Category Archives: Arts News Notes

Goya and nft’s: tragedy and Farce (each in more ways than one)

Obligatory comment on the “nonfungible token” (NFT) craze;

Goya’s Graphic Imagination; at The Met, through May 2, 2021.

Everyone interested in any way in “contemporary art” must comment on the development and encroachment of NFTs — virtual-only stuff stored in cyberspace in that makes Photoshop-minded and delivered imagery seem archaic –into the elite art world.  In some ways, art collecting always been that way–i.e., about chancing a “find” that would accrue in cultural as well as financial value in some sort of tandem. There’s been admiration, in retrospect, for collectors and dealers who made and jumped waves, individually and as part of art world cabals, variously near- and far-sighted; in short, part of what reifies art, artists, and artistic directions in history. Almost too obvious to be said, media and materials as well as what may be, in many cases, mementos of a particular moment in historical time (aka artificial [human-made] things) evolve.   There is evidence that elite members of a number of very ancient peoples sponsored the creation of symbolic and/or documentary “tokens” (art; artifacts), perhaps musing far into the future. 

It has been a tenet of many art dealers working with living artists across at least two centuries: don’t buy art only as investment–barely such a thing as sure-fire in the early days; make sure you like it as art or you may ultimately be very disappointed in more ways than one. Somewhere c. 1990 (formulating gradually under Reaganomics) that changed and so now we’re here with the crypto-currency crowd buying up code.   Who is shocked?

There is only so far I want to go with this after so much more explicit blabber, better and worse; honestly, I am not that interested. The idea that novelty per se in any form seems to have a kind of instinctual appeal and titillation for many, itself provokes mild curiosity. Specifically, I do believe the recent rise of this one particular $million sale of an NFT by the artist Beeple this week marks a pending final death knell for a postwar art world that survived the first decades of the new millennium (for better and worse).   Late boomers (me) have remained tethered to a mixed sensual and psychic interaction with art by any means (i.e., art in person, wherever, however – even if its in a booth or isolated place on a screen yet presented as the surround of the art). Traipsing through the galleries and museums of NYC for all sorts of reasons and non-reason and in many different hats and contexts–that was a norm and a boon and a privilege in New York for the art-leaning (in myriad directions). Whatever the exclusionary, financial-and-other scandal-laden networks of elite New York art dealers and galleries for several centuries now, the fact remains that their respective office spaces (as it were) have been largely open to anyone to peruse art for free. For many of us art-loving plebes the galleries were en route every day or a frequent small detour, if not a full-blown scene. That “norm” has drastically changed now in more ways than one. Veritably all art and general interest journals and newspapers cover physical art through online interaction.  Covid-19 of course is tied up in the kind of synchronistic event that is the Beeple sale. Certainly the gallery sphere appears to be headed to a wholly virtual reorganization very quickly. Likewise, some museums, spurred by the pandemic to be sure, are nearly saturated, even in online presentations, with digital bells and whistles.  So this blog was started at the the tail end of that era and the crest of addiction to “art on Instagram” that everyone acquired in isolation. We’ll see what happens.

For the moment, I reacted to the hype with an antidote–the sensitive, Gothicizing works on paper of Goya at The Met.  Goya is a good go-to when the going gets bad. His often cryptic, sometimes oddly breezy iconography of fear and suffering, especially that humans directly provoke in each other, are visceral at intimate scale, close-up, IRL. I find myself taking, or looking for, “sides” with Goya–not so much politically drawn as emotional and spiritual, in terms of reactions to his miniature mis-en-scenes–here fluid ink-washed drawings are included with his signature scratchy etchings. Images from some of his most renowned series,such as the intricately brutal Disasters of War, still shock–thank goodness. Also included are a few studies of more mainstream period subjects to remind of the stature, training, and assorted patronage of the “enlightened” artist; but the disturbing ones remain most compelling and communicate a soul-searching creative, as well as a unique artistic hand.

