Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Visit to New York and Discovering Archibald Motley

Everyone wants to know if after half a century plus living in NYC whether I miss it since we decided to emigrate to New Mexico .  When I say definitely not and I wish I had done it earlier some act as if I have insulted them personally even if they never lived in New York.  We did, however, recently make a visit back and my amendment to my comment above is always that the culture there is over the top so when we go we overfill ourselves with the arts.

Our first day back we visited the warehouse where there is still some of my art and a great deal of paper consisting of catalogs, photographs and archives.  After checking in there and having lunch with our ever loyal friend, ally and former employee, Diana Nixon, we decided it was time to check out the not so new museum in town, The Whitney.

We used the new way to get there, Uber, which was perfect going down with our driver, Mohammed, but we had to cancel when we wanted to leave the museum as we watched on the Uber map our driver Kunga driving around in circles and could not find us.

It is amazing how soon one forgets the vicissitudes of the city!  As we approached the museum we saw a long line at the entrance.  I must say they got people in very quickly and smoothly, however.  Everyone was courteous and helpful.  As usual I had sticker shock when I found the entry fee was $22 but then I grew up in the era of free museums and, after all, we were in the building for the same amount of time as seeing a Shakespeare play.

We are a bit late coming to the party since the Whitney, having moved out of their Marcel Breuer space uptown, opened near the High Line last May.  It is a destination building by Renzo Piano, which, I expected to dislike but I was very pleasantly surprised.  The views from the outside and in are beautiful and the galleries are very thoughtfully installed.  Herewith, one of the modern galleries and a view from one of several balconies in the building.

We started as instructed on the top floor and here we lucked out.  There was an exhibition of the work of Archibald Motley (1891-1981), a Modernist who came to the fore in the 1920’s as part of the Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz age.  It drew black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars to Harlem where culture flourished.  The Exhibition “Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” was organized by the Nasher Museum at Duke University and curated by Professor Richard J. Powell.  It was installed and organized at the Whitney by Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing.

The show is divided into sections with the first being biographical and here there are many possible choices I could use to illustrate but, no surprise, the painting that does this best is already front and center.  It is called “Myself at Work” and comes from the collection of Mara Motley, MD and Valerie Gerard Browne as all the images do unless otherwise indicated.

Image Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

A 1929 work “Blues” is a theme that Motley explored often during his life, in both dance and music. When he got a Guggenheim Fellowship to Paris a short while later he painted nightclub scenes and he also showed music and dancing in the streets. (Image Blues, Credit Line: Image Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

When further along, I saw “The Boys in the Back Room” circa 1934 from the Estate of Reginald L. Lewis, I immediately thought of Cezanne’s "The Card Players" in the Metropolitan Museum.

I so enjoyed the energetic gesture of the gentleman explaining to his girl friend.  A gesture that has been referred to in French as “Le Doigt d’Expert” the finger of the expert! Here we have two images, “Doigt d’Expert” and a straight on image.

The painting with the most social commentary is the last image in the show titled “The First 100 Years”.  It is a scathing look at race relations in this country.  Its strangely eerie blue sets off the blood red highlights of the Confederate flag, a burning cross and the devil.  There is a lynched black man near the Statue of Liberty.  If you look closely you can see the heads of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, three champions of racial equality.  Since this painting is not at all like the rest of Motley’s work it makes the image all the more powerful.

There seems to be an epidemic of Jazz Age Period Art in New York.  The Neue Galerie has an exhibition, “Berlin Metropolis: 1918-1933”.  The International Center for Photography has a show called, “The Early Years of Rhythm & Blues” and the Cooper-Hewitt is planning an exhibition for the Spring of 2017.

Our last day we saw an exhibition that I wish I had seen on the first so I could have written about it for this week.  It closes at the end of this month but please go see for yourself.  It is a “Pop-Up” exhibition in a New York Mansion at 2 East 63rd Street by 3 art dealers, Brimo from Paris, Di Castro from Rome and Kugel from Paris.  A greater treasure trove of old European art you will not find in this town.  After you have explored the two chockablock floors ask to see the tapestry cycle upstairs.  Here is an image of the dealers in one of the treasure rooms.  I hope to write more about it but unfortunately by then it will have closed.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Vilcek Collection

I have known my wife since she was a student in 1969 and we married 6 years later.  At approximately the same time as that personal landmark, the Metropolitan Museum, in a so-called cost saving move, decided to eliminate its catalog department.  The reason this was a momentous event was that the catalog department recorded the basic information on any work of art that came into the museum and saw that a record photo was taken, not a photo for publication.  One card was kept in that department and another given to the department to which the work of art was destined to go.  Because Penelope was working and researching in several fields this was the place that she spent a great deal of time. 

