Saturday, November 21, 2009

The New York Transit Museum

Like most New Yorkers, I take the subway everyday and I take it for granted. Unless the train is running slowly, I never stop to think about how the subway runs, how it was built, or even how metrocard revenue is collected and counted. My visit to the New York Transit Museum today was informative and, more importantly, fun.

To enter the museum, visitors (appropriately) descend down the stairs of a decommissioned subway station at Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street. A friendly staff members sells tickets from a historic ticket booth (I wish they still made them with beautifully varnished, turned wood bars). The museum's first gallery is a passage with a low burlap cloth ceiling, which evokes the feeling of being in an early, unfinished subway tunnel. The passage is papered in historic images that show the construction of the city's first subway. There's also great clips from newspapers of the day that feature quotes from workers who survived freak accidents, the city officials who celebrated the new initiative, and critics who lauded the city's technological advancement. And I was surprised to learn that the subway began as a private enterprise and was not a civic amenity until well into the 20th century.

One of my favorite displays in the museum illustrated the evolution of the subway's fare system, from paper tickets to tokens to today's metrocards. The best part were the examples of fake tokens that people had passed off as the real thing, including a quarter that someone had taken the pains to punch a "Y" out the middle of, just like a real token from the '70s. The board of fakes perfectly illustrated a conversation Sal and I had on our way to the museum. As he tells it, there was a coin in Costa Rica that was the exact size, shape, and weight as the MTA subway token. Illegal vendors on the street would sell a bag of the coins for a few dollars to fare evaders. Still, even the metrocard introduced in 1994 and fully phased in by 2004 experienced evasion kinks when it started. Someone discovered if you creased the magnetic strip just so, the computers in the turnstiles would think a valueless card still had enough value on it for a ride.

In the same gallery as the subway tokens are old station turnstiles. The first turnstiles had heavy wooden arms and were operated by an attendant who pushed a footlever which allowed a passenger to turn the arm and enter the station. It's a far cry from the sleek, polished stainless steel, computer operated turnstiles the MTA uses today. We even learned why the sides of the today's turnstile are slanted and the barred passage is so narrow. The slanted slides keep people from getting a purchase on top, so they can't jump over the arm. The narrow entrance dissuades people from crouching and going underneath the arm. Given that challenge and the opportunity (we wouldn't be arrested for fare evasion in the museum), we took turns sneaking through the turnstile. We also tested the other historic turnstyles and loved that the museum allowed us to interact with and touch the artifacts (after withstanding millions of people year after year, what's a few thousand more at the museum?).

The lowest level of the museum is the decommissioned station's platform, where 19 subway cars dating from 1904 to the present are lined up on the downtown and uptown tracks. Down the center of the platform are interpretative boards with detailed descriptions of the subway's evolution. Outside each subway car is a label telling the car's length of service and context of use. Interesting fact: subway cars were wooden until an accident shattered one and killed 93 people in 1918 After that cars were made of metal. Another interesting fact: subway revenue used to be collected at the stations at night and then taken by specially guarded subway cars on dedicated tracks to a carefully concealed money room in Brooklyn (since 2006, it's taken by armored car to Queens).

The subway cars are open and people are free to wander in and out, sit on the seats, and hang on the straps. In the cars, we spent a lot of time looking at the old maps--graphic design has come a long way--and the old advertisements, which have been around since the very beginning. As we were traveling back to Park Slope, we looked around at the ads in our car and realized that the ads have evolved a lot. There are fewer of them and they're longer and horizontally oriented. Even up until the 1970s, there were more and they were smaller, with a more vertical orientation. Our ads push services , sell tourist experiences, or are sponsored by the MTA to make you feel good about the transit authority. The historic ads sold goods.

I really can't gush about the museum enough (I'm just going to ignore the exhibit on Robert Moses, which I thought had confusing explanations and illustrations of the Triborough Bridge) because I left so energized. I love when I go to a museum and it dynamically teaches me about a segment of the world I interact with everyday. I love that the museum allowed me to explore and touch the artifacts. I liked that my experience interacting with the museum objects was informed by and now informs how I relate to my everyday environment.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dia: Beacon - The Opposite of a Love Affair

I love MASS MoCA. I hate Dia: Beacon. Both museums exhibit modern and contemporary art in rehabilitated and converted factories. My affection for the former and my distaste for the latter led to an important realization: I feel ambivalent about art from the second half of the 20th century. To understand and enjoy works of art from this time period, I need interpretation that is both well-written and accessible.