Red Light in Amsterdam: Giorgio Andreotta Calò

Giorgio Andreotta Calò: Anastasis

May 24 – September 23, 2018, at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam

Increasingly in recent decades historical sites have initiated exhibitions of contemporary art to expand outreach as well as contexts for their relevance and perpetuity.  Since 2013, Amsterdam’s  Old Church, consecrated in the early fourteenth century and located in De Wallen, aka the Red Light district, has been one such venue. This summer’s contemporary fare is a light installation by Giorgio Andreotta Calò, who gained wide international exposure in the Italian Pavilion of the 57th Venice Biennale (2017) with a space-disorienting Gesamtkunstwerk incorporating a filmic plane of reflective water.  Here, transparent red filmic matter is overlaid on the church’s giant windows to bathe the awkward, additive interior uniformly in slightly hazy red light.

Upon entering, the effect is squint-inducing and hints at strategically placed stained glass or pre-modern lamplight before taking over as art.  It doesn’t take too long to acclimate, or rather, acquiesce, to this seared visuality as one roams and peruses building’s structure and antique elements; while at the same time, it renders details difficult to keep in focus.  This perceptual stop-gap harkens to darkroom red light that arrests photographic development, analogical to the iconoclasm that transformed this and other Catholic churches in the region, largely via image destruction, to Protestant institutions.

Most obviously, Calò’s tinted, or tainted, alteration conjures the fraught relationship between this ostensible house of god with its sin city setting, and their shared dialectics of hellfire and passion, loneliness and love.  Capped by the multi-faceted title, Anastasis, which reins in the scriptural episodes, Christ Harrowing Hell and the Resurrection, and the advocated censure of icons in early Byzantium, Calò has coaxed the most out of his deceptively simple art gesture, and turned the natural light enlisted explicitly in some earlier Christian architecture (see Cistercian) into a steamy spiritual veil.

Giorgio Andreotta Calò installation, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam (2018)

“I had the Original”: Modern Apparel Staples on View at MoMA

Item: Is Fashion Modern; at MoMA, through January 28. 2018.

Not sure about the title—no and  yes – especially, on the latter; starting with Baudelaire on the topic in any number of art-centered essays.  As he breezily pointed out,  fashion is ahead of  art, vis-a-vis a coded pathway to imminent shifts in social direction (whereas art is constrained to a reflective moment, even in a continuum  of  modernity).   A 20th – 21st century “greatest  hits” of apparel types, items, and brands, with a few apt encomiums to specific designers, it really taps the times, mashing in all manner of emerging personas, hybrid identities, and increasingly global design trends as well as politics.   Suites of spare but not stark displays like a row of “little black dresses” (natch) and men-to-women’s suits (where Halston is rightly highlighted) stand out; as does the scope of specifics up to the moment of the Burkini and the Kaepernick jersey.   More broadly, the evolution of the hoodie, as a sign,  along with athletic wear into the streets and couture ubiquitously (yes, Chuck Taylors) gets good coverage.

Inventive selections/ideas abound: fashion’s social bricolage and appropriation of medical and military items, from the Breton shirt to Doc Martens; cross-chronological dialogs like GlamRock and Gaga;  the sea-changing T-shirt turned outerwear, displayed as a template for projected logos, slogans and images themselves iconic.  Caftans and dashikis; distressed jeans; Calvin Klein briefs and Spanx.  Global elements in terms of fabrics and  updates of cross-over traditional shapes and garments.  My fave—I knew it would someday be duly honored—the Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat, introduced in the disco doorman late ’70s when both (male) enforcers and scantily-clad (female) hopefuls lining up behind the ropes in the cold for who knows how long popularized them–carried into the ensuing Palladium era and well beyond.

