Tag Archives: historic houses

The Hyde Collection art museum and historic house

Warren Street, Glens Falls, New York.

Run-through of the permanent collection and a print exhibition of Picasso, Braque and Leger (through January 5):

When traveling through the New England hinterlands, check into historic house museums that dot region, e.g., the Hyde complex in Warren County.  The core experience is a kind of mini-Frick (initiated by local paper mill magnate couple, Louis and Charlotte Hyde), from the 1912 faux-palazzo façade and indoor central courtyard of the main building to the substantial focus on 14th to 17th century Italian painting and a few corresponding sculptural works, e.g., a ceramic Della Robbia shop Madonna and Child relief. 

Look carefully for a tiny Tinteretto “True Cross” scene (there’s also a larger portrait by the prolific Venetian) and a velvety Veronese of the biblical Rebecca, as the lighting is very low and indirect in spots not only due to conservation considerations but salon-type placements throughout the mainly small domestic spaces including alcoves and stairwells. In one of the larger “reception” rooms, you won’t miss a bust-height, glassy-eyed portrait attributed to Raphael–worthy even if workshop or follower, and excellent “International Gothic” French-produced tapestries with charmingly conventional allegorical themes (faith; eternity). Lowlands Renaissance and Baroque painting is also amply represented, not least by a sensitive Rembrandt of a long-maned Christ and a lively unfinished Rubens portrait of an African male model. 

Mainstream pre-WWII American tastes for French Impressionists, especially Renoir and Degas, are evident, among the most interesting examples a pre-Pointillist Seurat landscape comprised of steadily dabbed pure colors suggesting his dizzying optics to come; and check the subtle, possible plein air precedent by Gustave Courbet featuring his signature rocky topography. Top-tier American Realists and Impressionists also have a strong collective presence. Among several Thomas Eakins paintings is an important portrait of his acclaimed student Henry Ossawa Tanner; also seaside and garden scenes by Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and a moonlit cricked-impasto Albert Pinkham Ryder.  A narrow vertical Blue-to-Rose Period Picasso of a lithe youth surprises in Madame’s bedroom, although acquired after her death (1968), as both the collection and exhibition space has continued to expand.   

The current print show of illustrative suites based on literature by Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger is lovely.  Starting with, Picasso (of course, and this spread is a good argument for why), the monochrome coverage extends to nearly the full iconographic range of his oeuvre, from the Blue Period, through shattered Cubist still life, through Surrealist-styled figures including auto-portrait minotaurs, to scathing cartoons of Franco, and classically-tinged lover-muses like a profile head of Marie Therese “carved” out with chiaroscuro.  Fortuitously, one can appreciate his facility with classical contouring (when he wanted to employ it) through comparison with a painted portrait head by Ingres in the house library, along with two others by the sultan of slickly appealing academic painting.  The latest Picasso images here, from the 1960s, are incredibly reduced caricatures that bring a semiotic mixing of the most minimal markings to life. The overriding technique is etching, with some technical variation (most by specialty print houses but a few early ones his own pulls).

Picasso’s early Cubist art-brother Braque is seen in this display veering into frenemy Matisse’s territory with softer organic forms, specific nature imagery and some color; and Leger’s contributions combine strongly contoured, bold figuration a la his constructivist-like direction, with flat, abstract color blocks characteristic of his post-WWI paintings.     

A new gallery (opened 2017) highlights continuing acquisitions of post-WWII works with the current installation focusing (not exclusively) on geometric abstraction via Jean Arp, Joseph Albers, Frank Stella, and Al Held, among others. Veering off, but wonderful, a characteristically conceptual Tim Rollins and K.O.S. wherein pages from a text of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream are pasted as a picture plane and embellished with colorful floating abstract “blots”–the perceptual apparition not wholly unlike the effect of the scaffold-stablized shapes of in Leger’s prints (as above).

It’s a pleasantly scaled excursion in which all can be taken in leisurely, and special programming, judging from this visit, is thoughtful and erudite within the context and means of the institution as a whole. 

Old House Haunted by Shonibare

“Yinka Shonibare: Colonial Arrangements,” Morris-Jumel Mansion (Washington Heights; C train to 163rd), through August 31.

(“Yinka Shonibare: Rage of the Ballet Gods,” James Cohan Gallery, closed June 20.)

Although I have certain interests in colonial America, especially in New York, it took contemporary artist, Yinka Shonibare, to get me to the oldest house in Manhattan, at the southeastern edge of Washington Heights, known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built 1765.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion (6/25/15)
The Morris-Jumel Mansion (6/25/15)

I’ve been a follower of the YBA (coined 1990s), Shonibare, now also MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire, an ironic honorific bestowed on him in 2004 that he likes to emphasize) since first sight of his manipulated mannequin art in the infamous Sensation show (1997)–there, two “off-color” (tawny ochre) life-size, headless female “stiffs” bustled up in the Dutch wax-print–aka Ankara–fabric that has become his signature medium.  His work has since been extremely influential in the art world and beyond for exploiting the rich semiotics of the typically colorful, densely-patterned Ankara, a  modern (colonial-era) hybrid of indigenous Indonesian craft and European manufacturing and marketing throughout Africa, where it was enthusiastically received by societies for which textiles have long carried intertwined cultural and aesthetic meanings.  Eventually produced, adapted and inflected with regional designs and iconography across the African continent, today it is, in some cases, exported from Africa to centers of the Diaspora.