Cost cutting always means people lose their jobs and in this case it included an art historian by the name of Marica Vilcek, who headed the department.  She was married to Dr. Jan Vilcek, a doctor and scientist whom she had met in Czechoslovakia, before they both immigrated to the United States.   Dr. Vilcek became a lead scientist in the invention of the powerful anti-inflammatory used in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Chrohn’s Disease, an inflammation of the bowel, Remicade.  With royalties from that drug Dr. Vilcek, a Professor of Microbiology at NYU School of Medicine, was able to make a major donation to the School for the study of biomedical research and education.  He and his wife also established The Vilcek Foundation devoted to increasing public awareness of the contribution of immigrants to professional, academic and artistic life in the United States.  The Foundation has given many grants to arts institutions, as well, and even to the Metropolitan Museum, which I find the ultimate in generosity.

Over a little more than a decade the Vilceks have built a first class collection of American Modernist Art, which will eventually be left to their Foundation.  A number of the works came from the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe and the Vilceks worked with the then head of the Modern Art Department there, Catherine Whitney.  Having developed a close relationship with them, when Catherine later became curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she encouraged them to do an exhibition from their collection.   The result is called, “From New York to New Mexico: Masterworks of American Modernism from the Vilcek Foundation Collection”.  It was also previously shown at the Phoenix Art Museum before ending its run here at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  Every travelling show leaves installation and the possibility of adding images and interpretation to the exhibiting institution and Cody Hartley, Director of Curatorial Affairs at Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, has done that masterfully here.

So, when we went to the opening of the show, 40 years had past and Penelope again came face to face with Marica Vilcek and they recognized each other immediately!  We were invited thanks to a group of the Friends of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum who had come to see the exhibition and to whom we had given a tour of a couple of the other museums that afternoon. 

I have always struggled with the word “Modernism” but here it refers to a style started specifically in the United States to express the new energy of the 20th century.  The online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, however, says, “Modernism in the arts, is a radical break with the past and concurrent search for new forms of expressionism.  Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I”.

When I visit someone’s home I am always first attracted to their art and then to their books.  Both tell a lot about one’s hosts.  It is always interesting to see how someone collects.  There are those who are only interested in the best of the best, others who are trying to decorate their walls and those who buy because of the seller.  Someone once told me the only reason they bought in a specific field was because the dealer was their best friend!   We cannot know what attracts us to a certain field but we can look at a collection and see clear relationships.

The Vilceks came out regularly to the American Southwest and it is not surprising that Southwestern subject matter and landscape would attract them.  But of course, both of them having grown up in Czechoslovakia, they have interests in older art as well, and this has had an equal influence on their eye.  One of the paintings in their collection, which I found fascinating, is Marsden Hartley’s (1877-1943), “Mont Saint-Victoire” circa 1927.  Here you have a reminiscence of Paul Cezanne’s (1839-1906) beloved and oft painted “Mont Saint-Victoire” imbued with Southwest colors.  A similar case in the next generation is a favorite subject of Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887-1906), Pendernal Mountain and the red hills at Ghost Ranch.

There are the Southwest still life subjects too, for instance the Marsden Hartley’s picture of Indian Pottery circa 1912 or the Mexican ceramic figure painted by Max Weber (1881-1961) It is titled Mexican Statuette but it is actually a ceramic figure from Cochiti Pueblo.  Georgia O’Keeffe would have seen many katsina dolls.  Though there is no evidence that she formally collected them, she did, however paint them, if rarely.