Excellent supplemental videos and texts abound that do not, however, encroach upon the spacious installation; overall, well, appropriately modernist, in contrast to the ever more bling stagings of the Met’s Costume Institute in the recent years.  Of course, that’s golden apples and fresh oranges, so to speak—but, the latter is even more palpable here for the inevitable, if asymmetrical comparison.  This original survey is sure to be a pop winner, while also erudite and astute at every turn for those engaging attentively.

Norma Kamali “sleeping bag” coat; in “Item … ” at MoMA (10/1/17)

In “Item … ” at MoMA (10/1/17)



Face-Off: Art in the Second Avenue Subway

Second visit — time to post on art in the new Second Avenue subway across four stations by four artists.  Mainly to concur with the high marks overall by commuters in/on digital and concrete platforms since its inauguration at the start of the year.  More so in light of the joke-inducing decades of delay on the capital project by the (now) polyglot MTA, which put a damper on the whole affair.  Then there is just the general jaded consciousness with which regular strap-hangers endure in the rote subterranean grind.  Yet, the incomparably intersubjective experience induced in the belly of the beast–not least our pride in close-quartered diversity, remains prescient.  This dynamic has been accelerated incrementally from 9/11 to the climactic in the two-month-long, relational post-it piece, Subway Therapy, in the Union Square/14th Street station, conceived by Matthew Levee Chavez to address municipal mourning over the 2016 presidential election (since collected by the New York Historical Society).  Although the Second Avenue subway art projects have been on the drawing board for years, they seem rife for this moment in their respective conveyed earnestness to dazzle and integrate the masses without formal condescension.  Thematic focus on nostalgia, motion, and tolerance are conveyed without irony, and the use of scale in expressive ways by each is engaging.  Another coup for the legacy of the MTA Arts & Design division, established in the 1980s, already distinguished by ecumenical stylistic results and site-specific content as well as spatial components in projects throughout the system.

Three of the four new projects are highly figurative.   At the renovated 63rd and Lexington station, the connection point to the expansion line: photo-based scenes of the old Second and Third Avenue El train and its dismantling by Jean Shin (b. 1971).  Her reincarnations bring up the timelessness of visual culture in the technological age.   At 72nd and Second: Vik Muniz (b. 1955) has created a Norman Rockwell-like canvassing of post-millennial sojourners distinguished by sartorial details that signal their destinations.  At 86th and Second: Chuck Close (b. 1940) has a near mini-retrospective of colossal faces, including two self-portraits contrasted through looser and tighter Photorealist translations for which he is famous. His characteristic pixilated mode of representation is a natural for mosaic and tile here that connects to ornamentation of the system from the beginning.  Here the portraits morph from close-up neo-geo abstraction into recognizable visages that resist Byzantine iconicity through meticulous mimesis.   At 96th and Second: a sweeping abstracted industrial-media mural of windswept scraps and scribbles by Sarah Sze (b. 1969), culminating in twister-vortexes rising along the escalators to suggest a kind of minimalist physics.     Good jobs, in the end, by all.

Chuck Close, self-portrait, 86th St./2nd Ave. subway station (Feb. 2017)

Chuck Close, self-portrait detail, 86th St./2nd Ave. subway

Vik Muniz, 72nd St./2nd Ave. subway

Vik Muniz, 72nd St./2nd Ave. subway

Off-topic: Met Opera 2015-16 Season

Metropolitan Opera, 2015-16 holiday season

Until recently, opera was something like required art medicine for me — I never really wanted to go, but felt much better, in a  number of ways, whenever I did (not least in following through on my own commitments to the arts broadly).  In turn, more exposure to the cultural and aesthetic roots and goals of the form has led to increasing appreciation, facilitated by the fact that my local joint is the Met Opera, where virtuosity is assured (there are deal$ [sic] to be had–that’s another story); complex vocal art in a perfect acoustical setting with (overall) astounding visuals, well, something most anyone could easily get used to.  Soundbites from recent visits, FYI, if you have a chance in Met rep or elsewhere:

Anna Bolena (Anne Boleyn; Donizetti; premiere, 1830; this production, 2011):

