Thursday, December 31, 2009

6th Day of Xmas

On the sixth day of Christmas, The Arts Muse looks forward to the new year by casting a backward glance at the arts in the old one. Needless to say, it is not a view any of us will be sorry to leave.

This still all-too-present year has proved to be a challenging — OK, let's be brutally honest here — depressing time for the arts as institutions saw their endowments eroded and staffs shrunk while struggling to meet the public's demand for artistic solace and inspiration. By and large, I think the arts responded well to the crisis, the operative words being "by and large".

There was a bit of a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water — a phenomenon we also experienced after 9/11. I wonder how many of the organizations that cut their staffs to the bone will soon regret the decision not to hold on a little while longer. The market has come back. Markets always come back over time. But when you're poor — or more to the point, you think you're poor — time is a luxury you cannot afford, I guess.

Fear is a funny thing. It can paralyze you, or it can liberate you. Central Park and the Empire State Building were both created in depressed times, the latter, of course, rising in the Great Depression. We saw something of that here. Copland House in Cortlandt Manor has gone ahead with a new music program at the Merestead estate in Mount Kisco. Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown has recommitted itself to Montgomery Place — the largest of its properties — with a reinterpretation opening next spring that will plumb man's relationship to nature and the landscape.

When the going gets tough, the creative get going. When you have nothing left to lose, it's time to open your mind and heart to everything.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

5th Day of Xmas

On the Fifth Day of Christmas, The Arts Muse gives you an opportunity to drop by the Pelham Art Center. There you can take in "Photovoice: Questions Answered," an exhibit of works by five students who participated in the Photovoice program over the summer, and then stock up on jewelry, artwork and sculptural objects for next Christmas in the "Home Sweet Home Sale and Exhibit" (both through Jan. 16). 914-738-2525,

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

4th Day of Xmas

On the Fourth Day of Christmas, may we suggest a "Winter Break Workshop" at the John Jay Homestead in Katonah? The workshop (10 a.m.-noon) offers a special tour of the house that belonged to our first chief justice and tips on candlemaking. Can't make it today? Tomorrow's "Winter Break Workshop" offers a tour and butter-making, while Thursday's is all about 18th-century fashion. They're also at the same time. Reservations are required. 914-232-5651, ext. 101,

Monday, December 28, 2009

3rd Day of Xmas

On the third day of Christmas, The Arts Muse spotlights "Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind 'Little Woman'," airing at 9 tonight on THIRTEEN as part of PBS' "American Masters."

Like "A Christmas Carol," "Little Women" is a favorite book/film at Christmastide, in part because it opens on a Christmas during the Civil War but also because it's a moving story about the trials and triumphs of the four March sisters — dignified, acquisitive Meg; fiery, literary Jo; shy, loving Beth; and pretentious, artistic Amy. I can remember my aunt giving me an illustrated copy when I was a little girl. (I still have it.) And it seems every year, I run into one film version or another. Indeed, I just saw the one in which June Allyson is Jo and a blond Elizabeth Taylor plays Amy.

It doesn't matter which variation I encounter: "Little Women" always reduces me to tears. It's not just the story, with its trials and triumphs. It's that "Little Women" is about the struggles of a woman writer, the subject of the "American Masters" docudrama, which features Elizabeth Marvel as Alcott and Jane Alexander, a longtime Putnam County resident, as her first biographer, Ednah Dow Cheney.

Because we encounter such figures in history, long after they've become famous and are gone, there is a tendency to think they were always successful. Alcott did indeed achieve the writer's dream of riches and renown. But it did not come cheaply or easily. (Well, nothing worthwhile ever does.)

I've described Alcott as a woman writer, a phrase that many writers who are women would bristle at. But I think the designation is significant. Like male writers, she faced rejection — the artist's nemesis; toiled at menial jobs for menial pay; and turned out lurid potboilers that would hardly qualify as art.

At the same time, she cared for her invalid father and raised her niece after the girl's mother — Alcott's sister May, the model for Amy — died. These are not necessarily responsibilities men undertake, even today.

But they are expected to be breadwinners, and in this Alcott was a feminist role model, raising her family from poverty to wealth.

At a time when the arts and writing are under financial siege, she remains a comfort and an inspiration.

P.S. Alcott's sister May, an artist in her own right, was a friend to Mary Cassatt and a muse to other writers as well. On the subject of art, don't forget that today is a holiday Monday at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a good time to catch up on the shows you might've missed this year. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The Met is on Fifth Avenue at 82nd St. in Manhattan. Advance tickets: 800-965-4827. Information: 212-535-7710,

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2nd Day of Xmas

On the second day of Christmas, The Arts Muse suggests you take in a movie, and an unusual one at that. It's a film of the Monteverdi opera "L'Orfeo" (1 p.m. today, Irvington Town Hall Theater). Even if you don't love this movie interpretation of what is generally acknowledged to be the first real opera, the music is so stunning that you won't be disappointed. Plus, the story is particularly poignant, with Orpheus risking his own life and descending into Hades itself to rescue Eurydice, the wife he loved and lost. (Collective sigh here, please.)

Speaking of movies, I went to the multiplex Christmas night, something I've never done before. But with the relatives all safely tucked in their beds and, I hope, visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads, I decided to give myself the gift of "Sherlock Holmes." Like so many Christmas gifts, it was a mixed blessing.

This "Holmes" is more visceral than cerebral, a notion foreshadowed by the gazillion coming attractions in which, to paraphrase the old SCTV comedy series, "things blowed up real good." Still, I liked some of the dizzying special effects, the grittiness of 1880s London, and especially the relationship of Oscar-y Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Felix-y Watson (Jude Law), who, like an old married couple, can't live with or without each other. (Together and singly, they are superb, with Downey making Holmes' almost-antisocial brilliance entirely believable and Law very much his own man as the nonetheless appropriately exasperated sidekick.)

I know many purists out there will scoff at this version. So being just a tad obsessive — like the ever-preoccupied Holmes — I watched part of "Holmes for the Holidays," Turner Classic Movies' attempt to cash in on the new, oft-soldout film by airing a marathon of movies featuring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson.

Rathbone, who also played Hollywood villains, is considered by many to be the quintessential interpreter of the role. Yet the Holmes films in which he appears are no more faithful to creator Arthur Conan-Doyle than Guy Ritchie's new movie is. For one thing, they are set in the time in which they were made, not the 19th-century. I suppose it's just natural to take liberties with such seminal figures.

In our own time, the trend has been to portray Holmes and Watson as men in the fighting prime of life, even on PBS. (I bet Rathbone and the grandfatherly Bruce were in the prime of their lives when they made their Holmes movies. It's just that as health has improved, middle age looks better.)

Our own youth-obsessed, go-go-go age wouldn't have it any other way. It's elementary.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

12 Days of Xmas

We all know the song (and mangle the verses). But what exactly are the 12 days of Christmas?

Depending on the calendar you follow, they either began yesterday and conclude Jan. 5, or they begin today — which is Boxing Day and the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr — and conclude on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, when the Gospels say the Magi presented baby Jesus with their gifts, and thus he was manifested to the Gentiles.

I'm going with the latter interpretation, since I'm already a day behind (according to some). Alas, The Arts Muse has no partridge in a pear tree to offer (though I wouldn't mind shopping for a few lords a-leaping). Instead, I propose a dozen "gifts" — 12 things to do, read, see and contemplate as you enjoy the protracted Christmas feast. And these are (well, you're just going to have check out the blog every day to find out, aren't you?)

The first is a poem that is a kind of perverse Christmas tradition in my house. I read it aloud every year at this time from a graceful book called "Greece in Poetry" (Harry N. Abrams Inc.), because I am a closet classicist and because I've always believed that someone's sunrise is always someone else's sunset.

Herewith is John Milton's "Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity":

The Oracles are dumm,
No voice or hideous humm
Runs through the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
Inspire's the pale-ey'd priest from the prophetic cell.

The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edg'd with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre-interwov'n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.

Friday, December 25, 2009


This being Christmas Day, The Arts Muse would like to share a special edition of What To Do This Weekend by focusing on one rare exhibit. It's "James Tissot: 'The Life of Christ'," at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 17, and it's the perfect show to blog about today not only because of its subject matter but because the story behind it is the kind of redemption tale that crystallizes Christianity and the yuletide spirit.

Tissot — the French John Singer Sargent — was a boulevardier, a flaneur, a connoisseur and painter of stylish women and, in his own words, "a Catholic more by courtesy than conviction." (Ah, the French. Such politesse, not really believing in God but nonetheless afraid to give offense.)

