The Marvelous, Monstrous Met

As I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon masterpieces like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

I mastered the Met. And that’s no easy task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest art museum in the United States.

Had I realized what a massive undertaking it was, I would have tracked my time – like counting the licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But when I started exploring the museum with my new membership in January, I hadn’t a clue. I had visited the Met a couple of times over the years but never fully comprehended its vastness nor the richness of the treasures within. And its setting in Central Park, away from other blocks and buildings that could provide perspective, makes it hard to gauge its scale – 2 million square feet – from the outside.

Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja is one of those paintings I instantly recognized but knew nothing about.

My best guess is that I spent roughly (very roughly) 50 hours exploring the museum’s galleries. That’s based on the assumption that I did, in fact, visit the place once a week – with a few exceptions – and spent an average of about 2.5 hours per visit. In reality, though, I probably spent even more time there, as some weeks I think I went twice, and occasionally I’d last 3-4 hours before my feet began to ache.

The one thing I am certain of, however, is that I still haven’t visited every gallery in the museum. Of the 440 galleries, 57 of them were closed during my visits. Of course, I visited some of them twice, as certain galleries feature temporary exhibits that rotate. And I returned to some simply to marvel at the treasures, and others because of fantastic events like Jazz & Colors at the Met.

I also can’t claim to have seen every object in every gallery. I have come close, though, as I meticulously worked my way through each, giving everything a look. But occasionally I’d come across am empty space marked with a note explaining that the item had been temporarily removed for one reason or another – cleaning, restoration, on loan elsewhere, etc.

The Met features art from all around the world, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

And the Met has a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming. For example, the ancient artifacts are amazing, but shelves lined with chards of pottery can become mind-numbing while offering little insight beyond the realization that we pocketed everything from these archeological sites.

On a side note, that’s one of the disturbing aspects of the ancient treasures at the Met. What gave us the right to collect all this stuff, other than the fact that we had the foresight and finances? If you live in Cyprus, you’ll probably need to come to New York to learn about your past – and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The other art ad nauseam experience at the Met can be found in the European galleries, where you will be subjected to an infinite number of horribly similar paintings of religious subjects. If I see another portrait of the Madonna and Child I’ll crucify someone.

But there are treasures. Many, many wonderful treasures. Art and artifacts in every medium imaginable from every era and every corner of the world. You’ve got treasures from the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then some – including sculptures, sphinxes, sarcophaguses, and even a real, transplanted temple from 15 BC. There are tons of classic paintings along with a good collection of modern and contemporary art. And some unexpected finds, like an entire wing devoted to Africa and Oceania.

Among the many masterpieces you’ll find at the Met is Pablo Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile.

It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone at the Met – even folks who aren’t too crazy about art. You’ve got suits of armor and all sorts of guns and swords. Giant sculptures and carvings. Costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and even furniture.

Since few will have the time to tour the entire museum as I have, visitors need to decide what they want to see – what era, region, or art form they are most interested in. Or they can pick a wing and explore every nook and cranny of that.

I find that two hours is a good amount of time to spend in any museum. Visitors might want to linger a little longer in the Met, given its sheer volume. You can always take a break, as there are many benches and a couple of cafes. And while most of the food and drink options are as overpriced and underwhelming as one would imagine, the roof garden is worth a visit just for the views of Central Park.

Be sure to check out the Met’s Web site before you visit the actual museum because it is an exceptional resource. It offers an interactive map with overviews of each individual gallery, visitor tips and policies, and even some suggested itineraries. A little research and planning will go a long way, ensuring you get the most out of your visit to the marvelous, monstrous Met.

One of my favorite pieces at the Met is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.

The New Museum Triennial

NewMu4I wanted to like the New Museum. I really did. I’ve gone there a couple of times. I even considered becoming a member.

But it sucks.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But every time I visit the New Museum, I find their “art” more laughable than inspirational. It’s as if the mission statement of this museum is along the lines of “You can declare anything to be art, and we will revere it as such.”