My first, engaged experience with contemporary art was at MASS MoCA, as part of a Davis Museum fieldtrip in college. Although I had never been to a contemporary art museum, I never felt alienated, nor stupid. There was clear, introductory wall text and concise labels throughout which provided information about the artist, the materials used, and often a brief explanation of the piece’s purpose or its context in a greater movement or cultural moment. I was also gratified by the high level of participation the museum encouraged. I still remember my pleasure and delight at being allowed to sit amongst the finches in “Library for the Birds of Massachusetts,” a giant aviary stocked with bird seed and books. Now, every time I get a chance to go to Western Mass, I always go back to MASS MoCA. I’m never disappointed.

So, by the time, I got to Dia: Beacon on Saturday, I felt comfortable looking at contemporary and modern art. I was also looking forward to seeing how another museum rehabilitated and converted a factory space. The physical museum is glorious. There are broad galleries, flooded with natural light from windows and skylights. The floors are luscious, distressed, blonde wood. The ceiling rafters are exposed and in the Flavin gallery, fluorescent tube lights nestle along them, creating a sort a dialogue between those pragmatic fluorescents that light the space, and the artistic fluorescents that are Flavin's artwork.

Despite how enamored I was of the physical space, I was alienated and provoked by the installations’ interpretation. The wall labels are perfunctory—an artist’s name and the title of the work (I'll admit, good for those who like unmediated artistic experiences). For those who need help understanding contemporary art, there are receptacles with laminated, essay-like labels. Unfortunately, those labels are exercises in mental masturbation. The prose is verbose and the sentences are poorly constructed. The label writers try too hard to conform to an academic style that favors jargon over comprehension. “Mythemes of glass, axiomatic status, and the phenomenology of color" are all vaunting phrases--precocious to the point of illogic--that communicate nothing. And, ultimately, the labels made me mistrust the art. The interpretation was so overwrought that I had to wonder, is the emperor naked?

I was also shocked that there was no way to participate with the museum. In fact, one form of engagement—photography—is not allowed at all. Most museums encourage their visitors to take part in some way, whether through picture-taking or in more active, creative ways. At MASS MoCA, I’ve contributed to an exhibition that asked visitors to write on sticky notes and I’ve shared my impressions in (analog) comment books sprinkled throughout the galleries (I've also taken many photographs). At the Brooklyn Museum last week, after viewing a Yinka Shonibare installation, I tweeted my impressions to the Museum's feed on the gallery's computer. After visiting the Met, I became a fan of their Facebook page and I put their hash tag on my photos on Flickr. Social media takes relatively little effort on a museum's part to deploy and provides a number of ways for visitors to engage before, during, and after their visit. It can aid interpretation. It's also becoming vital to audience attraction and retention, especially for a younger demographic.

The audience at Dia: Beacon is a segment that most museums strive to attract—Gen Y. The nature of Dia: Beacon’s collection lures Gen Y to the museum, but I doubt the museum is nurturing long-term relationships. Dia: Beacon does not use any of the new social media to retain or engage a generation which believes that personal expression is an inalienable birth right and that the internet is a democracy that allows any one to tke part in the conversation. One day Dia: Beacons's survival may depend on an engaged Gen Y and it's time they start taking the steps to build their relationships with them. They need to allow photography. They need to create a Facebook page. They should twitter. They should vivify their website. Perhaps if Dia: Beacon uses the new media I might begin to feel like a participant in the museum's mission, and not like a neophyte at the alter of ART.

(Head over to Retrograde Design for Patty's take on our visit.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The BPL: My New Favorite Place

I've spent the past two Saturday mornings at the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I'm in love; the place is magical and whimsical.

The building--at first glance--is imposing, with a strangely concave front facade. Yet--on second glance--it is ameliorated by unattributed quotations about the power of reading. The quotations express wonderfully idealistic sentiments about the place of books in culture and the transformative effect of knowledge. The library's very physical shell is an ode to the idea of books as instruments of self-improvement. After reading the library's website, I discovered that the building's physicality is meant to evoke the materiality of a book. "The spine is on Grand Army Plaza and the building's two wings open like pages onto Eastern Parkway and Flatbush Avenue."

