On Those Big Famous Museums

I’m sure some think this has gone on quite long enough but the USA’s east coast big cities were a grand learning experience that would be fabulous to repeat but alas… the confluence of lucky factors that brought about this last visit is extremely unlikely to occur again.

We looked at many museums and galleries. Apart from anything else, if the weather was foul the best solution was a day in a gallery or a museum…. There were lots of both (bad weather and museums) Those I visited in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC were more than large enough to maintain interest for several visits – I went many times to The Met and still did not see it all… We went to MoMA a number of times and the Museum of Art and Design also received more than minimal attendance… We were lucky enough to be in town for long enough for shows to change and to visit small, single interest, repositories of interest. There was one problem and that was hefty admission fees. Fortunately the locals plus some who had been there for extended visits could give advice about avoiding or reducing some of these – legally and otherwise. We took some…. It is mainly the private institutions that impose unavoidable admission fees and you cannot know in advance, what is value for your 20-28 bucks and what can handle a miss.

Best value, as far as I was concerned, in NYC was The Frick Collection and PS1. Henry Clay Frick was a tycoon who was business partner to Carnegie in ventures mainly concerning steel, coal and railways back in the late 1900s.   The collection is housed in Frick’s former home on upper 5th Avenue and the queue to get in extended, at three/four abreast, half-way around the block when we arrived at one hour prior to opening time. It was snowing, but worse, there was a chill wind that somehow slinked through any gap in external armour and found any weak spots in lower layers. I almost gave up, to return on a gentler day as we learned there was always an opening queue no matter what was on show, but in the end we made it through the doors. It was totally worth every chilled minute and each frozen finger and toe that went through tortuous pins and needles before we could advance.

It’s the paintings that most go to see but this was Frick’s home so the carpets, the ceramics, the textiles and furniture were also on show. The ceramics were from several sources and a number of periods. There was Chinese Ming/Qing Dynasties in blue/white and the Famillies Rose, Vert and Noir plus many grand vessels of the sort made by Sevres in porcelain with illustrated narrative vignettes and elaborate, gold lustred handles that would induce a weakness at the knees in Richard Stratton. The blue/white demonstrated how skilled are those artisans in Jingdezhen today – their counterfeits are so like these, it’s staggering. My personal interest settled upon a Renaissance, Andrea Dell’a Robbia wall plaque; a religious work in majolica and two and a half dimensions. It was a bit high to see as closely as I would have liked. But they are rare, I recall one in Rome and another in Florence but otherwise they are the stuff of books, particularly in this part of the world.

But of course it’s the paintings – and what paintings this man collected. As entitled, Frick chose his own works and left out what he did not prefer – no war, nudes or myths (and this was late 19thC!) and very few still lifes – just did not much like them. He clearly loved portraits best and did not mind whose ancestors he hung on his walls – by Rembrandt and Hals, Reynolds and Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Van Eyck, Holbein and Hogarth, Turner and Whistler, Breugel and Durer, et al, but the stars of the collection were clearly the Vermeers – there was a special exhibition of these and turning a corner, there she was, his Girl with Pearl Earring. She was surrounded by a large crowd queuing to have a ‘selfie’ or portrait of them alongside… a scene we saw regularly in front of the Warhols at MoMA and the Van Goghs at The Met. Frick owned a few Impressionists and post-Impressionists but clearly they were too contemporary and he preferred earlier works.

The Frick, in its entirety, was one of the major highlights alongside the ‘extension’ to MoMA out at Queens – PS1, with a major retrospective of the work of Mike Kelleythat as the review said ‘knocks everything else in New York this fall right out of the ring’. It was an immense show, filling 40,000 square feet of gallery space. And it needed every inch.

Kelley did it all, in terms of genre: performance, painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, video, installation, sound art and writing. And he wove together all of that into what amounted to a single, life-long project based on recurrent themes: social class, popular culture and black humor with a skeptical, iconoclastic moral sense that ran through everything. Critical associations with domesticity, maleness and childhood, were recurrent subjects. In memory of his childhood town – Detroit, he made a giant statue of John Glen – another former resident and preserved in Kelley’s school in real size – from resin and shards -millions of them- of glass and ceramic dredged from the Detroit River.

Shards dredged from the Detroit River at base

Shards dredged from the Detroit River at base

Shard man - John Glen

Shard man – John Glen

His perhaps most well-known work was sculptures (1987) made from small dolls and stuffed animals that he found in thrift shops. Set out in erotic tableaus, sewn together in cruelly jammed clusters, shrouded under old blankets and afghans and slung in giant balls of colour from ceilings they provoked sadness and bewilderment for many of the audience. But these gained fame as they were were stand-alone works that could be written about more easily by a critic.

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To a degree his Kandor Project was also. It was about home as Utopian Fantasy – Kandor was the Kryptonite city where Superman was born and which the Man of Steel kept in miniature form under glass, according to the comics of Kelley’s youth. Kelley created many versions cast in coloured resin, eerily under-lit and displayed in darkened rooms. They were imbued with black humour and quite marvellous – as they should be.

One of the Kandor sculptures

One of the Kandor sculptures

Another Kandor

Another Kandor

What a history. No one show could encompass it. It could have occupied all of MoMA in town but it seemed fitting that it inhabit a large former public school out in Queens, where young artists gather and work. Kelley had seen the counterculture he grew up in vanish and saw an art world change focus from the political to play-time and escapism. He showed with Gagosian from the mid-90s and I wondered what he’d have made of his stable-mate, Jeff Koons. Kelley committed suicide a couple of years ago at age 57 but his life’s work made an all-day journey of wonderment and investigation and he was clearly an influence upon some of our well-known Down-under sculptors and video and performance artists …even a ceramist or two.

Anyway, these were the two I thought most value for entrance money – two bookends of NYC’s art world in many ways – one about wealthy patronage and what it can do; the other iconoclastic, disquieted and reflective.

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2 responses to “On Those Big Famous Museums

  1. Robin Fullmer

    Hi Moyra,
    Millie has just finished an internship at the Met, they don’t pay their interns but you do get perks like free entry to all the museums and art galleries in NYC (for friends as well)! I wish I had known you were there still. Millie is away right now but will be back in NYC in late June. Let me know if you are still around.
    Robin Fullmer

    • Hello Robin, no, the American Government allows we aliens 90 days and that is what we took this last visit, any more and we’d have been labelled overstayers (our term) or illegals (their term) and never allowed in again. I’d hate that as I really enjoy the USA for a bunch of reasons but not least because of the great clay work. Maybe, if someone else is going they can be in touch with you and gain access to those expensive institutions perhaps if Millie is back there now?
      When you add up those museum entries its eye-watering…

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