I’ve gone-off about meritless art many a time on this blog (including here and here). And I’ve spared the New Museum my scorn simply because they weren’t worthy of it. Genuinely interesting art seems to be the exception in that place, so I stuck to taking jabs at other art museums where sham art is the exception not the rule.

But I thought I’d give the New Museum a third and final try when I saw they were having a triennial exhibit. After all, they have a boat hanging from the front of their building, so the place can’t be all bad, can it? And, in fairness, it surely won’t be my last visit because the International Center of Photography is opening up its new museum across the street this fall, and I’m definitely rejoining that institution.

The Try-ennial
I plowed through the New Museum’s triennial exhibit in hopes of finding some inspiration. Most of the stuff was what I call sham art – stuff that’s considered art simply because someone declared it to be art. But there were two gems that caught my eye.

The first was an aquarium. It had some convoluted meaning which required a long, rambling explanation on a poorly lit placard. But I really liked it because it gave you an up-close look at some beautiful soft coral. And I didn’t even have to don my dive gear.

The second was a virtual reality thing. Apparently some guy (or guys) digitally mapped a small section of the Brazilian jungle. And by “small” I mean about a 10-yard radius. This exhibit had its own separate room, with a pair of goggles tethered to the high ceiling. And there was a line. Normally I wouldn’t bother with a line. But since I found little else of interest, I figured I’d stick around and have a look.

One of the highlights of the New Museum's triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

One of the highlights of the New Museum’s triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

When my turn came, I slipped the goggles over my eyes and was surprised by what I saw. I was told that it would be a 3D image of the Brazilian rainforest, which I expected to be in full-color (it is 2015, after all). Instead, it was black and white. In fact, it wasn’t an image but rather dots of white light – like stars in the night sky – that formed the outlines of plants and other features. More of a sketch than a picture.

At first I felt a little disoriented. I looked up to get my bearings and saw that I was in some sort of tube or vortex. Too small to be a clearing in the canopy, I thought. Then I realized I was standing in the middle of a tree, looking up through its trunk. I stepped out and walked around a bit. It was pretty cool – like the Matrix, but with patterns of white light instead of green.

I told the attendant, who was there presumably to keep order in the line, that the only thing missing was a member of the indigenous population running out of the darkness with a machete after five minutes. That, I explained, would prevent people from bogarting the goggles. Though it would also be quite the buzzkill for anyone who was high, and that’s probably the best way to experience such an exhibit.

In fact, being high is probably the only way the New Museum is worth the price of admission. Yes, they deserve credit for taking chances, like an “exhibit” in which visitors can follow an “artist” around the East Village (I prefer to trail random people in the East Village). And I am glad someone is taking chances, as it offers opportunities for new artists and encourages established ones to try new things.

Other Options
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long been the innovator in the city’s museum scene. Its busy midtown location, which they are planning to expand yet again, probably draws more tourists than locals. But, in an attempt to attract more of that new money (and even more tourists), they have shamelessly been pandering to all of the wrong young people. As a result, they’ve only managed to shoot themselves in the foot. In fact, MoMA even made Bjork look decidedly uncool (which is no easy task). And this pandering to Main Street USA may attract tourists, but it also makes MoMA the Cats of the New York City museum scene.

Fortunately, there’s also MoMA PS1 over in Long Island City. That’s where MoMA keeps its edge sharp. Like the New Museum, exhibits at PS1 tend to be hit or miss. But with the backing of MoMA, they seem to have better luck landing the hits.

Again, experimentation is good, especially in the art world. But I don’t have the kind of deep pockets to consider myself a patron of the arts. Maybe (hopefully) someday I will. But until then, I go to museums for inspiration and – if possible – enlightenment. And having devoured the New Museum’s triennial exhibit, I found little of either.

Jazz & Colors at the Met

Marika Hughes and Friends played in front of Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Marika Hughes and Friends performed in front of Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware during Jazz & Colors at the Met.

Jazz & Colors is the kind of thing that makes New York City worth it. And it’s also the kind of thing that makes absolutely no sense to someone who doesn’t love New York City.

