Tuesday, July 27, 2010

7th Regiment Armory Conservancy / Asia Society

5/21/2010, Friday (continued): 

Asia Society and Museum ………………..... 30 min

Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy …. $12 each
Asia Society and Museum ……................… $10, but free after 6 on Friday
When we were making the list of museums in New York City for this project, we found most museums easily enough.  Most had reasonable P.R. and made the lists on New York Parks and Recreation or tourist information sites.  But during our travels we’ve found a few museums not mentioned in any guide.  We’ve come to call these the “hidden museums of New York,” known only to locals and a select few in the arts crowd. 

The Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy (called “the Armory” by those in the know) is one of these hidden museums.  We discovered it through an article about the artist who exhibited there this month, but if I hadn’t read the arts section of the newspaper that day, we would have walked right by it today.  Which is actually a bit ironic, as the Armory is gigantic.  It takes up an entire city block on the Upper East Side, and its 55,000 square foot drill hall is among the largest interior spaces in NYC, just shy of Grand Central Station.

As you might expect from an unpublicized museum, the Armory is an odd duck: part military museum, part historic Gilded Age men’s club, and part exhibit hall for ultra modern performance art.  I am confident that no where else in the world can you walk through 6 inch thick armored oak doors and iron portcullis, past a stuffed eagle and a mounted moose head sitting next to a restored gatling gun lit by a nearby Tiffany stained glass window to see a 25 foot pile of laundry being picked up and dropped repeatedly by an 80 foot orange crane.  Yet that is exactly what we did today.  It’s going to be hard to top this one for bizarre museum experiences.

As with any place (or person) with this much quirkiness and character, the Armory has quite a past and has served a hodgepodge of rolls, as everything from a drill hall to indoor tennis courts to a synagogue.  It was originally built between 1877 and 1881 for the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, State of New York.  This regiment was formed in 1806 to protect the city, after British frigates blockading New York Harbor fired at passing vessels.  It saw some action quelling riots in 1849 and helped with city fire fighting, but after NYC formed its own police and fire departments the regiment became largely ceremonial, serving as an honor guard and participating in civic events such as the inauguration of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 and the Statue of Liberty in 1886.

As a ceremonial guard, the regiment morphed into an elite men’s club for the sons of the city's wealthiest Gilded Age families, acquiring the nickname “Silk Stocking Regiment.”  Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, Roosevelts, Tiffanys, Stewarts and Livingstons all served here, and it was the immense wealth of these families that built the Armory we see today; the only armory in the United States built and furnished entirely with private funds.  And it took a lot of funds indeed.  The building itself was designed by Charles W. Clinton, the premier Gothic revivalist and designer of the famed Astor Hotel, and a veteran of the regiment himself.  He designed the exterior as a mock medieval fortress with brick crenellations, musket ports, arrow slits and a central tower. 

Inside, the club areas are lavish, designed by the era’s most prominent artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, and have been called “the single most important collection of 19th century interiors to survive intact in one building” by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.  These rooms are undergoing a long restoration process, but wandering around in them is free and we highly recommend it.  Apparently two of the rooms are the only known Tiffany interiors to survive intact, and all of them are gorgeous even in their semi-neglected state.  If you squint your eyes as you wander you feel as if you can spy the shimmer of glamorous gowns and hear the clink of champagne glasses in some long ago cocktail party of New York’s storied past.

To raise money for the restoration, the Armory’s massive drill hall is rented out as an event and art space.  It's been used for Shakespeare festivals, operas, and most commonly, extremely large art installations.  While we were visiting we saw “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltanski, a performance art piece consisting of a 25-foot-high mound of used clothing, surrounded by a field of coats arranged in squares.  Every few minutes a five-story crane plucked a random piece of clothing from the top of the clothes pile, then released them to flop down haphazardly.  As we wandered among the clothes, we heard a ceaseless drum of heart beats emanating from poles at the corners of the squares.

Both Paul and I liked the exhibit.  I thought it was at least bizarre enough to be interesting, though I did come out of there wondering if I had let the laundry go too long again.  Paul loved it (as is usual for performance art) and saw it as a comment on the randomness of life: who gets chosen and who gets left behind.  Parts of the installation seemed designed to be reminiscent of a concentration camp, with a wall of numbers blocking off the entrance to the exhibit and rusty poles with low wires like fencing, although the meaning was vague enough to be open to interpretation and the people wandering the exhibit didn’t seem sure of how to take it.  Despite its size, the space felt claustrophobic, with narrow paths and low hanging lights, and dozens of heartbeats surrounding you from all sides.  Paul stood in line at an ersatz doctor’s office to get his heartbeat recorded for the exhibit, and even talked me into doing it.  Now our heartbeats will be preserved together in a permanent archive (Les Archives du Coeur) on an island off the coast of Japan.  I guess its kind of romantic, in a weird artsy sort of way.  (Paul knows its romantic in a weird artsy sort of way.)

