Tuesday, March 28, 2017

New York 2017 - Macy's Flower Show, Museums, High Line

With our membership to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Rich and I have reciprocal privileges that get us free entry into other participating museums around North America.  We made plans to go to the museums in New York that extended these privileges—the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.  On the second day of our trip, after completing our Lower East Side eating tour, our friends Yim and Murray planned to walk the High Line Trail, an awesome stroll along an elevated public park built on a historic freight rail line, high above the streets of Manhattan.  Since Rich and I had already completed this walk on a previous trip, we decided that we would visit the Whitney Museum and then meet up with our friends again for dinner.

Prior to going to the Whitney Museum, the four of us made a stop at Macy's Department Store to check out their annual flower show which just happened to be on display during our visit.  We are always impressed by the creativity and whimsy of the displays in the Macy's store windows, which may not even advertise any of the goods sold in the store, but instead, act as attention grabbers that demand your attention.   This time the windows were designed with a bright, bold and colourful carnival theme surrounded by plants and flowers that continued inside the store as part of the flower show.

The Macy's Flower Show is an annual event held for two weeks each spring at the marquee Macy's stores in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.  Beautiful floral displays, lush blooms, and exotic plants from around the world are set up on the ground floor in midst of all the merchandise.  Millions of people visit Macy's each year for this event.  It was just lucky that we happened to be in town at the right time.  Too bad we were not as lucky for some of our other plans.  In keeping with the carnival theme, there was a ticket booth, carousel ride animals, performers on stilts and more.

Rich and I were also fortunate to visit the Whitney Museum of American Art during their Biennial, which has been held every second year since 1932 and is touted as the "longest running survey of American art".  This year, 63 individual artists and collectives present works in the forms of painting, sculpture, installation and video, providing a reflection on current and historic cultural, social and economical concerns.  Reviewing the floor plan of the museum, we decided to take the elevator up to the top floor (level 8) and work our way down.  The top two floors featured exhibits from the Whitney's permanent exhibit while the lower floors were where the Biennial was held.  To our surprise, the elevator itself seemed like a work of art.  It was a huge freight elevator with high ceilings and walls painted pale blue with an image that looked like a basket weaving.  As the gigantic doors opened at each floor, they acted like a framing device that revealed the art on the walls of the galleries.  This was a really cool experience.

The exhibit on the 8th floor was titled "Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s", with works focused from that decade.  The 1980s saw the shift from art in major galleries to smaller artist-run spaces where avant-garde painters explored "new interpretations of abstraction" and addressed political and social issues such as war, gentrification, feminism, racial tensions and AIDS.   I had to look twice before I properly parse the large black letters on Christopher Wool's enamel on aluminum work to read the words "Run Dog Run".  This seems to be a play on the catchphrase "See Spot Run" in the Fun With Dick and Jane books.  One of the most provocative works in this section is Eric Fischl's "A Visit To / A Visit From the Island" which juxtaposes two starkly contrasting scenes.  On the left panel, a group of wealthy white vacationers are frolicking and relaxing at a tropical resort.  On right, a group of desperate Haitian refugees land on the shores of Florida after a treacherous sea voyage.

Robert Colescott's painting reimagines the "Three Graces", mythological Greek goddesses traditionally representing youth/beauty, mirth and elegance.  Drawn in a cartoonish manner, Colescott's three graces represent Art (holding a chisel and hammer that she uses to modify a sculpture of the artist), Sex (who holds Eve's forbidden apple in her hand) and Death (grasping a daggar).  Moira Dryer's wavy painting seemed just like another piece of abstract art to me until I read the title—"Portrait of a Fingerprint" and an "ahhh" moment came over me.

When I first saw Kathe Burkhart's pop-art painting, I saw the word "PRICK" before seeing the scene painted below it.  My first thought was that this was a commentary on some obnoxious male.  As I approached and read the description, I realized that this was a drawing of a scene from the 1959 melodrama "Suddenly Last Summer" featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff.  "Prick" actually refers to the syringe of truth serum that Cliff's character Dr. Cukrowicz is in the process of injecting into Taylor's character Catherine.  Walter Robinson took an archetypal scene from pulp spy novels and painted it on a floral-patterned bed sheet in an exploration of romance versus mass consumerism.  The secret agent looks a bit like Pierce Brosnan as James Bond while the damsel-in-distress is a generic blond.  Kenny Scharf created his work "When the Worlds Collide" in the studio of his good friend Keith Haring, so it is appropriate that it is hung on top of Haring's iconic imagery.  Scharf considers his style to be "pop surrealism", a blend of pop art with science fiction and animation.  He mixes both friendly and menacing cartoon characters with images of explosions, relaying his fear of nuclear catastrophe.  He wants his works to represent "anti-establishment" and be accessible by the common man.

To move from floor to floor in the Whitney Museum, we chose to take the stairs leading down from the outdoor terraces where sculptural works were on display and there were some great views of the Meatpacking district and of the start of the southern end of the High Line trail.  We stood on the top terrace for a while looking to see if we could spot our friends who were walking down from the north end of the High Line trail, but we were too early and they had not arrived yet.  On the 7th floor terrace, several sculptures of the human form act as a harbinger of the exhibit on Human Interest Portraits found inside.