Shocked – shocked at how fast-moving this was (relatively speaking  for a genre that averages three-plus hours, including lethary-inducing intermissions and intermittent eye-lid slips).   The familiarity and tragic dimensions of the subject helped–even a novice doesn’t need to keep on top of the L.E.D. subtitles (that the Met brilliantly provides on the seat backs) to follow the widely known history of the briefly-reigning, doomed English queen.  The paranoia and desperation of Anne and rough, absolute power of Henry VIII are emphasized clearly in a balance of powerful, melodramatic solos and scheming choruses.  While acrobatic soprano is always impressive for lay audience troops (like me), I will venture that the lead role’s requirements here are truly otherworldly.  The faux-set was effectively stony and dank, shifting from drafty palace corridors and chambers punctuated by hot-lit regal beds to the foreboding threshold of the tower of London.   I’ll happily see it again at any opportunity.

La Donna Del Lago (Lady of the Lake; Rossini; premiere, 1819; this production, 2015)

Based on a tale by Sir Walter Scott and embedded in early folklore; here,  with stark staging, and a few imaginative Celtic-like costumes and choreographic nods to convey a Romantic vision of “wild” Scotland in the late Middle Ages (for this part of the world, 16th c.). The story-line, turning on the legend that James V roamed the country in disguise and, in one episode, fell in love with a rural maiden, along with music by the composer of one of the most popular operas ever (The  Barber of Seville) sounded promising.  However, the musical complexities and slow-mo narrative trajectory were too subtle for a casual, novice patron (i.e., a snoozer).  And the minimalistic sets, in the end, looked more intriguing in publicity stills as installation art.

Die Fledermaus (The Bat; Strauss, Jr.; premiere, 1874; this production 2013)

The story is ridiculous, typical of most comedy librettos of the 19th century, but the conceit of a costume ball lends to visual spectacle, and the waltz-y music is pleasantly festive.  The set for this production, 1899 Vienna, is phenomenal–with Gustav Klimt-inspired paintings and intricate Jugendstil (Secession/ Art Nouveau) design detailing, lush fabrics and “modern” chrome clock chorus costumes for a Cecil B. De Mille-like number at the New Year’s Eve (in this production) bash.  Do it.

Turandot (Puccini, premiere, 1926; this production, 1987)

A favorite from its premiere due to the exoticized Chinese setting, this production, conceived by the indefatigable nonagenarian, Franco Zefferelli, is perhaps the most extravagantly staged ever anywhere.  Known for his over-the-top- Baroque sensibility, his vision of rigidly ceremonial, ostentatious ancient Chinese imperial “divinity” is an embarrassment of riches (and probably cost as much to produce as the GNP of a small nation).  A heavenly, jewel-studded and veiled palace melding into an infinitely starry universe, replete with colossal metallic standards, lavishly masked entertainers and armies of specialized attendants in color-coded, luxurious silken robes was juxtaposed, intermittently, with a creeping, hovering mass of peasants haunting the edges of the royal pathways and interiors. Lady Gaga has nothing on the sartorial eccentricity of this Princess Turandot, who glistens from chandelier crown to yards and yards of velvety and sparkling opal-esque sheathing draped with expansive flourish in all sorts of highly choreographed formations.   An epic theatrical event and once in a life-time-type opera experience.

Art for the Sake of Artists at New Space

Front Art Space, 118 Chambers Street (between West Broadway and Church)

Current installation, through July 2, featuring three artists:

Donna Festa, Bin Feng, Sahana Ramakrishnan

The southeastern edge of Tribeca is a mish-mash of old family mini-mart lunch spots and knick-knack shops, generic snack chains better known in the burbs, and myriad city office workers and tourists heading to and from the 9/11 Memorial complex.  Here Leticia and Dionisio Cortes have lived and worked as artists  in a loft for several decades (they are also art educators).  Heading west, progressively, is a surge of internationally acclaimed restaurants, hotels, and hou$ing (sic) and attendant private kiddie facilities–not, however, a gallery area (although it nearly was through the ’80s-early ’90s and a couple linger)–the art-inclined folks who can afford to live here are (for the most part) headed to Chelsea for (mainstream-certified) “art.”

