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Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art has often been accused of elitism, the landmark institution’s granite front steps numbered among New York City’s most democratic public spaces. On any given day tourists, panhandlers, patrician Upper East Side locals, and New Yorkers of all variety would meet, sit, linger, people-watch, or perhaps read a book on the Met’s front steps or in the tree-lined plaza they overlook. That is, until 2012, when the museum boarded up its front courtyard and plaza for a renovation — a first since the steps and courtyard landscaping were added to the Met’s frontal façade in 1968, as part of an expansion designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkledoo.
The much-beloved public space reopened last week after a thorough, if subtle, overhaul by Philadelphia-based landscape architects OLIN. The redesign leaves much about the plaza and stairs unchanged — the designers’ most successful interventions preserve and accentuate those features that gave the space its reputation in the first place.
One hundred and six trees have been planted and parasols have been added to the alley of trees now lining the 1,021-foot-long street-level plaza, providing 17,600-square-feet of shade. New square fountains, articulated in black granite, flank the grand entry staircase, replacing the original, deteriorating fountains that had been in use since the 1970s. Both permanent and temporary seating has been expanded along the plaza. The effect makes the Met plaza an even more pleasant place to linger, and museum visitors and passersby will surely respond to these changes with great enthusiasm.
One detail of the renovation, however, has already been met with outright hostility. Along the side of the two new fountains, gilded letters spell out “David H. Koch Plaza.” The renovation’s billionaire funder, who gave $65 million for the project, has also donated money to right-wing causes that include the Tea Party and climate-change denial.
Hrag Vartanian, whom you may know as the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic, had a very interesting opinion piece published on Al Jazeera America the other day. The headline was Break up the major museums to save them, with a deck saying “August institutions should build more outposts rather than cloister themselves in big cities.”
Quite a proposal. His thoughts seem to have been triggered by attendance at the Louvre (12 million a year by 2025), and the experiences of many museum-goers — who can barely get near the art because the galleries are so crowded. He recapped some of the complaints contained recently in a New York Times article, Masterworks Vs. the Masses, which noted “soaring attendance has turned many museums into crowded, sauna-like spaces, forcing institutions to debate how to balance accessibility with art preservation.”
Most of the comments agreed that conditions for real art-lovers are now horrible. Vartanian went beyond “us,” though, to look at museum reviews on Trip Advisor, where he found that the “masses” tended to agree. Wrote one of the Vatican Museums: “Seriously, it would only take one person to trip or to cause some kind of mild panic or corridor rage … it doesn’t bear thinking of.” And another of the Louvre: “There was absolutely no way that myself and my family members could enjoy the museum. There are so many people that all you have time to do is make sure you aren’t trampled by the mass coming at you from every direction.”
Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts
Viewers are supposed to marvel at Rembrandt’s Night Watch (1642), but do they really? Many of us have unsatisfying responses to the works of the Masters, yet we still troop through the museums by the millions. This disconnect has led Alain de Botton and John Armstrong to guest-curate a selection of 150 works at the Rijksmuseum from their pragmatic point of view.
De Botton and Armstrong assert that art’s purpose is to heal some of the pain and malaise felt in life. It would be easy to dismiss this as didactic and anodyne. But reclaiming this broad, utilitarian view of art and reconnecting with the public in an approachable way is not simplistic. It is an important critical challenge to the reductive and self-referential intellectualism that dominates much contemporary discourse.
Tagging each work with large, yellow Post-it-style notes, the curators chat with the audience about the psychological dynamics of viewing art in a large museum. The notes aim to demystify the thoughts and feelings of viewers. Some notes describe the purpose of museums (“cathedrals of art”), while others name the alienation we feel in a room crowded with strangers. Democratizing the viewing experience in this way touches the soft underbelly of art, where contemporary critique has rejected notions of social purpose, beauty, and meaning and thus alienated much of the public.
Imagine yourself strolling through a verdant park, enjoying the pleasant vistas, the richer oxygen, the weird, wrap-around three-dimensionality of it all (so unlike a screen), and then, out of nowhere . . . Zzzzzp. (Ouch!) And a minute later . . . Zzzzzp! (Yeow!) And so on.
Not insects, but words deliver these rousing stings. And their little pricks of poison are felt not on the skin but in that part of the body encrusted with cant and cliché called the brain.
Hello, and thank you, Ian Hamilton Finlay.
Finlay (1925-2006), a Scotsman, is the subject of a small but deeply engaging show at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum this summer. Although most of the work is indoors and on framed pieces of paper, it’s advisable — it’s almost inevitable — that, while viewing it, you imagine yourself wandering through a carefully tended neoclassical garden, receiving Finlay’s verbal (but also graphic and sculptural) stings with varying degrees of dismay, pleasure, and irritation.
Gardening was one of Finlay’s abiding obsessions. The others were classical poetry and philosophy (above all Virgil and his “Eclogues”), the French Revolution, World War II, boating, and the sea. A strange mix, on the face of it, but they all combined symphonically in Finlay’s 5-acre garden, the pungently named “Little Sparta,” in the Pentland Hills, smack bang in the center of southern Scotland.