The next museum was the Asia Society, a global organization “working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of the United States and Asia.”  Our impression was that this organization was really more society than museum, as the gallery space was modest and much of the building closed off into what appeared to be conference space.  Looking online, the Asia Society has a full lecture schedule and seems focused on business development, with talk titles like “Why One Loves to Hate Globalization,” “Hong Kong’s Political Reforms: What Lies Ahead?,” and “Doing Business with Japan: Perspective of Australian Companies.”  Oddly, during our visit we couldn’t get a good grasp on what the goals and purpose of the society actually were, and it seemed somewhat mysterious.  Paul wonders what shadowy organizations really run the place, and what are they up to?

The art of the society is based around John D. Rockefeller’s exquisite collection of 280 Asian artifacts, which are displayed and interpreted in a variety of exhibits year round.  Today’s exhibit was “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art,” focusing on objects from or about the major sites of Buddhist pilgrimages.  Unfortunately, the exhibits weren’t well explained, and we had to attempt to eavesdrop on a tour guide in a noisy gallery to make much sense of it.  Essentially, it looked like a lot of very similar looking Buddha statues to us

Our take on things: We found the Armory to be one of the hidden gems of NYC, well worth a look, both for the lovely designs of a by-gone era, and bizarre large-scale modern art installations.  The Asia Society seemed more focused on business than art, but might be worth a look, particularly if you go on a Friday evening when its free (as we did).  Otherwise, for the same 10 dollars, we might recommend seeing the Rubin Museum instead, with its much more extensive, varied and better explained collection of Buddhist art.

Images in this post: “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltanski, in the Armory drill hall; pictures of the interiors of the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy, including stuffed eagle, stained glass window, ceiling detail, paneling detail, and a room in the armory; two close ups of “No Man’s Land,” by Christian Boltansk; Asia Society logo on exterior of the building; Buddha Shakyamuni, Tibet 11th century; Buddha Shakyamuni with Kneeling Worshippers, Myanmar/Burma 14-15th century; Buddha Shakyamuni, India, Bihar, 9-10th century.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Grolier Club

5/21/2010; Friday (continued)
TIME:  1.5 hr
COST:  Free

Imagine an enigmatic 126-year old society in New York with an arcane name, peculiar interests, and membership by invitation only.  According to rumors, many of New York’s wealthiest and most influential are counted among its members, including the Mayor and Chief of Police.  Sound like a conspiracy in the Da Vinci Code?  It’s called the Grolier Club, and entrance to the society’s stately Upper East Side townhouse is restricted (of course), but the general public is allowed into its lower floors for four exhibits per year.

The Grolier Club was founded January of 1884, as a society of bibliophiles devoted to the “book arts.”  The founders were an odd mix of printers, bookbinders, printing press manufacturers, editors and collectors of fine books, concerned that the age old arts of printing and typography were in a rapid decline, brought about by “mechanized presses, machine-made papers, and a general slackening of standards” (from Hard Times at the Grolier Club, by Eric Holzenburg).  To quote from the Grolier Club’s constitution, the object of the club is "to foster the study, collecting, and appreciation of books and works on paper, their art, history, production, and commerce.”  To this end, the society publishes and maintains a large private library of books about books (e.g. book making and book collecting), and generally promotes education and appreciation of the book arts. 

The club is named after Jean Grolier de Servières, Treasurer General of France in the 1500’s, and one of the great book collectors of all time.  Grolier’s library contained the great literary works of the time, but it was more than just a good read; Grolier prized books for their physical beauty.  He designed printings just for him and his friends using the finest paper, painted compartments, gilded covers and initials in lavish colors, and he is apparently legendary (in bookish circles) for using the highest quality of bindings and requiring the widest of margins (a status symbol in bookbinding).  He was such a well known book connoisseur that many of the best printers and binders of the era (Garuffi, Étienne Niger and Budé) dedicated printings to him, and books from his library are considered some of the finest examples of the book arts to this day. 