By the time the Cortes settled in, the gentrification of the area was underway, however, still full of struggling artists (along with high-profile, financially successful ones), trickled down from already out-priced Soho.  Even at its most chic gallery phase, however, Soho retained vibrant artist-run and small-op spaces until very recently (well still one or two) that facilitated a social mix of art world high and low players vis-à-vis discourse and interaction “on the ground” (I was in it, so that gives you an idea . . . —or,  put another way, the anti-Chelsea experience.   Of course, very good non-profit and other inventive exhibition venues exist in Chelsea, tucked into those vacuous buildings with elevators like molasses and endless corridors not conducive to ambling; but, the pull of the uber-dealers at street level is overpowering. Then there is the Lower East Side scene–a bit more like “the old days,” however, if you’re not there already, dear emerging artists and dealers, it’$ (again sic) too late. But I digress.

The Cortes, among few art survivors down here, have gotten into the business of giving “unconnected” artists a chance to show in New York through salon-like offerings in their studio, this first shot through an open artist call (with over 200 responses), then selectively curated.  (No, they are not promoting their own art in this endeavor.)  That’s a real commitment.  And here’s another: they have rented a tiny commercial alcove on the ground floor of the building that can be viewed by passersby, who can then be directed upstairs.  Judging from the current display, they’ve taken very seriously their self-charge, considering carefully the space and diversity in the art.  (Each artist is represented in both spaces.)

View of Front Art Space (street level), 6/18/15
View of Front Art Space (street level), 6/18/15

The miniature size, but not style, of Donna Festa’s oils, on the main wall of the “front” space are a natural. They read almost like blurred photos from the street; approaching, you find they are blurs–painterly ones that recall Rembrandt (I agree with the Cortes, who mention this in their announcement), as well as Soutine, and especially, Thomas Dewing.  They are portraits–individuals and types at once–evoking age as a telling feature.  As they come into mild focus through sepia-tinged, glazed layers, they become familiar–someone you know, like someone you know, or someone you could imagine knowing, in bearing, posture, and sartorial suggestion.  Festa has been working in this general direction for decades, which is apparent in the close look that her technique demands; one which, together with her format, puts her outside most possibilities on the mainstream contemporary scene a priori (as opposed to substantial regional exposure, which she has had).  It fits very well here in more ways than one.

Straight on: small paintings by Donna Festa; left: mixed-media etchings by Sahana Ramakrishnan
Straight on: small paintings by Donna Festa; left: mixed-media etchings by Sahana Ramakrishnan

At the opposite extreme in aesthetic sensibility is Bin Feng, a slick photographer, who picks up from the later “Pictures Generation” the use of complex tableau and repeated images of himself.  Tina Barney came to mind (somewhat–I just caught her mini-retrospective at Paul Kasmin, ended today).  The subjects of Feng’s works here imply ongoing outsider status in terms of Western life–the “where-do-I-fit-in” complex in coolly lit, intimate interiors, which he infiltrates, literally (he appears looking in at the action at an edge of each scene).  I found them highly appealing, technically and conceptually, more so when I learned that he is just out of art school.  Another vague predecessor is Yasumasa Morimura, best known for photographically blending himself into canonical works of Western art history.

