Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thomas Hart Benton’s "America Today" Mural at the Met

By Charles Kessler

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection (until February 16th). It consists of a promised gift of eighty-one paintings, collages, drawings and sculpture by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger –  the four seminal Cubist artists. I wasn't disappointed; it's an impressive body of work, and it fills a major hole in the Met's collection. In one stroke, this magnanimous gift elevates the Met to the status of one of the world's major repositories of 20th-century art.

And to Lauder's credit, it comes without restrictions. Curators can display the work any way they want, or not display it at all, and it can be loaned to other institutions. Lauder didn't even require a wing be named for him, unlike almost every other philanthropist (e.g., see below).
The new plaza in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It inexplicably seemed to take forever to complete – inexplicable since it's not all that different from the original.
But I don't want to write about that show; Cubism isn't really my thing. If you're interested, there's a pretty good article by Julian Bell in the New York Review of Books.

The big surprise for me this time at the Met, and a delightful one, was the exhibition Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today Mural Rediscovered (until April 19th).
View into the re-creation of the New School for Social Research's boardroom that originally housed Benton's ten-panel mural.
I always had a hard time with Benton. I loved Abstract Expressionism and, as if I couldn't like them both, I considered Benton's work to be hokey and aesthetically retrograde. Well this exhibition turned me around. These murals are bold, passionate, often funny and downright beautiful.
Detail, Instruments of Power panel of Thomas Hart Benton's America Today Mural, 1930–31, egg tempera with oil glazing over Permalba on a gesso ground on linen mounted to wood panels.
In 1930,  the New School for Social Research (now simply called "The New School"), the then progressive college on West 12th Street, commissioned the mural for it's boardroom which after a few years was converted into a classroom.

In 1982, the New School decided to sell it, and, sparked by a campaign to keep the mural in New York, AXA Equitable insurance company bought it for the lobby of its new headquarters on Seventh Avenue. In 2012, AXA donated it to the Metropolitan Museum where it's now installed in a re-creation of its original boardroom setting. 

Benton was a passionate socialist, and the mural is a broad panorama of 1920s America as Benton saw it.  I managed to take some good detailed close-ups that show Benton's passion, humor and masterful painting.

When it came to depicting workers, Benton was serious, and he portrayed them as heroic and hard-working.
Steel worker from the panel entitled Steel.
The panel titled City Activities with Subway has many good examples of Benton's often biting, and sometimes raucous, humor. 
Burlesque dancers with evangelist preaching.
The heavyweight champions Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were wildly popular at this time. Note the expressive, angular figures which look pretty advanced today. Note also the low blow.
Boxers from the panel entitled City Activities with Subway
Benton had some fun with his friend Max Eastman, then editor of the Marxist magazine New Masses. He depicted him seated on a subway staring at the breasts of the famous burlesque star Peggy Reynolds.

In addition to the mural in its re-created original setting, the show includes preparatory drawings and studies for the mural (the guy can draw!); and, from the Met's collection, a selection of work from the circle of artists around Benton, including photographs by Berenice Abbott, an abstract painting by the Synchromist Stanton MacDonald-Wright and, most notably, a painting by one of Benton's students (who posed for some of the figures in this mural), Jackson Pollock.

After the exhibition, the mural will be re-installed in a permanent location, appropriately near the Met's other period rooms. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Miscellaneous October Events

By Charles Kessler

October is the beginning of the art season, and this year it opened with a bigger bang than usual. Here are the high points since my last post on October 10th.

I may as well begin with the best: Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art. To give you an idea of the impact of this show, at the opening MoMA had eight or so full bars scattered around the ground floor, and they were practically empty for the first hour. Free booze and everyone would rather be upstairs looking at the art! I've also never been to a MoMA opening where everyone was smiling – the joy derived from these cut-outs is palpable.
Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool (La Piscine), late summer 1952, gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on painted paper, overall 73 x 647 inches, installed as nine panels in two parts on burlap-covered walls, 136 inches high (Photo from CultureGrrl's essay in the Wall Street Journal).
I don't have anything to add to my post on the cut-outs exhibition when it was at the Tate, London, other than to say seeing MoMA's newly restored Swimming Pool covering a large room and hung using map pins, the way Matisse hung them in his studio, reinforces my opinion that Matisse's late cut-outs should be experienced as physically present environments.
Detail close-up of The Swimming Pool, photo from CultureGrrl's essay in the Wall Street Journal. 
There is, however, a photo in the show I'm curious about. Does anyone know anything about the calligraphy hanging prominently among the cut-outs in this photo of Matisse's studio? I haven't been able to find out anything about it.
  Matisse's Studio at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1952; close-up of the calligraphy.
Not to be outdone by Matisse, even after death, there are THREE major Picasso exhibitions in New York right now. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art is Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection, (until February 16th). This is an exhibition of Lauder's promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum – a staggering eighty-one paintings, collages, drawings, and sculptures by the big four: Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger.
Pablo Picasso, Two Nudes, spring, 1909, oil on canvas, 39 x 32 inches.
And in the galleries are: Picasso & The Camera at the Gagosian on 21st Street (until January 3rd) – an exhibition any museum in the world would be proud of; and Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style at PACE Gallery (until January 10th).

