Friday, February 26, 2010

Onassis Cultural Center/Austrian Cultural Forum

2/13/10, Saturday

Onassis Cultural Center ……………….…...... 1.5 hr 
Austrian Cultural Forum …………………....… 30 min

Onassis Cultural Center ………………........... Free 
Austrian Cultural Forum………………......….. Free 

Today we went to two museums dedicated to two completely different forms of art: icon painting and modern “found” art. These art forms may not have much in common, but up until now I’ve despised both for exactly the same reason: they don’t have meaning for me. To me, icon art is always the exact same scenes and people painted over and over. The thousandth Madonna and Child painted in that same old flat stilted way fails to conjure up little emotion in me other than a vague pity for the artists who could paint nothing else due to church doctrine, and boredom combined with the desire to see something else. Found art also leaves me flat. Once again, I feel some measure of pity for the talentless hack who can come up with nothing better than to pull something out of the garbage and call it art, and of course boredom combined with the desire to leave. Today one of these museums completely changed my mind about one of these art forms. The other museum confirmed everything I’ve felt about the other. 

The Onassis Cultural Center exists to “disseminate Greek culture and civilization of all time periods in the United States of America” and is funded through the will of famous Greek Aristotle Onassis: controversial shipping magnate, lover of the world’s most glamorous women (Jacqueline Kennedy and Maria Callas), and one of the world’s wealthiest men at the time of his death. The cultural center is oddly positioned beneath the lobby of Onassis’s Olympic Tower, a generic looking office building in midtown Manhattan, and the museum is reached by descending an unassuming stairway tucked behind a café and partially hidden behind the lobby’s massive marble columns. It’s a modest beginning for an impressive museum. 

The center’s exhibits are small, but tend to showcase the most exquisite of Greek artifacts, rare centuries old treasures that often have never before left their native lands. The exhibition today was of that ilk. “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete” collects about 50 icon painting from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, but isn’t satisfied with just showcasing them. Instead, the exhibit uses these paintings to illustrate that Greece was an artistic melting pot during this time period, and to tell a story about how this merging of multiple art movements shaped one of Greece’s most famous artists, the painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known as “El Greco” (translated as simply “The Greek”).

El Greco is one of Paul’s favorite artists and is considered one of the fathers of modern painting, which is a pretty shocking thing to say about an icon painter of the 16th century. He’s known for his dramatic, emotional images which frequently border on the abstract. His figures are often elongated and non-proportional, his colors overly vivid and unreal, and his bright light used for emphasis, giving an intense and surreal energy to his compositions. His style has always been difficult to pin down, as it seems very modern and separated from the styles of his era, but this show points out that El Greco actually drew elements from the many painting movements of his time and fused them to create his unique style.

I don’t know much about ancient painting styles, but from this exhibit I discovered that the older Byzantine icon paintings are the ones I dislike so much, with their flat images, gold backgrounds and little variety. However El Greco seems to have pulled much of his abstract elements out of this style, like the elongated faces, and non-proportional figures. Greece was a colony of Venice during this period, so the Venetian Gothic style creeps into many of the paintings, adding vivid colors, animated poses and realistic details. Variety explodes in this style, and saints are seen slaying dragons, fighting wars, and riding fanciful lions. Then the influence of the Renaissance shows up, and suddenly the images aren’t flat. Depth and dimension are added and light is used for dramatic emphasis. Due to the meeting of cultures in Greece, all of these styles were present during El Greco’s time, sometimes all in the same painting, and it’s easier to see El Greco’s origins in these predecessors and contemporaries.

I have to say that this exhibit really won me over. I found plenty of variety in the many painting styles, poses, subjects and meanings, and, to my utter shock, I was not bored. I promise the next time I come across an icon section at a museum, I won’t be so quick to pass it over. I should note here that Paul has always loved icon painting. He claims his Slavic soul is programmed to love flat awkward non-dimensional gaudy religious paintings. He has always found them oddly fascinating for their alien qualities. He thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but he didn’t need to be won over by it.

The second museum of the day was the Austrian Cultural Forum, located in a midtown office building a block away. The forum is an agency of the Republic of Austria that “seeks to enhance the appreciation of contemporary Austrian creative achievements in the United States.” The mission statement sounds similar to the previous museum, but that’s where the similarities end. By far the most remarkable thing about the forum is the building, which looks a bit like a modern interpretation of a Swiss chalet done in grey sheet metal, stretched into a 24 story tower and squeezed into a shockingly narrow 25 ft space between office buildings. No, that’s not a misprint; apparently they needed to fit the tower into the space occupied by their previous townhouse. Manhattan real estate prices make people do crazy things.