Sahana Ramakrishnan, also just out of art school, draws on tropes of Indian art and image traditions and Surrealism in impressively intricate, colored etchings of fantastical beings, and one enormous, exuberantly pink-toned collaged painting–pink being the navy blue of India, according to famed fashion dame Diana Vreeland’s quip, also with feminist associations in art.  (Sidebar: that quip inspired a sculpture by Lynda Benglis, who has spent time in India, currently on view at upstate Storm King Art Center, as reviewed in yesterday’s NYT (6/19/15) by Ken Johnson.)  One context for Ramakrishnan is her immediate predecessor, Chitra Ganesh, who has broken into the mainstream circuit with feminist-Indian-cultural-referencing figurative work, as seen in her wall installation currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, through July 12.

Visiting Front Art Space uplifted my art spirit tremendously–and the art in it is tremendous, which is to say, paraphrasing a famous explanation of “good art” by Donald Judd, very interesting; likewise, the price points here offer adventurous collectors a tremendous opportunity.  Good luck to all involved.


Downtown’s the new Uptown; the Whitney’s all In

Since I am all about NY nativism, I should react (here) to the Whitney Museum’s new Rienzo Piano building and inaugural show downtown.  (Needless to say, all the detailed cognoscenti blog posts are long out. Like the overall consensus:) Well, it’s all . . . fine, suitable, functional (seemingly); in that sense, as well as the tier-conceived exterior, there is a strong connection to the neutralism of Marcel Breuer’s mildly Brutalist, inverted ziggurat uptown. No question, it was right to grab a spot in the nabe–a prime one, right in front of the southern entrance/exit to the Highline.  The Mepa district is not turning back in my lifetime, and has possibly outpaced the Upper East Side already as the international upscale epicenter of NYC, soon (it seems) to meld into the high-end gallery universe in Chelsea a few blocks north.  Without knowledge of the duration of the planning/design/construction process and interior details still underway, it appears to have been an efficiently-paced, organized project, with the opening six months after the close of the Breuer with the Jeff Koons shebang.

Outdoor steel decks off several floors are (again) fine.  (As someone with latent vertigo, I found two of them a wee bit narrow.) Some of the scattered sculpture out there didn’t look great, in terms of weight and scale (David Smith; Joel Shapiro, Tony Smith), especially where there had to be “primitive” signs about not sitting or touching, such as that “guarding” Robert Morris’s famous three part “L-beams” (Unititled, 1965/70).  For me, human-scale Minimalist work is usually more powerful in a closed space where viewers’ bodies are more fully involved (and you don’t need distracting signs).   On the other hand, Scott Burton’s furniture-marbles that visitors can use, are naturals for this sort of thing.  And the site-specific installation, Sunset, by Mary Heilmann on a the largest  terrace, which included rainbow-colored block chairs scattered about (for use) and monochrome pink geometric “clouds” panels hovering above on the building facade worked well in more ways than one. From here, the refreshing far vistas on three sides interestingly contrast with the gritty near views of sanitation and meat processing plants remaining nearby below (probably not for much longer).

Given the impossible task of an inaugural re-invention of such a famous collection, I’m not surprised that it all seemed very careful; fine; even “good,” but I’m not left with one installation decision that really wowed.  Okay,  maybe the giant Felix Gonzalez-Torres hanging light-bulb sculpture cascading through a central open stairwell from top to bottom of the building.   There was noticeably more diversity of artist gender, ethnicity, and race, and (related) subject matter among the sections from the first half of the century, then picked up again after the 1970s.  (On that note, can’t wait for the Chicago painter Archibald Motley show, coming in October.)  Yet, Fred Wilson’s brilliant piece, Guarded View (1991; four headless mannequins “of color” suited up in NYC museum guard uniforms) was striking more than two decades after its debut in the midst of the white-bread crowd.  (There’s still a host of issues on this topic; ’nuff said in the immediate context.)