Naturally, a person of such lukewarm religious faith has to undergo a road-to-Damascus moment, right? Tissot's came as he was doing research for the last in a series of paintings about shopping. (Well, what did you expect? This is a story set in Paris, after all.) He stopped by the Church of Saint-Sulplice, and as the priest elevated the Host during Mass, experienced a vision of a bloodied Jesus comforting the poor amid a building's rubble. In the sleepless, fevered aftermath, Tissot turned his vision into the 1885 oil on canvas "Inward Voices (The Ruins)."

This foreshadowed an artistic pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1886-87 and '89), which in turn led him to create "The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ," a series of 350 watercolors that was exhibited successfully, turned into a best seller and ultimately purchased, at the instigation of the aforementioned John Singer Sargent, by the institution we now know as the Brooklyn Museum. (The current exhibit, which features 124 of the watercolors, marks the first time in more than 20 years that any of the works have been on display at the museum.)

Portraying Jesus is — as Robert DeNiro reportedly observed when he turned down the role in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" — a no-win situation. As universal God to believers and specific historical figure, he is truly, as Simeon describes him in the Gospels, "a sign to be contradicted". And those perpendicular contradictions are the cross on which Jesus artists are hanged. Depict him as universal God — with Asian or African features, for example — and you offend some. Capture him as a Jewish teacher living in Palestine in the early days of the Roman Empire, and you offend others.

Tissot's Jesus was deemed too Catholic, too Jewish, not Jewish enough, not Protestant enough, too masculine, too feminine. What I find most fascinating about him, after poring over the excellent, definitive catalog of reproductions — and what I think will resonate with contemporary Americans, who've been raised on movies — is that Tissot's auburn-haired, blue-eyed, sculpted Jesus would be right at home in Hollywood, say in Nicholas Ray's "King of Kings" (Jeffrey Hunter), Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" (Robert Powell) or even Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (Jim Caviezel).

Curiously, for all Jesus' obvious centrality to the Gospel stories, he doesn't dominate Tissot's paintings. The exception is "Jesus Looking Through A Lattice" (1886-94, above), a painting inspired by the "Song of Solomon" that I first fell in love with in Debra N. Mancoff's "Sunflowers" (Thames & Hudson), the lattice being decorated with the flowers. This Jesus compels — half-glimpsed through the diamond-shaped pattern, curious and reaching, interesting because he is interested.

By going to the Holy Land, Tissot wanted to strip away the anachronisms he saw in the religious painting of the Old Masters. But how could he when what he saw were 19th-century people, not the folk of Jesus' day? Anyway, portraits of Jesus tell us more about the artist than they do Jesus. Try as he might, Tissot couldn't erase his artistic heritage. And yet, he brought his own unique approach to the work. His "The Resurrection of Lazarus" (1886-94) owes its chiaroscuro to Rembrandt perhaps. But Tissot's placement of the figures is unusual and dramatic, with Lazarus, swathed in white burial cloths, emerging seemingly from the bowels of the earth.

Similarly, his angel Gabriel in "The Annunciation" (1886-94) is decidedly female, glamorous, a made-up face surrounded by delicate rays of light. Tissot was no monk. He never lost his eye for the ladies. But then long before his Damascus moment, he was interested in Christian themes, having painted a series that was a modern retelling of the Prodigal Son parable.

Tissot was always a Catholic, albeit a sensual one. People don't really change. They become more of themselves.

For more, contact the Brooklyn Museum at 718-638-5000, Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Christmas memory

'Tis the season of "Nutcrackers," which means it's time once again for me to revisit the ghosts of Christmases past and my own complicated history with the ballet.

I don't remember the first time I went to see Balanchine's version of the Tchaikovsky classic at the New York City Ballet. But I do remember that every December for many years my Aunt Mary would take my sisters and me to see "The Nutcracker" at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater.

My sisters, Jana and Gina, would bring a pair of binoculars — not opera glasses, mind you, but the very same field glasses they took to Yankee Stadium — the better to ogle the male dancers. (As children, Jana and Gina always had an unusual take on culture, particularly Jana, who used to hide out in the Egyptian wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art at closing time to see if the mummies would arise from their sarcophagi and who once threw a gum-wrapper into a Frank Stella sculpture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, mistaking it for a wastepaper basket. Today, she works for the federal government. Parents of the culturally challenged, I say to you: Take heart.)

Anyway, I too, was not above a little admiration of the male form. After "The Nutcracker," we'd all compare notes over hot-fudge sundaes at the old St. Moritz hotel. Those were good times.

The years went by, and so, too, did my sisters, to other cities and other lives. "The Nutcracker" became for my aunt and myself a duet in reverse. Where once she took me, I now took her, often in my capacity as a critic. And where I once blithely passed over the work — in the too-cool manner of teenagers, who find such stuff old-fashioned — I now appraised it with a more appreciative eye.

Far from being essentially a children's entertainment, "The Nutcracker" is a complex adult drama of transformation through love, with Tchaikovsky's richly symphonic score lending itself to all kinds of interpretations.

I can still see Gelsey Kirkland and Anthony Dowell in Mikhail Baryshnikov's Freudian version at The Metropolitan Opera House one May in the late 1970s. I still get a certain frisson from that spring performance.

"The Nutcracker" rightly, of course, belongs to the spare season. I haven't seen it in a number of years. But at Christmastide it still warms my imagination.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Classic 'Tosca'

So The Metropolitan Opera is thinking of reviving the Franco Zeffirelli "Tosca," eh? (It would run concurrently with the less-than-appreciated new Luc Bondy production. Of course.)

You'll recall that the Bondy production, seen recently on PBS, was roundly booed on opening night for obviating the religious rituals integral to the title character and generally employing a cerebral approach antithetical to Tosca's impulsive nature. (I'm sorry but people just don't sit around after they've murdered someone, unless they're nuts or characters in an Edgar Allan Poe story.)

Then there were the sets — more Mussolini than Napoleon — although the costumes retained their Empire period. The whole thing made no sense, whereas the Zeffirelli production had passion and the architectural richness of the opera's neoclassical Roman setting.

This reminds me of one of my favorite stories, the tale of New and Classic Coke. Remember that one? We Coca-Cola lovers were all going to throw over crisp Classic Coke for sweeter, less zippy New Coke, much as we trade in people we love for new people we don't. (I wonder if the marketing genius behind this was ever fired.)

Anyway, it didn't happen. I don't drink much soda — calories, sugar, etc. But on Christmas I'm going to toast Zeffirelli's "Tosca" with a glass of Classic Coke.

You can't improve on a classic.

This reminds

Friday, December 18, 2009


If you're not busy getting your exercise with a shovel this snowy weekend, there's plenty to do artistically (though you might want to check ahead to see if your favorite galleries and performers are taking a snow day).

Through tomorrow, Westchester Community College in Valhalla presents student art in its Fine Arts Gallery. 914-606-7867,

Westchester Ballet Company offers "The Nutcracker at the Westchester County Center" in White Plains today through Sunday. 914-864-8077. (If you can't get to these performances but still want to see "The Nutcracker" locally, Ballet du Monde, the appropriately named international troupe, stages the Tchaikovsky classic Tuesday and Wednesday at Tarrytown Music Hall. 877-840-0457,

Last but certainly not least, the Dutch artist Wineke Gartz is making a name for herself with a sound and light show at the Arts Exchange in White Plains— home of my partner, ArtsWestchester — through Jan. 29. "Morgana, Plains, from silver to gold" is a series of painterly video installations that explores the Hudson Valley while also providing viewers with a portrait of the artist as a playful young woman. 914-428-4220,

Look for more on Gartz and her work in an upcoming post. Be safe in the snow!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reading Elin

"Late Night" host and Westchester resident David Letterman — who likes to make not-so-subtle fun of women, among other subjects— said the other night that Elin Woods was not wearing a wedding ring in the paparazzi gas-station snap of her was because she's waiting for a much bigger rock.

She may indeed be expecting a "house on a finger," as some cynically refer to the consolation baubles cheating husbands give their wives. But if you have spent any time in the art world, then you that "reading" the photograph yields a very different interpretation.

Elin Woods is, after all, a former model, and all models understand the power of an image. The photograph in which Woods appears to be smiling for the intrusive shutterbug as she pumps gas, sans wedding ring, kids safely ensconced in the back seat of her car, is what the British call "gesture politics". It's meant to send a message to her husband and her supporters. It says, "I'm my own woman, my own person, and I can pump gas and take care of my kids as I journey down the road of life."