I've been seeing a lot of visually striking dances lately. Not just dances with props that have nothing to do with the dance (like Rauschenberg made for Cunningham), but sets that are integral to the dance. Among them are RoseAnne Spradlin's dance g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n at New York Live Arts;
RoseAnne Spradlin's g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n (working title) at New York Live Arts.
Gisèle Vienne's Kindertotenlieder, also at New York Live Arts, where the dancing was minimal, and the set predominated;
Gisèle Vienne, Kindertotenlieder at New York Live Arts 
and The Shua Group's, Steel Meeting with percussionist Sam Sowyrda, performed in a former metal-working garage in Jersey City. A final performance will take place November 9th at 3pm.
The Shua Group, Steel Meeting with percussionist Sam Sowyrda
Also in Jersey City was Your Movean ambitious modern dance festival produced by Art House Productions and the choreographers Meagan Woods and Morgan Hille Refakis. This was their fifth year, and with dances by 24 different choreographers, it was bigger and better than ever.
Arielle Petruzzella/Zella Dance at Your Move Dance Fesival (Photo: Jason Troost). 

The Jersey City Art and Studio Tour has very few artist studios in it anymore; it's mostly group art exhibitions now. There were, however, a few impressive studios on the seventh floor of 150 Bay Street (the headquarters of A&P supermarkets in the early twentieth century), where there are still some low-income artists' spaces in the sadly, pretty much defunct, Powerhouse Arts District.
Jinkee Choi.
Jonathan Wolf.
Robert Kogge.
The group shows I saw were mostly miscellaneous collections of art with no particular point, which is fine, except not very interesting. The shows I liked best had clear themes, such as Whisky Rebellion at Village West Gallery (until November 21st).
Opening reception, Whisky Rebellion at Village West Gallery. 
(Whiskey seems particularly hot right now – a lot of the studios at the Greenpoint studio tour offered whiskey; it was provided at some Bushwick gallery openings; and they passed around a bottle of bourbon at Ghost Quarteta recent play at the Bushwick Starr theater.)

And there were two other well-focused theme shows, both curated by the Curious Matter Gallery, called OBSOLESCENCE – one in their intimate Downtown gallery, and one at Art House Production's beautiful new space in Journal Square (both open until November 30th). 
Curious Matter Gallery, OBSOLESCENCE, at Art House Productions, Journal Square. 
My favorite gallery exhibition in the entire city – until Gagosian opened Picasso & the Camera – was a large-screen video by Ragnar Kjartansson featuring the Brooklyn indie band, The National, at Luhring Augustine's Bushwick gallery.
Ragnar Kjartansson and The National entitled A Lot of Sorrow (photo: Elisabet Davidsdottir).
It's a simple idea, but surprisingly affecting. The National played the same 3½ minute song continuously, over and over, for six hours, before a live audience at PS 1. They are really good, professional, dedicated musicians, who have played together for 15 years, and they interact with each other and subtly vary the sad song which begins:
Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow they put me on the pill
It's in my honey, it's in my milk

You can find the full lyric here, and there are several short videos on YouTube from the original concert here, but none of them sound as good, or are as beautifully filmed and edited – or  are as moving and intense, as the one at Luhring Augustine. The last hour (from 5:00 - 6:00 at the gallery), when the band is clearly getting tired but is still very focused on the song, is moving to the point of tears. See it if you can; it'll be there until December 21st.

Exchange Rates, or what the organizers referred to as "The Bushwick Expo," was an international affair involving about 20 Bushwick galleries that exhibited local art along with the art of more than 30 galleries from all over the world including Zürich, Seattle, Paris, Beijing, Glasgow, Birmingham, Berlin, Manchester, and Los Angeles, among other cities. In addition to the exhibitions, there were talks, workshops, panel discussions, performances -- and a lot of partying.
L-R: Ben Street, Karl England & Charlie Levine from Sluice__ in London. (Photo from their Twitter feed.)
And it was an international effort, conceived and produced by Paul D'Agostino of the Centotto Gallery and Stephanie Theodore of Theodore:Art, both from Bushwick, along with Karl England, Ben Street and Charlie Levine – all from from Sluice__,  a London-based art organization.

Beat Nite
Coordinated with Exchange Rates was a special edition of Beat Nite, a recurring event where ten Bushwick galleries stay open late, organized by Jason Andrew of Norte Maar. This was the eleventh Beat Nite, and it focused on galleries involved with Exchange Rates. This time, sixteen galleries were included.
Daniel Keller, Attractions, Signal Gallery, Bushwick.
I was pleased to be invited to go on a bus that travelled to the galleries – especially pleased since it was cold and windy that night, and the galleries were spread out. If I had to do it on foot, I would only have been able to see a fraction of them.
Abstraction and Its Discontents at Storefront Ten Eyck Gallery, Bushwick.

Brooklyn Performance Combine 
This extravaganza, also produced by the preternaturally energetic Jason Andrew of Norte Maar, took place at the Brooklyn Museum's vast Beaux-Arts Court on November 1st.  It was a two-hour mashup involving 5 poets, 10 painters and sculptors, and 9 dance companies and musicians.

Paintings were paraded around (sometimes it reminded me of fancy auctions);
Painting by Brooke Moyse.
while music played;
Mariel Roberts performing Tristan Perich's piece for solo cello and six-channel 1-bit electronics.
and dancers performed.
Vangeline Theater, directed by Vangeline.
To some degree, the inclusiveness of this event was a response to the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond, and the Museum's claim to be exhibiting “the 35 hottest artists from Brooklyn.” The Brooklyn Museum doesn't show nearly enough Brooklyn artists – inexplicable since they are otherwise very Brooklyn-oriented, and Brooklyn is one of the hottest art scenes in the world right now.  For them to come up with such a limited exhibition after years of neglect is insulting. (One of the paintings paraded around during the Brooklyn Performance Combine event was a painting by Loren Munk that listed about a hundred important Brooklyn artists who were not in the museum show.) And frankly, I wasn't impressed with most of the work that was included.