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.


  1. Byzantine icons are an acquired taste. The odd thing is that painters in the Roman empire of the first century A.D. knew how to use perspective, but that skill was lost or ignored in later pagan and then Christian art until the Renaissance.
    The Austrian museum brings to mind the title of a famous book, The Decline of the West. - Mike

  2. 24 floors by 25 ft wide.... Sounds like Tokyo!