Gee, maybe someone should give good ole Dave a copy of Janson's "History of Art".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

'Tosca' redux

Just a quick reminder that The Metropolitan Opera production of "Tosca" that was seen in October in local movie theaters will open the fourth season of THIRTEEN's "Great Performances at The Met" at 9 tonight.

For those who have the time, I have blogged about this in two previous posts. For the bottom-liners of the world, I thought Swiss director Luc Bondy's cerebral production did the opera's fervent heroine no service, though the singing by Karita Matilla, Marcelo Álvarez and George Gagnidze was marvelous.

There is one aspect of Bondy's production that does work and that's the chilling freeze-frame ending. See what you think.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Floral duet

Herein The Arts Muse institutes a new occasional feature, "Gallery Getaway," which spotlights a commercial or museum gallery that offers a mini-vacation in the mind for our troubled times.

Our first Gallery Getaway is to Madelyn Jordon Fine Art in Scarsdale, whose latest show is a conversation between the imaginations of a well-known painter and the sculptor he inspired.

"David Kimball Anderson & Morris Graves: A Unique Pairing" (through Jan. 9) juxtaposes Graves' floral paintings in various media with Anderson's steel and bronze floral sculptures. This is a marriage of true minds, in large part because Graves' floral works — which he concentrated on later in his career — are just so solid. In "Bouquet (begonia flowers)," a 1975 watercolor with tempera, you're always aware of the three-dimensionality of the cylindrical glass vase and of the begonias. That a sculptor should be enchanted with this is no surprise.

That Anderson should be that sculptor is also no surprise. There is an unusual delicacy to his steely blossoms in "Spring Flowers (strawberry flowers)," which sit in the kind of vase Graves often painted. Both works also have a spare Zen quality typical of these spiritual artists.

Graves (1910-2001), who began his career with a mystical bent, later rejected this in favor of the divinity of nature.

"There is no statement or message other than the presence of the flowers and light," he observed of his work. "That is enough."

Madelyn Jordon Fine Art is open 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. The small white and brick gallery, at 14 Chase Road, also houses colorful paintings by Wosene Worke Kosrof that evoke the masks and rich patterning of his native Ethiopia; vivid landscapes by Lawrence Kelsey; and works in an encaustic medium by Earl Schofield that perfectly suit our wintry season.

David Kimball Anderson's "Winter Bouquet," a 2009 bronze, steel and painted work (top left), appears courtesy of Madelyn Jordon Fine Art. Morris Graves' "Autumn Bouquet," a gouache on paper circa 1949 (top right), appears courtesy of the Spanierman Gallery.

Friday, December 11, 2009


There's an opening reception from 6 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow for "POP UP 2: A Rotating Show of Selected Works by Don Penny" at the Perfume Shoppe in Briarcliff Manor.
The show runs through Jan. 15 at the shop, 1207 Pleasantville Road. For more, contact the gallery at 646-408-3560 or Penny at

If you can be in two places at once tomorrow night — and if you can, you're far more advanced than this blog — the PGartventure Gallery in Larchmont is opening a show of 28 etchings by master printmaker Horst Janssen (1929-1995). The reception is from 5 to 8 p.m., and the exhibit runs through Jan. 16. You'll find the gallery at 2130A Boston Post Road. 914-834-5100,

Also on tap is that holiday classic "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Purchase Opera, the college's fine student company, will present the Giancarlo Menotti work at 7 tonight in the Conservatory of Music Recital Hall. Tickets at the door are $15; $5 for children under age 16. Purchase College is on Anderson Hill Road between Purchase and King streets. 914-251-5909.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Not-so-private lives

Saw a story last night on WNBC-Channel 4 that really piqued my interest. It was about the artist Yasmine Chatila, who takes photographs of people — viewed without their knowledge through exposed windows — and then distorts them to create her art.

Her "Stolen Moments" are now on display at Edelman Arts in Manhattan. The TV station, of course, was primarily concerned with the privacy issue, raised in a man-on-the-street report with predictably mixed responses.

It's an intriguing question. Since Chatila manipulates the images so as to protect the identities of her subjects (and thus, herself), she is not, in a sense, recording their actual lives without their consent. Then again, there is an element of voyeurism — which is probably inherent in all art based on observation.

Still, there's something particularly creepy about spying on people for entertainment, à la James Stewart's laid-up shutterbug in "Rear Window." I bet the very arts lovers who'll be turning out to see Chatila's work would be horrified to be her unwitting muses.

There is another issue here, raised by one of the interviews in the news segment: What about the tacit cooperation of those who kiss, undress or perform other generally private acts with the shades up? Aren't they in a sense inviting the prying eye?

Well, they are. And I couldn't help but think of Tiger Woods' recent troubles as I saw these blurry photos, so reminiscent of Edward Hopper's poetic paintings of intimate aloneness. If you don't want people to know your business, you have to be very careful not to straddle the line between the private and the public. The minute you stand by a window naked — even if you're on the 50th floor — the minute you speed out of your driveway, or create a squeaky-clean persona for the purpose of making money off consumers, you're no longer in the cocoon of the private realm.

As I wrote about President Clinton at the time of Monica-gate, private acts tend to have very public consequences.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More than two to tango

With the weather cooling off — brrrr! — it's good that the recital season is heating up at the Music Conservatory of Westchester in White Plains.

The conservatory presents sizzling melodies in the form of a concert exploring the tango in a chamber setting at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Students Kathy Adorney, Zach Berro, Nancy Goodman, Clayton Heydorn, Michael Martinez and Chris Wessman will be performing original works and arrangements by fellow student and Port Chester resident Marco Valentino Quartero (pictured), who'll also play. The concert is free.

Can't make it tomorrow? The conservatory follows up the tango recital with a holiday jazz concert on Friday.

You'll find the conservatory at 216 Central Avenue (in a revamped building that was once the home of the Department of Motor Vehicles). 914-761-3900,

Photo courtesy of the Music Conservatory of Westchester.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Not long ago, I had a conversation with Westchester collagist Nancy Egol Nikkal — home in Hastings-on-Hudson, studio in the Media Loft in New Rochelle — a woman who is as comfortable discussing philosophy and literature as she is art.

She told me she and many of her artists-friends take great pleasure in Twitter — a vehicle for communication that I have never personally explored. Still, that doesn't mean I don't have some opinions on it. (If you're a reader of this blog, you know that lack of information or experience has never been a deterrent to my opining.)

It's not that I don't tweet, because I'm against Twitter. Indeed, I think it's a marvelous tool, particularly when no other means of communication exists. Think of the recent, aborted Iranian uprising. Without Twitter, we wouldn't have had a blow-by-blow account of what was happening. Now imagine if we had had Twitter as Alexander the Great — a great letter-writer, speech-maker, log-keeper and propagandist — conquered the Persian Empire. Or if Twitter had been with the soldiers on Omaha Beach. Heady stuff for historians.

But what may be a boon to one profession — there's even been a Twitter opera — has already proved tricky for another. Recently, The New York Times had a story about a Broadway casting director who got into trouble for her tweets about actors at auditions. You don't have to be an arts critic to know that simply because you're not right for one role doesn't mean you lack talent. By sending out tweets during auditions, she was prejudicing the chances of rejected performers getting other jobs.

My lack of interest in tweeting is both professional and philosophical. For one thing, there is a terrible air of desperation surrounding the media's use of it. "Follow us on Twitter!" now seems to end every newscast. (Why don't the anchormen and women just say, "Ooh, love me, love me, love me." ) Even John McLaughlin of the syndicated "The McLaughlin Group"— the grumpiest of grumpy old men, whom I adore — is on Twitter. Hey, if you're not on Twitter, you're not cool. You're out of the loop.

Yeah, right. Listen, young people — who use Twitter and Facebook for social networking — are not interested in old media. If artists want to use Twitter to exchange ideas and support one another, fine. But you'd have to show me the numbers that prove Twitter advances either network ratings or newspaper subscriptions.

The main reason I don't tweet is that I believe in what Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said: "I want to live my life, not record it."

If you're always busy observing what you're doing, you're not actually living in the moment doing it.

Yes, of course, a good deal of writing involves observation and reflection. But Ashton Kutcher letting the world know that he's having a bagel is hardly Emily Brontë. In the words of H.L. Mencken (or Truman Capote, I've seen the remark attributed to both): "That's not writing. It's typing."

In the end, what matters is not whether you tweet or send long missives. It's what you have to say and how you say it.

