Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Catch It While You Can: Art in the City

I highly recommend seeing the following seven events before they close. They are a movie, a play, and five art exhibitions. The first four that I list below won’t even last through this month of June. I also make note of the closing date (if available) for each event.

Dirty Wars, the movie:

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Jeremy Scahill talking after the viewing of Dirty Wars, June 7, 2013
This documentary of our secret missions in Afghanistan as well as our secret “wars” in places like Yemen and Somalia was just released this month, having already won the cinematography prize at the Sundance Film Festival. 

It is based on Jeremy Scahill’s second book, published in April, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Jeremy is the national security reporter for The Nation magazine.
His first book, Blackwater (2008) already put Scahill into every political news program in the country, and his previous work as a reporter has prompted several Congressional investigations. This movie (Dirty Wars) exposes our global war on terror, which its director, Richard Rowley, calls “the most important story of our generation.”

It is a war, Rowley notes, that is “being fought in our name that we know nothing about, and over which there’s no effective oversight....[a war fought] without our knowledge or permission.”

If the movie's subject matter is chilling, its presentation is beautifully compelling and evocative. Its victims, people who could so easily be treated as alien to us, geographically, culturally, and socially, are instead made personal and intimate. One has the sense that they could be neighbors. We leave the theater sensitized and acutely aware--possibly for the first time--that we all are citizens of the same world, that we share the same desires and fears, and that we all deserve the same level of recognition and must be accorded the same set of privileges, whether as middle-class Americans or as Yemeni tribesmen. This may be a documentary, but it also is storytelling at the highest level of art.

Here is a trailer for Dirty Wars, but go see the real thing. I have no idea how long it will stay in our theaters, but don't miss this movie. Every citizen needs to see it and know its story.

Dirty Wars can be seen in Manhattan at the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas and at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 1886 Broadway.

Urban Automobile: Paintings by Robert Seyffert:

William Holman Gallery, Lower East Side, 65 Ludlow Street, opening night, June 5, 2013

A friend of the painter, Robert Seyffert, parked his 1964 Ford Falcon in front of the gallery for opening night.  All that was missing were a few more vintage cars and a couple of car hops on roller skates to carry us back to those "good old days." To our eyes today, this Ford Falcon looks fairly "normal" in size--and certainly not small; yet, it was Ford's first venture (which began in 1960) to produce a "compact" automobile.

Inside the gallery, Seyffert's paintings act as period pieces in which the streets of New York City, along with buildings and parked cars, recreate the milieu of 1950-1980, during which some of our major art personalities lived and worked. The cars (or a car) is the protagonist in each painting, but the buildings also accurately represent the place, while often, in the background, Seyffert will paint a historical figure or two on the sidewalk.  So, for example, one painting is titled Pontiac '50 on Tenth Street with Willem de Kooning, another is Thunderbird, Dakota Building, Upper West Side.

Robert Seyffert (2nd from left), opening night, William Holman Gallery, Pontiac '50 on Tenth Street... (far left), June 5, 2013

R. Seyffert, White Chevrolet Sedan, Harlem, 1995, oil/linen

The surrounding frame of White Chevrolet Sedan, Harlem (above) is one of several in the show in which Seyffert collaborated with a young Bronx graffiti artist named David Yearwood (aka, Mdot Beatz) from Hunts Point.  Seyffert also lives and works in the Bronx and is the youngest of three generations of painters, following his uncle (Richard Seyffert) and his grandfather (Leopold Gould Seyffert).  

This show will close on Sunday, June 16.  The Holman Gallery is at 65 Ludlow Street, at the corner of Grand Street.

The Seagull--Chekhov in Central Park:

Stephen Burdman (Director), addressing the audience for The Seagull, Central Park, The Pool (north edge), June 1, 2013

Summertime is the season to enjoy outdoor theater, and no one does this with more verve and imagination than the New York Classical Theater. It begins its outdoor season in Central Park with Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and ends it in July-August down at Battery Park with Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The audience is peripatetic; it picks up and moves along with the changing scenes and acts. Amazingly, all this works quite smoothly, and the stretching of ones legs every 20 minutes almost makes the play move more quickly. 

The Audience for The Seagull, Central Park, The Pool (south edge), June 1, 2013

In her review of the play in the New York Times, Anita Gates observed:  “I cannot deny the thrill of seeing these beloved literary creations, in luscious period costumes, on a summery night in a sylvan setting that might really be on the estate of Sorin (John Michalski), who is constantly complaining about his disappointing life.” 