What else did I notice? The great graffiti man, Keith Haring, known for the brightest of colors and intertwined, glyphic-cartoon babies, tv sets, hearts, wings, and out-there penises, was not well-represented here in a dark-on-dark near-abstraction (one of only two Haring paintings in the collection; one overtly topical AIDS-related  work on paper was including in a politically-themed installation area).  Chuck Close’s early monumental airbrush self-portrait seemed out of place in a gallery that featured post-painterly abstraction (okay again – perhaps simultaneous directions, but visually; for example, elsewhere there was the juxtaposition of large portraits by Katz and Warhol; maybe Close’s mug there).  Discoveries: a Vlaminck-like, putty-painted, foam-green-dominated landscape by George Bellows; an early Veja Cemins oil painting of a burning electric space heater in a burnt umber void–some convoluted root of the charcoal-toned, star-studded galaxies and flickering oceans that later brought her art renown.

P.S.: Other museum news:  See NYT, June 3, “Frick Abandons Contested Renovation Plan,” Robin Pogrebin); yeah! (See previous post.)

Dazzling Art of the Deccan (and Koch Bros. Patronage)

“Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, through July 26, 2015

It’s the summer of sumptuous splendor—out of Asia—at the Met, with the fashion extravaganza, “China through the Looking Glass” (“Ka-Ching”), as well as this extensive display of art imagery and object types produced under Islamic rulers in south-central India.

Imperial Islam in the subcontinent is widely associated with the Mughal Dynasty, headquartered in the north, responsible for the Taj Mahal, as well as a prolific, syncretistic court painting practice through several generations. Turns out, other elite Islamic clans in the Deccan region (before and after they were subsumed into Mughal territory) similarly facilitated extravagant art objects and whole environments; likewise (or, more so) integrating indigenous, Hindu traditions in wood and stone carving and metallurgy.  Characterized overall by mesmerizingly intricate organic patterning, they were created to reinforce notions of divinely-sanctioned power and status.  The paintings, similar in style to Mughal, though perhaps not quite as refined in terms of detail (I’m no specialist), they are interesting in comparison for their like focus on glorifying elites and their spiritual advisers while reflecting localized (southern traditional) social codes and culture.  Several large photos of architectural sites in the galleries enhance the contextual and aesthetic ambiance.

I did not know, previously, about the abundance of diamonds, among other precious stones, in the Deccan, which resulted in the production of brilliantly polished and faceted gems, often as focal points in fabulously fabricated, filigreed casings for personal adornment and sacred objects.  This display also cast light on the  flickering, minuscule representations of copious jewelry in the paintings. The several stand-alone geological specimens inevitably drive home, as well, the hypnotic lust that humans everywhere throughout time have had for, above all, diamonds. Overall: an engaging melange of material highlighting imaginative craftsmanship, of course realized and reinforcing, in many cases, slavish labor; another paradoxical case of artistic innovation and development (in the illustrious words of Clement Greenberg:) tie to wealth with an umbilical cord of gold.


Apropos of cash-cow art patronage, I have to mention how disappointing it is to now have to see, with each visit to the Met, the bold acknowledgment of “David H. Koch” on the base of each of those uninspired generic-mall-like fountains on the plaza outside (since its refurbishment last summer).  If we can’t keep donors whose ethics, not least in the realm of the arts, have been broadly questioned out of it–and apparently we can’t, or won’t–can we at least keep their names on the interior of the building rather than a major public thoroughfare (i.e., a Fifth Ave. sidewalk)?  Hans Haacke was, as usual, among (if not) the first, and in this case among very few high-profile artists, to comment, with a photo-based installation of fountains dripping faux-money, entitled, The Business Behind Art Knows the Art of the Koch Brothers, shown at Paula Cooper Gallery last year (10/25 – 12/13, 2014). Perhaps someday the piece will come home to roost in a museum collection, just as his early, now famous documentational work, known as Shapolsky et al. (1971), once banned from the Guggenheim for its implication of museum patrons (nearly as a class) in unsavory real estate dealings, is now owned by the Whitney.

Off-Topic: Idiosyncratic Music, Yuletide 2014

R. Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, Metropolitan Opera, 12/17.

The Bishop’s Band, Music from the Codex Trujillo del Peru (c. 1785) and 18th c. Boliva, Trinity Church, 12/29.

