Monday, October 18, 2010

Museum of Arts and Design

Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw
5/15/2010 Saturday, continued
MUSEUM: Museum of Arts and Design
TIME: 1.25 hrs
COST: $15 each

Museum of Arts and Design
The Museum of Arts and Design exhibits contemporary art, but with a twist.  It focuses on the art and design of hand-made "crafts," exhibiting objects made primarily in 1 of the 5 traditional craft materials (clay, glass, wood, metal, and fiber).  I thought the twist really worked for the museum, making it stand out from the other contemporary galleries we’ve seen.  The art was applied and approachable, and exhibits had a 3-dimensional and sculptural feel.  Paul disagreed.  He thought the limitation to 5 materials was a gimmick that the museum didn't really stick to.  Also, he felt that the museum was either arts OR design; many of the design exhibits didn't work as art, and the art exhibits didn’t work as design.  He liked it when pieces hit that “sweet spot” and combined both, but felt that was rare.  We’ll leave it too the reader (and museum-goer) to decide for themselves.

Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa
Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin
If the focus on crafts and craft materials is a gimmick, at least the museum comes by it honestly.  For 46 years it has exhibited the work of American craftspeople, first as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, then the American Craft Museum.  Its founder and patroness, Aileen Osborn Webb, sought to bring awareness to the artistry and beauty of handmade objects in an age of machine-made products.  Today, the museum has broadened its scope and includes both traditional crafts (e.g. baskets and pottery, see example at left), as well as objects made more for their expressive and conceptual content (i.e. art, see example at right).  

In 2002, the museum moved into a modern 9 story building on the famous Columbus Circle, facing the southwest corner of Central Park.  We were lucky enough to walk in just as the (free) guided tour began and got extensive explanations of the exhibits, which was much appreciated.  The guide followed what we've come to realize is the preferred mode of museum viewing: starting at the top and working down.  We’d recommend taking the stairs at this museum, as there were installations in the stairwells, such as blown glass goblets and painted murals.

Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley
The top floor is dedicated to open studios, with young artists actively working on projects.  While we were visiting, there was a woman cobbling bizarre shoes and a group of people putting together a bicycle made entirely out of bamboo.  (The next thing in renewable resources?)  According to the guide, the next two floors down were dedicated to the “fiber” part of the museum, with fiber interpreted as anything organic.  The exhibit was called “Dead or Alive,” and presented the works of 30 different artists who work in organic materials that were once part of living organisms.

Skull, by Jan Fabre
It was an interesting collection, high on the ick factor but fascinating, like a particularly bizarre insect.  There were fanciful skeletons of extinct or mythical creatures made entirely from chicken bones from fast food dinners (I shudder to picture the artist’s cholesterol levels), a delicate chandelier of lit dandelion puffs, a shaggy horse-like taxidermy animal made from the manes of slaughtered horses (picture above), abstract sculptures made of pigeon feathers, a motorcycle with a cow skeleton frame (picture below), a suit of sticks, and lots of things made from dead bugs, including dried butterfly wallpaper, a beetle casing skull (picture at right), and a silk worm cocoon chandelier.
Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn

Tides, by Ferne Jacob
Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed
The next floor down contained the clay and wood exhibits, showing an odd collection of 1960’s semi-abstract ceramic sculptures and a number of baskets.  Most of the baskets were non-functional and clearly meant to be modern artistic statements, such as the baskets made of coiled thread (picture at left) or dried fish (picture at right).  I enjoyed the exhibit, feeling it stretched and challenged the idea of what a basket was, but Paul felt these impractical containers had lost the essence of what a basket was.  According to Paul, “If you can’t put something in a basket, it’s not a basket.”
Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt;  Miao Neckrings, China; Pair of Anklets, Upper Egypt

The lowest exhibition floor was entirely devoted to metal.  There was a section on the jewelry of tribal peoples in North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.  Most of the pieces looked heavy and uncomfortable, prized less for beauty and more as a show of wealth, used for trading or as a transfer of wealth in dowries.  It made for an interesting commentary on the history and practicality of jewelry.  The rest of this floor harbored a massive collection of bicycles in the exhibit “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle.”  For once, I agreed with Paul.  Neither or us saw much art of what looked like perfectly normal bicycles, but then we aren’t avid cyclists so we’re probably missing something.

Our take on things:  The Museum of Arts and Design was our second design museum.  The first, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, focused purely on design and design innovations, and was fairly technical.  The Museum of Arts and Design took a completely different approach and concentrated more on art, often seeming to leave design out of the equation.  We both liked its novel uses of traditional craft materials and felt that the museum’s exploration of art in common objects (and things made from common objects) made for largely interesting and approachable exhibits.  However, Paul would have liked to see more exhibits with both art AND design.

The bar at Robert
One last note:  The top floor of the building is devoted to a posh restaurant by the name of “Robert.”  Robert has a cool retro 60’s vibe with neon pink carpeting and sculpted plastic furniture, but the real reason to go is the view.  The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows frame a gorgeous panorama of Central Park and the ultra swank condominiums of Park Avenue.  As this was our 4th museum of the day, Paul and I split a 12-dollar pot of tea and relaxed in the bar, ogling the view and watching glamorous young woman in super high New York heels negotiate the treacherously slick tile floors.  (No one fell, but there were some close calls.)  We thought the experience well worth 12 dollars.

Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta
Images in the post, from the top: Landscape I, by Levi van Veluw, 2008; Image of the Museum of Art and Design; Untitled, by Shokosai Hayakawa, 2000, interlaced bamboo; Sagittarius, by Shen Shaomin, 2005, chicken bones, bone meal, glue; Cauda Equina, by Keith Bentley, 1995-2007, 1.4 million hand knotted horse hairs, fabric, taxidermy mannequin, resin; Skull, by Jan Fabre, 2001, mixture of wing cases of scarabs on plastic, stuffed animal; Mad Cow Motorcycle, by Billie Grace Lynn, 2008, cow bones, bicycle frame, electric motor; Tides, by Ferne Jacobs, 2002-2003, coiled waxed linen thread; Kuskokwim, by Fran Reed, 1994, silver salmon skin, felt tip pen, dyed and undyed gut, driftwood, cane; Wedding Neckpiece, Berber, Siwa Oasis, Egypt, 19th - 20th century, silver; Miao Neckrings from China, 20th century; Pair of Anklets from Upper Egypt, 19th century; interior of the restaurant Robert; Fragile Future 3, by Lonneke Gorkijn and Ralph Nauta, 2010, phosphorous, bronze, dandelion puffs.


  1. I have to agree with Paul in saying that a so-called basket is not in fact a basket if you can't put something in it. The "Mad Cow Motorcycle" is amusing but it is not a motorcycle, and therefore not a contribution to motorcycle design, though the picture might suit the dust-jacket of a fantasy novel. In fact, all the objects shown, except the Japanese basket, seem to be intended as props for a fantasy or science fiction film. The exhibits appear interesting enough, they just need to rename the museum. How about "The Museum of rather small objects that are bizarre but not shocking"? - Mike

  2. Art and culture in the Brazilian artist's blog NEWTON AVELINO for the world if you like and can show
    to friends and the world is the will.