As you can imagine, the exhibitions the Grolier Club puts on are somewhat specialized.  Themes have included modern fine presses ("K. K. Merker: Serving the Muse / Stone Wall Press and Windhover Press"), printing techniques ("One Text, Two Results: Printing on Paper and Vellum”), outstanding private libraries ("The Book Room: Georgia O'Keeffe's Library in Abiquiu"), and book binding ("The Art of Victorian Bookbindings").  Today’s exhibition "Bound For Success" presented the top 117 bookbindings from the 2009 International Bookbinding Competition, organized by Designer Bookbinders (one of the foremost societies in the world devoted to the craft of bookbinding) and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. 

The contest was simple (if you’re a bookbinder).  Each contestant was given the same book to bind in his or her own fashion.  For 2009, that book was “Water,” an anthology of poems in several languages on the title subject.  The top 25 best bindings were awarded a sterling silver bone folder (a bookbinders tool for folding paper- yes, I had to look up what a "bone folder" was), with modest cash awards going to the top two bindings.  As should be obvious by now, Paul and I are great fans of books, but until now we had given no thought to the “book arts.”  I must confess that after seeing these masterpieces, our shelves of paperbacks look quite shabby indeed.  

The craftsmanship and creativity was amazing.  Books were made from all kinds of materials, from the traditional leathers and fabrics, to plastic, metal, wood and glass.  First prize went to Alain Taral of France, who created a book from wood veneers overlapping in delicate waves to look like water.  Second prize went to Jenni Grey (UK) who constructed covers out of embroidered fabric, etched acrylic and silver wire draped to create water-like shadowing (see images of both prizewinners below).  One of my favorites was white ceramic with a rubber stopper (like a sink), another overlapped layers of leather to create the look of parched earth on the front, and fertile watered earth on the back (see image above).  Paul’s favorite was shaped from a crystalline material to look like a splash.  He declared that he would have made his book waterproof, encased in neoprene with a diver’s mask on the front.  We were all set to enter this year's contest, if we just knew something about bookbinding. 
In addition to the larger shows, the Grolier Club mounts a number of smaller scale exhibits featuring the collections of Grolier Club members.  At the discretion of the collector these shows are occasionally opened to the public.  We were lucky enough to be allowed up the 2nd floor to see one of these, laid out in a library room with perfect conspiracy theory décor: wood paneling, dark antiques, red oriental carpet (to disguise the bloodstains) and a fireplace (to throw incriminating evidence into).

The exhibit was called “Beyond the Text: Artists’ Books from the Collection of Robert J. Ruben,” and contained over 60 pop-up books, if the definition of pop-up books is expanded to all types of 3-dimensional book.  How many types of 3-D books are there, you ask?  Well, in addition to the “traditional” pop-up, there are accordion books, foldout books, box books, scrolls, tunnel books, and some things that are just kind of sculptures with words on them.  We saw them all.  There was an addition of the book “Flatland” describing life in a 2-D world, that unfolded as you read it into a 2-D surface, with the characters (lines, circles and polygons) depicted as cutouts between the lines of text.  Interestingly, while we often link pop-up books with children's books, most were on serious subjects, such as Tatana Kellner’s “71125: Fifty Years of Silence” devoted to her mother's experiences in a concentration camp.  Inside a plain pine box was a life-like cast of a forearm with the inked tattoo of her concentration camp number.  The arm was embedded in the text and turning the pages revealed more and more of the story, and more and more of forearm and hand.

In Summary:
Paul and I both enjoyed this museum.  The exhibits are perhaps a little simple and not terribly well explained but I’ll never look at a book quite the same way again, now that I know that they are capable of being such lovely works of art.  And just try to leave here without fantasizing about being a member of one of New York’s ancient secret societies, imagining what rich and fabulous book collectors talk about with the Mayor at their invitation-only tea parties in the private rooms of the 5th floor.

Pauline: 8 out of 10 for a unique take on an old subject (books), interesting art and mysterious old-school NY location. 
Paul: 8 out of 10.  The best ultra-exclusive club run by the elite of New York that I've ever been too.
Images in this post, from the top: the Grolier Club's lower gallery; prize winners from the International Bookbinders Competition, listed from the top with their ranking, #6 Edgard Claes, #11 Eduardo Gimenez, #15 Jana Kaden, #13 Per-Anders Hubner, #22 Mary Norwood, #16 George Kirkpatrick, #1 Alain Taral, #2 Jenni Grey, #12 Killi Grunback, #27 Christine Sieber; two pop-up books from the "Beyond the Texts" exhibit, including Tatana Kellner’s “71125: Fifty Years of Silence"; and lastly, prize winner from the International Bookbinders Competition #23, Andrea Odametey.