A piece of sculpture that owes a lot to the artists of France in the early part of the 20th century is Max Weber’s Figure in Rotation modeled in 1917 (this edition dates circa 1948).  I particularly relate to the John Storrs (1885-1956) sculpture “Study in Pure Form” that is similar to one in the Metropolitan Museum. Storrs evokes the skyscrapers of Manhattan which until recently was home to me.

Lastly, we must not forget that the Vilceks live in New York City so the painting by George Copeland Ault (1891-1948) “View from Brooklyn” 1927 which looks at the famous city skyline must have special meaning to them as well. I love how Ault captures the two boroughs so well in a single relatively small painting.

Only about a third of their collection (60 works of art) is in the show so all I have said is based on a sampling.  The exhibition will be up at the O’Keeffe until January 10, 2016 and I have hardly broken the surface of all that could be said about it.  I hope to go back and revisit it soon both in person and here in print.

All paintings mentioned are from the Jan T. and Marica Vilcek Collection and are promised gifts to the The Vilcek Foundation.  I want to thank the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for supplying the images.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Life of a Blogger

I have put this blog off for a few years now but as “Missives from the Art World” completes its sixth year of publication, it seems as good a time as any!  The thought first came to me waiting for a train in Heidelberg, Germany, a beautiful university town, which was one of the places that my father studied.  I made a few short notes then but decided that two years was too short a time for that blog to be written.

It all started because my associate, Vince Hickman, said to me that people enjoyed my stories, so it was a way of staying in touch even if the gallery no longer existed and I was, already in transition to Santa Fe.

My wife also writes, but she is a scholar who finds a subject and delves deeply into it.  She will often work with original documents for which she must go to the library.  She can spend months on a single article while I am knocking these pieces out on a weekly basis, so they are naturally not as thorough.  But then we are not trying to achieve the same goals.  Penelope is trying to teach while I am looking merely to entertain and hopefully make my reader think or even gain a new world-view.

 Blogging began in the electronic age and became the phenomenon it has become with the Internet.  It is more personal and independent than any previous form of publication.  No matter its faults and there are many one can still get a lot more information on the internet on a lot more subjects than from any single encyclopedia of old.  When people talk to me about the errors on the Internet I point out that one can find errors in many books if one does not pick up the “right” one!

Looking back now I see that my weekly blog was an incredible discipline for structure but,
my problems in writing and subject matter have changed in the last years.  As I have cut way down on my European travel, my trips have become more U.S. oriented and less frequent so I sit at my computer almost every week thinking what is worth writing about.  Sometimes it is pretty late in the week until I have an idea. 

I have lots of help because after I write, my wife edits, which at times is stressful for both of us!  Then my text is sent off with images that I have received, taken or found and put in Dropbox for my Blog Guru, Vince Hickman in New Jersey.  He figures out how to insert the images, and sometimes edits them in Photoshop or splices the videos and publishes the blog at midnight Sunday, Eastern Standard Time.  Then early on Monday he corrects any mistakes I or someone else finds.

BTW, I have had a few friends point out mistakes that I have made on a regular basis. Thank goodness most of those corrections are of a grammatical nature.  I am extremely pleased with those who point out errors because, first of all it shows that someone has read the Missive, and second because what is posted on the Internet will not disappear.  If I write about a Rothschild for instance, Google or some other search engine will pick that up, so years from now someone might stumble on my piece and it will have been corrected.

Almost every week I think, why am I doing this?  I have continued even through a number of surgeries and so far I have done 52 a year every year. and every week I wonder whether I will, or want to, continue!  I realize, however, that I derive pleasure from getting new ideas and researching those simple subjects that turn out not to be so simple.  Learning more is always stimulating, if also frustrating at times.

There is another reason that I continue, there are people who seem to appreciate it and that makes it worth doing.   I was sitting in a lecture in New York last year when a curator from the Getty Museum tapped me on the shoulder and said,  “I read your blog and particularly enjoy it when you write about the old days.”  That is not only an ego booster but makes me realize maybe I should tell some of my old stories.  Then I will see someone who I have not seen in years and they tell me they have been following my blog.  I had a museum director, once, say hello and start to tell me all the places I had been recently.  I said, “how did you know that” … you know the answer.  Not long ago I was asked whether I was interested in joining a very important board in Santa Fe and discussed it with 2 good friends, an art person and a lawyer in town.  I said it would take so much time to do the work properly for this board that I would have to make a choice between the board and the blog.  Since they had both encouraged me to join the board I was totally surprised when they both said, “Do the blog”.

