New in New York
If you’re heading up to New York for July 4th, or any other time this summer, I wish I could recommend a bunch of new theatrical offerings for you to enjoy. Alas, that is not the case (and more on that later).
What has blossomed, in many cases just since I was last up there in April, is a plethora of worthy exhibits at museums throughout Manhattan. If you delight in the visual arts, there’ll be no shortage of ways for you to spend your time in the Big Apple.
Start at the Metropolitan, that grande dame of museums on Fifth Avenue, where four exhibits, at least, merit attention.
Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty departs on July 16 so you may want to begin there. This Costume Institute exhibition examines the work of Lagerfeld (1933–2019) by focusing on the designer’s stylistic vocabulary as expressed in aesthetic themes that appeared time and again in his fashions from the 1950s to his final collection in 2019.
As is often the case with such fashion installations, you can approach it academically and read all the wall tags that compare and contrast his styles and inspirations (which I did). Or you can just take in and appreciate all the ensembles, coats, dresses and many other objects that are featured (which I did also).
Dress (spring/summer 2019 haute couture) by Karl Lagerfeld (1933–2019) for House of Chanel (founded 1910)
Wending my way through the displays, I was inordinately impressed with Lagerfeld’s range and bounteous creativity; it’s impossible to pigeonhole him. While I especially appreciated dresses inspired by such artists as Aubrey Beardsley, other eye-catchers included a jazzy coat made of a variety of furs, and chic dresses in unique silhouettes, some bold statements, others elegantly understated, and one playful number that had a large gold candelabrum with flickering candles on it.
You’ll have your own favorites, but mine was a white shoulderless haute couture dress with hand-painted ceramic and enameled flowers all over it. Simple, graceful and beautifully crafted, I’ve never seen anything like it.
I’ve seen Van Gogh paintings before, but Van Gogh’s Cypresses (thru Aug. 27) offers a deep and fascinating examination of one of his most iconic motifs. This tightly conceived thematic exhibition, the first to focus on these trees, juxtaposes 40 or so works–paintings, drawings and illustrated letters–and reveals how Van Gogh made them sometimes the focal point of his image, sometimes a supporting player.
“A Walk at Twilight” (1890) by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
Due to time concerns, I had to somewhat rush through Cypresses, but you’ll want to take your time in this compact exhibit and lose yourself among these masterpieces, including “The Starry Night”, on loan from MoMA.
There’s no additional charge for Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty or Van Gogh’s Cypresses, but you need a timed ticket for entry. It’s actually a surprisingly easy process that you do on your cell phone, but expect a 30-40 minute wait (or more) for each show. While you’re waiting, there are two other exhibitions at the Met well worth a visit.
Berenice Abbott’s New York Album, 1929 (thru Sept.4) showcases Abbott’s photographs of New York City’s skyscrapers, bridges, elevated trains, and neighborhood street life which she pasted into a standard black-page album, arranging them by subject and locale; this exhibit presents a selection of unbound pages from this unique album.
The black-and-white pics are small, “tiny photographic notes” as Abbott (1898–1991) put it, but look closely and you’ll see images of a Lower East Side Burlesk [sic] House promoting “WHOOPEE WEEK”, a pushcart peddler at the Fulton Fish Market who looks like he just came over from Anatevka, and many others that take you back nearly 100 years.
“Automat, 877 Ninth Avenue” (1936) by Berenice Abbott (1898–1991)
For context, the exhibition also features views of Paris by Eugène Atget (1857–1927), whose extensive photographic archive Abbott purchased and publicized; views of New York City by her contemporaries Walker Evans, Paul Grotz, and Margaret Bourke-White; and photographs from Abbott’s federally funded project, Changing New York (1935–39), including a classic image of a Horn & Hardart Automat in Columbus Circle.
And while this may be neither here nor there, Abbott identified publicly as a lesbian, living with her partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland, for 30 years, at a time when few women were out and proud.
Nearby, Richard Avedon: MURALS (thru Oct. 1) presents three monumental portrait works by Avedon (1923–2004), created from 1969 to 1971. Featuring members of Andy Warhol’s Factory, top brass of the Vietnam war & other such bigwigs, and The Chicago Seven demonstrators, these huge photomurals reflect their subjects’ outsized cultural influence.