The steps leading up to the library are shallow and short, which induced me to skip and skim my way up, just like when I'm hurriedly reading a well-plotted book to figure out what will happen next. Once inside the building and past the first information desk, there's a soaring foyer of gray marble and honey colored wood. It feels deliciously calm, but not at all solemn. Off the foyer is the children's reading room and the literature reading room. On the second floor are the nonfiction reading rooms. All are incredibly large, sunny, and inviting. I spent several happy hours wondering up and down the stacks.

What I especially love about the Brooklyn Library is that, while not a university library, it's still a very serviceable research library, with an extensive and diverse nonfiction collection. Having grown up in the 'burbs of Georgia, I was almost convinced public libraries were architectually welcoming, but largely buildings that only housed popular reading, the classics, and some how-to manuals. I was delighted to wonder in today and pick up a treatise on the condom industry in the US, a historical study of the creation of a teen culture over the course of the twentieth century, and a Brits memoir of the American homefront during WWII. I'm in eclectic heaven.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The 21st-Century Promenade

The City is replete with hip places to see and be seen. The newest and, ironically, most egalitarian is the Highline--a park on the old elevated train tracks that used to run from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues (see the map). Forget strolling anywhere else in the city during twilight, everyone is flocking to the magical, green oasis in the sky.

For good reason: the park is awesome, which stems--in part--from its novelty. The shocking juxtaposition of vibrant wildflowers with dead-looking city buildings is delicious. The ability to look at architectural details on level is delightful. Then there's the built-in teak benches which overlook the river during sunset. I also particularly like how the wildflower are planted between the old railroad ties.

But, the best part of my visit last week was the unexpected, unofficial jazz band that had set up on the fire escapes of an apartment building that overlooks the 20th St. entrance. The trumpet and trombone players scatted. The drummer rat-a-tat-tatted and the piano player provided the melody everyone started swinging to. New York is the only place where life sometimes really can be a musical--where joy transcends and infuses a moment so that the only thing one can do is sing and dance.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Shakespeare in the Park

You know you have a good friend when... she'll stand in Central Park all day to get tickets for Shakespeare in the Park. Annette was a champ, arriving at 9:30am, to get tickets for Twelfth Night at the Delacorte. Was it worth the wait? Simply put, the show was fantastic. The play was vividly and energetically brought to life.

Most of the show's reviews start with a discussion of the show's headliner, Anne Hathaway. Charles Isherwood, who reviewed the play for The New York Times, certainly did. He spent the first half of his review gushing over her performance. It was mildly nauseating (which makes me wonder just how low his expectations were to fall all over himself like that). She was good, but as I was sitting there watching her be Anne-Hathaway-in-a-soldier's-uniform, I realized just why the Public Theater mounted Twelfth Night so quickly after it's last run of the play (in 2002, Julia Stiles was Viola): Viola may be the character the plot largely turns around, but she's not on stage all that much. This fact makes the play a fantastic vehicle for young, untried-on-stage, film ingenues. If they're good, so much the better. If they're not so good, it doesn't really matter because Viola's scenes are few and far between and it's an ensemble piece--the genius of Feste, the hilarity of Sir Andrew Aguecheeck, and the acerbic tongue of Maria can keep the audience engaged and chortling.

Director Daniel Sullivan hedged his bets, surrounding Hathaway with a superb supporting cast. Julie White was a pitch-perfect Maria. Hamish Linklater, who played the wayward knight Andrew Aguecheek, offered a sincere and hilarious interpretation, imbuing the character with an injured dignity rarely seen in the role. Raul Esperaza managed to portray Orsino's stalkerish and incessant chase of Maria as sympathetic, even noble. Michael Cumptsy, as Malvoli, and David Pittu, as Feste, stole the show. Their scene, in which Festes impersonate the rector Sir Topaz to taunt the imprisoned Malvolio, was squirm-in-your-seat masterful.

Part of the delight of the show was the set, designed by John Lee Beatty, and the way the actors used it. Beatty created a set that was a park within a park, with verdant, rolling hills of astroturf nestled under the night-dark treeline of Central Park. Plus, it just looked fun to be on. The back of the set was about eight feet high and formed a sort of wall, along which was a path lined with trees. A staircase carved out of the hillside allowed the actors to move from the top down to the bottom. At centerstage on the right and left sides were gentle hillocks, both liberally planted with trees. The characters his behind trees. They ran up and down the hills, slid down them, jumped off them, and generally employed the set as an aid to create great physical comedy. Beatty's set was the perfect example of a set designer and a director perfectly merging their talents to create something better than its constituent parts.