Nothing like a five-hour Wagnerian epic for a little holiday cheer (not including two intermissions to make it an even six). Why would an occasional, amateur opera fan so indulge, with all the more moderate options out there? It all started with a few discount tickets (through a number of means, over a few years), which led to my first live experience with the egocentric maestro last season. After a mere four-hour (total), stunning Die Walkure – just a fragment of his Homeric-type cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen) – I was ready to try more. I say try, the way one might approach the first few pages, or even chapters, of a very long (I’m thinking Russian) novel before ultimately surrendering to its world; in the case of Wagner, to his nearly synaesthetic vision – I haven’t used the term, Gesamtkunstwerk, lightly since. The heaviness of Die Walkure is palpable and consuming with its alternately brooding and broiling score and range of dynamics from barely audible to earthquake-inducing, culminating in the “Ride of the Walkuries,” appropriated for a scene of carnage in the 1979 film, Apocalypse Now. The mythic trope of elite gods intermixing with (lowly) humans, with attendant themes of fate, hubris, fallibility, and, occasionally, compassion, is accessible enough and all one needs to know to submit to this haunting, Black Forest fantasy, as performed by a top-notch company like the Met. The set was modernist and abstract, implying ends-of-the-earth, mountainous topography, like an animated, grandiose, 3-D Clyfford Still painting, with movable parts and shifting light/color arrangements.

Die Meistersinger (Master Singer), on the other hand, is a romantic comedy and, more so, peon to the art of song, and based on a real historical figure, enhanced in this production by the Epicot Center-worthy, Renaissance-era German village set. Rather than focusing on the divine, it extols salt-of-the-earth peasants and craftsmen who place high value on creative song-writing—even when it “breaks the rules.” Generally, the music is robust, and the big numbers even stein-swinging. However, there is quite a bit of recitative (sung dialogue, as opposed to song); here the Met’s scrolling L.E.D. subtitle program, ingeniously installed behind the seats, are a real boon. Again, however, minimal understanding of a basic plot is sufficient to be lulled in. (Spoiler alert: love at first sight for local girl and stranger, who wins her hand [feminists, forget it with Wagner] in a song contest despite his complete lack of training).

There were many moments when I nearly dozed off and one or two others when I was ready to give up the ghost and call it a night – but, I kept getting pulled back in; after a point, I was even actually interested in how the (rather obvious) plot resolution would pan out. The real impact, though, was the next morning when I awoke and wondered if the performance had all been a dream—truly transporting.


Since 2011, the landmark 1846 Gothic-Revival Trinity Church (Wall Street) has spearheaded the “Twelfth Night Early Music Festival” at Yuletide (collaborating with other organizations and venues) to provide some of the most impeccable performances of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music to be heard in NYC annually in the perfect setting, including traditional masses, passion plays, and individual secular and religious pieces by known and anonymous composers, most incorporating period instruments. A brilliant program this year was presented by the U.S.-based group, The Bishop’s Band, so-named for an 18th-century bishop in Peru who gathered a collection of folkloric images, texts, and music into the Codex Trujillo. For this remarkable show, the Band recreated a mix of sacred and secular regional music of the time using parts of the codex as guide. (Slides of some of its pages, as well as lyrics, were projected on a screen behind the musicians.) So, in various doses and intertwined arrangements, it was Mozart- defined continental Classical, popular hymns, Spanish song styles, and Indian and African beats and rhythms; with the librettos a collective, syncretistic stew as well. Along with five vocalists, violins, cello, “Spanish cross-strung” harp, baroque guitars, theorbo, and recorders were indigenous pipes and percussion. A very interesting contribution to interdisciplinary, post-colonial discourse on the Americas and a relatively unique aural pleasure.

Any performance at Trinity, organized and/or directed by the indefatigable Julian Wachner, including those by its resident orchestras and church choirs, is more than worthwhile.