Use, Muse & Amuse

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By Rory Winston

‘Temple of the muses’ – so sacred, so much grandeur, all that pressure attached to a single word: ‘museum.’ The fact that many are inspired to quote the etymology of the institution, and spend hours raptly invoking the atypical way in which they experience these renowned bastions of culture means there are way too few actually attending.

It is something one associates to foreign countries, something one sets aside a special time of the year to do. It is, for many, an intellectual obligation, a cultural necessity, a way in which to properly pay one’s respects to those who have contributed to our world; it is, in short, a visit to the cemetery.

Note: there is no such thing as a special ‘museum mood.’ There are as many different museums as there are emotional states. And, as sacrilegious as it may sound, museums are downright entertaining. They are there as much for our amusement as for our education.

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Guggenheim Galore

From its inception, the Guggenheim museum (guggenheim.org) has inflected both the architectural and the artistic landscape of New York. Like the effect that Gaudi’s idiosyncratic work had on Barcelona, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece did more than reinterpret the surrounding skyline – it would forever alter our perception of all that dwelt within. The paradigm had shifted; venues were no longer intended to simply house works of art but to engage in a dialogue with them.

It should come as no surprise then that the Guggenheim’s sections are neither based on mediums nor on periods. Instead, the museum itself is a naturally evolving entity that mutates its themes in response to newly introduced elements. Being a curator á la Guggenheim is an art in its own right.

Besides the Christopher Wool exhibition presently running till January 22nd – where the boundaries between physical process and resulting work are intriguingly blurred – February will see No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, an exhibition slated to be one of the most comprehensive artistic examinations of ethnicity, colonialism, identity and the effect of globalization on the region in question. For the vast majority of the paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and installations in the grouping, this will represent their first US visit.

From film screenings to concerts to educational tours with workshops for both adults and children, the Guggenheim remains one of the most stirring forms of entertainment our city has to offer. With the brand having extended itself from New York to Venice to the contemporary Frank Gehry edifices in Bilbao (and soon Abu Dhabi), the Guggenheim remains that rare creature, one that celebrates the past by looking to the future. As museums go, its varied palette is a great tool with which to “paint the town.”

Living Hall NW view

A Tycoon’s Treasures: The Frick Collection

Besides professional art collectors like Solomon Guggenheim, the early twentieth century was rife with magnates like Cornelius Vanderbilt II who involved themselves in the arts.  With J.D. Rockefeller setting the new standard for philanthropy, and Andrew Carnegie following suit, it did not take long for Henry Clay Frick – friend and colleague of the latter – to start amassing an art collection with cultural gravitas.

After surviving an assassination attempt by an anarchist intent on revenge for what he deemed as Frick’s callous disregard of unionized strikers, Frick eventually moved to New York. By 1914, the mansion that now houses the renowned Frick Collection (frick.org) had been completed.

The mansion remains a bastion for art dating from the pre-Renaissance to the post-Impressionist era. With no particular logical or chronological order, it is a testament to the most highly cultivated choices displayed with highly personal – if random – taste. With masterpieces from Titian, El Greco, Bellini, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya, van Dyck and numerous others, the massive house – ensconced as it is – within a sheaf of three magnolias trees is a time capsule for a moment in American history when libertarians fancied themselves as monarchs.

At present, our faux dynasty is happily hosting regal works the likes of Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals – guests from Hague’s Royal Gallery Mauritshuis. But then, such is the life of our nobility manqué.

From the music rooms and garden courts to the libraries filled with Chinese porcelain and Italian bronzes, this Upper East Side property remains situated forever between the corner of a long forgotten Place d’Armes and a 70th street of our abandoned imagination.

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Whitney from the Block

As the say in Hip Hop, ‘Whitney’s got street cred’. At a time when highbrow culture in New York was enthralled with all things European and dismissive about the quality of locally produced art, Gertrude Vanderbilt – with the help of an endowment – collected more than 500 works by different American artists and offered them to the Metropolitan museum. The rejection that ensued proved to be fortuitous since it catalyzed Gerty into opening what would in no time become the Whitney Museum (whitney.org) we know today – a museum still dedicated to finding new American artists.

Housed in a muscular modernist block of granite resembling the abandoned tool of a primitive god, the Whitney is home to everything from Rothko to Stella to… Well, to be as blunt as the building, with over 19,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, films, prints, and new media, the Whitney represents more than 3000 artists from the twentieth century to the present – its annual exhibition being a reviewer’s paradise for spotting emerging talents.

Current exhibitions include Robert Indiana: Beyond Love – an exploration of American identity, racial injustice and the illusion and disillusion of love. Traversed by way of roadside entertainments and highway signs, the journey takes us through the respectively vivid symbols scattered throughout post war Americana. Likewise, Rituals of Rented Island focuses on a performance art that thrived in the radical 70’s wherein artists from fields as disparate as dance, music and visual arts created an experimental environment in which to tackle issues such as contemporary media VS high art. This while T.J. Wlcox’s In the Air is a cinema-in-the-round piece where city narratives are told through the eyes of an artist staring out from his apartment window. Juxtaposing myth, memory and the recent information overload, we see a world where history is in a constant state of flux – where construction and disintegration occur simultaneously. In terms of retrospectives, Edward Steichen in the 1920’s and 30’s is a hypnotic journey through trends and their untimely portrayal. Encompassing all the fashion photos taken under Richard’s tenure as chief photographer for Condé Nast, it is an exciting take on what could otherwise have passed for footnotes of an era.

As for American Legends from Calder to O’Keeffe, it is a must-see that manages not only to convey a great deal about development in art from the first half of the twentieth century, but is a telling tale of Whitney’s own role in abetting such development since the eighteen leading artists being represented are museum holdings. Why the Whitney? Because occasionally it’s good to know why American artists are so appreciated – at least – abroad. •

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2 Responses to “Use, Muse & Amuse”

  1. MW says:

    I saw some of the exhibitions mentioned here. And I concur. Good showings. Enjoyable article… well written :)

  2. anne says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and attend the museums a lot myself without needing a special ‘museum mood’. But I do know what you mean since many of friends speak in those terms. Funny :)

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