The Human Interest Portraits exhibit takes an interesting, non-traditional survey of the concept of a "portrait", presenting a variety of mediums ranging from painting, sculpture, photography and even video to explore the definition and representation of a portrait.  Grace Hartigan’s 1954 painting Grand Street Brides recalls the row of bridal shops that once operated near her Lower East Side studio.  The expressionless faces of the brides comment on the social rituals and gender roles thrust upon women in the 1950s.  Gaston Lachaise’s powerful bronze titled “Standing Lady” is modeled after his wife Isabel.  Situated by glass windows inside the museum, the sculpture is flanked from the exterior terrace by de Kooning’s Clamdigger and Arthur Lees Rhythm sculptures. The photo “Man in Front of Poster” was shot by St. Catherines Ontario born photographer Ralston Crawford.  It is always a bit of a thrill to find a Canadian reference to art found in international art galleries.  Cory Arcangel creates sculptural portraits out of flat-screen TVs that display pop culture images merged with a computer generated effect of shimmering water which he titles “Lakes”.  His Diddy/Lakes work shows a still image of rapper P.Diddy emerging from an airplane while the pool of water wavers in front of him.

Traditionally a portrait is a rendering or representation of a person, often only displaying the face, head and shoulders.  An interesting section of the Human Interest Portraits exhibit explores the concept of “Portraits Without People”, asserting that you can still tell much about a person without him physically being depicted in the painting. Joanne Verburg’s seemingly innocuous photograph of a breakfast table with its bright cheery colours carries so much more meaning when you zoom in on the subject of the “portrait”—the missing children depicted on the milk carton.  Photographer Dorothy Norman’s portrait of fellow photographer (and husband of Georgia O’Keefe) Alfred Stieglitz focuses on his hat and coat.  One of the most touching person-less portraits is the one painted by Marsden Hartley of his lover, young German cavalry officer Karl von Freyburg who died at the beginning of WWI.  Motifs in the painting include German flags and possessions of von Freyburg including a chessboard, an Iron Cross medal, and insignias from his uniform.  Gerald Murphy’s Cubism-influenced “self-portrait” Cocktail depicts the contents of his cocktail tray in his home in France, making reference to his love for giving parties and mixing cocktails.  This fascinating exhibit brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a portrait, conveying so much more about the subject than a simple rendering of his image would.

The rest of the floors of the Whitney Museum were devoted to the 2017 Biennial.  The most elaborate installation was a site-specific piece created by Raúl de Nieves, who covered an entire wall of window panes with designs made of paper,wood, glue, tape, beads, and acetate sheets in order to simulate “stained glass” windows.  The top panels depict words and images of peace, hope and love while the lower panels convey scenes of violence and death.  In front of the windows, the artist has placed various figures elaborately decorated with colourful beading and other adornments.  The overall effect is quite spectacular to see.

Jon Kessler created two clever and elaborate multi-media installations that each comment on the environmental impacts of climate change.  Exodus” consists of a revolving round table densely populated with a variety of toys, figurines and miniatures (all apparently sourced from e-Bay) that he uses to represent the global issues of forced mass migration due to natural disasters or refugee situations caused by political turmoil.  An electronic screen displays images reflecting some of these factors.  His second piece called “Evolution” positions two youthful, tattooed mannequins decked out in swimwear and snorkel masks while surrounded by video screens displaying images of water and marine life.  The piece warns of the danger of global warming leading to melting icebergs and rising sea levels.  But it also comments on how the wealthy can ignore these issues by building taller waterfront skyscrapers, like the one that the female figure holds in her hand.  Karri Upson took an old, discarded sofa that she found on the Las Vegas strip, left it outside for over a year to further weather and stain, and sealed all the imperfections with urethane to form a strangely familiar yet warped new sculpture.

In an exploration of art and ego, John Riepenhoff created a series of papier-mâché legs attached to his own shoes and mounted other artists’ works on them, turning “himself” into a personal art gallery.  Calling the collection “Handler”, the works that he chose range in medium from painting to collage to video display.   Ajay Kurain’s series called “Childermass” takes a variety of surreal creatures who are part animal, part child, part machine, part fantasy and dangles them from ropes spanning the various levels of the Whitney Museum’s stairwell.  As you move down towards the basement level, the creatures are bathed in florescent shades of red and purple lighting. 

Many of the paintings, photographs and drawings exhibited in the Biennial have political overtones.  The title of Henry Taylor’s painting “The Times, They Ain’t A Changing Fast Enough” is a play on Bob Dylan’s iconic protest song.  The work graphically depicts the shooting death of Philando Castile at the hands of a police office in July 2016, an incident sparking nation-wide protests.  An-My Le’s provocative photograph captures graffiti scrawled on New Orleans building which reads “F*** this racist president asshole” in an obvious reference to Trump.  Celeste Dupuy Spencer’s drawing of a gathering of Trump supporters hauntingly features a couple of hooded KKK members at the back of the pack. 