Monday, July 19, 2010

American Folk Art Museum

5/21/2010; Friday 
American Folk Art Museum ……………....….... 45 min

American Folk Art Museum ……….....……....… $12 for both (with 2 for 1 coupon)

This is the day we finally did it.  After months of trying, we’ve broken the 4 museum barrier and seen 5 complete museums in a single day!  You may not be impressed, but let me give some background.  When we first started this project, we assumed two things about the 180 museums of New York, critical to the success of this project: 1) that while New York City has several very large, very famous museums (i.e. the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum, and the Guggenheim), the bulk of the 180 would be much smaller affairs; and 2) that we could get through these smaller museums quickly.  “We’ll breeze through large swaths of them in 30 minutes or less,” I naively assumed.

We were right about the first assumption.  Outside of a few famous behemoths, most NYC museums aren’t very large (NYC real estate prices being extremely good motivation for small floor plans).  However, we were completely wrong on the second.  Small museums have to fight for both patrons and financial survival, and as a result many are focused and captivating places with jewel-like collections: small but breathtaking.  Also, they’re often staffed by zealots.  People who have given up their Saturday, spending the entire day on their feet, without pay, just to talk to you about one particular subject.  These are not the sort of people you ignore.  So, while we spent 2 hrs in the Guggenheim, fighting the crowds and viewing the Picassos in this large and justifiably famous museum, we spent almost as long in the tiny one room Onassis Cultural Center, viewing ancient paintings that are surely some of Greece’s national treasures, and we spent even longer (3 hrs) in the miniscule Van Courtland House Museum listening to a detailed lecture on life in the 1800’s given by a very passionate and well informed docent/historian. 

Most of today’s 5 museums were small (with the exception of the Whitney), and the majority held true to the rule of small museums being well worth the time.  In fact one of these (the Grolier Club) ranked among our favorite museums to date.  We made it through all 5 in one day by being willing to spend nearly 7 hours just seeing museums (a 10 hour day when you including transit time, lunch and one coffee break), an experience that we wouldn’t recommend to the novice museum viewer, and one we probably won’t repeat too often.
Paul was looking forward to the first museum of the day, the American Folk Art Museum.  Neither of us had been exposed to much folk art, but Paul (as an amateur historian) was interested in its historical context.  We were also looking forward to the museum’s impressive facade of tombasil; a white bronze alloy used in boat propellers and tombstones, and never before used architecturally.  The tombasil was indeed impressive, appearing both stone-like and metallic (see picture of facade above), and it stood out from the rest of midtown like someone had dropped a 4-story tombstone between office buildings.  Paul, who has a fascination with tombstones, was captivated and declared his intention to one day encase his house with it.  (Pauline is hoping he forgets about this if we every buy a house.)  Regrettably, the facade ended up being the best thing about the museum. 

I think our dissatisfaction was less about the art itself, and more about the museum’s vision which came off as highly fragmented and kind of ditsy.  We liked quite a bit of the historical pieces; there was a lovely section on women’s art in 1800’s America (with detailed quilts and sweet family portraits), a nice collection of painted duck decoys, and a few striking weathervanes (see the weathervane of an angel at the top of this post).  However, the museum mixed in a lot of the very trendy “outsider art,” defined as art done by self taught artists working outside of cultural norms.  I think it saw this as a kind of contemporary folk art.  The outsider art displayed included works by the mentally disabled, the clinically insane, and things that appeared to be the inexpert doodling of perfectly average people.  There was an entire floor devoted to a series of battered rough magazine picture collages done by a janitor in Chicago (see image at right).

In summary, to us, it felt like the American Folk Art Museum had a ragtag and confusing collection, with no real direction or focus.  We felt the best pieces were those that connected to the people and events of an era, but most of the outsider art seemed abstract and disconnected.  Even the concept of outsider art itself was not well defined, as several featured “outsiders” are successful artists and teach art themselves, making them decidedly “insiders.”  I left the museum feeling a bit confused, like I had missed the point somehow.  Paul left feeling a bit ripped off.  Twelve bucks is a lot to pay for doodles and duck decoys. 

Images in this post, from the top: Archangel Gabriel Weathervane, United States c. 1840; tombasil facade of the American Folk Art Museum; Girl with Cat and Dog, Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) Amenia, NY; Untitled (Man and Boy, twice), Henry Darger; Untitled (Vehicle 82/82), Dwight Mackintosh (1906-1999), Oakland CA; Loon, Artist unidentified, New England, 20th century.