Apollo’s Girl

Juxtaposition is a 13-Letter Word.

It’s a kind of cerebral dumpster-diving: finding new meanings in things we’ve seen, heard, touched, felt because we suddenly encounter, or imagine, them side-by-side. Whatever worlds they originally reflected, they will assume a new, and entirely different, meaning in your mind.

For instance: you would have thought, after Savage Beauty – the Costume Institute’s stupendous Alexander McQueen spectacle of 2011, an explosive synergy of performance and art — that nothing could even come close as an eye-opener. Think again. This year’s contender is the Institute’s Schiaparelli and Prada: a Conversation between the two icons, conceived and orchestrated by director Baz Luhrman.  Although far more modest than McQueen’s pyrotechnics, the show highlighted clothes that were not only wearable, but infinitely desirable.

The opening fusillade (a row of exquisitely worked and detailed jackets covered in passimenterie) inspired fantasies of crafty after-hours theft and subsequent expand-the-seams tailoring to contain one’s own corporeal reality. Your very own Night at the Museum, and your very own stunning morning after. The dresses continued the theme. And if the McQueen show was about exploring the boundaries of clothing and accessories as cosmic theater, the current display is about relishing the idea of clothing as sculpture; spare, simple, inevitable. Perhaps you’d settle for a gown or two…

Or just watch one of Baz Luhrman’s several videos of imaginary conversations between Schiaparelli (played here by actor Judy Davis) and the “real” Muccio Prada discussing everything under the sun. And, as you traverse the exhibition, be sure to also watch the videos in the vitrines–of historical models and actresses seemingly inert, until their eyes blink in the slowest of slow motion to prove them alive.

While the imaginary conversations seemed a little arch, there is no denying that putting the clothes of one designer directly next to the clothes of another allows those conversations to suggest new life as well as art, to translate ideas about fashion into realities. They are not only eye candy, but food for thought. The juxtaposition (of necessity, in the mind) says, to this long-time non-fashionista, that there’s a lot more to getting dressed than I’d ever imagined. If McQueen took it into outer space; Schiaparelli and Prada take it to an earthly art gallery, using fabric, thread and the human body. (Only regret: there was too little of Schiaparelli’s stunning jewelry.)

At MoMA, there was eye candy of another color: James Rosenquist’s iconic F-111 and (since closed) a roomful of Eugene Atget‘s views of post-fin-de-siècle Paris. Both offered mini-worlds contained by the walls of their galleries.The Atget  (it was ravishing) invited us into the familiar street scenes and shop windows, the people of the city then, and views of a park (Sceaux) that Atget knew well, filled with crumbling marble and statuary. It conjured up not only the context of early 1900s France, but of the classical antiquity that inspired the park’s nooks and crannies. Sceaux has since been cleaned and repaired, but has lost much of the mystery in the ravaged stone captured in Atget’s images. It’s almost as if a scrim of forgetfulness has come between camera and landscape.

On another floor, Rosenquist’s F-111 has been installed to surround a smaller gallery, as it was in its original exhibition at Leo Castelli in 1965. All hard-edged bright Pop colors and cartoonish images, its fighter bomber plane and connection to “consumerism, the media, and advertising” (as the artist described it) mirror the Vietnam war years as they were experienced in the United States. Suddenly, a dime dropped: the same France that produced Atget’s nostalgic images also produced the war in Vietnam three decades later, drawing the United States down a rabbit hole from which it never fully emerged. Without seeing these shows together, the connection would have remained buried by the decades. Perhaps it’s just as well….

This one was a real trip: an exhibition at the Cloisters (for which a magnifying glass was the perfect accessory) of carved walrus ivory chess sets—dug up by a Scottish farmer on the Isle of Lewis in 1831, but made, and deposited there, by Norwegians in the 12th century. Rough and vigorous emissaries of Viking culture, the mannikins offered proof that anxiety and military fervor were thriving in the mid-Middle Ages; except for their robes and armor, they looked like us.

There was another miniature, though, that I had made the trip to see again: an ivory Madonna and Child by Anonymous, carved in France as the Middle Ages were drawing to a close. It was as refined as the chessmen were rough. And instead of reflecting dystopia, it emitted light. The carving was exquisite, but it was the bond between mother and child, made palpable by Anonymous’ skill, that survived in their gaze. After decades in its vitrine in the Mediaeval Hall at the Met, it was moved last year to the Cloister’s Treasury. It’s worth the journey (including several sets of stairs). As interesting as the chessmen were, seeing them first was the right thing to do; the Madonna and Child anoint the viewer with peace, and time and space are required to digest it. Although made centuries before Atget’s photographs, it seemed connected to them.

Finally, there is a show at the Morgan that connected not two subjects, but two sides of one artist. I’ve always associated Dan Flavin with the fluorescent sculptures for which he is famous. The knockout was seeing an adjoining show of his letters and drawings, revealing his passions for landscapes, seascapes, and the human face. Combined with his letters (often wry, often idealistic) they revealed a profound humanity, completely obscured by the colors and shapes of his light sculptures. In fact, the inner man was as warm as his work was cool. (Thanks to the Morgan for the curated insights!)

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