ART, FILM, THEATER. FOOD
First, the now: African Art: New York and the Avant Garde (Metropolitan Museum). Never, even after years of the Met’s press previews, have I seen so many grown men and women weeping as they wielded pens, cameras and recorders while fighting for glimpses of the exhibition in Gallery 359. The tiny space is tucked into the much larger rooms of the museum’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on the second floor—the Goliath to New York and the Avant Garde’s David–small, but mighty in every way. Virtually every item here is iconic: enlarged vintage photographs of the venues in which the art first went public, the art itself, and portraits of the personalities who recognized its genius when it struck New York in the early 20th century. All brilliantly designed by curator Yaëlle Biro to give you a sense of having been there then to receive the shock of the new at the very same moment you respond to it knowing what you know now. An unforgettable way to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show!
The most powerful impact comes from seeing the actual objects in the old photographs in the gallery’s adjoining vitrines. It’s like a time trip enhanced by Brancusi’s sculpture, Picabia’s painting, Picasso’s drawings—clearly influenced by the African objects—and relics of the Harlem Renaissance on view: magazines, books, and images of the and black and white collectors whose antennae were vibrating on the eve of World War One. Why the tears? Resonance! Because of those iconic photographs of the Armory Show (almost life-sized, greeting you as you enter the gallery); of a nude-to-the-waist Georgia O’Keefe holding an African spoon aloft; of Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery; and of a collector’s living room—all trumpeting an urgent message of discovery. The men behind the cameras included Charles Sheeler and often Stieglitz himself; unseen but ubiquitous, the ghost of Albert C. Barnes hovers over the light and shadow on display.
Despite its modest size, the show has gotten almost as much attention as the Armory Show got in 1913. Visitors are still trying to squeeze into the gallery to absorb the images, the objects, and the history. Time has only intensified their effect. Thus, the museum has had the wisdom to extend the show from its original closing date (April 14) to September 2! To say Don’t Miss It is an understatement. Just be sure you get there (the earlier the better—it does get crowded) to feel for yourself what it was like the first time around.
Then, at the Brooklyn Museum, there is Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui. This is not so much an exhibition as it is an explosion of Africa’s leading contemporary light. While the Museum of African Art has yet to mount its promised opening show of Anatsui’s works (now on tour), Brooklyn has, in collaboration with Jack Shaindlin (Anatsui’s New York gallery), offered its vaulted fifth-floor spaces to strew, mount, and hang the treasures in several rooms. It’s an out-of-body experience, akin to a shattering catharsis in the faith of your choice.
Anatsui’s vision has driven him to explore found materials (mostly metal bottle caps, sealing strips, and cans) and to combine the historic traditions of African art and highly sophisticated modern art history with his own ideas about colonialism and collaborative work. His studio in Nigeria is filled with artisans who cut and assemble the original elements into sections, which Anatsui himself then combines as his spirit moves him; no two finished pieces are alike. And in a final embrace of collaboration he allows curators who mount his exhibitions the freedom of determining how each work will be displayed. Will it be cast on the floor? Draped on the wall? Or suspended (if there is enough space, and in Brooklyn, there is) from the ceiling?
To marvel at the final choices requires being there in person, especially for the monumental pieces on view. Photographs simply cannot do justice to their scale, or to the riot of color and texture that embrace the viewer moving from gallery to gallery. An added bonus is an excellent book by Susan Vogel, El Anatsui: Work and Life, and excerpts from several videos that document the work and the workshop. Not surprisingly, the artist’s presence is as much about gravity and grace as his art, and suffused with the same spirit that permeates the Met’s New York and the Avant-Garde. Seen together the two shows are the alpha and the omega of Africa’s origins and future. You have until August 4 to give thanks where thanks are due in Brooklyn. Meantime, prepare yourself for total immersion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwV9FsetUEI
Just as I was gearing up to write a heartfelt gone-but-not-forgotten eulogy for Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812 (Dave Molloy’s stupendous music theater piece that had connoisseurs storming the funky basement in which Ars Nova presented it last fall), I was thrilled to learn that the Comet was coming back! This incredible evening was a combination of acting, singing, and wholesale playing of instruments by just about everybody, with the audience crowded around pub tables (already garnished with open bottles of vodka and zakuski) as the action swirled above and around them at heart-stopping speed. The music and the words were worthy of all the honors and reviews bestowed on the show and its cast. But what you took away from the night was—despite its fearless combination of electro-pop score and period costumes—the greatness of Tolstoy’s story, how its power was retained with a contemporary twist, and how much the players really, really understood and loved the material. Oh—and how fresh, daring and original the entire enterprise was. As one reviewer said, “This show came out of nowhere…” Perhaps. But it was one hell of a comet, and you can be there, as of May 1, for its return! http://thegreatcometof1812.com/
No, Italy Rules!