What will I write about next week???

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Play Like No Other: DISGRACED

When you go to the theater and see a play you dream about afterwards, can’t stop thinking about it, and continue to debate its meanings ... that is a play worth writing about!

You may have heard of it, “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar.  It closed recently in New York and its very next stop was in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, produced by the Fusion Theater Company.  Ayad Akhtar is 45 years old, and a Pakistani-American actor and writer.  This is his first play written in 2012 and it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play deals with questions of identity and assimilation.  The focus is on Amir, a New York lawyer born to Muslim immigrants from Pakistan. He believes himself to be totally assimilated in the United States having shed all the prejudice and any extreme Islamic views that he learned from his mother as a child.  Through a series of events all the psychological protective armor that he has built up is slowly stripped away.  The main 4 characters and Fusion cast are Amir  (John San Nicolas) - Jory (Angela Littleton) - Emily (Celia Schaefer) – Isaak, the curator  (Gregory Wagrowski).

His American wife, an artist, is a bit of a free spirit, whose recent work is based on Islamic art. She sees the good side of the rich heritage brought to the world through so many years of the Persian Empire, which turned to Islam in the 7th century.  We can surmise that this is what attracts Amir to  Emily but it also intimidates him.

Amir’s cousin is a young Pakistani man still trying to find himself.  Although he is attracted to Islam he has Americanized his name to Abe (played by Samuel James Shoemaker-Trejo) in order to ease his way in society.  He wants Amir to help his friend, an Imam who has been accused of sending money to terrorists.  Over his protests that he is not a criminal lawyer, Emily persuades Amir to appear in court even if he does not serve as counsel to the Imam.  The press, however, portrays him as precisely that and Amir’s world begins to implode. 

It turns out that on his job application at his prestigious law firm he had said his parents were born in India since his father was born before that part of India became Pakistan, artificially, carved up by the British.  His mother, however, was born after that fateful date, August 14, 1947.  His law partners use the excuse to view him as anti-Semitic.  We learn that he has something of a chip on his shoulder making him a good litigator but scary as a partner.  He is infuriated when his black female friend and colleague at the firm is made partner when he feels he has worked far harder than she did.  I must add quickly before my children jump on me for describing his colleague as Black that this is a vital part of the story, the law firm being a white Jewish firm.  To add another ingredient to the pot his colleague is married to a white Jewish curator from the Whitney who has an affection for Emily and one wonders how far that might go.  Here is an image from the New Mexican of Jory and Amir still on good terms.

As the ingredients start to mix there is a dinner party with the four main characters, Jew, Black, former Muslim, Islamophile, who is also thrilled to learn her Muslim inspired work has made it into the Jewish curators exhibition.  Will the pot boil over? As the reviewer for The Guardian newspaper put it, “A stirring Greek Tragedy that will put you off your dinner”.

How would we react if we worked very hard to make it in another world culture and then were treated as an alien? It is quite recently that we would find a black person more in keeping with a white Jewish firm than an American-born Muslim who does not wish to be perceived as such.  Can one change one's DNA, or is it that certain precepts have been drilled into us since childhood and they are there to stay?  So many questions to think about.  I am not going to give away the entire plot because if I do you may not go to see or read the play.

To my surprise and delight I believe the Fusion’s cast to have been every bit as good and in some cases possibly superior to the one in New York, judging by the reviews.  Being from New York, I certainly recognized the curator who I may have placed at the Museum of Modern Art and not the Whitney but then the latter does do the Biennial.

The play has already been produced in London and Vienna and it is on track to have the most productions around the U.S. with 18 venues.  I have also read an article about the banlieues (the outskirts or suburbs of Paris where most Muslims and blacks live).  It’s called “The Other France” by George Packer and appeared in the August 31st issue of The New Yorker.  The real story sounded like it was taken right out of the play.  I would not be surprised if “Disgraced” were soon translated into French and if not, it should be.  With all the xenophobia we are seeing yet again in this country, and the immigration issues all over the world, the play is a must see or at least must read.