Jazz & Colors is an event that places multiple jazz bands in various locations and has them play the same set. Sounds simple, right? Or perhaps confusing? The best way to explain it is in the execution.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met's modern art collection.

Saxophonist JD Allen and his band performed among the Met’s Modern Art collection.

It originated in Central Park, to showcase the fall foliage (the “colors”). A dozen of the park’s most scenic spots were selected. An assortment of jazz bands were recruited, each being assigned a particular spot. And they were handed a set list, the same set list, and a timetable. In effect, they were all performing the same concert but in different locations. So people could experience the same songs performed by different bands in different settings, surrounded by the mix of colors of the fall foliage.

And that’s really what jazz is all about, isn’t it? Individuality and collaboration, novelty and familiarity. A jazz musician works in concert with others to offer his own interpretation. And no jazz band, let alone jazz musician, plays the same song the same way. As such, the audience becomes part of the experience – a one-off that they share with the musicians performing. And the natural beauty of autumn in Central Park makes it all the more special.

Despite the success of the first two Jazz & Colors events in Central Park, the third one never materialized. I’m not sure who is to blame – the organizers (it was never well promoted) or the Parks Department (or Central Park Conservancy), which seems to have an affinity for more mainstream (as in corporate-sponsored) events. But it was a shame. Criminal.

Jazz & Colors: The Full Spectrum Edition
Then this happened. Jazz & Colors failed to materialize this past fall, but suddenly it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring. And instead of fall foliage as the backdrop, the jazz would have world-class artworks – including a few masterpieces – as the “colors.” Brilliant.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met's Arms & Armor collection.

The Jovan Alexandre Trio dazzled visitors in the Met’s Arms & Armor collection.

And it was. There was still the logistical challenge of getting from one spot to the next, from one band to the other, without missing that much of a song. The gallery locations were a lot closer than the locations in the park were. However, you could hear the music between the spots in the park, while the galleries made that more difficult. It’s also a little easier to sit down on the grass than the floor of a museum as stuffy as the Met (though many did plop themselves down without a care).

As always, some of the acts were better than others. But many of them – like JD Allen, Kimberly Thompson, and the Jovan Alexandre Trio – were quite good. In fact, my friend said she’d be interested in seeing a few of them play in a club, which I imagine is part of the attraction for the bands.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met's Melanesia gallery.

Drummer Kimberly Thompson and her band performed in front of Indonesian ancestral carvings in the Met’s Melanesia gallery.

Hopefully there was enough of an attraction for the Met as well. I have been undertaking a disturbingly well-planned tour of the museum since becoming a member at the end of last year. It’s taken me months, but I’ve seen nearly every gallery (at around 2 million square feet, it’s the largest museum in the United States). So I had no problem zipping past masterpieces to catch the next number. But I imagine others, newcomers to the museum, were a little more attentive to the artwork and hopefully opted to at least come back for another visit or even become a member.

If so, then we might see more of Jazz & Colors at the Met. Perhaps it will even become a regular occurrence. Though I’d still love to see it back in Central Park for the fall. And if that fails, what about the High Line? Prospect Park? Or even Randall’s Island?

Jazz & Colors is such a beautiful concept that I can’t imagine it going away. But that’s the nature of jazz, isn’t it? Sure, there are recordings – delightful ones, at that. But you really have to be there. It’s in the moment. And Jazz & Colors is one of those quintessential New York moments.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met's Modern Art mezzanine.

JD Allen and his band best captured the spirit of Jazz & Colors with their performance in the Met’s Modern Art mezzanine.

Additional images of Jazz & Colors at the Met can be seen here.

The New Whitney Museum

Visitors relax and enjoy the views of the Hudson in the new Whitney Museum.

Visitors relax and enjoy the views of the Hudson in the new Whitney Museum.

