John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed,” 1919, a monumental oil painting on loan for the WWI show from the Imperial War Museum, London. It’s a Sargent, so it’s as civilized and genteel as war gets. But at the same time, it’s a far cry from the fancy society folks I’m used to from him.
The New-York Historical Society came into being in 1804, making it (according to itself) the oldest museum in the city. Its recent evolution presents a case study of a dusty old institution retooling itself for the social media age. Over the past decade or so a series of renovations turned it from the somewhat hermetic, academic attic of the city into a bright, airy, less-dense institution. Bronze statues of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass welcome you outside the front doors, and that unexpected, slightly eccentric vibe continues within.
Of the many things I like about the Historical Society, I sometimes think my favorite thing is the hyphen between “New” and “York.” Nowhere else bothers with that anymore. However, without it visitors might think that they are visiting the new historical society of York, England. I bet that happened a lot in the 19th century. It’s really thoughtful. I shall feel quite cross if they ever drop it and rebrand as the Newyork Historical Society. Continue reading “New-York Historical Society”
The museum business has always been a tough one. The 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition lost a ton of money. They tried bringing in P. T. Barnum to make it more popular. Even the great showman gave up, though, grumbling, “The dead could not be raised.”
Located in a pretty but unassuming townhouse on West 86th Street, the Bard Graduate Center Gallery offers a couple of floors converted into spaces for, it seems, whatever Bard Graduate Center folks happen to be working on. Bard exhibits come in three flavors: focus projects, traveling exhibits, and artists-in-residence.
The two shows on the day I went were both “focus projects.” Bard Graduate Center defines these as “small-scale academically rigorous exhibitions and publications that are developed and executed by Bard Graduate Center faculty and postdoctoral fellows in collaboration with students in our MA and PhD programs.” (Bard website; longer description here.)
Design by the Book
“Design by the Book” discusses the Sanli tu, a Chinese text from 961 meant to help reconstruct important ritual objects from even longer ago. Confucian China was full of rites and rituals, requiring very specific objects to complete. However, as dynasties waxed and waned, the nature of those objects was sometimes lost. In the mid-900s, a scholar named Nie Chongyi studied ancient writings about these objects, and set out to formally describe and picture them.
It was a good idea, and for a while an influential book. However, what we’d think of as archaeology eventually disproved many of Nie’s ideas when people dug up ruins and found actual examples of the ritual items in question.
The show introduced these ideas via a quick run-down of Confucianism and a look at a copy of the Sanli tu itself. It then showed examples of the kinds of objects it described, like bronze bells, cups, and ceremonial robes. It also included an interactive element inviting visitors to sketch three objects based on their written descriptions. It shows how your artwork compares with Nie’s conception and previous visitors’ attempts. Anyone up for Confucian Pictionary?
New York Crystal Palace 1853
The Crystal Palace show tells the story of the first World’s Fair in the United States, and the tremendous glass and steel building constructed to house it — an epitome of high technology of the time. It’s a bit of a jumble, trying to pack a lot of things into a space too small for it. Somewhat like the Crystal Palace Exposition itself, I suppose. The show defines world’s fairs and outlines the 19th century vogue for them. It describes the Crystal Palace itself and the myriads of exhibits and displays of art, science, and technology that existed within. Guns! Hats! Sculpture! Furniture! Vases! Not much of it to my taste, but they ate it up in 19th century New York.
For a small show, it surprisingly offered not one but three audio tour options: one featuring recorded quotations from Walt Whitman, the other two from imagined perspectives of fictional fairgoers. I’m not so sanguine about the fictional accounts. Plenty of actual people, famous and not famous, visited the Crystal Palace and wrote about their experiences. For instance, the show includes a wall-text quote from a teenage Sam Clemens, who called it “a perfect fairy palace, beautiful beyond description.” It feels like the group that put this exhibit together couldn’t find the contemporary perspectives they wanted, so decided to just make some up.
Better, the exhibit also featured a touchscreen panorama of the fair, enabling a visitor to pan around and zoom in on the cavalcade of wonders.
It even had a shard of the Crystal Palace itself. Following the fire that destroyed the amazing building in 1858, bits of glass served as souvenirs.