And yet I found two smaller group portraits included in the show even more psychologically astute and quite moving.
Taken while Avedon was in Vietnam, one shows social worker Richard Hughes with Vietnamese street boys who look old before their time; he had organized an “ad hoc hostel” for these 20th century Gavroches and one wonders where they are now, some 50 years later.
“The Shoeshine Boys Project: Richard Hughes, social worker, with Vietnamese street boys, Saigon, South Vietnam” (1971) by Richard Avedon (1923–2004)
The other photo is of three U.S. servicemen and two alluringly dressed Vietnamese women, presumably sex workers. One member of each group hangs their head–in shame?–while one woman confronts Avedon’s camera straight on. It is a damning portrait of America’s involvement in that war.
There are many other things to see at the Met, including a small Philip Guston installation that I had overlooked, so plan on spending a day–or two–there. (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions)
Not far from the Met, The Jewish Museum has The Sassoons (thru Aug. 13) which unfolds the fascinating story of a remarkable Jewish family, following four generations from Iraq to India, China, and England. The exhibition highlights the Sassoon family’s pioneering role in trade, art collecting, architectural patronage, and civic engagement from the early 19th century through World War II through over 120 works–paintings, decorative arts, illuminated manuscripts, and Judaica–amassed by family members over the generations. Given the Sassoons’ involvement with the opium trade, there’s a Masterpiece Theater meets Scarface vibe that suffuses the exhibition.
Highlights include intricate Chinese ivory carvings and magnificent portraits by John Singer Sargent of various Sassoon family members. Of them, for me the most captivating was politician, art collector, and socialite Philip Sassoon who led an openly, if discreet, homosexual life. Featured objects show his friendships with Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill, among other boldface names. With his patrician if reserved look and eyes that display a biting intelligence, I wouldn’t have minded having a tête-à-tête with him.
“Sir Philip Sassoon” (1923) by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
The Sassoons starts off a bit drily but, by the time it ends with the great World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon, you’ll consider it time well-spent. (https://thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/the-sassoons)
Across town, at the New York Historical Society (NYHS), you can find Under Cover: J.C. Leyendecker and American Masculinity (thru Aug. 13). A contemporary of Philip Sassoon, Leyendecker (1874–1951) was one of the most prominent and financially successful freelance commercial artists in the U.S. and helped shape American visual culture in the first three decades of the 20th century through sophisticated advertising campaigns. As a gay artist whose illustrations for mainstream audiences often had unspoken homoerotic undertones, his work is especially revealing for what it says about the cultural attitudes towards homosexuality of the period.
The exhibition showcases 19 of the artist’s oil paintings, many the basis for ads which starred fashionable men in stylish settings engaged in activities such as boating, golfing, or reading in men’s clubs. The images are layered and ambiguous and, interestingly, this encouraged consumer engagement which served the interest of advertisers…and make them, 100+ years later, beguiling fine art in a way I doubt any of today’s ads will ever be considered a century from now.
“SS Leviathan” (1918) by J.C. Leyendecker (1874–1951)
Housed in one large room of the NYHS, Under Cover also includes a wealth of related ephemera from Leyendecker as well as depictions of fashionable African American men during the Harlem Renaissance (to counterbalance Leyendecker’s exclusively white narratives) and a video clip from Clara Bow’s 1932 pre-Code film Call Her Savage showing two clearly gay waiters dressed as French maids dancing and singing about the pleasures of “working as chambermaids on a great big battleship”, one of the first portrayals of homosexuals on screen.
There’s LOTS more at the NYHS, both permanent and temporary (Scenes of New York City, thru July 23, is especially noteworthy), to check out. If you want to take a break, there’s even a café restaurant in the building. (https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/current)
Head downtown to Fotografiska for Stars (thru Sept. 16), a kicky retrospective of the acclaimed photographer Terry O’Neill’s (1938–2019) portraits of countless Hollywood stars, music legends, fashion icons and athletes. There are instantly recognizable images like David Bowie photographed for his Diamond Dogs album cover, and Faye Dunaway by a hotel pool the morning after winning an Oscar for Best Actress.
But there are other gems as well. A tender Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. An inscrutable Judi Dench looking into the camera. Laurence Olivier taking a break from filming A Bridge Too Far and playing an impromptu game of cricket. A youthful Elton John and Billie Jean King posing playfully during Wimbledon. And perhaps my favorite, an impeccably styled portrait of Cher and Gregg Allman from the mid-1970s when they were a couple.
“Cher and Gregg Allman” (mid-1970s) by Terry O’Neill (1938–2019)
Fire, the ninth cycle of the Prix Pictet photography prize, occupies another floor and features work by 13 photographers from Austria, Belgium, Benin, Cambodia, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, Switzerland, and USA who are shortlisted for this year’s prize. Prix Pictet aims to harness the power of photography to draw global attention to issues of sustainability, especially those concerning the environment.
One of the things I like best about Fotografiska is that it stays open till 9:00pm Sunday to Wednesday and 11:00pm Thursday to Saturday. How civilized. (https://www.fotografiska.com/nyc/exhibitions/)
Further downtown, in the East Village, The Brant Foundation is presenting Thirty Are Better Than One, an exhibition of over 100 artworks by Andy Warhol (thru July 30). The survey spans the entirety of Warhol’s career, from his early drawings and Polaroid portraits to instantly recognizable silkscreens and sculptures. Thirty Are Better Than One pulls in large part from the Brant Collections, and is curated by Peter M. Brant, founder of The Brant Foundation and an early patron, collaborator, and close friend of the artist.
Thirty Are Better Than One (the title of a work depicting 30 scaled-down, silk-screened images of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”) can be a great introduction to Warhol for the uninitiated. If you’ve encountered lots of Warholiana over the years as I have (including a trip to the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh), you’ll appreciate the works that have had less exposure. A mixed media “Pin The Tail on the Donkey”(1953) looks like it just came from a kid’s birthday party. A bold, unfinished portrait of Dick Tracy pops out at you.
(l.) “Shadow (Red)” (1978) and (r.) “Ladies and Gentlemen (Alphanso Panell)” (1975) both by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) (photo by Laura Wilson)
Most intriguing, however, was “Ladies and Gentlemen (Alphanso Panell)”, a diptych from 1975. A little googling (the Foundation offers nothing in the way of explanatory wall tags, and even its online information is scant) revealed that Panell was a drag queen and that the “Ladies and Gentlemen” series (1974-75) came about after Bob Colacello, the future editor of Interview, went to the Greenwich Village nightclub Gilded Grape to recruit a number of black and Hispanic drag queens willing to pose for Warhol. I wish other curators would follow Brant’s lead and give as much attention to the ladies of “Ladies and Gentlemen” as they generally bestow upon Warhol’s Marilyn Monroes and Elizabeth Taylors.
Located in a very cool century-old building on East 6th Street that was originally designed as a substation for Con Edison and which subsequently served as the home & studio of artist Walter De Maria from the mid-1980s until his death in 2013, The Brant Foundation is a bit off the beaten path but well worth a visit. (https://www.brantfoundation.org/exhibitions/thirty-are-better-than-one/)
Slightly off the beaten path in the opposite direction, on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, the Museum of the City of New York celebrates the centennial of its founding with This Is New York: 100 Years of the City in Art and Pop Culture (thru July 2024) which explores the many ways that the city has inspired storytelling across art forms. It features both famous and lesser-known depictions of New York in film and television, visual and performing arts, music, poetry and literature, and even fashion, painting an exhilarating, multifaceted version of a city that (almost) never sleeps.
The full-floor exhibition is organized around the types of urban spaces where the stories of New York are told, but one is only vaguely aware of this structure. Rather, the show is so full of so many cool, interesting items that, as you go through it, you’ll find yourself unselfconsciously grinning at the cultural diversity contained within it.
“Homage to the People of the Bronx: Double Dutch at Kelly Street–La Freeda, Jevette, Towana, Staice” (1981-82) by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres
There is first-class artwork by Alice Neel and Romare Bearden, but equally outstanding offerings by artists I was unfamiliar with, some mesmerizing pieces just a few years old. There’s the clapperboard from the last shot of Desperately Seeking Susan and the t-shirt Chloë Sevigny wore in Kids. And there’s a special gallery, “You Are Here,” dedicated to New York on film, which provides a dazzling, immersive 16-screen experience drawn from hundreds of movies about the city made over the past century.