The exhibit for this spring is called “Solace”, and is supposed to contain “art in a very mundane sense as a source of solace.” I can’t say I felt much solace, more like puzzlement, sometimes bemusement, and definitely boredom. I don’t want to critique the art too much, as Paul and I promised each other at the beginning of this project that we would try not to be overly negative about things we didn’t like, as art is by its nature extremely subjective. One person’s da Vinci is another person’s dreck. So instead I’ll just give the titles and descriptions of some pieces and let the reader be the judge. 

 “Untitled (Balloon Equilibrium)”, eight helium balloons on strings floating in a corner in various stages of deflation (we didn’t think the deflation was on purpose, but could be wrong); “Sands Masturbation”, a video of half naked girls playing on a beach and fondling their breasts, with a home movie of a guy masturbating playing beside it; “I Was Down”, three red circles projected on the wall (see picture); “Now That We Can Talk About (Lament as Praxis)”, sticks lying against a stand next to objects such as a can of wood stain and the top of a rusty fire hydrant (see picture); and lastly “The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art”, a card table and rows of empty beer bottles on shelves (see picture).

Critiques of the art quality aside, we didn’t feel like we learned anything about Austrian culture, other than they like to masturbate and drink beer, which we had thought was fairly universally human.

Ta for now, will fill you in on the excellent Paley Center for Media next time. 

Art in this posting, from the top: “Pieta,” early 16th century probably by Nikolaos Tzafouris; “Christ Pantokrator,” late 14th century, artist unknown; "Virgin Hodegetria," artist unknown; “The Crucifixion,” late 15th century by Andreas Pavias ; “Saint Theodore Tiro, from Candia,” 15th century, artist unknown; “Saint Demetrios on Horseback” by Donatos Bitzamanos, "The Adoration of the Magi" 1585 by Michael Damaskenos; “Coronation of the Virgin” 1603 by El Greco; the exterior of Austrian Cultural Forum; "I Was Down" by Koudlam; “Now That We Can Talk About (Lament as Praxis)” by Misha Stroj; and “The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art” by Toni Marioni.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum

2/6/10; Saturday (continued)  
MUSEUM: Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum
TIME: 1.5 hr
COST: $35 for both (with 2 for 1 coupon)
          + $15 for 2 booklets and 2 photos made into fridge magnets

Pauline here: Normally Paul “ghost writes” on our blog; i.e. we discuss the museum together and I try to capture both viewpoints and experiences when I write. However, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum hit close to Paul’s interest in side shows (perhaps I should say obsession), and he wished to write this one on his own, so what follows is Paul’s first solo entry to the blog. I should also mention that Paul went through the museum as if he were a carnival barker and recruited several marks, ahem, I mean people, to pose for our blog with programs in front of their faces next to the wax celebrities. Thank you to all of you who were gracious enough to help us out. (No, Paul, I don’t mean gullible.)
Paul here: Our trip to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum on 42nd street in Times Square was different than any other museum we had been to previously. Firstly, it was the first museum located off the museum mile. Hence it was one of first “non-mansion” museums, which in itself was quite different. The building was gaudily lit up, as a museum in the “Great White Way” should be. (That’s “Times Square” to non-New Yorkers.) The second main difference is that Madame Tussaud’s origins were in the sideshow tradition and not as a cultural repository, and is designed to make money. Hence, the museum is a for-profit venture. A single admission is $35.00, making it one of the most expensive museums in the city. We looked online and found a 2-for-1 coupon, which we decided to use.  

The sideshow origins of this wax museum are pretty pervasive. The sideshows of old were intended to separate the punters from their money as quickly as possible. Tussaud’s still adheres to this mentality, by offering little services throughout the museum. They offer a “program” for $5.00 that I would not recommend purchasing. There are snack bars on almost every floor, and one could get “professional” photos taken with Johnny Depp, the Obamas, and various other people of note. All of them are available for purchase at the end of the tour as photos, key chains, and refrigerator magnets. We had our photo taken with Johnny Depp holding Oscars, which we had made into magnets. We could have also chosen President Obama, Superman or the Incredible Hulk. Not that you had to buy anything. One of the really cool things they allow you to do is to take you own photos throughout the museum.

We forgot our camera, but luckily, we had my cell phone, which has a pretty nice camera. The Museum is laid out over several different floors. The tour starts at the top of the building and you descend to the bottom floor. There are stairs, but whole thing is handicapped accessible, so it is not too taxing on people who have trouble moving. Each floor has several differently themed rooms. There was a “hall of stars” with movie celebrities, a rap-themed room, a nightclub with famous singers, a historical section with people like Napolean Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln, a karaoke room where you could be judged by American Idol judges, a “hall of honor” with the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II, an “Americana” through the decades of the 1900s, and a sports-themed room. There was also a “scare room” where you walked through a near dark maze and people jumped out at you. This had no wax figures in it, and while we were there, very few people hiding to scare us, so I would probably put this down as a “non-room”.