Shakespeare in the Park is a gift to the residents of the City and this production of Twelfth Night was well worth the wait in line. Annette, I got your back next time.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Model as Muse

I have a lowbrow proclivity to admit: I love “America’s Next Top Model.” I cannot get enough of Tyra Bank’s modeling competition. Last cycle, I even carefully orchestrated my Manhattan to Long Island commute to make certain I would be home by 7:45, settled down, and in place for the 8:00 start. I can’t even excuse this reality show viewing by likening it to watching a train wreck. I actually like seeing the clothes the girls model. I’m amused by the girls whining about how HARD modeling is and I even get a kick out of watching Tyra swan around the judging room.

Imagine my shock when my lowbrow indulgence actually informed my enjoyment of a highbrow exhibition, “Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion” at the Met. I had no idea that I had learned so much about iconic fashion images and the history of the fashion industry from a reality television show. See team, tv won’t always rot your brain.

Looking at an image from the 1950s of a model in profile, bent over with her arms akimbo, my date exclaimed “Ugh, why is she hunched over like that.” While I trilled at the exact same moment, “Look at those angles!” Nigel, one of the photographer-judges on the show, is adamant that the girls contort their limbs to create more visual interest in an image.

Walking by a wall of Sports Illustrated covers, I started looking for Tyra. As I helpfully informed my date, she had been the first African American model to grace the yearly bikini issue. Sure enough, the cover was there, although I suspect he would have appreciated it even without the historical context.

Strolling along another wall of covers from the late 1970s/early 1980s, I started looking for Janice Dickinson. Sure enough, she was there too. When I mentioned to my date that she was the first supermodel, he naturally asked, “How did she become the first?”

“Oh,” I replied. “She coined the phrase.” I didn’t mention that Janice’s status as the first supermodel was an oft mentioned fact on ANTM, where she had been a judge for a few cycles.

“I see.” He said.

Then because I couldn’t stop myself, I added “She destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery.” I could see him start to wonder how exactly he had been induced to wonder through a fashion exhibition with a woman who could spew idiotic minutia like this. Still, he gamely carried on. Although, really, how hard is it to be a good sport when you get to ogle gorgeous women to your heart’s content?

Even without my hard-won knowledge from Top Model, I would have dug the exhibition. From the very first display—a recreation of Dovima wearing Christian Dior and posed with her arms outstretched next to two elephants—you could tell that the exhibition designer had a field day. The exhibition was exuberantly playful, occasionally reverent, often irreverent, coy, and accessible. The hallway leading into the main galleries were illuminated with photographer’s umbrella-ed lights. Each gallery represented a different decade and each gallery was decorated in the era’s aesthetic—the ‘90s gallery looked like a grunge club with glow-in the dark graffiti on the walls and black lights for illumination. My date and I spent almost as long just checking out the model graffiti on the walls.

Still, he must not have enjoyed himself as much as I thought. He hasn’t call since. I guess I better save geeking-out about model trivia for my girlfriends. Or not.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In Between the Rain Drops

Living in New York lately has felt a lot like living on the planet in Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day"--the rain never stops. At five this morning, I awoke to the steady beat of rain and cursed the never-ending water. Happily, by lunchtime the sky had cleared. Like the children in Bradbury's short story, Patty, Katie, and I scurried out into the sunshine, afraid to miss a moment.

We decided to walk over to the Brooklyn Museum since Katie and I had never been. On our way, we discovered a street fair underway on 7th Ave. It went on for blocks and blocks and there were tons of people out and about. We gorged ourselves on Italian sausages and peppers, Thai spring rolls, and fruit smoothies on our walk. It's just the sort of sustenance once needs for a day of museum viewing. Besides, you can't go to a street fair without experiencing the street fare.

We got a little lost on the way to the Brooklyn Museum, but--happily--we discovered the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Inspired by the glimpses of the roses we had caught behind the wrought iron fences, we decided to scrap the Museum for verdant paths and gorgeous flowers.

Entering the Botanic Garden is like leaving the borough behind. Once you are within the gates, it is a wholly new place. Although the occasional high-rise apartment insinuates itself into the view, the vistas are largely uninterrupted green space. One of the loveliest parts of the Garden is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden. The calm lake with large koi, the hanging weeping willows, and the simple wooden bridge beguiled us. Beyond the bridge was a charming waterfall. In the pool at the bottom, turtles sunned themselves on a rock. They too were soaking up the sun time.

