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.

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

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

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.

The Met’s Deep Dive Under the Surface of Camp Fashion

2009 ensemble by Indian designer Manish Aurora.

The clothes are witty, glittery, and scandalous at the Met’s blockbuster fashion exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, on view through September 8, but make no mistake – the fun and frivolity are packaged (at least in the opening galleries of the exhibit) in a way that asks visitors to go deep beneath the surface and look at the three centuries of societal norms that provocateurs have shattered through style, clothes, and living large.

The kaleidoscope of outrageous fashion in the final gallery is the sensory payoff to the journey, but visitors who race through and don’t read the label copy in the first part of the show will have missed the point: the show is a chronology of how some brave (or rich) rule-breakers did things that have become stereotypes for gay and camp sensibilities and dress in the 21st century.

1998 ensemble by Jean Paul Gaultier merging menswear with a woman’s 18th c. corseted gown.

The pose of male models inspiring Renaissance bronze statuary, the balletic inclinations of Versailles’ Sun King, the cross-dressing Brit couple whose families shunned them, and the proclivities and scandals of literary genius Oscar Wilde are used to tell the roots story of “camp” sensibility that went viral in Madonna’s Vogue, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and Cardi B’s appearance in Mugler at this year’s Grammys.

To drive the point home, the curators have matched ancient treasures (Renaissance sketchbooks, Versailles costume sketches, and Wilde manuscripts from Oxford) with modern fashions by designers who spoof classical statuary (Westwood), out-do Versailles excess (Lagerfeld), and create dandies (YSL).

Peter Hujar’s 1975 photo of Sontag and her 1964 manuscript of “Notes on Camp.”

The beating heart of the show is the presentation of Susan Sontag’s 1964 listicle of “camp” sensibility. Her original marked-up manuscript is flanked by works and tributes by her fanboy Warhol.

Sontag and Andy hold court over a room filled with treasures of the Met’s collection that illustrate her definitions and classifications – Art Nouveau, 19th century Gothic sensation, 17th century court fashion, flapper dresses, Tiffany lamps, and wispy gowns created from all-over feathers. Dozens of divine objects are there to enjoy while listing to the stabbing rhythm of Sontag’s typewriter keys. It’s a brilliant deconstruction of her work that captivates visitors who diligently work their way around the room.

Judy Garland’s 1938 Ferragamo sandals and 2018 resort shoes by Alessandro Michele for Gucci.

A great approach is the “high camp” and “low camp” corridor, which illustrates designers’ unintentional icons of camp, paired with over-the-top takes and sartorial commentary.

Just compare Judy Garland’s Ferragamos with athletic-inspired Gucci resort shoes by Alessandro Michele, or Poiret’s 1912 touch of mink on an Asian-inspired evening ensemble with Mary Katrantzou’s blatant Orientalist snark in 2011.

An interesting curatorial decision: the celebrity fashion is not obviously identified – you have to “know” that it’s the Duke of Windsor’s evening suit, that the turban belonged to Carmen Miranda, or that the bejeweled Bob Mackie was worn by Cher.

Mugler’s 1995 Venus – an embroidered bodysuit + a velvet and satin dress.

Younger visitors have no trouble linking the vintage Mugler to Cardi B, but at least one young man pointed to a bejeweled suit and said, “That’s so reminiscent of Liberace” without realizing that the jacket had actually belonged to the iconic superstar.

The finale room is so packed with over-the-top couture and campy statement pieces that the IDs really don’t matter. It’s a Coney Island of camp with dozens of creations vying for your attention overhead, up and down, and in the middle of the room.

People wander every which way, trying to take it all in – a futile endeavor.  Even on the second, third, or fourth visit, you’ll find something you’ve never noticed before.

Fashions in the Camp Eye gallery, including Moschino’s TV Dinner dress.

The room is alive with color, quotes, cultural references, social statements, and an explosion of unconventional materials – Patrick Kelly channeling Josephine Baker’s banana dance, Jeremy Scott’s Moschino gown channeling Budweiser’s graphics, dresses that look like Tiffany jewelry pouches.  It’s over the top and all too much, which is the point.

Congratulations to the curators for presenting Wilde’s prison tome, De Profundis, on loan from the UK, and the vintage vogueing video that shows Pose fans the source material from the Harlem ballrooms.                                                                                 

Look at our favorites here. If you can’t get there, read the Met’s essays on each gallery, see their picks, and read the quotes on the walls.

Here’s the promo produced by the Met that explores answers to the question, “What is camp?”

And here’s a 2-minute look back to how this year’s celebrity invitees answered their invitation to the May gala. Bravo:

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:

MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors that turned the corner and entered the gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

New York Says Good-bye to Basquiat

Grid of 1982 works on the second floor

The toughest ticket in town for several months has been the free admission ticket to view the superb Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the new Brant Foundation art study center in the East Village, on view through May 15.

Since few have been lucky enough to get in the door, we’re giving you a peek inside through our Flickr album, featuring some of our favorite works on all four floors of the renovated space along East Sixth Street.

The show features over sixty of Basquiat’s works, primarily from 1981-1982. The paintings, drawings, and sculptures were created just after Basquiat stopped spray-painting building surfaces and doorways. It was a rough-and-ready time in the East Village, nearly a decade before the neighborhood became immortalized in the first draft of Rent.

1982 acrylic Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump

Basquiat became known to downtown New Yorkers by signing his ubiquitous graffiti with “SAMO”.  Although he dropped that signature in 1979, he never truly put away his spray can, shifting instead a more gestural mix of spray paint, crayons, and acrylics on wood panels and canvases that display his painterly genius, urban smarts, and social commentary.

The wide galleries and large, airy windows of the gallery space contrast to the voice and vision screaming out from every large work on the wall.

Section of 1981 oilstick and acrylic Per Capita

Many skulls, spirits, pop references, classical allusions, punky lettering, and gestural color are from 1981, the same year Basquiat had his first solo show in Modena, Italy. Per Capita brilliantly mixes sports, race, and economics with messy, riotous references to a deified African-American Olympic boxing legend and scratchy, handwritten national income statistics.

Basquiat’s 1982 work continues in the same vein – the year he was included in a prestigious solo show in glamorous Soho back home. The exhibition includes – but does not identify – the famous 1982 Basquiat skull painting acquired in 2017 by Yusaku Maezawa for $110 million, which was the subject of a one-painting show last year by the Brooklyn Museum.

1982 Dos Cabezas from a private collection.

The second floor displays a high-rise grid of Basquiat’s work from 1982, including a double portrait of himself and Andy.

Witnessing the scale and scope of this output by this 21-year-old genius is astonishing…just a fraction of the thousands of works he created before expiring just six years later.

Several later works are included. Two spectacular works from 1984 are Gold Griot, a magical man-spirit painted on a massive slatted wood panel, and Grillo, an elaborate three-dimensional installation on loan from the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which co-sponsored this exhibition.

Detail from 1987 Unbreakable, loaned from a private collection.

Unbreakable from 1987 finishes up the show just before you exit through the back door beyond the gift shop, walk between the ancient buildings, and emerge onto East Seventh Street.

Enjoy walking through the show here.

City Dreams by Bodys Isek Kingelez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail of 1992 Reveillion Federal, a temple to democracy.

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Statues Converse in “Like Life” at Met Breuer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.