Friday, December 4, 2009


What to Do This Weekend celebrates the season with some quintessential pleasures and an esteemed local author.
First, it's time once again to go nutty for "The Nutcracker." The Purchase Dance Corps — Purchase College's highly polished student troupe — presents the Tchaikovsky chestnut (at right), based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale of love and transformation, tonight through Sunday. 914-251-6200.
Meanwhile, you'll find hundreds of ceramic gift items this weekend at the Clay Art Center in Port Chester as the center offers its "Clay-Holiday: Annual Studio Tour and Sale." 914-937-2047,
Take a break from the hustle and bustle of the holidays with New Rochelle's Cynthia Ozick (right). The short-story writer, novelist and essayist will be reading at the Pelham Art Center Sunday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. as part of a new collaboration between the center and the Hudson Valley Writers' Center. It's also one of the many free cultural events taking place around Westchester County Sunday as my partner, ArtsWestchester, once again sponsors Free Arts Day.914-738-2525,;

I've had the privilege of interviewing Ozick twice and have always been fascinated by her combination of formidable intellect and girlish charm.

I trust you will be, too.

Photos courtesy of Purchase College and the Pelham Art Center.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Wrath of Kali

New criticism of a Hindu-inspired painting that's part of the Neuberger Museum of Art's show on British self-portraiture illustrates the challenge of using religion in art.

The painting, "Housewives With Steak Knives" (1985) by Sutapa Biswas — herself a Hindu — depicts the artist as Kali, a form of Hinduism's Divine Mother Goddess, Durga. As such, Kali has both a creative and destructive aspect. But her destructiveness is often used in service of mankind. Manuela Dunn Mascetti's book "The Song of Eve: An Illustrated Journey Into the Myths, Symbols and Rituals of the Goddess" (Fireside), for instance, recounts a story in which the many-armed Kali springs forth from Durga's brow to combat demonic forces in the world.

Biswas' painting takes off on the notion of Kali as a potent defender of the innocent to create a metaphor of female empowerment, particularly in the face of domestic violence.

The artist-as-Kali wears a necklace from which hang the heads of some of history's most infamous figures, including Adolf Hitler. In one of her several hands, she holds a flag that reproduces two works by the Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi on the theme of the Israelite heroine Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. (You'll recall that Gentileschi was raped by her artist-father's apprentice and then tortured to make sure she was telling the truth. The symbolism of her Judith art is lost on no one.)

And it would seem to fit perfectly with Biswas' work: Two artists looking to courageous female figures for inspiration and succor.

But Bhavne Shinde — writing on behalf of, which has requested the removal of "Housewives" — says "Depicting the Deity as a gruesome figure as in this painting amounts to irreverence and trivialization of the sacred deity."

In a statement that was included in a letter that Neuberger director Thom Collins sent to Shinde, Biswas refutes the idea that her painting is offensive to Hindus:

"It falls completely within the paradigms of the imaginative space that exists within the Hindu faith. In other words, there is not one god, but thousands, and a god can take many forms — we are all sacred in our ways, and capable of good and evil....The narrative of Kali within Hindu culture is a complex one."

Collins goes on to write: "In light of this clarification, I hope you will agree that, far from simply casting the goddess Kali in a negative light, 'Housewives With Steak Knives' is a complex and potentially revelatory instance of self-identification and self-fashioning by a very talented Indian artist imagining herself as part of several rich and mutually imbricated histories and cultural traditions."

In a follow-up to an e-mail in which I posed several questions, Shinde tells The Arts Muse that in Hindu depictions, form is crucial, since it determines whether pure or impure vibrations are sent out into the universe. "Housewives," she says, is in essence a kind of spiritual noise.

I can't argue with Shinde here, even though I think "Housewives" is a compelling representation of female courage in the face of male domination. If Shinde as a Hindu believes the painting gives off bad energy, well, she's entitled to her beliefs as well as her artistic opinions, just as I'm not crazy about another work in the exhibit, Angus Fairhurst's "Pietà," a 1996 Cibachrome print in which he casts himself as Jesus (OK) and a model in a gorilla suit as the Virgin Mary (not OK in my book).

Shinde, who writes that no faith should be trivialized, adds that "the artist when depicting religous symbols or concepts should be knowledgeable in that religion (not just born in it) in the sense of being a devoted practitioner of its concepts and a student of that religion."

I don't agree with the latter part of this statement, for it robs art of the bridge that is the imagination. Without that bridge, Marc Chagall, a Jew, would've never accepted a commission to do stained-glass windows at Reims Cathedral. And he would've never created the moving "White Crucifixion," in which the crucified Jesus becomes a symbol of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis.

You don't have to embrace a religion to create a work about it. But you do have to respect it.

Whether or not "Housewives With Steak Knives" respects Hinduism remains and should remain open to debate.

No doubt, artists will continue to provoke with their treatments of religious figures and stories, as they have always done.

And given the highly personal nature of both art and religion, we will continue to find offense in these works.

"Housewives With Steak Knives" remains part of "British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009," on view through Dec. 13 at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art. 914-251-6100,

Monday, November 30, 2009

Public rules

New York City's recent decision to drop charges against a model who disrobed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's armor gallery and singer Adam Lambert's controversial kiss on a televised awards show has got me thinking about the limits of art.

On the one hand, art is not reality, and we make a contract to enter its unreality every time we purchase a ticket to a cultural venue. In those confines, artists are free to use nudity, rough language and simulated sex and violence in the creation of what they define as their art. And we are just as free to avoid their work if we find it offensive.

But there are moments and places, usually public spaces, in which art and reality intersect. (Indeed, it's intersecting more and more nowadays with the ubiquitous phenomenon of the reality show.)

Suppose you wanted to show your 5-year-old some equine armament and came upon the model stripping? Or were practicing your figure eights as Tai Babilonia took to the Rockefeller Center ice in her skivvies for Peta? Or happened to be flipping the channel as Lambert French-kissed another entertainer? (I myself don't care if it was a person of the same or opposite sex.)

It is naive for Lambert to say you can just turn off his performance, which is going out over the airwaves to millions of unsuspecting viewers.

I'm all for art, wherever we can find it. But in a public space, the public rules.

Friday, November 27, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving Day Weekend!

WTDTW is not so stuffed that it can't offer a few nibbles for those who don't want to brave the malls or multiplexes.

Today, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville begins a one-week run of "La Danse," Frederick Wiseman's acclaimed new documentary — his 36th — about the Paris Opera Ballet. For more, visit

The day after Thanksgiving also marks the start of the winter holidays at the properties administered by Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown. From 1o to 4 p.m. today through Sunday, there will be costumed tours of Sunnyside, author Washington Irving's cozy Tarrytown home, and Van Cortlandt Manor, a post-Revolutionary site in Croton-on-Hudson. Both are festooned with seasonal decorations. Both will also be featuring candlelight tours of their rooms — like the one pictured at Van Cortlandt Manor — on select December Saturdays.

Finally, for the techies who don't feel like venturing out, the Westchester Library System has announced that it has just added MP3 audiobooks offering iPod, iPhone and iPod Touch support to its download-able media collection. It has also expanded other digital media offerings, including eBooks, music, video and audiobooks optimized for Windows Media Player that can be downloaded. The digital media catalog is available free to Westchester library card holders at

Me? I prefer my Jane Austens the old-fashioned way, with crisp pages I can turn as I sip a hot cup of Earl Grey.

Whatever your pleasures, enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.

Photo courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Met bets

Like the fashion world, The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds semiannual press events to showcase the upcoming season. The most recent luncheon — held a few days before Thanksgiving — didn't feature turkey but chicken, salad, wine, coffee and petite cookies. The upcoming offerings discussed by new Met director (and Ossining resident Thomas Campbell) promised even richer fare.

"There's a plethora of exhibitions," Campbell said, reasserting the museum's commitment to programming.

Visitors have responded in kind.

"Our public is stronger than ever before," he added, noting that The Met benefits from a deep local as well as international audience.

As with a banquet, it's difficult to decide which exhibits to highlight here, let alone see. I myself can't wait for "The Lod Mosaic" (spring) featuring a third-century mosaic recently discovered in Israel, and "The Art of Illumination" (opening March 2), which features the unbounded "Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry" in all of the book's gold, periwinkle, filigree glory.

There are also a number of potentially ravishing drawing shows, including "The Drawings of Bronzino" (opening Jan. 20), the first ever exhibit devoted to the Mannerist master. But I'm just as intrigued by a theme show like "The Birthday in Chinese Art" (opening Feb. 27).