Overall, I liked this show. Given my obsession with museums, museum shows about museums very much appeal to me (see my review of the Bernard Museum‘s meta-exhibit). But they did have more story they wanted to tell than Bard Graduate Center had space to contain it.
Other Things to Know
Bard’s spaces are indeed pretty tiny. Each show occupied the footprint of the front room and hallway of a floor of the townhouse. It maximizes wall space by blocking windows (at the cost of creating gloomy rooms).
Small installations of contemporary art accompanied both shows in the “back room” space: a video piece about a hunt for a mysterious book in New York for the Crystal Palace, and a performance+light installation for the Design by the Book show. In theory I think having an art piece that riffs on the ideas in the adjoining exhibit can be illuminating. However, given Bard’s lack of space, I would’ve preferred to see more depth from the exhibits themselves.
The Bottom Line
I like the eclectic programming of the Bard Graduate Center Gallery. Lack of a topical mission or a focus can be a negative. But they seem focused on telling unexpected, interesting stories. That stretch of the Upper West Side is an art museum desert, so I like knowing it is there. If you’re going to Zabar’s, or happen to be across Central Park on Museum Mile, consider making a quick detour.
Given my weakness for fancy-dressed skeletons, I was tempted to pick the Red Death costume from “Phantom.” But I will instead say Julie Taymor’s costume/puppet designs from the Lion King are the best thing currently at the library, and still the best thing (visually) on Broadway.
The New York Public Library’s branch at Lincoln Center is easy to overlook, tucked in between the Met and the Vivian Beaumont Theater. It puts on a number of free exhibitions throughout the year, and has a fairly large space for doing so. I saw a great show celebrating the 45th anniversary of Sesame Street there a few years back. Continue reading “New York Public Library for the Performing Arts”
I’m impressed by the sheer blackness of the Folk Art Museum’s gallery space, as designed for the Gabritschevsky show. It’s super different from anywhere else I’ve seen art yet.
I have a problem with the idea of “folk art.” In my mind, it always translates as “art that’s just not very good.” The naive stuff, the outsider stuff, the untrained stuff, the stuff made by people not right in the head…always it feels to me like there’s some qualifier that attaches to the creator or the work that sets your expectations lower. And for me art is all about high expectations. I know there’s a Museum of Bad Art, and that’s cool. Badness can, if it’s bad enough, be instructive and entertaining. But I wouldn’t want to go to a museum of mediocre art. So I’d never been to the Folk Art Museum.
The Folk Art Museum also has one of the sadder recent histories among the city’s cultural institutions. The museum built itself a large and beautiful home down the block from the Museum of Modern Art back in 2001. However, demand to see folk art is apparently far smaller than they figured, and they couldn’t pay back what they borrowed to build it. So the museum sold its building to MoMA in 2011 and moved uptown to a much, much smaller space in the white marble monolith that houses the Church of the Latter Day Saints diagonally across from Lincoln Center. MoMA has since controversially demolished the old building, which really was striking, to further its own relentless expansion.
This is particularly sad because the museum has a substantial collection, but nowhere to display it. When I visited, all of the small yet cavernous space was devoted to work by two artists, both in the “not right in the head” category.
Eugen Gabritschevsky was Russian born and well on his way to a promising career in the biological sciences, including postdoctorate work at Columbia, when in 1931 he was institutionalized in Germany. Carlo Zinelli was born in Italy in 1916 and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Verona in 1947, where he lived the rest of his life, until 1974. Aside from both being in mental institutions, the two men and their art had little in common that I could see.
I’m going to be looking at more art by institutionalized people when I go to the Living Museum, at some point in this project. It often feels uncomfortable, like it’s exploitative, or like there’s so little basis for understanding what the artist was thinking that any interpretation on my part is presumptuous.
But should you go to the Folk Art Museum? They know what they’re doing. The two exhibits were beautifully installed, they used iPads cleverly, wall texts were generally great, and I really liked the way they suspend frames via cables, so that they float in the air. But I’m not sure the museum in its current incarnation is going to win any hearts and minds. If you already have a deep love of folk art, you should go. Everyone else can feel just fine skipping it.