As we walked along the outer edge of the Garden, we spotted the Brooklyn Museum and decided to pop in for the rest of the afternoon. I must admit, I was slightly mystified by the museum's exterior. Who ruins a beaux art facade by slapping on some tiered-glass spaceship? I suppose it's meant to make the museum more inviting and to draw people in on the ground-level, but I still think it's aesthetically horrifying.

The Museum's facade, it turns out, foreshadowed the juxtapositions within. As nonplussed as I was by the outside of the museum, that's how enchanted I was with the installation of the "American Identities" gallery. In this gallery, decorative arts are juxtaposed with paintings (and sometimes the ceramics or furniture depicted in the painting have a one to one example in a case below the painting). English colonial paintings are displayed next to Spanish colonial paintings, showing the similar ways in which the upper class established their social position. A landscape of Niagra Falls was in dialogue with an abstract painting of water splatters. Both vibrated with the energy of thousands of tons of cascading water.

What I loved about "American Identities" was the sense of excitement. The galleries were painted in vibrant colors. Patty and Katie thought the colors were too saturated and took away from the art, but I thought the colored walls created a sense of dynamism. When I walked into the gallery, it was as if the walls said something is happening here. Then as I focused in on the paintings and decorative arts how they were presented, you could see that there were really exciting dialogues between the displayed objects.

That same dynamism was also on display in the Brooklyn Museum's Luce Center. Unlike the static one at the Met (parallel rows of case after case of furniture, silver, glass, and paintings), the Brooklyn Museum's drew the visitor further and further into it. A display of Tiffany glasses were lit up just inside the entrance. A display with a Murphy's folding chair contained a video screen showing technicians manipulating the chair into its 50 different iterations. Drawers with objects could be pulled in and out, creating a jewelry box sense of excitement. This was the first Luce Center I encountered that was playful.

It was an amazing day in Brooklyn and I'm looking forward to visiting the Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum many more times. It would take a year of Sundays to take it all in.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Our House

Patty and I just moved to Park Slope last weekend.
We’re still getting used to the amount of time it takes to get from place to place. We misjudged last night and missed the first ten minutes of “Our House” at Playwright’s Horizon.

When we arrived at the theater, the usher put us in a small holding pen at the top of the theater until the next cue when she could show us to seats in the theater.
The “holding pen” had plexiglass and it created the strange distancing effect of television as we started watching Merv, played by the daffily self-absorbed Jeremy Strong, and Alice, played by the self-righteously infuriated Katie Kreisler, argue about who was going to clean the kitchen. Ugh, I thought, why do we want to watch a scripted Big Brother. It’s bad enough idiots like this fill the air waves. It turns out, as a few more minutes of watching unfolded, that was the whole point of the play (you know, I really need to start reading synopses before I go to these things)

“Our House” is preciously meta.
A tv exec of the fictional SBS (an acryonym for Such BullShit, perhaps?) network decides that because the network’s ratings are too low; he’s going to shake things up by making Jennifer, pitch perfect Morena Baccarin, his star morning news anchor the host of the Big-Brother-style reality tv show “Our House.” Merv, who is obsessed with tv, watches it openmouthed as his own interpersonal relationships explode around him.

The script written by Theresa Rebeck was strong, with biting dialogue and trenchant observations on the dumbing down of network television, the role of news in America (the tv exec wants to do away with it totally and is shocked that the FCC requires he broadcast news to get the airwaves for free), and the refracted reality of reality television.
Strong theater takes situations far beyond reality, or rather, to a reality rarely achieved in life. In this case, Merv takes his roommates hostage after a particularly fraught house meeting. Rebeck made me squirm as she sent her vauntingly ambitious tv anchor into the fray and overlooked common human decency to get the story.

It’s a smart play and the acting is excellent—and no surprise, over half the cast was educated at Julliard.
And yet, I really disliked the play and the actors in it. Part of this might be director Michael Mayer’s fault, the acting too often devolved to outright shouting. Shouting certainly raises the stakes, but too much shouting loses impact and quickly becomes stagey. In real life, people can rarely afford to lose their tempers so often. In this case, the shouting was simply sloppily characterization too—used to communicate diva fits, put-upon martyrdom, and boorish self-centeredness. Towards the end I wanted to shout, “Just move out and spare us all!”