In each room were the wax figurines. These are truly remarkable. They, in general, are pretty realistic, right down to the armpit hair. These ranged from Napoleon to Ru Paul, and included a lot of different stars in between. Some of them, like Julia Roberts, were instantly recognizable. We had trouble identifying some of them, but Pauline and I are not pop culture junkies. Some of the ones we had trouble were due to the stillness of the figures. Selma Hayek and Lou Reed were good examples of this. Both are notable for their animated looks, so when they were perfectly still, it was strange. Other choices were just weird. These included putting FDR in a wheelchair- something he never liked to be shown in a public setting, putting Princess Diana next to the Dali Lama and Albert Einstein in the Hall of Honor, and an apparent obsession with Al Roker.

One of the most “offensive” things we saw was hockey legend Wayne Gretzky decked out in a NY Ranger’s jersey, instead of his Edmonton Oilers jersey. I understand that this is New York, and he technically was a Ranger, but he should be remembered for when he was the Great One in Edmonton. Pele’, who played for the NY Cosmos in the short lived NASL, was shown in his Brazil uniform, and not as a Cosmo. But that is a quibble that we hockey fans can debate about. Also, a lot of the people were thinner than I thought they were/are in real life. But in reality, it was a lot of fun to spend a couple of hours wandering through the galleries and having some harmless fun hanging.  

Images in this post, from the top: the Dalai Lama with friends; Patrick Stewart with friend; Marylin Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and friend; Julie Roberts and friend; Neil Armstrong and Johnny Cash; and Pele'.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Guggenheim Museum

2/6/10; Saturday, continued
TIME: 2hr
COST: Pay-what-you-wish Sat evening

At last we visited the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum: architectural icon, New York City landmark, and home to an internationally renowned art collection. Known to locals simply as “the Gugg”, it’s both one of New York’s most famous museums and most recognizable buildings, and I’ve wanted to see it since long before I came to New York.

The Guggenheim’s permanent collection is a who’s who in modern art. If you’ve heard of any artist, you probably heard of those at the Gugg, with names like Picasso, van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir. I got a sense of deja vou walking through the exhibits; these are the paintings famous enough to be featured in everything from car commercials to movie sets and you’ve definitely seen them before.

But as great as the art is, the real star here is the building. When the museum was first opened in 1959, the New York Times described it as a “a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed.” It’s Paul’s and my opinion that architecture won. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Guggenheim is considered one of the 20th century's greatest buildings and its blindly white modern curves stand out starkly from the traditional buildings of 5 th avenue, and have been described in many picturesque ways, including: a curving wave that never breaks; an upside down seashell; or, my personal favorite, a grand balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As great as the art was, I find what I really remember about our time in the museum is this wonderful building. Even the bathrooms are memorable, situated in the hollow oval pillars that line the central ramp, in the middle of the exhibition space. Thus you find yourself doing something very private in the middle of a very crowed public place; its oddly exhibitionist.

We visited the Guggenheim during the “Pay What You Wish” time (Saturday evenings). As we had been warned, the line for this was over a block long. I haven’t seen a line that long since “Lord of the Rings” opened in Seattle. That line was very different, containing lots of people dressed up as elves and chatting excitedly in the drizzle. This one was made up of grouchy New Yorkers shivering in the cold February wind, commenting on other people’s accessories and wondering loudly what could possibly be so important for so many people to be lined up. I can’t decide if this demonstrates that New Yorkers are not easily impressed, or if they were hoping to get other people in the line to leave.

Once we got into the museum, the first thing we saw was a man and a woman making out on the lobby floor, in the great rotunda space of the museum. Their necking progressed until they were writhing on the cold marble floor in a sort of clothed soft porn. The couple continued this the entire two hours we were in the museum and attracted quite a crowd. We were initially puzzled by them, along with everyone else in the lobby, but eventually determined that several of the Guggenheim exhibits during our visit were by Tino Sehgal, a performance artist, and that this was not the weirdest of his art pieces. After making our way awkwardly around the couple, giving them a wide berth, we made it to the start of the Guggenheim’s inner ramp. This is a wide ramp that gently spirals up the seven floors of the museum and normally contains a great deal of artwork, but not today. Today we were greeted by a young boy of about 14 in a suit who asked if we would like to take part in an art project. Eyeing the couple on the floor, I decided that I didn’t want to be publicly embarrassed and declined. Paul, of course, said yes.