I spent a little over a half hour at This Is New York because, as is often the case in NYC, I was pressed for time; you could easily spend much more time at this phenomenal exhibition. And you should. You won’t be disappointed. (https://www.mcny.org/exhibition/new-york-100)
And you don’t need a lot of time but you won’t want to rush through a new ongoing one-room installation at the Museum of Modern Art, Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett.
Lawrence (1917–2000) is represented by his “Migration Series” (1940-41) (or at least the half MoMA owns), a powerful extended sequence of paintings that gives narrative form to the Great Migration, the mass exodus of millions of Black Americans who left the southern United States for the North, Midwest, and West beginning during World War I and continuing for several decades.
“The migrants arrived in great numbers” from “The Migration Series” (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000)
“The Migration Series” is undoubtedly one of the great achievements of 20th century art, but I’ve seen it (or parts of it) a number of times before. The revelation here is Catlett’s “The Black Woman” (previously titled “The Negro Woman”) (1946-47).
“In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery” from “The Black Woman” (1946-47) by Elizabeth Catlett (1915–2012)
A peer of Lawrence’s, Catlett (1915–2012) went to the 1941 premiere of “The Migration Series” at New York’s Downtown Gallery and was inspired by what she saw. Six years later, she completed “The Black Woman”, a series of prints that chronicles the oppression and resilience of subjects such as field laborers, domestic workers, historic abolitionists, and civil rights activists. Narrative captions written in the first person relate Catlett’s experience to that of the women she depicts. There are tributes to Harriet Tubman and poet Phillis Wheatley, and a cumulative urgency engendered by the potent challenges faced by Black Women. (https://www.moma.org/calendar/galleries/5575)
As for theater, suffice to say that after seeing Grey House, as I waited outside the Lyceum Theatre for my friend who had gone to the restroom, I heard a gentleman say to his companion as they passed by “That was one of the worst shows I’ve ever seen.” I asked him what he was talking about. He replied, pointing to the theater, “This.” I couldn’t disagree.
Written by Levi Holloway, Grey House purports to be a horror mystery involving 4 strange girls, their caretaker, and a couple who winds up at their spooky home on a stormy night. At 30 minutes in, I had no idea what was going on; I still felt that way at the 60 minute mark. Too many preposterous scenes dragged on, too slowly paced by Director Joe Mantello. The denouement was bizarre and not worth the wait. The only mystery was why that fine actress Laurie Metcalf had agreed to take on the role of the caretaker. Please, somebody, give her something better to do.
The usually reliable Playwrights Horizons is giving the world premiere to John J. Caswell, Jr.’s Wet Brain (thru July 2) which, like so many other plays, features an uber-dysfunctional family. That could be fine but, in this semi-autobiographical tale, as the gay son comes home to deal with his once-abusive father who now has dementia (and is given to peeing in the corner of a room) and tangles with his sister and homophobic brother, Wet Brain just goes around in circles; I wanted to scream “We get it–move on!”
Did I mention the part where they go into outer space and connect with their dead mother? At one point, one of the characters asks “When will all of this end?” Good question.
Director Dustin Wills and his team of designers did all they could to provide a topnotch production. I felt bad for the excellent, hard-working cast (Frankie J. Alvarez, Ceci Fernández, Florencia Lozano, Julio Monge, and Arturo Luís Soria) all of whom, like Metcalf, deserved better.
Lest you think I’m a total Scrooge these days, I’d heartily encourage you to see Tom Stoppard’s brilliant Tony Award winner Leopoldstadt (Longacre Theatre) and James Ijames’ wildly imaginative Pulitzer Prize winner Fat Ham (American Airlines Theatre), both of which close on July 2, as well as the delightful Tony winner for best musical Kimberly Akimbo (Booth Theatre) and David Byrne’s soon-to-open immersive biomusical about Imelda Marcos Here Lies Love (Broadway Theatre) which I had seen several years ago off-Broadway and am still enjoying the recording of. Alas, I don’t say that too often these days.