Change is rarely well-received. And we often have a false sense of nostalgia for institutions of the past. Take New York City, for example. Everyone seems to long for this idyllic New York of the 70s, filled with cheerful working artists and affordable mom-and-pop shops. In reality, those were junkies and shitholes. The city used to be a dirty and dangerous place back then. There were some neighborhoods where you just didn’t go, and certain times of night when you’d be ill-advised to travel on the subway or side streets.

Those times have changed. New York City may be more expensive. And our neighborhoods may be dotted with chain stores. But you can still find some color. You can still find an edge. And you can now do so with minimal risk of being stabbed in the eye by some crackhead.

New York City’s cultural scene has undergone a similar transformation. The Whitney Museum of American Art was established in the West Village in 1930. In 1966, it relocated to the Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side, at Madison and 75th. It was considered a fairly fashionable location back then. And when it opened, the building itself was savaged by critics for its brute, fortress-like appearance. Breuer’s building lacked “character.”

These days, what lacks character is the Upper East Side. From Midtown East up to Yorkville, it’s a wasteland of the soul. In fairness, things do get a little more colorful the further you get from Fifth Avenue, but there’s not much to do other than sleep and shop in that area – and that’s assuming you can afford to. Once a haven for the best the city had to offer, the Upper East Side’s sky-high rents have sucked the neighborhood’s soul dry.

One of the new Whitney's outdoor sculpture gardens, overlooking the Meatpacking District.

One of the new Whitney’s three outdoor sculpture gardens, overlooking the Meatpacking District.

Packing Meat
Change is everywhere, though. And as one neighborhood flounders, another flourishes. Take the Meatpacking District, for example. Twenty years ago it was still a dicey place, perhaps best known for its lively after-hours transsexual prostitution scene. Incidentally, that’s not how the area got its name. The day-time activity was centered around a hub of businesses that processed and packed meat for the city’s supermarkets and restaurants.

I had the pleasure of working in that neighborhood at the turn of the century, before any national retailer would have dared to set up shop there. It still had an edge back then. But a lot has happened over the past 15 years, and now the Meatpacking District is one of the most vibrant and commercial spots in the city. It’s a destination for locals and tourists alike, drawn by the shops, restaurants, and clubs along with attractions like the High Line and Chelsea Market.

Which is surely why the Whitney relocated to its brand new building down on Gansevoort Street, in the southwest corner of the Meatpacking District. Designed by Renzo Piano, the nine-story architectural wonder doubles the museum’s exhibition space, with 50,000 square feet indoors plus three outdoor galleries.

The move is brilliant on the Whitney’s part. It represents a cultural shift in the city, from the old money of uptown to the new money of downtown. Amazingly, though, not everyone is happy. There are always those who resist change.

The new Whitney building, designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano, can be considered a work of art.

The new Whitney building, designed by acclaimed architect Renzo Piano, fits in well with its new surroundings.

Death to Dinosaurs
I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks back (the grand dame of the city’s art museums will be renting the Whitney’s Breuer building, to better showcase their own modern art collection). During my meander through the Met’s current modern art display, I overheard a gaggle of old ladies, fossils from New York’s near past, blathering about the Whitney’s new location and how it’s so far from any public transportation. I was tempted to remind them that the Met, in which they were standing, is literally twice as far from the nearest subway as the new Whitney is. But I figured they’d be dead soon, so I saved my breath – a gamble the Whitney has quietly taken as well.

The other critics have come from the established art world. They’re either nostalgic for the Breuer building, which they once loathed, or they object to the relocation of the museum to such a tourist-friendly neighborhood, forgetting that the Met is in Central Park and MoMA is in Midtown – historically two of the most touristy parts of the city. Hypocrisy on display!

Location aside, people have been equally unfair about the design of the new Whitney. I think it fits well with the aesthetic of the neighborhood. In fact, I’d go so far to say the thing is beautiful. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The galleries in the new Whitney have plenty of light and space for the art.

The galleries in the new Whitney have plenty of light and space for the art.

Jewel on the Hudson
I had a chance to see the new museum before it opened to the public. I recognized many of the works, as the opening exhibit (entitled “America is Hard to See”) is really a showcase for their permanent collection (the impetus of the move was to give them more space to display their growing collection). However, in the new building, I saw these works in a different light – literally and figuratively.