There are two exhibits sure to be hits with the public. "Picasso in The Metropolitan Museum of Art" (opening April 27) surveys the titan in 34 paintings, 58 drawings, 50 prints and 12 ceramics and sculptures. "American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity" (opening May 5) features gowns and images to die for, from 1870 to 1940.

This being a holiday week, Campbell issued a last call for a couple of Met exhibits, including "Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid" (closing Sunday) and "Art of the Samurai." That won't be closing until Jan. 10 but The Met will soon be swapping out one-third of its fragile objects. So best to see it now.

A word about Campbell as new master of ceremonies for these press lunches/ Power Point presentations. While he lacks the Gallic insouciance of his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, he makes up for it with a British wit as dry as the white wine The Met serves.

Standing before an image of Velázquez's "Surrender of Breda" — on loan from the Prado for the current "Velázquez Rediscovered" show — Campbell noted that at the press conference in Madrid, a photographer posed him near the part of the painting that focuses on a horse's behind.

Campbell can afford to poke fun at himself. Everyone knows that "Tapestry Tom" — so-called for his brilliant tapestry scholarship and exhibitions as well as his low-key charm — is no horse's patootie.

For more, log on to Images courtesy of The Met.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Our Achilles' heel

The recent killing of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas — allegedly at the hands of Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — has had pundits reaching back to Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" for the appropriate metaphors in understanding the warrior's psyche and post-traumatic stress disorder. They are not off-base. The brilliant psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has devoted his life to treating Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War veterans with PTSD, has used the Homerian epics in his practice and in two books, "Achilles in Vietnam" and "Odysseus in America."

It helps, of course, that Homer has been in the news of late, with Caroline Alexander's new book, "The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's 'Iliad' and The Trojan War" (Viking). Still, I find it rather rich. Ours is the same society that has sneered at dead white male poets like Homer since the 1960s. They're all part of European colonial imperialism, the thinking goes. So it follows that their works are no good, in the same way that if you have a hangnail, you should amputate the whole hand.

Now, however, we're in trouble. So we look to the arts and history for comfort. Except that being undereducated, we understand history and the arts imperfectly. Thus, the lessons we draw are not necessarily the best.

Even Caroline Alexander — whose "The Endurance," about Ernest Shackleton's heroic Antarctic voyage, is one of the most moving books I've read — misses the point. To say that "The Iliad" is about the futility of war is like saying "Hamlet" is a tragedy of indecision. "The Iliad" — the only surviving work of a much larger cycle about the Trojan War — is about the rage of Achilles, the Greeks' best warrior, who's been dissed by his nincompoop commander, Agamemnon. (For a great modern interpretation, check out the novel and the movie "From Here To Eternity," with go-it-alone Pvt. Prewitt as Achilles, go-along-to-get-along Sgt. Warden as Odysseus and trophy-obsessed Capt. Holmes as Agamemnon.)

Given its real subject, "The Iliad" has more in common with today's layoffs than with Fort Hood, unless, of course, we discover — and I suspect we will — that Hasan felt disrespected.

How did we get to the point, however, where we trot out history and the arts only in times of tragedy? That is the real question. The answer is that we are a meritocracy of mediocrity — a nation of strivers for the middle. (Hence the success of Sarah "Just Folks" Palin.) We always have been. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's enlightening "American Stories" show quotes 18th-century portrait painter John Singleton Copley grumbling about artists being considered nothing more than utilitarian craftsmen.

We like the useful and the practical, because we believe they lead to prosperity. The aspirational, not so much.

Nonetheless, up through the Kennedy Administration, we acknowledged that there was a place for so-called classical culture in pop culture. Then came the late '60s. Homer was out. Working women were in. And the arts lost many of those volunteers who served on the committees and raised the funds. (I'm sorry, but men have never been the backbone in the grassroots effort to promote culture.)

The '70s saw the beginning of cuts in arts education, which was dealt a coup de grace by the Reaganauts, who equated the arts with louche elitism. In the '90s, the rise of digital technology meant anyone could be a filmmaker, singer, artist or writer. No need for professionals. We now have an army of citizen celebrities at long last able to exploit their bottomless talent for exhibitionism.

So the arts — as well as history, which is wrongly considered the past, rather than the story of the past — are misjudged and underestimated. Like Achilles.

Let's hope they have a better outcome.


This weekend, my partners at ArtsWestchester play host to an exhibit organized by the Westchester/Mid-Hudson chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

"Celebration of Architects: The Art of Architecture" features the work of almost 75 regional firms. It's on view today through Sunday in the Arts Exchange building's Grand Banking Room Gallery. There's also a panel discussion with five local architects at 2 p.m. Saturday. 914-428-4220,

Meanwhile, WTDTW says "Happy Birthday" to jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who'll be celebrating his 77th year with a concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Tarrytown Music Hall.
Says Barbieri of the occasion, sponsored by Jazz Forum Arts: "It's exciting that people are still moved when I play, and I consider myself blessed to have had fans that have listened to me for such a long time. They still do, and I'm still having fun."
For tickets and more information, call 877-840-0457 or log on to You might also want to check out
Barbieri isn't the only birthday boy being feted this weekend: The Purchase Symphony Orchestra salutes Franz Joseph Haydn — 200 years young — in a concert tonight at Purchase College's Performing Arts Center. 914-251-6200.
On Sunday, take a break from music with a little art-making: From 1 to 4 p.m., the Bruce Museum in Greenwich is presenting a Calder Family Day in conjunction with its "Alexander Calder: Printmaker" exhibit. There will be a gallery hunt and workshops as well as a 3 p.m.interactive performance, "Calder Re-Wired" (right), which brings to life the artist's kinetic work.

Who knows? Maybe you'll discover your inner Calder. 203-869-0376,

Photo courtesy of the Bruce Museum.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lincoln on the Hudson

With "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War" at the Katonah Museum of Art, "Lincoln and New York" at The New-York Historical Society and and "Lincoln, Life Size" coming to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich in February, I thought Arts Muse readers would be interested in Abraham Lincoln's relationship with the Hudson Valley.

So I turned to one person who was sure to know, Rye resident Harold Holzer — author, co-author and editor of 34 Lincoln books, guest historian of "Lincoln and New York" and, if that were not enough, senior veep of external affairs for The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lincoln, Holzer says, passed through Westchester County on his tour of the North before his first inauguration. Though he made no stops, prisoners in striped outfits reportedly saluted him from the roof of Sing Sing. (Sadly, the president's body would make a reverse trip of the county after his assassination in 1865.)

Putnam County would play a more strategic role during the war.

"First, he visited his former general, Winfield Scott, who was living in retirement at West Point," Holzer writes in an e-mail to The Arts Muse. "Then Lincoln was taken to the Cold Spring foundry to see the production of new high-tech weaponry. At the testing range, he watched rifled cannon shell being fired across the Hudson River onto targets painted onto the opposite cliffs — and consistently hitting bull's-eyes. Here on this visit, I believe, Lincoln came to the realization that it would be a very different kind of war — not Winfield Scott's kind of gentleman's war but a modern, deadly war of new and damaging weaponry...."

Tellingly, Holzer says that the Hudson Valley was actually more important than New York City in Lincoln's election, even though Lincoln always said that the speech he gave in Manhattan in 1859 made him president — a subject Holzer explores in his book "Lincoln at Cooper Union."

"In New York City, he got exposure, audience, and attention," Holzer says. "But on Election Day, more than 60 percent of New York City voters voted against Lincoln....He won the electoral vote of New York state only because he did well north of what is now 287 — solidly Republican (as I guess it is again!)."

Image of David Gilmour Blythe's "Lincoln Crushing the Dragon of Rebellion" (1862) courtesy of the Katonah Museum's "Bold, Cautious, True" show.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Throwing out the baby

Interesting lead articles in the Oct. 31 edition of the Westchester Eye — an edgy new weekly devoted to county news — about museums that de-accession parts of their collections in tough economic times and legislation by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky that would make it tougher for them to do this.

I agree with Michael Bostwinick, director of the Hudson River Museum, who is quoted in one of the articles and is passionate about museums holding on to their collections as part of the public trust. Indeed, it reminds me of a story often told of Winston Churchill. During the blitz, there were members of the British government who thought that the nation's treasures should be removed from London. Winnie would have none of it.

"It's what we're fighting for," he said.

Churchill understood that the stakes in World War II were nothing less than civilization itself. Our situation is less dire, of course. But the stakes are no less great.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Friday the 13th is never an unlucky day for arts lovers, as there is always plenty for them to savor.