While Rich and I were touring the Whitney Museum, our friends Yim and Murray were walking the High Line Trail.  I really wish that there had been time for us all to do both, but we each had to prioritize and settled for looking at the other couple’s photos.  They had a great time seeing parts of New York from above including interesting looking buildings, graffiti and street art.  They spotted several examples of political protest or commentary.  There was a window displaying a Trump doll (including the trademark hair and red tie) with the words “Lock Him Up” written above it, twisting Trump’s admonishments of Hilary Clinton during the election.  On the side of a building was painted images of peace doves and a red brick wall with the words “Walls Shouldn’t Divide Us.  They Should Unite Us” written on it.  I am hoping that one day, we return to New York in late spring or early summer so that we can walk the High Line Trail again when the weather is warm and all the flowers and plants are in bloom.

I regret not having the opportunity to see the sculpture of a man wearing a crown on his head that Yim and Murray spotted as they exited the High Line Trail.  Rich and I took another entrance and totally missed this.  There was a secret trick to this sculpture, which was demonstrated by the man standing next to it.  When you pull at the crown, it comes off like a slinky, pulling part of the sculpture’s face along with it.  How cool is that?  I’m not sure if the man demonstrating owned the sculpture but I wish I had been there to see it work.

We were very excited to visit the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum for the first time, but disappointed when we found out that half the museum was closed to prepare for a new exhibit that we would have loved to see, based on the "Jazz Age".  They compensated with a significantly reduced admission which didn't help us since we received free reciprocal admission anyways.  Making the best of it, we wandered around and looked at the few exhibits that were on display.  We were very impressed by how integrated with technology this museum was.  Its entire catalogue has been digitized, allowing for fun and informative ways for the visitors to interact with and learn about the collection.  Upon arrival, you are handed an electronic pen and an entry ticket with an alphanumeric code on it.  You can use the pen to save information about any item that interests you and all your choices are stored on the Cooper Hewitt website.  Once at home, you can use the code to access your choices and retrieve more details about each item.

Throughout the Cooper Hewitt are large interactive computer screens that allow you to further inquire about or interact with the museum’s catalogue.  The Collection Browser provides an “object river” where thousands of items flow by.  With the pen, you can drag any item down to a viewing panel to gain more information about it including its history, design theme and related items.  You can zoom in and look at the object from different perspectives.  The Process Lab allows you to design your own table, chair, lamp or other objects either by drawing your design with your pen, or dragging an object from the “river” to use as a template and then modifying it.  You manipulate the shape, dimension and colours in a panel on the left and your resulting object is displayed on the right.

The Immersion Room contains two consoles, each allowing a person to create his own design or pick and modify one from the flowing river of suggestions.  Once the design is complete, a “go” button is pressed, causing the design to be projected onto all four walls of the room, effectively creating electronic wallpaper.  Since there are two consoles, each person can override the wallpaper effect projected by the previous person.  For two competitive users, this could feel like a video game where you are trying to out-do your opponent.  The images are projected in such a way that anyone standing next to the wall will have the image reflected on his face.  The Immersion Room is usually extremely popular and busy, so we were lucky to be able to have some time to ourselves in it.

The Cooper Hewitt Museum is housed in the magnificent Georgian  estate that was the former home of industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie (known for Carnegie Hall).  It retains much of its former woodwork in the panels, trim and staircase as well as other decorative features in the walls and ceilings.  Another interactive display allows you to take a virtual tour of the house, giving historical background on how the various rooms were used by the Carnegie family and staff.  For me, the most beautiful part of the mansion was the solarium overlooking the garden.

Of items in the permanent collection that were still on display when we visited, the most interesting ones were the vintage radios, and in particular, the 1935 Art Deco Skyscraper Clock.  Made of compression-molded plaskon, metal, glass, and woven textile, this beautiful clock was inspired by the tall Deco buildings of the era.  Also eye-catching was the fire-engine red 1951 Serenader radio made of molded plastic and metal.  

There were not many exhibitions on display but the most interesting one featured items from the Whitney collection that were selected and curated by TV host Ellen Degeneres, who has a personal interest in design and architecture.  Degeneres selected furniture, art, curio pieces and more.  The most stunning piece of this exhibit is the library table that folds out into a six-foot library step ladder.  Made of mahogany, brass and felt, it was designed circa 1795 by cabinet maker Thomas Sheraton who was inspired by a similar piece made for King George IV.

Finally the basement level of the museum reviewed two final treats.  First were the tippy chairs that tilted and rolled from side to side once you lift your feet off the ground, making you feel like a “Weebles Wobble (But they don’t fall down)” toy when sitting in it.  There was one final interactive screen where you use your body to make a shape and the computer searches the collections database for an object that is of a similar shape.  So even though half the museum was closed, we still had much fun with the technology and interactive components of the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum.  As for the Jazz Age exhibit, it’s traveling to Cleveland in the fall, so maybe there’s another road trip in order … ? 

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