Image courtesy of

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Elixir of Love

Until last Wednesday, I had never been to the opera. My dim notions of the art form were entirely shaped by snippets from PBS broadcasts and the erotically-charged glamour of the film Pretty Woman, when Edward takes Vivian to the opera for the first time. As Richard Gere and Julia Roberts settle into their box seats, he whispers, “People’s reactions to opera, the first time they see it are very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become a part of their soul.”

(See: 3:50-6:40)

I had hoped to love the opera. In lieu of that sensation, I wish I had hated it. Instead, I experienced a provoking sense of alienation. It seems I must learn to cultivate an appreciation.

I had hoped that despite not understanding Italian, I would be engrossed by L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love), a story inspired by Tristan and Isolde. After all, I don’t speak Spanish, but I can raptly watch Spanish-language soap operas (the actors are so passionate; their faces are so contorted; the language is so rapid fire). No such luck. Sung Italian is definitely not the same as spoken Spanish. And while I had subtitles—in front of each seat is a velvet bar with an embedded screen which flashes translations—knowing what they were actually singing about wasn’t particularly engaging. Unrequited, uncommunicated love is so tiresome.

What also surprised me and discomfited me was the very obvious performance unfolding before us. The fourth wall simply doesn’t exist in opera. The audience is not voyeurs, as is often the case in theater. Case in point, the soprano finally declared her love for the tenor and her lower body melted into his, but her torso and face were twisted away from him. She sung her love of him to us. I get that a singer needs to project to the back balcony and while I appreciated that consideration, I would have rather lost volume than watch that tortured physicality.

I had written to a friend, the day before the performance, that I was excited to experience a brand new (to me) art form—that it felt exciting to have no basis for discernment. And while it’s true that I can’t detect whether the singers coloratura was intricate or plain, whether their intonation was crisp or muddled, or whether their technique was top-notch or a near fail (all concepts I’ve picked up from scanning the New York Times reviews), I do understand theatricality, imagined worlds, and set design. On these points the opera failed and abetted my sense of disenchantment.

The set looked as if Lisa Frank, the beloved artist of elementary school girls the nation over,had suddenly decided she was bored of dolphins, unicorns, and kitties and decided she should instead design 19th-century Italian villages. From the trees to the buildings, everything was rendered in pastel hues (the last time I checked wood grain didn’t come in shades of pink and green). And, when the protagonist Nemorino abandons the village to join the army, the trees that descended from the flies looked like a flock of broccoli. The lighting designer joined in on the fun, bathing the stage in warm golden and pink lights. I know its a comedy, but pastel psychedelia doesn’t actually create a fairytale type of world in which these characters can bumble, fail, and ultimately recognize their love for one another.

Despite the questionable aesthetics of the set, I will say that I loved the scale of the opera. I reveled in the very largeness of it—a grandness and giganticness that translated all the way to the last tier of the balcony. I appreciated the score of cast members, playing villagers, who filled the stage. Spying with my binoculars, I was charmed by the microcosm dramas being lived as part of the larger action—the small boys who engaged in playful roughhousing; the lovers who leaned their heads against one another; the men who chatted idly; and the women who preened to catch the soldier’s attention.

Patty, Katie, and I decided we’d give the opera one more chance. We’re also considering better seats (as the other proletariat in the Family Circle applauded and cheered, I wished I had brought an airhorn—we would have fit right in). Next up is a tragedy. I’m actually looking forward to this, as of yet unpicked performance. I’d really like to see an operatic suicide. For the amount of caterwauling that went on in The Elixir of Love, the lead soprano and tenor really should have plunged daggers into their breasts.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Nassau County Museum of Art

Every day sends me an email with press releases from museums around the country. Last week, the press release for Facing Destiny: Children in European Portraiture (1500-1900) at the Nassau County Museum of Art crossed my screen. The considered-becoming-a-child-scholar part of me perked right up. The part of me that didn't want to see the Long Island Rail Road this weekend for love or money was sold when google maps declared that the museum is all of 20 minutes from Massapequa. Who needs to go into the city for a museum fix anyway? Particuarly when the art museum in question is a former Frick mansion.

"Facing Destiny" was a mixed bag. The paintings were chosen from the collection of the FundaciĆ³n Yannick y Ben Jakober in Majorca, Spain and were of widely varying quality. Some were masterly rendered portraits, others were stiff exercises in painting clothes (and plonking heads on top of them). But those stiff exercises did make an important point, these children were their clothes. Clothing communicated power, prestige, and status. For chidren who would one day rule, it was imperative to start cloaking them in the symbols of that power as early on as possible.

