We got to go to Manhattan last weekend, and spent most of our free time there seeing art.
The highlight for both of us was the Matisse Cut-Out show at MoMA, which was a life-list kind of show. We got so lost in the art that we didn't even mind the capacity crowds that sometimes made it hard to move around freely in the galleries; I stopped noticing the people early on. It was fascinating to be allowed to track Matisse's thinking as he developed and perfected his cut-out method. Matisse is sui generis, really; there's no one like him and he has no real imitators. It's moving, lively, invigorating work which, like Calder, must be seen in person to really appreciate. Brave the lines, is my advice.
Many of Matisse's book covers based on cut-outs were also on display, including the original artwork for the cover of Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment. (Coincidentally, I've been getting many reports this week that the reprint of that masterpiece photobook has finally begun to ship in America.)
On both Saturday and Sunday we spent time at the Frick Collection. I'd never been before. Built as a final testament by U.S. Steel co-founder Henry Clay Frick to house his extensive collection of old masters, it was technically his family's residence before it was a museum, but that's a bit disingenuous because it was built (or rather, extensively remodeled from a pre-existing building) specifically to be a museum, and in fact Frick himself only lived there for three years, from 1916 until his death in 1919. (His wife lived out her life in the house before it finally opened as a museum in 1935.) It's an astonishing place, where the priceless paintings are only the most obvious of many treasures, and the ambience of the breathtaking old mansion is a big part of the charm of the experiences. I was immersed in the study of old master painting when I was in high school and at Dartmouth, and many of the old masterpieces were both brand new to me (since I'd never seen the actual paintings in person) yet also deeply familiar.
I only saw one photography show, but it was an extraordinary treat. The show, also at MoMA, was "Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949." The show consists of 300 photographs, mostly dating from between the two world wars. Vince Aletti, writing in The New Yorker, said, "One of the sharpest eyes involved in MoMA's terrific new exhibition...wasn't behind a camera. Walther himself is both sophisticated and shrewd. The German collector's adventurous sensibility is front and center in this show...."
MoMA itself calls the "Object:Photo" project of which this show is a part...
...A four-year collaborative project between the Museum’s departments of Photography and Conservation, with the participation of over two dozen leading international photography scholars and conservators, making it the most extensive effort to integrate conservation, curatorial, and scholarly research efforts on photography to date. That project is composed of multiple parts including a website that features a suite of digital-visualization research tools that allow visitors to explore the collection, a hard-bound paper catalogue of the entire Thomas Walther collection, and an interdisciplinary symposium focusing on ways in which the digital age is changing our engagement with historic photographs.
Whatever its provenance and its significance as an integration of research efforts, it's a smashing good show. We all approach shows differently, and I tend to look at art in terms of how it functions for me as art and from the perspective of the creative effort; I'm not so much concerned with conservation, curatorial, and scholarly research issues. So personally I'm not very fond of the overtly "modernistic" and (then-)experimental types of prints in this show. They look self-consciously arty, striving too hard for edginess and neomania, and so, paradoxically perhaps, they seem older than the more plainly photographic pictures also on the walls. Many are early explorations of effects that have by now been better done—or just overdone.
But there are so many pictures in the show that the ones which don't catch your fancy don't detract from the whole—there's plenty to look at and much to enjoy, no matter where your interest in early 20th century photography might happen to be. Although it was only the third best show we saw last weekend, it was a privilege, very rich and and deeply satisfying to see.
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Featured Comments from:
HowardH: "I was lucky enough to see the Matisse cutouts exhibition at Tate Modern in London last year. Seeing so many widely reproduced works of art in real life and close up was an honor. You could even see the pin-holes Matisse left behind when he assembled the work in draft. I would wholeheartedly recommend the exhibition to anyone with even just a passing interest in Matisse as it gives a true insight into the mind of a creative genius."
tex andrews: "Oh, the Frick. One of the world's wonderful small museums. Many miss out on the Frick on a NYC trip, thinking, in a way correctly, that if you can only hit a couple of places then it's the Met and MOMA, maybe followed by the Guggenheim. But the charm of a place like the Frick is how manageable the viewing is, and how holistic the installation, as opposed to a great barn like the Met—and there are truly great works at the Frick.
"The more recent Neue Galerie is another charmer."
Joe Holmes: "How in the world did you get a shot of the Decisive Moment cover? No photos allowed!"
Mike replies: Oh, I didn't take that. I would never break rules that restrict my right to photograph.
[A different] Mike: "Nothing beats seeing art live. Doesn't matter how well a book is printed or a website is produced, the real deal packs a punch that cannot be replicated."