct chemical warfare from the air.

Nearby, an arresting, colorful painting with meticulous writhing biomorphic forms, who seem to be dancing, is not what it seems. Ernst painted over an otherwise dull science teaching chart showing yeast-cell mutation, turning it into an absurd micro-world where microscopic forms dance, flirt, and carry on.

Slightly surreal bird frottage from Ernst’s 1926 Natural History print portfolio.

A 1924 “Natural History” portfolio in the show demonstrates Ernst’s use of his frottage technique. He creates visions of animals and plants by rubbing crayon on paper over different textured surfaces. It was his contribution to the Surrealist fascination with using unfiltered “automatic” techniques for picture making and novel writing.

Painted rocks, biomorphic forms, and cut-up illustrations made into surreal picture books are on display, along with a Moonrise work. Ernst took burlap, plastered it, spray painted a moonscape, and slathered on thick coats of paint. See this, his butterfly drawing and more in our Flickr album.

Ernst kept drawing inspiration from the natural world as he and his Paris collaborators fled World War II in Europe, tried to adjust as refugees in the United States, and ultimately returned to the Continent.

“Invisible to the naked eye, it appeared in its family to be the furthest from the sun.” An etching in Ernst’s 1964 art book 65 Maximiliana or the Illegal Practice of Astronomy.

The show closes with a magnificent portfolio of work from 1964 that is inspired by a nineteenth-century astronomer’s discovery of a small planetoid. Ernst seriously and whimsically considered what it must have been like to peer into the void of space and find what lies beyond our normal field of vision. In one work, he writes:

“It would be poetic to give the last planets 97 98 and 99 the 3 Fates Clotho Lachesis and Atropos not to cut the thread of research but to wrap up the first hundred of the little planets.”

Ernst spent his life pushing the limits on the edge of discovery.

Here’s a walk though Ernst’s fascinating work with MoMA curator Anne Umland: