Poison Packs Punch at AMNH Night at the Museum Adult Sleepover

The sleepover site under the Blue Whale

The sleepover site under the Blue Whale

The first-ever adult Night at the Museum sleepover at the American Museum of Natural History last night was a hit, thanks to the enthusiasm and star power of Dr. Mark Siddall, the curator of the fantastic exhibition, The Power of Poison, closing August 10.

Early in the evening, Siddall mingled with sleepover guests at dinner in the Powerhouse and later in a series late-night talks from the Victorian theater inside the Poison show where costumed performers normally show visitors how to gather clues to solve a period murder mystery involving poison. (Think “I’ve got poison in my pocket” from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.)

After dinner, the adventurers, some in costumes themselves, made quick trips with their stuffed animals to the cots under the Blue Whale and bounded up the stairs through the low-light galleries to reach the shark IMAX, live animal demos, fossil tours, and Siddall’s Poison briefings.

The Victorian theater inside Poison. Photo: AMNH/D. Finnan

The Victorian theater inside Poison. Photo: AMNH/D. Finnan

You had to pass through the always eerie Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians (hello, Komodo dragons!) to enter the magical kingdom of the Poison galleries.

Once inside, you were transported to a tropical rainforest, with golden poison-dart frogs under a dome, huge models of dangerous insects, and a toxin-eating Howler Monkey lurking on a branch.

Beyond the tropics, the show morphed into a land of make-believe…or was it? Tableaux with a sleeping Snow White, the witches of Macbeth, and the Mad Hatter were captivating, with the label copy bringing you back down to earth by explaining the role played by poisons and toxins in these scenes and what exactly witches’ brew contained.

Supplies for the toxic witches’ brew. Source: AMNH

Supplies for the toxic witches’ brew. Source: AMNH

A Chinese emperor (the one with the terra cotta army, no less!) ingests mercury in one diorama, thinking it’s going to give him immortality. Wrong move. Glancing down, you find out that as recently as 1948, mercury-laced teething powder was still being used on babies in the United States.

A spectacular illusion along the way is a magical set of Greek vases whose painted figures came to life to tell stories of how poison helped Hercules and doomed Ms. Medea.

The Magic BookThe lively vases are a prelude to the exhibition team’s greatest wonder – the Enchanted Book – a gigantic tome where ancient illustrations leap to life as you turn big, think parchment pages. Visitors could not get enough of that magic book. Somehow the AMNH digital team replicated it on the website, so click here to take a look at The Power of Poison: An Enchanted Book and turn the pages on line.

Here’s a glimpse of one story from the belladonna page, providing the backstory on how witches fly:

A lot of Siddall’s spectacular, magical, immersive, theatrical exhibition explains the science behind venoms, the “arms races” in the natural world, poison’s role in children’s stories, and how to analyze clues in solving murder mysteries.

Check out the Victorian-style introduction to Poison with Dr. Mark Siddall, its creator, and get a little taste of what the sleepover guests saw and heard.

To ward off any bad dreams about toxins or creepy crawlers, a lot of the late-nighters nestled in to watch vintage Abbott and Costello and Superman films and post Instagrams from the cozy, pillow-lined pit in center of the Hall of Planet Earth.

See the Today show’s recap (video after the commercial).

PS: If you can’t get to this show before August 10, download the iPad app, Power of Poison: Be a Detective that allows you to experience the last portion of the show. It’s been nominated for a 2014 Webby Award in the Education and Reference category.

Oldest Painted Theater Curtain in America on View in NC

The original 1858 William Russell Smith drop curtain, displayed in Thalian Hall’s Parquet Hall

The original 1858 William Russell Smith drop curtain, displayed in Thalian Hall’s Parquet Hall

Lincoln was prepping for his sixth debate with Douglas in Illinois when the curtain went up on October 12, 1858 at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, North Carolina – the same curtain, still on display, that is considered to be the oldest existing theater drop in America, painted by Philadelphia-trained landscape artist William Russell Smith.

Back in the 1850s, major theaters up and down the East Coast were in pursuit of the classically trained Smith to create romantic, ethereal landscape images on the gigantic canvas curtains that audiences saw when they entered opera houses. Typically framed by an ornate proscenium, the drop transported theatergoers to the work of make-believe, Moliere, and Macbeth – staples of the touring companies and troupes of the time.

Detail of original drop curtain, done in distemper on 30-foot canvas

Detail of 1858 curtain, distemper on a 30-foot canvas

Today, except for Wilmington’s Thalian Hall treasure, those grand masterpieces are gone, victims of time, decay, and impermanence like the superstars of yesteryear. It’s quite a miracle that Thalian’s original curtain has still survived, considering that it’s not painted in oil, but distemper – a less permanent, water-soluable medium, essentially colors ground into glue. When an artist applies the wet pigment, he sees the opposite color, which gradually turns into the “true” color when the paint dries. It’s a process that could only be executed by a skilled master, particularly on a 30-foot wide canvas. The surface of the curtain holds the granules (like a piece of paper holds pastel fragments).

Wilmington, NC’s Thalian Hall, built 1855-1858, one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the South

Wilmington, NC’s Thalian Hall, built 1855-1858, one of the oldest continuously operating theaters in the South

No wonder Smith purpose-built a huge studio in his home with poles that could be raised and lowered as he worked on a gigantic scale first with a charcoal sketch, then with distemper (move over, Chuck Close!). When Smith finished painting his commission, he carefully folded the canvas, rolled it on a long pole, and had it delivered to the opera house.

Thalian Hall received its long-distance delivery this way, because Smith never set foot in North Carolina. The new opera house was designed by New York architect John Trimble, who built Barnum’s Museum and many New York theaters of the mid-1800s, including the New Bowery. Smith’s curtain was the finishing touch, depicting an Aegean sailing ship arriving at classical islands filled with temples dedicated to Apollo, evoking commencement of the ancient Olympiad.

Detail of Thalian Hall's beautifully restored proscenium and box

Detail of Thalian Hall’s beautifully restored proscenium and box

The curtain was in service from 1858 until 1909, when a restoration was planned. Historians know it was hung again by 1938 (see the photo in our Flickr feed). It got hurt a little in the 1940 WPA renovations, and was known to be back in place in 1947, but disappeared after 1963. It was rediscovered in 1979, when Mrs. Juanita Menick, the president of the board, told the new Thalian director that she might still have an old curtain that she took years ago to her home for safekeeping. Thank goodness for those large, Southern homes.

Although only 15 feet of the original 30-foot drop remained, tribute was paid to the historic artwork. The fragile canvas was used as part of the set for Thanlian Hall’s 125th anniversary celebration, and now hangs, ready for its closeup, in the luxurious entry to the theater’s orchestra section.

Hear how executive director Tony Rivenbark rediscovered it, and watch historian David Rowland’s talk about the life of William Russell Smith (at 4:20), whose romantic landscapes of New England somewhat predated the Hudson River School; the imagery used in the magnificent theater curtains (at 30:22); and the astonishing discovery recently made in Smith’s grand studio (at 35:30) in this YouTube video.

Thalian Hall's balconies and orchestra

Thalian Hall’s balconies and orchestra

You can read more about the historic theater on its website (and check out the video on Thalian’s “thunder roll” device, another “only remaining in America” theatrical wonder). Glimpse more of this theater’s grandeur and photos of the illustrious performers who have trod its boards on our Flickr feed.

In Wilmington, you can view this remarkable piece of theater history any time during box office hours.

See New York Through Hopper’s Eyes

Hopper’s easel holds his painting, Early Sunday Morning (1930) at the Whitney.

Hopper’s easel holds his painting, Early Sunday Morning (1930) at the Whitney.

If you thought you knew about Edward Hopper, think again. The Whitney’s show, Hopper Drawing, provides surprises galore from curator Carter Foster, who has presented the museum’s trove of Hopper drawings in a fresh, new context. The Whitney has more Hopper drawings (made for his private use) than any other museum in America, and about half are up on the walls. Go before October 6.

Although Hopper’s representational work is considered by his fans to signify “realism”, Foster has unearthed and organized zillions of preparatory drawings that demonstrate that this is hardly the case. Hopper, as he often said, worked “from fact” but added improvisational touches that pretty much made the canvases perfect. A case in point is New York Movie, where one side of the canvas is “real”, and the other side is completely imaginary. His sketchbook from the Palace Theater proves it.

Whitney exhibition card showing map and 1914 photograph of the West Village storefronts depicted in the above oil painting

Whitney exhibition card showing map and 1914 photograph of the West Village storefronts depicted in the above oil painting

To prove this point, you’ll see the most famous Hopper paintings right alongside his preparatory sketches and sketchbooks to see his meticulous decision making process. Go to the exhibition web site (or our Flickr feed) and flip through images of Hopper’s iconic oils (such as New York Movie  and Chicago’s Nighthawks), followed by sketches and studies where Hopper worked out all the compositional kinks.

Hopper lived and worked right inside the row of gorgeous 1830s townhouses along Washington Square North. It’s a complete surprise to find that NYU still preserves Hopper’s studio intact, complete with his print press and easel.

Foster convinced NYU to loan it to the show, and it’s an electrifying reminder that artists once walked the streets of the Village and then came back to paint. You’ll stand face-to-face with the working easel that Hopper used to paint every one of his great works. Early Sunday Morning is perched, right where it sat in 1930, facing the Hopper’s other icon Nighthawks, on loan from Chicago’s Art Institute. The width of those canvases precisely matches the width of the easel.

Installation view of Hopper’s New York Movie (1939), on loan from MoMA

Installation view of Hopper’s New York Movie (1939), on loan from MoMA

So, that left a question: Where these real places, or fictions made up entirely in Hopper’s mind? Foster spent time trying to figuring it out, and thankfully the Whitney recorded the answers on its YouTube video. Take a walk with him and see the Village and the Flatiron through Hopper’s eyes back in the 1930s. You’ll never look at Nighthawks the same way again. Genius.

For theater fans: It’s not in the video, but Hopper’s sketchbooks are also filled with drawings of Times Square theaters — the Palace, the Globe (now the Lunt-Fontanne), the Republic (now the New Victory; formerly Minsky’s Burlesque),  and the Strand (where Morgan Stanley now sits).

Impressionist Line Ends at Frick

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899. Color-printed lithograph on cream wove paper

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899. Color-printed lithograph on cream paper

If you’re already nostalgic for the grand Impressionist show that ended at The Met, you can still find your favorites filling the Frick’s two downstairs galleries and the room next to the gift shop. While the Clark Art Institute (Williamstown, Massachusetts) was undergoing renovation, the Frick borrowed some of their finest works on paper for the gem-of-a-show, The Impressionist Line from Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec: Drawings and Prints from the Clark.

If you loved seeing Al Hirschfeld apply his pen and ink to paper in our last post, you will delight in perusing how lines by Degas, Manet, Lautrec, and Gaugin created a profitable niche in the rapidly expanding art market at the 19th century’s end. (By the way, Hirschfeld fans, who knew that Monet drew crazy caricatures to support himself early in his career? Claude’s Man with a Snuff Box looks like it was drawn in the 1950s…not the 1850s!)

Toulouse-Lautrec, Miss Loïe Fuller (1893), Lithograph printed touched with gold and silver powder. Source: Clark Art Institute

Toulouse-Lautrec, Miss Loïe Fuller (1893), Lithograph printed touched with gold and silver powder. Source: Clark Art Institute

Although a few politically charged works are in the show (like Manet’s 1874 print of the Commune uprising The Barricade), the majority are masterworks of portraiture, everyday life, cafes, and modern entertainments like horseracing, circuses, and boulevard promenades. Some of our favorites are Degas’s sketches of horses in motion and Lautrec’s circus-themed sketches that he drew from memory while in rehab.

If you can’t get to the show, the Frick web site allows you to peruse all of these works in detail (with the curator’s descriptions) by decade, by artist, or by the order in which they’re hung in the exhibition.

For sheer theatricality and delight, Lautrec takes the cake in this show, as shown in the images here. The hand-painted 1896 Lumiere Brothers film below shows silk-clad modern dance pioneer Loïe Fuller making the moves that inspired Lautrec to create dozens of experimental lithographs (sprinkled in gold and silver powder, no less!) of her abstractionist performances.

Yes, it’s all about the line.

If you have time, watch the video of the co-curator’s lecture about Impressionist line and how sketches, watercolors, woodcuts, lithographs, pastels, and improvised etchings created a revolution in affordable art.

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. Color-printed lithograph

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. Color-printed lithograph

Tony Week Pilgrimage to NYPL

Al's studio at New York Public Library of the Performing Arts

Al watches over his studio at NYPL for the Performing Arts

Tony favorite Kinky Boots is playing at the Hirschfeld, but as you contemplate the number of awards it will pick up Sunday night, walk over to the entrance of NYPL at Lincoln Center to pay tribute to Al himself. Peek through the window of NYPL for the Performing Arts to see the nook where every Broadway star since the 1920s had their portrait done –the studio of Al Hirschfeld, the man who immortalized them all.

Look through the window and you’ll see his drawing table, lamp, and the cozy, cushioned barber chair where he perched day after day, recording entertainment history over the decades with his unmistakable whimsical flair and line. The Lincoln Center library is a fitting home for Al’s studio furniture, since he consulted the NYPL theater archives for a lot of his work.

Liza in Minnelli On Minnelli (1999), one of more than 20 portraits Al did of her. In color for The New York Times. Source: Library of Congress.

Liza in Minnelli On Minnelli (1999), one of more than 20 portraits Al did of her. Source: Library of Congress.

It’s hard to believe that Hirschfeld first began drawing celebrity caricatures in the 1920s, and continued his illustrious career for the next eighty years. Click on this link to his dealer’s site (Margo Feiden) to scroll through all the plays and musicals he’s covered, documenting the quirks, panache, and performances of everyone from Fanny Brice to Martin Short.

You can click through the “time table” of Al’s work at the gallery site, or in the Timeline of the Hirschfeld Foundation’s website. Every drawing after 1948 was done from a cushioned barber chair in which he could swivel to his heart’s content. Initially, he found it on the Bowery for $3.00, but the one you’ll see in the Performing Arts library entrance is the replacement (the original just wore out), which he bought in 1993 from a barber shop in the Chrysler Building.

So, pay tribute to Broadway’s most beloved artist. And before we post about the Impressionist Line show at the Frick, why not watch a 20th century master of line make his mark so you can imagine all the creativity that emanated from the table you see in the window. The clip from The Line King, uploaded to YouTube by Al’s grandson, documents the legend drawing a caricature of Paul Newman as he appeared in Our Town. 

Liberace Sparkles at Time Warner

Purple Cuff

Dazzling rhinestones and teardrop crystals are providing the antidote to a rainy summer weekend inside the Time Warner Center, where HBO has installed Liberace’s piano, signature suits, and a tower of champagne to celebrate of the debut of the Michael-Douglas-as-Liberace pic Behind the Candelabra.

Up the escalators on the Third Floor, crowds were swimming through glitter Nirvana – Lee’s head-to-toe glamour looks: white cravats, bejeweled lapels, matching boots with rhinestone-studded heels, and the all-important cuff, which framed those flying ring-encrusted hands.

Purple BootsEnjoy it all in the Flickr gallery, because it’s all about the details. Besides, there’s no more Liberace Museum to visit in Vegas, so this is your chance to check out a bit of his million-dollar legacy.

Branding for the HBO film was everywhere, featuring giant pictures of Matt Damon and Michael D, but people mostly hovered about the glass cases to see look after look loaned by the barely-surviving Liberace Foundation.

RoadsterThere were no capes in sight, but plenty of fur-trimmed boots, beaded fringe, and a giant Swarovski crystal. Downstairs throngs were circling Lee’s rhinestone Duesenberg and admiring the bling on the Baldwin.

Check out the HBO movie, but run over to Time Warner to see (for real) what made this man a show business legend. Open 9am to 9pm through May 27.

Morgan Deconstructs Degas’s 19th c. Cirque-du-Soleil Experience

Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879. Oil on canvas. Source: National Gallery © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Edgar Degas, Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879. Oil on canvas. Source: National Gallery © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Long before Cirque du Soleil began selling $180 seats to eight shows in Las Vegas or Floating Kabarette came to Brooklyn, high society and avant-garde crowds were flocking to extravagant theaters on Montmartre in Paris to see the finest aerialists from Europe.

The Morgan Library’s exquisite micro-show, Degas, Miss La La, and the Cirque Fernandodocuments the meticulous work of Mr. Degas to portray the magic, daring, and wonder inside a 2,000-seat arena where he experienced the artistry of one of the must-see acts of 1879 – a mixed-race German aerialist who hung from a trapeze clenching an apparatus in her teeth from which she dangled a firing cannon.

As in the Met’s blockbuster show, Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity (which also features a circus-themed painting in its last gallery), the Morgan makes the case that Degas selected this subject because was associated with the height of fashion (along with café concerts and racetracks). Although this particular work was the only circus image Degas would ever paint, just tackling the dazzle and glamour of Miss La La dangling 70 feet in the air (before the cannon stunt) showed that he was capturing what was “happening” among high society and artsy types in their “modern” life.

A vibrant pastel study of the artist by Mr. Degas. Source: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

A vibrant pastel study of the artist by Mr. Degas. Source: Tate, London/Art Resource, NY

Although we can marvel at how well Degas captured this fleeting moment, the Morgan lays bare that this work was planned in meticulous detail. They’ve displayed preparatory works, sketchbooks, and even architectural drawings of the theatre’s interior that Degas created to work out the feeling, look, composition, and setting for this spectacular work. As Degas said, “No art was less spontaneous than mine.”

If you love Impressionism and theatricality, get over to the Morgan to enjoy the mechanics behind the creative process and flip through the digital version of our artist’s sketchbook (which was to fragile to be sent from France) right inside the colorful upstairs gallery.

Visit Mr. Degas and Ms. La La before May 12, when they leave for the Continent. (Sorry, no video, but here’s a photo of the star herself.)

Photograph of the artist, Miss La La (c. 1880). Albumen silver print. Source: Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University

Photograph of the artist, Miss La La (c. 1880). Albumen silver print. Source: Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University

Easter Parade with Horses at Grand Central

GCT security keeping an eye on the red horse

GCT security keeping an eye on the red horse

The colors, crowds, finery, and promenade in Grand Central is every bit as celebratory as the famed Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue, except there’s live music and horses. It’s all part of Nick Cave’s monumental performance Heard NY going on each day at 11am and 2pm in Vanderbilt Hall.

Get there early and take your cameras to see The Ailey School students don the two-person horse costumes, created out of raffia, to whoosh and swirl away to the drums and harp. Take a look at the Flickr photos of yesterday’s 11am performance.

Creative Time and MTA Arts for Transit have decided to use both sections of Vanderbilt Hall for simultaneous performances, so you have lots of options to see the 30 magnificent horses close up. Afterward, you’ll see the volunteers grooming the horses, so there’s lots of opportunity to check out the loving detail that Cave has given each of them.

Half of the 30-horse herd

Half of the 30-horse herd

The raffia flies, the dancers whirl, and it’s breathtaking to see the horses come alive before your eyes and cavort about with their distinct personalities. Even if you go to the Easter Parade at St. Patrick’s on Sunday, you’ll still have time to catch their final 2pm performance.  If you want to see another example of Nick’s work, check out our post on The Armory Show a few weeks ago. For now, enjoy this wonderful promo:

70s East Village and Catholic School Mash-Up at MoMA PS1

Glittery details from Thomas Lanigant-Schmidt’s 1986 collage, The Infant of Prague as a Personification of Liberation Theology. Source: International Collage Center.

Glittery details from Thomas Lanigant-Schmidt’s 1986 collage, The Infant of Prague as a Personification of Liberation Theology. Source: International Collage Center.

As a young gay runaway in the 1960s, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt landed in New York City, looked at the trash littering the East Village streets where he roamed, and felt a strange attraction to the cellophane wrappers, fabric, and other dumpster treasures he retrieved. This is the jumping off point for the glittery art retrospective at MoMA PS1, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tender Love Among the Junk.