Arkadina (Tamara Scott), New York Classical Theater production of The Seagull, Central Park, June 1, 2013

I wholly agree with the reviewer's comments. And then, at the end of the play, my wife and I had an equally pleasant walk back through the Park to the East Side. The balmy summer evening provided a perfect setting both for Chekhov and for our leisurely return home.

The final performance of The Seagull in Central Park will be on Sunday, June 23. The plays are free, but they do start on time, 7:00 pm Thursdays-Sundays. Gather at Central Park West and 103rd Street, where you will be directed to find a seat in the grass, facing the Pool for Act I. You also can catch later performances (June 25-30) in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Call 212-252-4531 for more information.

Labrouste at MoMA:

Henri Labrouste, Capital & Column Base, Portico of Pantheon (Rome), 1825-30

There is much to see and much that demands careful study in this exhibition of one of the truly great architects of the 19th century, the Frenchman, Henri Labrouste.  He surpassed nearly all of his  contemporaries in the ease with which he bridged the gap between the demands of classical, academic architecture with its emphasis on historical styles and the new technologies being embraced by the young engineering profession, with its championing of new materials such as iron and glass.

However, all I want to show you is this graphite, ink and watercolor drawing that Labrouste made as a young student in Rome while on a stipend from the French government. The drawing is at least four feet high.  Its precision is unbelievable and its artistic rendering is breathtaking.

Go and see just this drawing.  Then turn around and look in the vitrine behind you, where you will see some of his personal drawing instruments of the sort used to make renderings like this.  This, truly, is a lost art.

If you venture further into the exhibition and see Labrouste's two major library designs for Paris, in models, photographs and drawings, you may well be seduced into a trip to Paris to experience the soaring interior of the main reading room of his Bibliothèque Nationale.

Henri Labrouste, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1854-75, interior, Reading Room

If a trip to Paris is out of the question, why not take a drive up the Hudson to Albany and go into the New York State Educational Building?  It opened in 1912, and although it is praised for having one of the longest colonnades in the world, it's real pièce de résistance, in my mind, is Henry Hornbostel's (its architect) main reading room, which is a slightly scaled-down copy of Labrouste's magnificent space.

It's worth a drive to Albany to experience the nobility of such an architectural volume.  It's also worth a quick visit to the Museum of Modern Art to see a bit of Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light, even if you get no farther than his drawing of that Corinthian Column from the portico of the Pantheon.

Do it soon, however, because the show closes on June 24.

El Anatsui at the Brooklyn Museum of Art:

El Anatsui, Gli Wall, 2010, Brooklyn Museum of Art, detail

Over the past half-decade or more, I have seen examples of those spectacular weavings of distillery bottle caps into large, tapestry-like fabrics by the Ghanian artist, El Anatsui (who now calls Nigeria his home).  His works hang like the softest of silken draperies; yet they consist of hard, sharp-edged, sometimes corroded pieces of metal. It's pure alchemy.  El Anatsui comes as close as any artist has come to achieving that alchemist's goal--the transformation of the basest of materials into the noblest.

But as spectacular as his individual pieces are, seeing them in the top floor galleries of the Brooklyn Museum, where they have room to breathe and expand to their fullest, is a moving experience.

El Anatsui, Gli Wall, 2010, Brooklyn Museum of Art

The Brooklyn Museum's web page offers this analysis of El Anatsui's work: "Anatsui converts found materials into a new type of media that lies between sculpture and painting, combining aesthetic traditions from his birth country, Ghana; his home in Nsukka, Nigeria; and the global history of abstraction." 

This nicely places the artist into the international realm of global modernism, and there is no doubt that El Anatsui is a master of abstract art.  But he is more than that, which this show enables us to discover, because it also gives us some of his earlier, small, wooden pieces. These are primitive, expressionistic, and full of an energy that expose his strong roots.  Here is an artist able to transform any material at any scale into a powerful artistic statement.

El Anatsui, Conspirators, wood, 1997

El Anatsui, Drifting Continents, 2009, detail

El Anatsui, Red Block, 2010, detail

Given the range of his work on exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I have no hesitation in calling El Anatsui one of the most important artists of this century.   Another, very different artist of whom I would say the same is the dissident, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  This, to me, is an indication that the world of art has truly become international; that the west no longer "rules the roost" as the production center of modern art, as it once had (Paris in the 19th century, New York in the mid-20th century); and this is a wonderful thing to celebrate.

You have a bit more than a month to schedule a trip to Brooklyn to see Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui.  The show closes on August 4, 2013.