This weekend, you can revel in the curvilinear grandeur of Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center — and Robert A. Baron's photographs of the same (left) — in "Against the Grain" at the Mamaroneck Artists' Guild. The show runs through Nov. 21. 914-834-1117, For more on Baron's exhilarating work, log on to

WTDTW would also like to salute an idea whose time has come: A previous post discussed examples of artists exhibiting in empty storefronts. Add to them Lisa Breznak, of Lisa Breznak Decorative Arts & Design in Peekskill, who is exhibiting two of her Shinto-inspired trees in the window of 910 Main St. there for the next few months as owner Gregory Perez readies the property for a makeover. The storefront exhibit is part of Peekskill's City Spaces program, 914-293-0916.

Staying with art, "The Fingerprint Project 1990-2009," featuring the undulating, silhouetted work of Sandy Garnett, is at the White Plains Public Library's Museum Gallery (through Jan. 5). 914-422-1480, While in White Plains, you can take in the Conservatory Theatre's production of Elton John's "Aida" at the Performing Arts Center (tonight through Sunday). 914-328-1600,

If student theater is your thing, you might also want to check out Purchase Repertory Theatre, at the college of the same name, which presents Jean Genet's controversial political play "The Balcony" through tomorrow. 914-251-6200.

Meanwhile, tube types won't want to miss "Collision," which begins on PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary" at 9 p.m. Sunday. It's what the movie "Crash" might've been if it had been this intelligent an exploration of the extent to which the choices we make affect the lives of others. Hang on for next Sunday's conclusion, which has a kicker of an ending.

It will have you scratching your head for a long time.

Photo of Robert A. Baron's "Pool and Spire" from MAG's "Against the Grain" courtesy of the photographer.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Westchester Phil's duet

When it comes to the arts, New Rochelle's David Tobey (right) is twice-blessed. Not only is he a painter and a sculptor, he's also a longtime violinist with the Westchester Philharmonic.

Now Tobey — son of the late painter and illustrator Alton S. Tobey — is using his artistic talent to serve his musical one. Tomorrow through Nov. 22, he will present an exhibit and sale of more than 50 of his paintings, prints and sculptures from the last five years to benefit the Westchester Phil.

The show takes place at the BID Gallery 542 in New Rochelle. (BID stands for the city's Business Improvement District.) Half of the proceeds from the exhibit there will go to the orchestra, with those attending tomorrow's reception (5-9 p.m.) receiving a 10-percent discount on works purchased then.

This is not the first time Tobey has raised funds for the Philharmonic. He spearheaded an art auction this past spring that yielded more than $25,000.

It looks to be a good two weeks for the Phil. Next up is a pair of concerts (Nov. 21 and 22) that finds artistic director Itzhak Perlman re-teaming with Anthony McGill (left), principal clarinetist of The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with whom he performed John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts" at President Barack Obama's inauguration. (Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Gabriela Montero completed the quartet.)

"It was absolutely wonderful," McGill says of the experience. And something of a challenge, given the cold temperatures and the fact that he had only found out about the program the day before the inauguration. (McGill, who had performed Olivier Messiaen's haunting "Quartet for the End of Time" with Yo-Yo Ma on a 2001 tour of Japan, got a call from one of the cellist's managers only a month prior to the inaugural event.)

"But we have to do what we have to do," McGill says in the best spirit of performance. For the clarinetist, that means teaching, playing in The Met Orchestra and taking on solo and chamber work. With the Westchester Phil, he'll be the soloist for Mozart's charming Clarinet Concerto in A Major, a gig that resulted from playing with Perlman for the first time at the inauguration.

"It's one of Mozart's masterpieces," McGill says of the work, a favorite of WQXR (105.9 FM). "Mozart wrote it late in life, and it has all of his maturity — operatic touches, a beautiful slow movement and the light, bouncy quality of his scherzandos."

Supporting singers in an opera orchestra is quite different from being the divo in front of the house. But whether you're a soloist or a supporting player, McGill says, "you're always part of the orchestra.

"To play with Itzhak Perlman and his orchestra is going to be awesome. I know I'm going to be playing with great musicians."

Tickets for the McGill concerts are limited and can be snatched up by calling 914-682-3707. For more information, log on to

For more on David Tobey, check out his Web site,

Photos of McGill and Tobey appear courtesy of the Westchester Philharmonic.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tell me a riddle

With the encore presentation of The Metropolitan Opera's "Turandot" set for Nov. 18, I thought you might be interested in the antecedents of the story, which is your classic riddle tale (boy meets girl, girl poses three tough questions that boy answers to win her heart).

The most immediate source for Giacomo Puccini's opera is "Calaf and the Princess of China," from "1001 Days," a French compilation similar to "1001 Arabian Nights."

But in his fascinating book "Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend," Richard Stoneman points out that riddle stories have been time-honored since the ancient Middle East, dating at least from Solomon and Sheba.

Alexander and the Assyrian queen Semiramis found their way into the riddle literature in a medieval Greek poem that was discovered in the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt. The Alexander of legend presents himself to Semiramis as a suitor, just as the Egyptian prince Calaf does before the icy, man-hating Chinese princess Turandot. Like Turandot, Semiramis warns her suitor that she will yield only if he correctly answers her impossible questions. In both "Turandot" and the Alexander poem, failure to do so will result in death.

Of course, the ardent suitors are brave enough — and smart enough — to risk all for love. Shouldn't it always be that way?

Semiramis was the inspiration for a very different opera, Giaocchino Rossini's showpiece "Semiramide," which the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah successfully presented this past summer. The ancient world remains a potent muse.

The Met's "Live in HD" simulcast of "Turandot" will be given an encore presentation at City Center 15: Cinema De Lux in White Plains and New Roc City 18 & IMAX in New Rochelle on Nov. 18. Learn more at

American Hamlet

Sometimes an exhibit catalog, or a companion book, constitutes a whole other exhibit. Such is the case of the elegant coffee-table book that accompanies the Katonah Museum of Art's "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" (The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.)

It's not just that curator Kevin Sharp's book — which considers the parallel trajectories of the Hudson River School and the poet who wrote "Leaves of Grass" — takes a different approach from his Katonah show. It's that a book can explore works not in the exhibit.

Like Sanford Gifford's "A Coming Storm" (1863), owned by Edwin Booth, 19th-century America's greatest actor and a brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes.

E. Booth lent the demonically swirling landscape to an April 1865 exhibit at the National Academy in Manhattan, where a customs inspector named Herman Melville saw it and more important, saw in it a metaphor for the tragedy of the Civil War and the Booth family.

Melville would ponder that metaphor in his ekphrastic poem "The Coming Storm," in which he cast E. Booth — "Shakespeare's pensive child" — as Hamlet offstage as well as on.

Edwin Booth (1833-93) — a friend to and collector of Hudson River School artists like Gifford, whose "Baltimore 1862 — Twilight" (seen here) is part of the Katonah show — remains a resonant figure in American culture. Even without his brother John's assassination of Abraham Lincoln — an act that would haunt Edwin to the end of his days — his life was filled with suffering. His beloved first wife, actress Mary "Molly" Devlin, died young. His second wife, actress Mary McVicker, went mad. The only child of his second union, Edgar, died soon after his birth.

E. Booth himself was the subject of an assassination attempt and a carriage accident that rendered his left arm useless. He gained and lost several enterprises, including Broadway's Booth Theatre. Alcoholism, unsurprisingly, was a continual struggle. And yet, through it all, he continued to perform, refining his greatest role, Hamlet.

He didn't merely play the hero. He was one, saving the life of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's oldest son, when the Harvard student fell through the gap between a moving train and the Jersey City station platform around 1864.

The storyteller in me can't resist that tale or Edwin Booth's life. What makes one brother a savior of men and the other a destroyer? I think the crux was that John Wilkes Booth saw himself as the star in the grand, romantic drama that was his own life, not unlike another assassin with a trio of names, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Whereas Edwin Booth, for all his identification with Shakespeare's greatest role, never confused playing Hamlet with being him. He, too, was bold, cautious, true.

The image of Sanford Gifford's "Baltimore 1862-Twilight" appears courtesy of the Katonah Museum of Art.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Whither WQXR?

What do we think of the new WQXR (105.9 FM)?

On the one hand, I'm delighted that classical radio has not perished in New York. On the other hand, the changes are noticeable and not entirely welcome. More popular classical music, fewer new works (or unfamiliar works by famous composers), personnel shifts, the loss of some favorites (Friday night's temple service, for instance): Change for change's sake does not equal progress.