From his years of Catholic schooling and altar-boy duty, it wasn’t a stretch for Lanigan-Schmidt to use his street stuff to create glimmering duplicates of chalices, patents, and other altar accouterments. Or to work in the occasional high-school or East Village gay-life reference.

Soon, dozens of precious tin-foil creations were filling his walls. Why not go for an entire transformation? He hung diaphanous painted veils, dressed in drag as a “Czarina Tatlina” (an art-world reference to Russian Constructivism), and began to offer tours of his Gilded Summer Palace to friends. Word of this trash-to-fantasy performance spread, and he soon had a group of fans, including downtown theater innovator Charles Ludlam and famed Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler.

Installation view. © MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus

Installation view. © MoMA PS1. Photo: Matthew Septimus

Get out to PS1 for this trip. The installation photo here gives you an idea of his brilliance. The area is decorated as a chapel with icons, pilgrims, brownstones, and 1950s school posters. The devotional ledges are packed with tennis figures, aerosol-can consumer products (Secret, Wizard), and Perrier bottles. The walls are filled with Smurf and Miss Piggy plates with bugs in between. And there’s a sort-of East Village Gregorian chant playing in the room.

You’ll enter the recreation of his Czarina’s Gilded Summer Palace and Sacristy of the Hamptons (1969), see many gold-foil Rats (yes, there was a time before gentrification on Ave B/C!), and read through his actual Catholic school workbooks. You’ll love the vibe of experiencing this in an old public school building, too.

As soon as you walk in the door, you’ll find a piece of paper with a copy of his 1989 essay “1969 Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats”, his first-hand recollection of the night that made history. So, take a walk back in time by seeing this important, unforgettable retrospective. In the meantime, enjoy a virtual visit with this former altar-boy/chronicler of the East Village past in his studio today:

Theatrical Staging Suits Dickens Characters at NYPL

Daria Strokous walks the Fall 2011 runway in Prabal Gurung’s gown, part of a collection inspired by Miss Havisham. Photo: Caroloa Gualnari/GoRunway.com

Daria Strokous walks the Fall 2011 runway in Prabal Gurung’s gown, part of a collection inspired by Miss Havisham. Photo: Caroloa Gualnari/GoRunway.com

This runway model is surely not from a Dickens novel, but her dress was inspired by one of his characters. NYC designer Prabal Gurung, who first read Dickens in his native Nepal, used Great Expectation’s Miss Havisham as his inspiration for his Fall 2011 collection.

Lucky for us, the New York Public Library curators selected this evocative gown for inclusion in their 200th birthday tribute to the beloved author – NYPL’s exhibit Charles Dickens: The Key to Character.

Entering through the dramatic red-swagged doorway, you step back in time to a drawing room loaded with cabinets of curiosities, a crackling fire, a hanging birdcage, books, seashell collections, taxidermy, a zootrope, tiny Doulton porcelains, and Dickens-related treasures from NYPL and other collections, including the infamous cat-paw letter opener.

These worlds within worlds are arranged to shine a light on the over 3,592 characters created by Dickens in his lifetime. Above the fireplace is a reproduction photograph of his little nephew who inspired the character of Tiny Tim. Other ephemera posted near the case with the wooden leg show Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, where Dickens toiled away as a child laborer himself, many years before creating the characters of the Artful Dodger, Fagin, and Oliver Twist. A revealing letter demonstrates why his own father inspired him to create Micawber in David Copperfield.

Miss Havisham illustration by Charles Green (c. 1877) and installation view of the NYPL show

Miss Havisham illustration by Charles Green (c. 1877) and installation view of the NYPL show

See this beautifully designed show, which also delves into the author’s passion for theater and his own performances of particularly dramatic scenes. The décor, the Gurung gown, the 1870 edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the 1867 ticket stubs from the Dickens reading tour, early films of his novels that you watch through peepholes, and photos from recent Broadway productions will have you sliding seamlessly back and forth through the last 200 years to meet truly remarkable characters.