It was nice to see the progression through the centuries, how as the clothing changed, the idea of childhood was changing too. Sure, these aristocratic kids were still all tarted up, but it became clear that they were children, not miniature adults. The Dutch portraits, of course, did the best job of this. The Dutch were decades, if not more, ahead of their French, Spanish, and English counterparts in their conception of childhood. While the rest of Europe, still thought of children as inherently morally depraved, the Dutch in as early as the 17th century understood children as morally malleable creatures who would thrive in a loving and supportive atmosphere.

In a corridor between galleries, there were pictures of famous Americans when they were young. The snapshots could have been of any middle class, American child in the mid-20th century. The point was that American children are often born in anonymity and become great. Whereas, European children were born into their greatness. A nice gesture, but just a smidge too didactic for my taste.

I wasn't wild about the exhibition, but the problem really wasn't the exhibition. The problem was me. I've done a lot of reading about childhood. During my thesis days, Philippe Aries and I spent some serious quality time together. So, while it was fun to look at the paintings, I didn't really learn or discover anything new. I crave a sense of novelty and discovery in my museum-going adventures.

So, it makes a lot of sense that while I went to the Museum for "Facing Destiny," I was actually way more excited by the unexpected sculpture on the grounds (although, to be fair, they wouldn't have been unexpected if I had read the website thoroughly). Some were hideously appealing, like this hydra--I really wished I could have seen it in action; it has sprinklers in its mouths:

Others were cerebrally pleasing. I was completely taken by Alberto Bertoldi's "Redbank 31-Nassau Variation." From a distance it looked like a series of rectangles plunked semi-artfully on the ground.

But when looking through the rectangles, the sculpture came to life. It was like looking into two mirrors set opposite each other and seeing into infinity.

But even better was satisfying the urge to walk to the end of infinity. If one could go through the looking glasses to the very end, this is what it must look like:

There was also a collection of surreal creatures on the Museum's grounds, "Silla Casa Para Palomas (Chair, House for Doves)" by Alejandro Colunga. I was delighted by the unexpected juxtapositions. It was like walking through a frozen dream landscape or a children's book where Dr. Seuss meets Dali meets L. Frank Baum.

Clearly, the Nassau County Museum of Art merits another visit. I didn't even get to the formal gardens (designed by Ogden Codman and later redesigned by Marian Coffin!).

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the Road!

Like true New Yorkers, Patty, Katie, and I escaped to the Berkshires this weekend. We had the most glorious time driving on the Taconic, eating good food, and seeing the sites. We really didn’t want to come back—at least not for a couple more days.

Patty and Katie stretching their legs after 3.5 hours in the car.

The Clark

The impetus for our trip was Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris at the Clark through April 26. Katie, who got her Master’s in Art History at Williams, promised her classmate who helped curate the show that she would go see it. I’m super glad she made that promise. It’s an appealing exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of life in bohemian Paris. My favorite part of the exhibition was the “Celebrities” section which juxtaposed photographs of Paris’s most famous singers and actresses with Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs of them. There’s something undeniably engaging about comparing a “true likeness” to an artistic, idealized rendering.


On Saturday evening, we headed over to MASS MoCA for “13 Most Beautiful… Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests,” a film with live music written and performed by Dean and Britta. From 1964 to 1966, Warhol filmed Screen Tests, silent film portraits of Factory regulars. In all, there were over 500 of these screen tests. With a commission from the Warhol Museum, Dean and Britta chose 13 of these films, edited them together, and composed a score of original music.

The concept struck me as a little hipster chic and precious (but then again, Andy Warhol, himself, often verged dangerously close to the precious). Surprisingly, parts of the evening turned out to be quite moving. And not because in between sets, Dean would say things like “and he danced out a window and fell four stories to his death, and she went for cigarettes in 1986 and never came back, and in the 70s he was standing on the side of the road and was struck by a car.” No, the evening was moving because while Warhol often simply filmed insolent girls and jaded men who flipped off the camera, sometimes he managed to capture the essence of being human, in all of its beauty and quirkiness, vividness and vulnerability. Still, the most thrilling part of the evening was discovering that Britta was the voice of JEM in Jem and the Holograms (you know the original Hannah Montana).