First used in abstract “paintings,” Shonibare subsequently realized the potential of the fabric to convey a simultaneous clash and blend of cultures in European fashion designs from the Enlightenment-Revolutionary-Slavery era, in tandem with custom mannequins in a variety of skin tones and poses, set within increasingly expansive and ornamental tableaux.  (If you don’t know much about this artist, get to it–fascinating and important–he’s also well into color photography and video that brings the suggestive content of the 3-D work to life in many cases.)  The headless aspect, a relative constant, adds a bite that conjures the guillotine justice and attendant blood lust of the era; it also enhances the sculptural (art) element, just as his clothing designs are completely integrated into his art (i.e., so far [as far as I know] resisting the seeming temptation of off-the-rack off-shoots in this age of art business).

Gardens, sumptuous interiors, art “masterpieces,” outer space, study space, target practice, are just a few set-ups in which Shonibare’s often very “adult” creatures have appeared; eventually,  animated children and others with surrogate heads of taxidermy animals and shiny world globes, as well as other appendages, have been progressively added to expand his content-laden parallel universe.  In short, Shonibare has had no  shortage of continuing, inspired mutations over the course of two decades in this metier, judging from a recent exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery, which featured a silent ballet-battle of tutu-clad mythical beings.  Each new- age cadavre exquis (the Surrealist reference explicit) bore dramatic attributes–e.g., wings, lighting bolt, harp, that imbued an interconnected narrative; and then one brilliant departure (I believe unrelated, in a separate space)–a Refugee Astronaut (as per the title) lugging a bundle of 20th-century detritus like a post-apocalyptic Santa Claus.

Presumably, some fortuitous connection precipitated the arrangement of the Morris-Jumel installation with and around the same time as the show at James Cohen.  There, the dummies suggests ghosts in the mansion, most literally in the specter of Eliza Jumel, the madame of the house from 1810 to 1865, which appears in her parlor hunched and shrouded in an Ankara cloth ensemble.

So the Morris part is the original owner, son of Neoclassically-inclined architect, Roger Morris (d. 1849), which may account for the stylistically advanced, double-story Palladian porch facade and plan.  From the scenic hill-top local of the summer villa, the family could see both the Hudson and East Rivers at the time.  After they fled back to England during at the start of the Revolution, George Washington, and later British troops, shacked up there through the war.   However, most of the present interior design/objects date from the arrival, from Haiti, of the wealthy slaveholder, Stephen Jumel, and his wife, Eliza, with a few exceptions. The whole place appears to need an overhaul, as well as some rethinking, which apparently this Shonibare exhibition portends.*

Certainly, it’s a kick to visit this unique slice of NYC history–the mounted relic surrounded now by landmark late-19th-century family row-houses set off cobblestone lanes before opening out to the familiar present-day metropolis.  Hopefully, the institution will figure it all out (no doubt, it’s all about the Benjamin$).  The spot is, of course, a destination. (You’re not going to just pass by; and you’re not going to roam around–despite the bucolic plot upon which the house is situated).  That makes things tough for a niche cultural site to pick up traffic.  There are certainly all kinds of possibilities for more extensive/immersive contemporary art installations and various performance arts.  This Shonibare display is a great start, even if it the “Eliza” work is the only site-specific one, and the whole is a bit dissonant in terms of oppositional symmetries vis-a-vis contextual associations (in form and content).  Several of Shonibare’s child figures, dressed to the post-colonial nines, are included, seemingly entertaining themselves, one, a black-globe-headed musician-spirit (servant?) in a darkened dining room where crystal glass glints from the table in the ambient light.

A Yinka Shonibare scupture at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (6/25/15)
A Shonibare scupture at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (6/25/15)

A Shonibare sculpture at the Morris-Jumel  Mansion (6/25/15)
A Shonibare sculpture at the Morris-Jumel Mansion (6/25/15)

The low lighting throughout, although a function of the aesthetics of the installation (as I was told when I inquired, in an attempt to get a better glimpse of some historical decor and bric-a-brac)–  well,  okay.

Fred Wilson, another globe-user in ways sometimes parallel to those of Shonibare, came to mind as a natural for an installation in  historic space like this, although he’s moved away from that sort of thing in the past few (is it almost a decade already?) years.  Also Whitfield Lovell, who has often dealt  with haunted presences in his drawing-based, mixed media oeuvre, sometimes in the context of domestic themes.


*Update: “The house is to undergo a $1.5 million exterior overhaul . . . “; while$700,000 will be allocated to the interior; according to Eve M. Kahn, “Time for a Face-Lift At Historic Houses,” New York Times, 7/31/15, C23.