The Museo del Prado in Spain is missing 885 artworks, down from 926 in 2008, El País reported. A recent investigation carried out by the country’s Tribunal de Cuentas, or Court of Auditors, found that the losses were likely decades-old but nonetheless reflected inadequate infrastructure for tracking the collections. A spokesperson for the museum downplayed the situation, telling the paper that many works had been lost over the years to fires and even armed conflict, but without proof of destruction or loss the records for these works remain.
The audit was compelled by the regulatory law governing the Prado, which calls for “monitoring the integrity and security of the museum’s collections and funds.” As part of the audit, the government agency queried 82 Spanish institutions responsible for 1,789 Prado-owned works held in the country but outside of the museum itself (a total of 3,206 works are held internationally). Of this group, 65% of the works were satisfactorily confirmed by 53 institutions; discrepancies and other irregularities in the records provided by 25 museums were further observed.
Woman’s Kimono with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern (Japan, early Shōwa period, c. 1935), silk plain weave, stencil-printed warp and weft (heiyō-gasuri meisen), Costume Council Fund (Photo: © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA)
Many of us, when we picture kimono, envision the traditional Japanese garment covered in similarly traditional images: blossoming floral motifs, soaring or leaping animals, mountain peaks and cresting seascapes in Ukiyo-e style. But cross-cultural exchange between Japan and the West started in earnest during the Meiji period (1868–1912), causing the spread of different technologies and styles in both directions. By the time the Shōwa period rolled around in 1926, Japanese kimono looked quite different than they once had, with patterns that that were far more abstract and modern.
Opening on Saturday, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s (LACMA) exhibition Kimono for a Modern Age surveys this period of Japanese fashion innovation. The show presents 30 never-before-seen kimono from LACMA’s permanent collection. All date to the first half of the 20th century — chronology you might guess just by looking at the garments, which show a strong affinity with modern art of the period.
On June 27 the Mauritshuis reopens in The Hague after two years of ambitious refurbishment and extension. And — I mean that as a sincere compliment to the director, architects, and staff — it’s almost exactly the same as it was before the 30 million euro reconstruction work was begun. But perhaps I’d better explain why that’s such a good thing.
The Mauritshuis is the perfect gallery of 17th-century Dutch painting. Perhaps on a crass masterpiece count it somewhat lags behind the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam — though even there one could argue the point. Among its Rembrandt roster is the grisly “Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp,” 1652, a group portrait of early surgeons, boldly investigating where more squeamish cultures hesitated to look: beneath the waxy skin of the cadaver of a deceased thief named Aris Kindt.
Art and dance have had a close relationship, from the Modernist flowerings of the Ballet Russes to the downtown scene in 1970s New York. But they have remained largely distinct disciplines until recently. However, choreographers’ work is increasingly being incorporated into museum and gallery programmes, and as integral works rather than interruptions from a distinct artform. Art Basel brings some of the leading figures in dance together for The Artist as Choreographer, Friday’s Conversation, chaired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and featuring the choreographic artists Alexandra Bachzetsis, Xavier Le Roy and Isabel Lewis.
The background to this phenomenon is the two disciplines’ mutual interest in expanding definitions of what art and dance might be, and in bringing art and everyday life into a closer relationship. Bachzetsis’s work is emblematic of this shift. She has recently devised works for Documenta 13 and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and will appear in the BMW Tate Live event at Tate Modern, London, in October. She is interested in how different spaces—the theatre, the museum, the gallery, online space—“condition both the human body and the contemporary status of performance practice”, she says.
The Art Newspaper
If only Britain had a place like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This great compendium of art and culture on the edge of Central Park is about to rebuild its modern wing – in other words, to improve on what is already an unrivalled cocktail of past and present. Meanwhile it has just launched so much of its collection for free download that its website temporarily crashed under the pressure of public excitement.
No other great museum has the Metropolitan’s range. Its name is appropriate for it turns the whole world, across all time, into one buzzing city. You can stroll from an Egyptian temple to a Renaissance studiolo, from a roomful of Rembrandts to an encounter with Jackson Pollock.
American critics have so far been deeply cynical about the renovation, and about its “spotty” collection of modern art – which just goes to show that people don’t know when they are well off. From a British point of view, the idea of a museum where you can immerse yourself in Rembrandt then be blown away by Jackson Pollock’s majestic Autumn Rhythm sounds like some delirious artistic utopia. New Yorkers have the luxury of sniping at their local museum: I just feel envious of them.
Britain’s leading museums are not exactly failing – they’re crowded – but they are trapped in the 19th-century mindset of their creators. The scars of an archaic civil service mentality define each like a government department with a rigorously specified area of responsibility. The British Museum does not collect European paintings. The National Gallery does not display Egyptian mummies, or modern art beyond early Picasso. Only the V&A has a little bit of the Met’s truly encyclopedic spirit.
Scissors, paper, pins – these were all it took for Matisse, in the last years of his life, often bedridden and feeling he was living on borrowed time, to create the works that now fill a suite of galleries at Tate Modern. What a joyous and fascinating exhibition this is. I eat it with my eyes and never feel sated.
Ravishing, filled with light and decoration, exuberance and a kind of violence, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is about more than just pleasure. It charts not simply the consummation of the artist’s long career but a kind of self-usurpation. In his last years, Matisse went beyond himself.
As well as the works themselves, there is film footage of the artist and his assistants at work, swatches of the hand-painted papers he used, and a wealth of photographic and other material to broaden our understanding.