Smith College Museum of Art

On Sunday morning, we drove to Smith so Katie could ogle a painting for work. The Met is borrowing it for an exhibition and she and the curator needed to know what color the sky was actually painted. Somehow, they suspected that Lily Martin Spencer wouldn’t really paint a sky yellow. It turns out the photo they received was way off, the painting was a washed out blue.

While we were there, we wandered into Thin and Girl Culture. It was perhaps one of the most upsetting, chilling, thought-provoking, and socially driven exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Photographer Lauren Greenfield combined two of her prior projects, a documentary series of photographs of women at Renfrew, an eating disorder treatment facility with another documentary series which explored the image-obsession of girls in America.

This is exactly the sort of exhibition college art museums should be doing, particularly a leading women’s college like Smith. The exhibition pushes the enveloped and it forced people to think hard about the social construction of beauty and womanhood, the danger of a homogenous conception of beauty, and the overwhelming, sociological urge to fit in and be loved.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

We ended our trip on a way lighter note. And, if you ask me (although Patty and Katie might disagree), we saved the best for last. We went to the Eric Carle Museum. I have been busting to get to this place for years, but every time I was thwarted by a perfect storm of circumstances. But, at long last, I made it there! It was even more magical than I expected. There was a wonderful exhibition about the making of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle originally named him Willy Worm! Thankfully, his editor intervened. There were mock-ups of the pages and a case which showed how Carle gouached pieces of white paper and then cut shapes from them to make his collages. There was also a fantastic exhibition about Virginia Lee Burton, the beloved illustrator of The Little House.

I cannot rave enough about the museum. I loved the physical building; it is so light and airy, yet made wonderfully inviting by huge, colorful, abstract paintings by Carle and children’s crafts hanging in the windows. I was enchanted by the adorable, child-sized library with hundred of picture books and the huge craft room. But what I really loved about the museum is that it found the perfect balance between appealing to kids and adults. There was plenty for kids to look at and great activity guides for them and adults had substantial, interesting labels to read.

I can’t wait to get back up there. There are so many places we just didn't have time to visit!

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Last night I saw my 12 year old cousin’s theatrical debut in Berner Middle School’s production of Footloose. My dad asked if I was going to blog about it. My initial response was, “Ummmm, of course not.” But, a couple of weeks ago the New York Times theatre critic, Charles Isherwood, had a cameo on “Gossip Girl.” Isherwood, as himself, attended the fictional private school’s production of “The Age of Innocence.” Isherwood was pretty stiff, but it was hilariously meta and unintentionally brought up an interesting point: what is and is not worthy of critique. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on excoriating the middle school musical, but I figure if Isherwood can see and think a high school production was “genius,” I can certainly admit to having one heck of a good time at Berner last night.

No seriously, I was incredibly impressed by the middle school’s stage craft. They had a fly crew. I remember my middle school musical—we acted on a makeshift stage in the gym. These kids has scenery flying in and out and movable set pieces that a small army of crewmembers whisked off and on stage. Those kids were mighty professional too; one boy lingered after everything was on to make sure the tablecloths at the diner were perfectly straight. But this floored me—the kids were miked. I remember when the Wellesley theater department and Upstage, the student theater group, split the cost of a set of head mikes for a production of “Blood Brothers.” It was a BIG day. Either mikes have gotten a lot cheaper or the school has money. Maybe both. Either way, I’m grateful the kids were miked. We wouldn’t have heard them otherwise.

And I finally understood why middle schools and high schools fanatically LOVE the musical (a genre of theater I really dislike). Sure, you can involve a lot more kids, but the genre is really a gift to an audience of captive family members. 13 year olds really can’t act, but a lot of them can sing and dance. And these kids sang and danced their hearts out. It was adorable and joyous and fun. The girl who sang “Lets Hear It for the Boy” was a precociously good singer and brought down the house (and not for the first time when I was attending one of my cousin’s school functions did I wonder what ‘ol Humbert Humbert would think of these child-women).

The auditorium was packed with parents, family members, friends, teachers, and staff who all beamed with pride. At the end, we rose and stood en masse to give these kids a standing ovation. And as everyone left, there were outbreaks of impromptu sashaying through the parking lot (my family among the guilty). It’s been a long time since I’ve had such an unexpected, heartwarming evening of joy and celebration. Let’s hear it for the kids at Berner!