With the new Renzo Piano building, the difference between the new Whitney and the old is like night and day. The new Whitney is open, airy, and bright. It lets the light in through skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. Even the reclaimed wood floor makes it feel brighter, warmer.

Don’t get me wrong…I have always loved the Marcel Breuer building. In fact, the reason I first went to visit the old Whitney was because of the similarities between the Breuer building and that of the Dana Arts Center (also opened in 1966, it was designed by Paul Rudolph, who – like Breuer – was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus movement) at Colgate University, the one and only museum of my youth.

Beyond the building, the new neighborhood makes every visit to the new Whitney a potential adventure. Near the old Whitney, there were few fun options besides eating at Unlimited, the in-house restaurant. Sure, I could wander over to the Meatball Shop, way over on Second Avenue, but that was about it. No nightlife. Not even any daylife!

But the Meatpacking District is loaded with options. There is, of course, the new Unlimited at the Whitney, as well as a Studio Café (located on the eighth floor, with outdoor seating). But you also have the new Gansevoort Market, Chelsea Market, High Line options, Bubby’s, the Standard Biergarten – and that’s just off the top of my head. The options are endless.

Yes, the new Whitney will attract a lot more tourists. And, because museums need money to operate, that’s a good thing. Yes, it’s a lot harder for me, living in Upper Yorkville, to get down to the new Whitney (I could walk, albeit a long walk, to the old Whitney). But that’s fine, because it’s in such a cool area that I won’t mind the trip. After spending a few hours at the museum, taking in both the art and the views, I can then grab a bite to eat, meet some friends for drinks, take a walk on the High Line, or all of the above.

Change is good. Especially when it’s done as well as the Whitney has done it.

Additional images of the new Whitney can be seen here.

On Kawara – Sham

KawaraShamThe latest exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York City is unbelievable, and not in the good way. It’s hard to believe that someone could pass off such half-ass shit as art, let alone earn good money and critical acclaim in the process.

The exhibit, On Kawara – Silence, takes up the museum’s entire rotunda. Though that’s way more space than it frankly needs – let alone merits. It is overwhelmingly underwhelming. And even though The New York Times called it “enthralling,” I call it “absolutely ridiculous.”

On Kawara was a “conceptual artist” (meaning, if the artist says it is art, than it is art…no matter how ridiculous the claim may be) and this is supposedly his first comprehensive exhibit, representing every category of his work since 1964. However, I couldn’t help wondering how his early rubbish paved the way for his later rubbish? Didn’t anyone catch on? Didn’t anyone notice the man had no talent? That his art was but a ruse?

I have complained about sham art – scam art – before (Modern Art, Or Not), but this exhibit really takes the cake. Sure, the curators offer up all sorts of vagaries to try to justify it. They say the “work engages the personal and historical consciousness of place and time” and transforms the rotunda into “a site within which audiences can reflect on an artistic practice of cumulative power and depth.”

I think it fucking sucks.

Dissecting the Disappointment
What exactly is in this exhibit, you ask? The biggest waste of space are Kawara’s “Date Paintings.” These are dates painted onto squares and hung on the wall. Yes, the painting of text specifying a date. Sometimes that’s all that there is. Other times the date will be accompanied by a corresponding shallow cardboard box, usually in a nearby glass-enclosed horizontal display case, with nothing more than a newspaper clipping from that date – as if to say: I have scissors and a calendar, therefore I am an artist. Or, to be really artistic and convey a cumulative power and depth, sometimes he would forgo those burdensome scissors so the shallow cardboard box would contain – get this – nothing at all. Brilliant, huh?

There’s also 108 telegrams (yes, I was so bored I actually counted them) that the artist sent with the same simple message: “I am still alive.” I’d like to think that the recipient, around the time of the 100th telegram, was really hoping the artist would die (which he did, last year…in case you didn’t get that telegram).