At the same time, such is the fear in the marketplace at the moment that we must all bow before the god of populism.

The quality of WQXR is still there. But its current trend toward the tried and true is not a harbinger of good things to come.

Friday, November 6, 2009


This week, WTDTW (What To Do This Weekend, our regular Friday post) salutes the Fairfield/Westchester Museum Alliance, which grants visitors to any one of the sites a same-day pass to the other five. Members of any one of the six organizations receive free admission to the others, plus a 10-percent discount in the gift shops.

What's terrifice about the alliance is the way its members complement one another with a mix of shows that range from the historical to the contemporary, the scientific to the artistic.

The Katonah Museum of Art and the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers offer two superb history lessons. "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" (at Katonah through Jan. 24) is a moving, haunting tribute to one of 19th-century America's seminal poets and the painters, particularly the members of the Hudson River School, who were such a part of that time. 914-232-9555, "Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture" (at Hudson River through Jan. 10) brilliantly chronicles the continual shifts in 400 years of Dutch-American relations as well as the rich Dutch legacy in business, home design and painting. 914-963-4550,

Those same Dutch virtues are celebrated in the provocative "Double Dutch," featuring new installations by 13 artists from the Netherlands at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill through July 26. 914-788-0100, Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art has the equally thought-provoking "British Subjects: Identity and Self-Fashioning 1967-2009," about race, gender, persona and transcendence in postwar self-portraiture. 914-251-6100,

More edginess awaits at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., where you'll find works by Edward Tufte, called "the Da Vinci of data"; women artists who've reclaimed storytelling: and artists interested in the bicycle as metaphor. 203-438-4519,
The other Connecticut alliance member is the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, whose "Alchemy, Magic, Myth or Science?" (through Jan. 3) looks at the art and philosophy of this ancient, oft-misunderstood but still useful discipline. 203-869-0376,

Like the alliance itself, it's good chemistry.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hailing "SundayArts"

A shout-out to "SundayArts," THIRTEEN's artsmagazine show, which makes its half-hour prime-time debut tonight at 8.

The program, which airs regularly from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays, includes a roundup of what's happening with stylish correspondent Christina Ha, a Dobbs Ferry resident, who's getting a lot of air time on THIRTEEN; plus performances, documentaries and exhibit tours with New York curators.

Now if the show would only give hosts Philippe de Montebello and Paula Zahn more to do.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meet The Mets, part deux

The best scene in "Quantum of Solace" — the follow-up to Daniel Craig's debut as James Bond — finds 007 on the trail of Eurotrash nogoodniks as they plot ecological mayhem while taking in a production of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca."

Once the bad guys realize Bond is on to their game, cleverly played out via earpieces as they seemingly relish Puccini, they begin leaving the opera house in not-so-subtle droves.

"Well," sniffs one, "'Tosca' isn't for everyone."

Actually, "Tosca" is for everyone, which is why The Metropolitan Opera chose it to open its season and why two theaters at White Plains' City Center 15: Cinema De Lux were packed recently for the encore presentation of "The Met: Live in HD" transmission. I imagine the theaters at New Rochelle's New Roc City 18 & IMAX, which also participate in The Met's simulcasts of select operas each season, were similarly filled. (Those theaters will no doubt be teeming once again this Saturday as The Met presents another Puccini chestnut, "Turandot," pictured here.)

Why "Tosca"? First, it's an opera about an opera singer — the jealous, foolhardy but always loving Floria Tosca, who finds herself caught between her lover, the painter/rebel Cavaradossi, and Scarpia, the cruelly sensual police chief, amid the majesty of Napoleonic Rome.

Secondly, "Tosca" is quintessential Puccini in its outpouring of luscious, haunting melody. (One patron left the theater whistling "E lucevan le stelle," Cavaradossi's theme.) At the same time, "Tosca" arguably represents Puccini's most complete use of the Wagnerian leitmotif. Here the examples include a running figure that, at the opera's end, takes us all the way to the top of the prison castle of Sant' Angelo, along with our doomed heroine.

So "Tosca" has great music and great psychological drama. Yet it was roundly booed on opening night, in part because Luc Bondy's sterile production had replaced Franco Zeffirelli's architecturally sumptuous recreation of neoclassical Rome.

Audience members in White Plains last week seemed to mirror the opening-night crowd. They applauded the singers — Finnish soprano Karita Matilla (Tosca, pictured here), Argentine tenor Marcelo Álvarez (Cavaradossi) and Georgian baritone George Gagnidze as Scarpia. But they were divided, sometimes within themselves, about the merits of the production, which mixes Empire costumes with modern furnishings and removes much of the Roman Catholic ritual that is integral to the opera and its heroine. (That's the wonderful thing about the "Live in HD" transmissions: There's plenty of time during the intermissions for coffee and conversation.)

For me, the fatal flaw in Bondy's production is not that he's ignored the sense of place that is central to "Tosca" or much of its Catholic sensibility — though these are certainly problems. No, the coup de grace is that he's nullified Puccini's psychological acuity, this despite the singers praising Bondy's penetrating insights during the earthy backstage interviews with charming mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.

One example is particularly glaring: Bondy has done away with the moment in which Tosca — having murdered Scarpia for torturing her lover and making sex the price of his freedom — places candles and a crucifix around his body. (Puccini used this to contrast Tosca's ultimate religious devotion with Scarpia's hypocritical piety.)

Still, Bondy has to fill in the musical interlude, so he has Tosca stare out the window and then recline on a couch where she fans herself while she presumably contemplates life, Hamlet-like.

Question: If you had just impulsively knifed a sadist on the order of the Nazis whose henchmen could return at any moment, would you sit around, or would you grab the weapon, your belongings and the letter of safe conduct Scarpia promised you and your lover and hightail it out of there?

If Bondy were so interested in a modern approach to "Tosca," why not update it to Mussolini's Rome?

The problem with retelling operas freshly lies not in the idea of reinterpretation itself but in making appropriate choices. Bondy's production has one brilliant moment — the cinematic ending, which I won't give away since PBS will be broadcasting the simulcast later this season.

Ironically, the "Tosca" transmission included an interview with director Bartlett Sher, who did The Met's fabulous "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and who's taking a Kafkaesque look at Jacques Offenbach's "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" (Dec. 19). Kafka, "Tales of Hoffmann": It's a pairing that makes sense.

Regardless of the production, "Live in HD" remains one of the best and cheapest dates around. For about $20, plus the price of parking and popcorn, you get to go to The Met without having to drive to The Met. It's a tough ticket, but there are often encores.

Apart from "Turandot" and "Hoffmann," there are five remaining simulcasts — Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" (Jan. 9), with the aforementioned Susan Graham as Renée Fleming's boy toy; Georges Bizet's "Carmen" (Jan. 16), with Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna; Giuseppe Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra," with Placido Domingo (Feb. 6); Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet," with Simon Keenlyside and Natalie Dessay (March 27); and Gioacchino Rossini's "Armida," also with Fleming (May 1).

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Electing to learn

While others are snoozing or hitting the malls tomorrow — or hurrying to vote before heading off to work — area jazz teachers will be doing what they know and love best.

They'll be gathering at New Rochelle High School from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for a workshop titled "Rehearsing and Conducting the High School Jazz Band," presented by the 16-piece Westchester Jazz Orchestra.

"The class will be enjoyable, interactive and practical, and the information and techniques explored will apply to ensembles of varying levels and instrumentation," says WJO artistic director Mike Holober (pictured here).

A pianist and composer, Holober will lead the workshop, which is the orchestra's first seminar for music teachers.

The fee is $75. For more information, call WJO at 914-861-9100 or log on to

The public can enjoy the orchestra Dec. 5 as it continues its season at Irvington Theater with "Sax Masters: The Music of Coltrane, Cannonball, Bird and More." (The snow date is Dec. 6.)

The remaining concerts are "From Bossa to Tango: Sounds of South America" (Jan. 30) and "Americana" (April 10). Log on to the Web site or call the theater box office at 914-591-6602 for details.

Photo courtesy of Westchester Jazz Orchestra.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Christo for Kids

If it's Friday, it must be time for what to do this weekend.

This being Halloween-y, The Arts Muse would be remiss without spotlighting "The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze" at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson through Sunday. I like to think of it as Christo's "The Gates" for kids. (It's orange, it's outdoors, it's a happening: You get the picture.)