Finally, one more event that inspired this post. Alas, it has receded into the past, but not from memory. And, alas, it’s not coming back: the opening of the MoMA/P.S. 1 retrospective of Pier Pasolini’s work, co-sponsored by Luce Cinecittà and Fondo Pier Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna who have restored many of the films. Because so many institutions were involved, it’s hard to know who to credit for putting together this perfect storm of film, food and (dare I say it?) honest-to-God fun!
Pasolini was something of a bad boy during his prolific career (he died violently at the age of fifty-three). From Accatone (1961) to Saló or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), his openly homosexual lifestyle and confrontational politics created, even among the relatively easygoing Italian public, unease and often outright hostility. In his many narrative and documentary films, his auteur’s sensibility reflected the gifts of a born writer (he was a prolific poet and essayist as well), and a love of life lived to the fullest on his own terms. While all of this provided the raw material for the museum programs, its opening celebration was a fitting kickoff in the same key. How Pasolini would have loved it…
Arriving at the museum at 10am, we found tables for four set with open bottles of (excellent) Italian wine and baskets of handmade croissants and doughnuts. The croissants were all about butter (more about that later), and the doughnuts were brushed with maple syrup in honor of M. Wells dinette, whose French-Canadian chef and founder (Hugues Dufour) and his wife (Sarah Obraitis) moved into P.S. 1 last fall with their pots, pans and inspiration. While the film retrospective was scheduled to run at MoMA for three weeks as the installations and related performances were presented at P.S. 1, the dinette element guaranteed immortality beyond the closing date.
When about two hundred critics (many of them Italian) filed into the dinette for the press conference and saw what was on the tables, the temperature soared. The drama of Italian conversation was punctuated by the clink of cutlery and wine glasses while Klaus Biesenbach, P.S. 1’s steely-eyed director, and the visiting Italian dignitaries gamely moved the event forward. There was a lavish commemorative book (My Own Films) on view, filled with photos and Pasolini’s own words, and a guest of honor (seated at the next table), actor Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s long-time collaborator. Davoli looked happy and, except for his white hair, remarkably like the teenager who had starred in Hawks and Sparrows in 1965. With cameras humming and flashbulbs popping, excitement and the music of the language reigned supreme.
But I digress. With the full realization that the food already on the table was only a prelude soon to be augmented by more of M. Wells’ seriously divine fare, the pitch and volume of the chatter rose even higher, the clink of glass and cutlery accelerated. And out the dishes came: a Quebec version of eggs Florentine (poached egg over spinach over a crust of buttered potatoes); a mound of crème fraiche over home-smoked salmon over home-made buttery pastry; and—finally—another poached egg over home-made blood sausage. It could have been categorized as simple peasant food, but with the freshest ingredients and a culinary sensibility that created one master stroke after another. And, readers, if you haven’t gotten the idea yet, it was all about the butter. It was everywhere! If you really love good food, you will make the trip to P.S. 1 to enjoy its cutting-edge wares (http://momaps1.org/exhibitions/), then repair to the dinette for a few hours to choose your own bounty from the garden of earthly delights that is M. Wells. Plan ahead, because the hours are 12 – 6, Thursday through Monday. To find out what’s on the menu and any special events in the offing, call (718) 786-1800. Prepare to be astonished. And surrender to cholesterol, just this once.