Beyond lacking any real artistic merit, this repetitive telegram ploy isn’t even original. I recall a recent exhibit at one of New York’s modern art museums (it might have even been the Guggenheim) in which another artist, obviously attempting to engage the personal and historical consciousness of place and time, repeatedly sent the same telegram to the same recipient. Even Kawara’s stupidity is banal.

And speaking of repetition and a shameless lack of originality, there was an exhibit at MoMA PS1 last year that showcased the postcards of an artist, sent repeatedly to the same person over the years (another unfortunate soul). Well, it seems Kawara did that too. I couldn’t bring myself to count them all, but this Guggenheim exhibit features glass displays of all the postcards the artist sent over an 11-year span informing the recipient of the exact time he awoke that morning. Such a clever boy, ain’t he?

Now before you start to wonder if the exhibit is sponsored by Western Union or the US Postal Service, there was one last treasure on display. Kawara made volumes, literal volumes, of pages that are filled with either dates or numbers. No particular meaning, but just dates and numbers packed on page after page after page. Yeah.

Overall, the Guggenheim’s On Kawara – Silence was sickening. Such a half-ass effort. Creation without meaning. Repetition for the sake of repetition for the sake of repetition for the sake of repetition. Annoying, isn’t it?

Fortunately I’m a member of the Guggenheim, so I didn’t feel like as much of a chump as the people who shelled out $25 to see that shameless charade. I did learn two things, though. First, that artists are nowhere near as clever as they think they are. Second, that curators are nowhere near as intelligent as they think they are.

And in case you are wondering, no, I am not going to see the universally panned Bjork exhibit at MoMA. I’m a member there, too, but I ain’t stupid!

Modern Art, Or Not

One of Joe Bradley's more sophisticated paintings in MoMA's Forever Now exhibit.

One of Joe Bradley’s more sophisticated paintings in MoMA’s Forever Now exhibit.

This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve gone off on a rant about art, and it likely won’t be the last. But during a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, I encountered some “art” that I felt compelled to share.

I was at MoMA to see the wonderful Matisse exhibit. I’ve probably seen it six or seven times now. It’s that good. I could spend hours there…days.

Another of Joe Bradley's paintings currently on display at MoMA. Yeah, that's a line.

Another of Joe Bradley’s paintings currently on display at MoMA. Yeah, that’s a line.


But, as I always do, I made sure to explore the other exhibits as well. And one of the new additions is The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World. On display are works from 17 artists “whose paintings reflect a singular approach that characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium: they refuse to allow us to define or even meter our time by them.”

What does that tell me? Their work has something in common, and it’s reflective of this current time. And that common theme is that we cannot define our current time by their art.

What? Do these people even read the shit they write? It “characterizes our cultural moment” yet we cannot “define or even meter our time” by it? It captures the here and now, but yet it doesn’t. It is, but it isn’t.

I wonder if this applies to my membership dues? I paid, but I didn’t. How artistic of me, right?

In fairness, there are some interesting items in the exhibit. A lot of crap, but a few pieces make it worth a visit.

The ones I wanted to share, though, do not fall into the “worthwhile” category. In fact, they’re what spurred this little rant of mine.

Two more from Bradley. A cross. And the number 23. Yup, art.

Two more from Bradley. A cross. And the number 23. Yup, art.

The artist (and, in this case, I use that term generously) in question is Joe Bradley. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know dick about Bradley. Maybe he’s made some incredible things over the years. For all I know he has a massive body of work that would curl my toes. But the stuff he has on display in The Forever Now exhibit is nothing short of ridiculous.

MoMA describes them as “paintings of radically simplified forms.” Apparently the museum included these pieces in this exhibition because they are modern interpretations of ancient pictographs. In other words, they are both ancient and modern at the same time. Is and isn’t.

Or, you could say they are stick figures and Roman numerals taken from the notebook doodles of a seven year old. They are fit to hang on your refrigerator door, yet they are fit to hang on the walls of a museum. Again, is and isn’t. You be the judge.