Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New York State of Mind -- Museum Review

When I was planning my recent trip to New York, I noticed that the Museum of Modern Art had a Matisse exhibit on (Matisse:  Radical Invention, 1913-1917) so I made plans to see it with a friend.  As a bonus, she invited me to come to a class that she's taking at the New School called "The Art of Viewing Art."  This class is taught by John Zinsser, a 12 year veteran instructor on this topic, and covers art on display at museums and galleries in the City.  For the first time ever, he was covering the same exhibit over the course of two weeks and I was lucky enough to get to sit in on the second class, at which a woman named Mira Schor was a guest lecturer.  The first class dealing with the Matisse exhibit was about the art in the show and Zinsser apparently went into detail about particular works.  The second class did cover some of the specific works of art contained in the exhibit, but Zinsser and Schor talked as well about some economic and philosophical points raised by the exhibit as well.  It was fascinating!

Schor has been around the art scene for many years and is an artist herself who has a work currently on display in the exhibit at the Jewish Museum entitled, "Shifting the Gaze:  Painting and Feminism."   Due to her reputation as a feminist artist, one student asked Schor if she was one of the "guerilla girls."  I had never heard of this group but they are a group of women who have tried over the last 25 years to raise awareness about the lack of representation of women artists in galleries, museums and auction houses.  They've used humor as a tool in their arsenal, and apparently have been quite controversial at times.
(If you are interested in reading more about them, go to http://www.guerrillagirls.com/.)  Because the "girls" are anonymous, Schor would not say whether or not she was on of the participants, although she did say that she endorses their cause.   But I digress.... back to the Matisse exhibit. 

Matisse's work is always enjoyable to view, and having a bit of "inside information" about things to look for in his work made it all the more interesting.  The catalogue for the exhibit was described by Zinsser as a "Discovery Channel narrative" about Matisse's work process.  Unlike many artists, Matisse chose not to wholly conceal the changes he made to a painting ("pentimenti") as he progressed.  As result, you can often see ghosts of the prior placement of the image if you pay close attention. One student in the class likened this to a photographer's proof sheet with the images that aren't up to snuff being crossed out--an apt analogy. 

One of the most important works contained in the exhibit is The Moroccans (go to http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=79588 to see this painting if you're not familiar with it.)   Schor and Zinsser talked about the formalities of modernism that are on display in this piece:  color, scale, line and composition.  His use of black to delineate space is particularly striking.  There was an amusing exchange between the two instructors concerning what the painting represented.  OK, there's definitely a mosque--no doubt about that one.  Then there was agreement that the right hand image is that of an imam leading prayers.  Zinsser then related the story of when he was first teaching about this work and referred to the "round green shapes" in the left side of the painting and how someone pointed out that these figures represented the members of the mosque praying.  This seems so obvious, and Schor said that this is something that she saw immediately.  Interestingly, the exhibit contained an excerpt from Matisse's journal about this work, in which he described the green shapes as squash in a garden!  

The exhibit also contained four sculptures of a human back crafted by Matisse over a period of time.  In each iteration, he used the mold from the preceding sculpture as his starting point, adding or detracting from the work to develop his current vision.  The exhibit had a great short video showing this process. 

I'm sure that I would have enjoyed the Matisse exhibit without having the benefit of Zinsser's class, but it definitely added another layer to the viewing and reminded me how much I enjoyed the art history classes I took in college.  I think I would have benefited from a bit of an explanation about another exhibit I saw at the Met during my trip:  The Big Bambu (the photo is owned by AFP/Getty).  This exhibit is comprised of 5,000 bamboo poles lashed together with 50 miles of colored nylon ropes and was constructed by the artists and a team of rock climbers in three phases over the spring, summer and autumn.   This exhibit I didn't get at all and, ignorant as I am, it just kind of seemed like a waste of space.  As you can see, it looks more or less like a bird's nest.  The bamboo itself is striking, and it probably would have been interesting to walk the paths that lead up into the nest if we'd had more time, but I frankly just wasn't that interested.   So, instead of taking the walk in the bamboo, I walked myself down to the Galleries of Oceanic Art and spent an hour enjoying myself looking at the masks and spirit boards.  Which reminds me--where am I going to display our mask collection in our new home???

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