But if you want to see an outdoor piece by him in Manhattan, he did that wall of mirrors and pressed, corroded tin ceiling panels on the High Line between West 21st and 22nd Streets. Here is a shot of that work.

El Anatsui, Broken Bridge II, 2012, The High Line, Chelsea, NYC

Red, Yellow & Blue--Outdoor Art at Madison Square Park:

For approximately ten years, the Madison Square Park Conservancy has commissioned art installations in the park. Among its previous contributors are such recognized artists as Mark di Suvero, Antony Gormley, Sol LeWitt, Roxy Paine, Alison Saar, Ursula von Rydingsvard and William Wegman.

The newest installation, which you will have until September 8 of this year to visit, is by the Brooklyn sculptor Orly Genger, who often makes colossal sculptures through a process of knitting, knotting and crocheting.

Orly Genger, Red, Yellow & Blue, Madison Square Park, New York City, May 2-Sept. 8, 2013

Orly Genger, Red, Yellow & Blue, Madison Square Park, New York City, May 2-Sept. 8, 2013

Genger's installation took over two years for planning and production; installation with the help of a large crew took another eleven days. Her main material consists of 1.4 million feet of nautical rope that she has layered, painted, hand-knotted and formed around the trees and other landscape elements of the Park.

The rope is what is known as "ground line," which fishermen use to string together multiple traps at the bottom of the ocean. This ground line, no longer viable for purposes of fishing, is usually burned or dumped overboard.  Thus, Genger's re-use of it as her artistic medium promotes a healthier ecosystem while also bringing visual excitement to Madison Square.

The Madison Square website on Red, Yellow and Blue suggests a connection to Barnett Newman's series from the 1960s, Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?   But Genger's installation, as it curves and undulates through the Park, and its blue section, which  seems to dissolve right into the grass lawn, owes less to those large, flat, color-field paintings of Newman and more to Christo's Running Fence, which undulated through Sonoma and Marin Counties in California, finally to disappear--in this case--into the Pacific Ocean.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma/Marin Counties, CA, 1976

Against the Grain--Contemporary Artists Work in Wood:

The Museum of Arts and Design, located at 2 Columbus Circle, consistently mounts some of the most interesting shows of art and design in this city of great museums and major art exhibits. This show, Against the Grain, presents a wide range of objects created since 2000 that use wood as the main material.

One or two photographs can't possibly convey the range of this show.  For this reason, I refer you to the Museum's web page for an overview of the show and concentrate on a couple of pieces that I found primarily intriguing for conceptual reasons.

Matthias Pliessnig, Thonet #18, 2007, NYC, Museum of Art & Design

Matthias Pliessnig is a Philadelphia furniture designer whose work mainly focuses on the process of steam-bending wood.  In the work illustrated above, he has taken a traditional Thonet chair (the first chairs made with steam-bent wood, beginning ca. 1830) and then wrapped it with many layers of his own steam-bent ash strips.

By this conversion, Pliessnig masks the sensual curves of the original Thonet chair and turns the chair into an apparently functionless and seething tangle of wooden strips.   Can we even be sure (without turning it over) that a real Thonet chair hides under this tangle?   Some may state that the chair has lost its function and the resulting form is no very pretty, so it isn't really even art.

But, indeed, this is art, and a deeply conceptual work of art at that. One can grasp its rich genealogy just by considering its sources in the art of the previous century.  Think of this process as analogous to peeling back of the layers of an onion.

First, there is Christo and Jeanne-Claude again, but this time with their wrappings, as in their wrapping the century-old German Reichstag in over 1 million square feet of aluminum-colored fabric.  This bold work offers many interpretations, among which is to see the fabric operating as softening the edges and corners of a building symbolic of the Prussian State that built it: unyielding, obdurate, and war-like.  It offers Berlin a chrysalis from which the newly-unified Germany (that will embrace a larger and peaceable Europe) is to emerge.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1995

Then, there is Robert Rauschenberg who, in 1953 asked Willem de Kooning for a drawing, which the young Rauschenberg laboriously erased.  He, along with Jasper Johns, then matted, framed and labeled the work with these words: Erased de Kooning Drawing   Robert Rauschenberg   1953.  One might argue that this was blasphemy, an act of philistinism, iconoclasm without even any countervailing principles of belief.  

At least we could free the Thonet chair if we wanted; its "erasure" is reversible. The de Kooning drawing is lost forever.  But what is gained is a new work by Rauschenberg, and so the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art purchased it for its permanent collection in 1998.

