|Should you go?|
|Time spent||173 minutes (including lingering at the café)|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Alfonse Mucha created lots of lovely ladies, but among the loveliest were the ladies who populate his dreamy, dusky series, “The Moon and the Stars.” My photo does not do them justice.|
In a city that has a museum for everything from dogs to Enrico Caruso it’s somewhat surprising that we’ve lacked a museum for posters. Remedying that shortcoming is Poster House, which opened in July.
Poster House occupies a storefront in an early 1900s building on West 23rd Street. Old-school New Yorkers with a certain computational bent will recognize the building as the former home of Tekserve, the City’s original Mecca for all things Apple, before Apple itself moved in with its glass cubes, converted post offices, Grand Central balconies, and sundry other retail experiences. Tech retail’s loss is museum’s gain.
Within, visitors will find two floors of gallery spaces, along with the requisite café (quite a good one at that) and gift shop. The architecture is a really interesting hybrid, with the old 19th century columns and high ceilings preserved, but with highly contemporary concrete and blond wood interventions to define the interior spaces and jazz the place up. It’s a combination that could easily go wrong, but to my mind it’s one of New York’s most successful recently repurposed museum spaces.
Although the museum has a collection, given its fairly finite space and the delicate nature of posters themselves it’s going to host changing shows, rather than having anything permanently on display.
Poster House opted to inaugurate its space with a show devoted to the early work of Alfonse Mucha, a perfect subject for the institution. Mucha helped define the modern poster, as well as epitomizing art nouveau. Even if you don’t know who Mucha was, you’ve almost certainly seen his work — or homages, pastiches, or derivatives thereof. His deeply detailed, ornate, floral, curvy designs and the dreamy ladies with flowing, “macaroni” hair who populated them have influenced art and design straight through to the present.
The exhibition, titled “Art Nouveau/ Nouvelle Femme,” argued that Mucha’s depictions of women, graceful slightly naughty semi-nudes that nonetheless managed to be demure at the same time, represented a big break with past depictions of women in advertising. The curator describes Mucha women as (in their way, for their time) strong and active, in contrast to the “submissive advertising ladies” (quoting the exhibition note) of earlier posters. The show opens with Mucha’s work with the actress Sarah Bernhardt, his first big break, a successful partnership, and an influence on how Mucha saw and depicted women later in his career.
I love the allegorical nature of Mucha’s work. These are not allegorical times. I sort of miss an era when a woman could embody the continents or the seasons or the concept of Liberty. Or a brand of biscuit or bicycle.
On that note, Mucha did a set of seasonal ladies for a calendar and I swear it looks like Winter is about to eat a little bird. I expect she’s just blowing on the poor thing to warm it up. But in my mind, Winter’s hungry.
This exhibit bodes well for future shows at Poster House. It had something to say beyond “check out the pretty ladies,” and it made its argument well. And it doesn’t hurt that the works were indeed very lovely.
If I’m Cyan I’m Dyin’
The other inaugural show at Poster House could not have been more diverse from Mucha. I suspect the curators deliberately sought a subject to demonstrate the breadth of posters as an art and craft. And so a tiny jewel box of a gallery featured a mini-retrospective of the work of Cyan, an East Berlin graphic design firm from the 1990s that went a little nuts with desktop publishing software when it first became available in the former Eastern Bloc. Cyan’s posters feature amazing combinations of colors and layers. They make the viewer keep looking again and again, always seeing new things.
This exhibit taught me something new, and, like Cyan’s posters themselves, packed dense, interesting ideas into a teensy little space.
Other Things to See
Poster House also includes several interactive elements. I spent time with the ‘design your own poster’ feature, which walks through major poster styles, types and purposes. Mine is, I freely admit, pretty horrible. That’s why I review museums instead of designing posters. But if Boris Karloff had been a Mucha girl, it would have looked something like this.
Poster House also has an Instagrammy photobooth, wherein visitors can insert themselves into classic posters.
And a small kids area, with poster-related activities for young ones.
The gift shop also merits a bit more of a mention than I’ve given it — it’s quite good, and gives another impression of the slicker, more modern aspect of the interior design.
Should You Visit Poster House?
For a museum devoted to an advertising medium, Poster House seems oddly under-marketed. Its 23rd Street façade, which should be super-inviting, instead has featureless black glass. If I didn’t know it there was a museum inside, I would just walk by.
The place was very empty on the random weekend afternoon that I visited, soon after its grand opening. I was surprised that more curious New Yorker’s weren’t there. That’s especially true given the Mucha show. He’s pretty popular these days, and eminently Instagrammable.
I hope that the relative emptiness is just because it’s still new and working out its publicity, marketing, and advertising plans. This place deserves to be more popular.
That said, and realizing I’ve just written an emphatically “you should go!” review, I would be happy if Poster House stayed under the radar for a while. Nothing like being in-the-know for a superior small museum experience — as well as a good café in the Flatiron district — that’s not overwhelmed by its own popularity.
For the record, though, you should definitely visit Poster House.
|Address||119 West 23rd Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $12|
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