Paul’s art project turned out to be a conversation. The boy asked Paul to define progress, and they talked about it as they headed up the ramp. Each time they completed a turn of the spiral, Paul’s conversation partner would be replaced with an older person, who would continue the conversation and refine the ideas discussed. This progressed through a teenager, an earnest 20-something, a more experienced middle-aged man and so on, until, on the top floor Paul was talking to a grey haired philosophy professor from Columbia University. Paul loved it. He claimed it was the best experience that he’s ever had in a museum. As for me, talking to strangers has never been my favorite thing, so I’m glad I declined. Just goes to show you that art is truly in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the ear…

Ta for now. In our next blog, Paul will fill you in on Madame Tussaud’s and the Jewish Museum.

Pictures featured above, from the top: the interior ramp and skylight of the Guggenheim Museum; the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum; The Soldier Drinks, by Chagall; Le Moulin de la Galette, by
Picasso; and Before the Mirror by Manet.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Neue Galerie

1/18/2010, Monday (MLK Jr Day) continued

TIME: 1.5 hrs
COST: $15 each
COFFEE BREAK: 2 coffees + Klimpttorte @ Café Sabarsky, $18

When I think of Germanic culture, painting is not the first thing that comes to mind. I think of brooding philosophers (Kant and Nietzsche), brilliant scientists (Einstein and Max Planck), disturbing writers (Hesse and Kafka), and maybe some really dreary operas (Wagner), but I have to say that painters don’t make the list for me. Yet around the turn of the century there was a revolution in the art of Germany and Austria that produced fantastic artists that I’ve definitely heard of, like Gustav Klimt, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Today we visited a museum devoted solely to these artists.

This museum is the newest addition to Museum Mile, aptly named Neue Galerie (German for “New Gallery”), and housed in an elegant former mansion. The building has gone through all 3 stages of what Paul calls “The Natural Lifecycle of a Mansion”. Stage 1: The Mansion Ascendant, when the mansion is built in a neo-classical style (in this case Louis XIII) by the obligatory fashionable architectural firm of the day (Carrère and Hastings, designers of the New York Public Library) for an obscenely wealthy business tycoon (industrialist William Starr Miller), occasionally passing through famous hands (Grace Vanderbilt) until it reaches Stage 2: The Decline, when the building is transferred to those with less money and attempts are made to convert it to commercial use, such as a hotel, school or library (Institute for Jewish Research) until the building begins to deteriorate and becomes too costly to maintain, at which point it enters Stage 3: The Museum, when it is bought by/donated to the city, restored and preserved as a historic building and museum. Most of the museum buildings we’ve seen to date have gone through this process, leaving us to ponder the fates of mansions that don’t make it to the final stage. Destroyed by fire? Allowed to rot?

The Neue Galerie is logically divided into 2 floors, with the first devoted to occasionally dreamy and somewhat sad Austrian art, and the second to an angrier and more aggressive German perspective.  Most of the collection was assembled by just one man (art dealer Serge Sabarsky) and centered on the works of just a few artists, which makes for a very cohesive and (to me) a very clear window into the culture and attitudes in this one region at the turn of the century; the Zeitgeist if you will. Paul didn’t like the Neue Galerie as much as I did. He claimed it felt like a “Germanic Ideal" of a museum: rigidly organized, well engineered, goal directed, and, like most German cars, a bit over priced. He likes his museums a bit less tidy.

The centerpiece of the museum is a stunning picture by Klimt called the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (see picture above), featuring a sensual woman (rumored to be a lover of Klimt’s) surrounded by golden patterns. It's very much in the style of “The Kiss”, the famous and somewhat cheesy Klimt painting of two lovers that adorns the dorms of college freshmen everywhere. The “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” was purchased for the museum by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder in 2006 for $135 million, setting the record for the highest sum ever paid for a painting. Seems like a lot of money to us, but we can’t deny the painting is impressive, and very very shiny.

One final note about the museum. When we arrived, we found a huge line filling the lobby, and were considering leaving to find a museum with less of a wait, when the security guard asked us if we were here for the Café or the museum. When we answered museum, he cleared a path through the throng and we got to the desk without a problem. Naturally, we were curious as to how a humble museum café could warrant so much attention in a city with a thousand cafés and asked someone in line who said, “They have the best coffee in New York.” Now that is quite a statement, and needed to be investigated! Café Sabarsky prides itself on being a classic Viennese Café, with a menu in German (plus English translations) and serving classic Viennese dishes and cakes. We had the Klimttorte (a wonderful dense largely flourless chocolate, hazelnut and marzipan cake) and two Wiener Mélanges (lattes). It was fabulous. I haven’t had enough coffee in New York to be qualified to rate it as the best, but I can say it was better than anything I ever had in Seattle, Land of the Latte. We highly recommend it if you’re in the area, but try to avoid the lunch hour crowd.  

Pictures in this post, from the top: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt; exterior of Neue Gallerie; Mr. Spindler by Albert Birkle; Sudwestkorso, Berlin Five O’clock in the Morning, by Ludwig Meidner; Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee, by Gustav Klimt,