Robert Rauschenberg, Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953, San Francisco, MoMA

And then we work our way back to the father of all of these perverse and impious artistic activities, Marcel Duchamp.  In 1913, he made his first of a series of works that he called Readymades, in which he took a mass-produced object and, by an act not unlike that of a king who changes the status of a person by conferring knighthood, Duchamp--as artist--transforms the object into a (unique) work of art.  His first was the Bicycle Wheel, and since he mounted it on top of a mass-produced stool, he would call it a Readymade Altered or an Assisted Readymade.  

This, in essence, is what Pleissnig did in his Thonet #18.  In other Duchamp Readymades, the artist did nothing but sign the work (as in his famous urinal: Fountain) or simply put it on display (as in his snowshovel: In Advance of the Broken Arm, 1915).

Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel, 1913, (1951), New York, MoMA
So, one can argue that, exactly a century ago, Marcel Duchamp gave the world of art the most radical ideas about how art might be defined and practiced.  Neither Rauschenberg, Christo nor Pliessnig peeled all the way down to the core of Duchamp's "onion."  As I sometimes told my classes 'back in the day,' you can trace the roots of every art movement and artist of the later 20th century (and even now, the 21st century) to the work and ideas of three artists from the first decade:  Picasso, Matisse, and Duchamp.  

I hope that all my onion-peeling hasn't brought you to tears.

Yuya Ushida, SOFA_XXXX, 2010, detail,  NYC, Museum of Art & Design

Yuya Ushida, SOFA_XXXX, 2010, NYC, Museum of Art & Design

The Japanese-born industrial designer, Yuya Ushida, studied mechanical engineering until realizing that he really preferred to make practical things that contributed to people's happiness and daily lives, more than designing machine parts.

His SOFA_XXXX certainly introduces an unexpected level of play into one's living room, even as it imparts a totally new meaning on the idea of convertible sofas.  Rather than converting into a bed, this sofa converts into an easy chair.  Watch this fascinating video which shows how one can simply pull it apart or squeeze it together, like an accordion, to make the transformation.

I am sure that Ushida's training in mechanical engineering contributed to his design assembly of SOFA_XXXX.  As he admits, simple geometries and repetitive forms fascinate him, and those are most certainly concepts that inform all great engineering designs.  The sofa gets its name (and its ability to expand) from the "X-joints" of its structure.   In this case, his entire assembly is made up of four different lengths of recycled bamboo chopsticks joined together by stainless steel rings. 

I often wonder how many chopsticks we use once and then discard. Apparently, China throws out 90 billion each year.  For one sofa, Ushida uses some 8,000 bamboo chopsticks.  Watch this video to see the assembly process for Ushida's sofa. 

Maria Elena Gonzalez, Skowhegan Birch #1 Roll Display, 2012,  NYC, Museum of Art & Design

Maria Elena Gonzalez is a Cuban-American artist who now lives in Brooklyn and Basel, Switzerland. Her art work ranges from the conceptual to sculptural installations.  What we see in this display is a player piano and a perforated roll that it is playing.  Above that are videos of two other rolls in the process of being made.

In a way, this work best embodies the title of the entire show, Against the Grain.  When Gonzalez was at the art colony in Skowhegan, Maine, she came across a fallen birch tree.  She peeled off and collected its bark, flattened it, and then scanned the striated patterns into a computer to see what sounds would result as they were read on a tracker bar. She then worked with a musician to read the scans as musical intervals.

Here we see (and hear, if you go to the museum) the result of this work.  The scanned marks of the birch bark have been cut into player piano rolls and, as the wall plaque informs us, they "revealed an unexpectedly coherent 'score' whose phrasing, polyphony, and even rhythm seemed deliberately composed.  This not only allows the listener to hear the 'music' of the birch tree, but also reminds us once again of the inherent logic and patterning that exists in all nature."

I think this statement underplays the role of the musician who worked with Gonzalez to refine those striations in the birch bark, but the idea of a logic and a musical base inherent in nature goes back as far as Ancient Greece.   The romantic composer Sibelius captured the sounds of nature in his writing.   The musician, Jim Nollman, claims that with close listening he has discovered that sometimes nature uses "the same scales, rhythms, and harmonies as humans do."  And, not unlike what Gonzalez has done with her birch bark, some university researchers have transformed three years of supernova explosions into "haunting, beautiful music."

But, I'll leave any further development of this last topic to my musical daughter, Carla, and wait for her response once she reads this post.   Meanwhile, I hope that you find time to take in some of these events and exhibitions before they close.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the images, and their historical contexts. Great to take a break and learn about some stunning work.