|Should you go?
|Best thing I saw or learned
|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.
|18 West 86th Street, Manhattan
|General Admission: $7 (suggested; free on Wednesday)
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