Across the River at BMA: a Very, Very Good Year.
The world may be crumbling around us, but the Brooklyn Museum has had what can truly be called one of the biggest years of its long life. Here, bigger has, thankfully been better. In a single twelve-month period one could be astonished by Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works of El Anatsui (https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/apollos-girl-38/); Ai Weiwei: According to What?; Swoon’s Submerged Motherlands; and the lavish Witness: Art and Civil Rights In the Sixties. That’s the good news. The bad news is that three of them have moved on. So if you didn’t catch them at the time, you’ll have some traveling to do; it will be worth the trip.
In the meantime, you have just hours to hotfoot it to Eastern Parkway to catch Swoon’s installation. It fills the Rotunda from wall to wall, from ceiling to floor, celebrating the artist’s feelings about natural disasters and what they destroy, what survives (Katrina; Doggerland). The images are knock-your-socks-off powerful, the scale is overwhelming. You mustthread your way among the huge paintings, sculptures and constructions that surround you, rising from the floor, raining from the ceiling, jutting from the walls. And although it may not be what Swoon intended, it somehow reminded me of the aftermath of slavery—an oddly appropriate corollary to Witness.
What makes the Brooklyn Museum unique in a city not lacking for museums in general, and for big museums in particular, is the space to conceive and mount large exhibitions and, at the same time, the ability to offer an intensely personal experience. So while you marvel at Ai Wei-Wei’s Moon Chest (peer through it from one end as the chests align to present the phases of the moon) or the wall and floor installations that honor the students who died when their schools collapsed after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, you can also enjoy the artist’s wicked humor seen small (Table With Two Legs on the Wall). It’s an experience that leaves you full, yet always ready to see more. And there was definitely more to see.
Witness, a high-octane tribute to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was large and unruly, as close to mirroring the scope and importance of the era as you could get without actually living through it. There were photographs, videos, sculptures, music, and galleries full of bold colors by the movement’s biggest names and most modest subjects. The exhibition was organized by the Museum’s own Teresa A. Carbone (Andrew W. Mellon Curator of American Art), with Kellie Jones of Columbia University. The catalog gives you a sense of what the organizers knew was essential, and draws you into the explosive dynamics of history still being made. Or you can take an autumn drive to the Hood Museum at Dartmouth, where Witness will run from August 30 – December 14, or fly to Austin’s Blanton Museum from February 15 – May 10, 2015.
That said, the “intensely personal experience” that is part of the Brooklyn Museum has to do with the fact that it is always busy, yet never so overwhelmingly crowded that you cannot see the art, or find new treasures from its permanent collections. The guards are friendly and remarkably knowledgeable and – a real blessing when you need to take a break – a cheerful, bright cafe on the ground floor has real treats for every appetite and the best bread in town.
But it’s never just about the things on view, or the staff’s attitude, or the gift shop that you should make a point of exiting through, but a spirit. A mixture of energy, anticipation, and enthusiasm that you can feel when you first walk into the lobby. The Museum is old (its origins go back to the 1830s), and yet committed to meeting the challenges of Brooklyn’s exploding population and 21st-century expectations.
At the moment it has Judy Chicago’s Early Work and a permanent installation of her radical The Dinner Party, with a fall opening of Killer Heels: the Art of the High-Heeled Shoe set for September 10 – February 15. Fall is the perfect time to explore the Museum’s long-term installations and permanent collections. The Web site will whet your appetite for what lies ahead. Whatever your interests or your curiosity, you will find ways to stretch them: on view Still, the best way is to just set yourself loose and wander through the galleries—starting
with the museum’s always-revelatory Egyptian Collection. It’s a voyage of discovery that, like Cleopatra, “makes hungry/Where most she satisfies.”