The blaze — which is being featured on ABC's "Good Morning America" tomorrow and "CBS News Sunday Morning" — includes 4,000 individually carved, illuminated jack o' lanterns set amid the riparian, 18th-century charms of Van Cortlandt Manor. Every year's blaze is different. For this, the fifth anniversary, Historic Hudson Valley — administrator of the site — has added sunflowers, a UFO, a beehive and a replica of Henry Hudson's Half Moon. 914-631-8200,

If you happen to be hunkering down with the leftover candy (come on, you know you're going to stash away a few pieces), you won't want to miss PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary," which has a doozy of a thriller, "Place of Execution" (9 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 8). Juliet Stevenson — who's been so marvelous in works ranging from "The Race for the Double Helix" to "Emma" — is first-rate as a harried documentary filmmaker and working mom investigating the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in northern England 40 years earlier.

That event, which unfolds alongside the contemporary story, turns out to have unusual resonance for the filmmaker. It's a juicy, engrossing drama that reminds us that the most terrifying things are not the ghosts and goblins but the ones that can really happen.

Photo courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Family valued

Context drives perception. The person who is angry at, say, a civil rights' injustice and the person who is angry that the theater printed the wrong time for a movie screening are both angry. But the first is considered an instance of righteous anger, while the second is looked at as a kind of petty petulance.

In "DNA?: Artistic Legacies," at the Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem, our reading of the similarities in the works of the Goodnoughs and in those of the Steins — two prominent Westchester families — is spurred by our recognition of their respective family ties.

Kathy Goodnough's luscious photograph on canvas "Red Paths" (2009) — a collaboration with Ross Barna the features shards of crimson — evokes her father Robert's "Upward IV" (1989), a signature work (above, left) — and her mother Miko's "One Summer Day" (2009), pictured right.

In the same vein, there is a strong formal connection between Fred Stein's black-and-white "Manhattan Skyline" (1946) and granddaughter Katherine Freer Stein's "Skyline" (2009), just as there is a thread of unvarnished humanity that runs between Fred Stein's famous portrait of Albert Einstein and son Peter's fanfare for the common man, "Charley".

But here's the question (as suggested by the question mark in the exhibit title): Would we notice a similarity in the Goodnoughs' and in the Steins' works if they were exhibited anonymously? We might. But we might be even more drawn to the dissimilarities.

Katherine Stein's "Skyline" (below, left) is light years removed from her grandfather's (below, right). Hers is futuristic to the point of being Surreal, while her grandfather's scintillating metropolis remains a real place.

And Kathy Goodnough's use of floating heads, while somewhat reminiscent of some of her mother's figurative work, has more in common with the 19th-century French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon.

Yes, of course, a family of artists couldn't help but influence one another. (The show includes a poignant letter from a 6-year-old Kathy Goodnough, in which she reveals a child's pride in being in her father's studio.)

Children, however, aren't their parents. While nature and nurture are important, time and place also have their roles in the development of the artistic mind.

"DNA?: Artistic Legacies" runs through Nov. 21. While you're there, you can check out Alison Palmer's high-fire anthropomorphic figures as well as Gen Konno's pregnant dreamers, made out of small pieces of wood. They're an unusual subject for a male artist (or maybe that's just my prejudice showing).

In any event, as with "DNA?," Konno's work reminds us that presumption can be a dangerous thing.

The Hammond season closes Dec. 5 with a cocktail party and fund-raising auction from 5 to 7 p.m. 914-669-5033,

Photos courtesy of The Hammond Museum.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The art of the game

The World Series between the New York Yankees (yeah!) and the Philadelphia Phillies starts tonight, and already there is much talk about how the game and the series has been marred by steroids, big money, etc.

But as an arts lover I have to say I watch baseball for its aesthetics — the crisp crack of the bat, the field fanning out to embrace infinity, the gracefulness of a well-tempered double play. Small wonder baseball has been the subject of numerous visual and literary works.

I'm wondering if other baseball fans and arts aficionados feel the same way. Do all the recent controversies taint the beauty of the game?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Hits, and misses

If, as a critic, you're going to take your subjects to task, when necessary, then you better be prepared to dish out deserved praise as well.

In a recent post, I criticized the media for obsessing on non-stories like the "Balloon Boy," while ignoring the arts. I'm happy to report that since then I've encountered a couple of good cultural pieces on the tube. Last Sunday, "NBC Nightly News" had an interesting report on artists arranging with Brooklyn landlords to fill vacant storefronts with their work, something collagist Elise Graham did last spring in Chappaqua. I hope artists and Realtors alike check out this segment and take the plunge.

Even better, "CBS News Sunday Morning" — which is geared toward a more sophisticated audience — had a whole program last Sunday devoted to body image. "Size Matters" included a provocative piece on the disparity between our culture's obsession with thinness and art history's voluptuous standard of beauty, a subject I first tackled in the 1980s. Kudos to Charles Osgood and company for taking a fascinating theme and running with it in several intriguing directions.

Of course, there are still oopses. The local CBS affiliate's report on Julie Andrews having surgery to restore her singing voice noted that she had a range of five octaves. (Really? Most coloratura sopranos, Andrews' voice type, have a range of three, three and a half octaves. The average choral singer has a range of two octaves. ) I once heard Matt Lauer state that Mariah Carey had a range of eight octaves. (Is she a piano?) These sound like the kinds of public-relations claims that need to be vetted before they're aired.

On WPIX's "Toni On! New York," which recently spotlighted The Great Jack O' Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor in Croton-on-Hudson, Seth Kamil mixed up the dates for All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls' Day (Nov. 2). The show does get points, however, for featuring Kamil's takes on local history at all.

Finally, LXTV's Sara Gore actually compared investing in a designer handbag to investing in a painting. As someone who understands bag lust, all I can say is that it would have to be one heck of a handbag.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Boldly going

At the Katonah Museum of Art through Jan. 24, you'll find one of the most moving and beautiful exhibits ever to come to Westchester County.

"Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era" charts the parallel courses of poet Walt Whitman — whose collection "Leaves of Grass" is one of the seminal works in American literature — and the artists of his day, particularly the members of the Hudson River School.

That, at least, is the idea behind the show, a partnership between the Katonah Museum and curator Kevin Sharp, director of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, where "Bold, Cautious, True" originated. (The exhibit takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem that was in turn inspired by a soldier's epitaph.)

But every show is about both its ostensible theme and its subtext. In this sense, "Bold, Cautious, True" is less about parallel trajectories and more about the role time and place play in an artist's work and how we read that work in the context of history.

Why should this be so? Why should the realization of an exhibit differ from its concept? In this case, it's because the theme, centering on a writer, lends itself to words and thus to the first-rate companion book (Dixon Gallery). Whitman — captured at right in a handsome 1860 oil painting by Charles Hine — didn't write about art and he didn't collect it. But on paper, Sharp is able to connect the dots between a writer and artists who shared the same concerns.

"In a book, you can spread out and look at things in all their expansiveness," Dixon writes in an e-mail to The Arts Muse. "We took that same approach in the galleries of the Dixon....That wasn't possible at Katonah. But the show is not diminished by it. I love seeing the same exhibition--even my own--in two different venues and how differently the stories get told."

The perfect example of that expansiveness is the link Sharp makes in the catalog between Whitman's "Year of Meteors. (1859-60)," from "Leaves of Grass" and Frederic E. Church's painting "The Meteor of 1860" (circa 1860-61). The years 1859-60 were pivotal ones, marked by radical abolitionist John Brown's raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. and subsequent execution; the controversial state visit by the then Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII); the election of the divisive candidate Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States; and meteor showers in the Hudson Valley that became metaphors for something momentous. Indeed, in his poem, Whitman called 1859-60 the "brooding year," and it certainly appears that way in Church's canvas as a spray of yellow lights illumines a moody, inky landscape.

In the sedate blue galleries of the Katonah Museum, however, such text recedes and the paintings pop out at you, so much so that you begin to see them as a visual narrative of the time.

You can't help but read "Indian Rock" (1859), an exhilarating seascape by second-generation Hudson River School painter John Frederick Kensett, as the summer before the dark. Similarly, all of the show's images of sundown and the spare seasons — like "Sunset, Winter" (1862) by Southern sympathizer Louis Rémy Mignot, pictured here — become emblems of the twilight of an era. Meanwhile, paintings like Sanford R. Gifford's "An October Afternoon (Kauterskill Clove from Sunset Rock)" — painted in 1865, the last year of the war — suggest an attempt to carve out a separate peace.

The war took its toll on artists, who served in the armies of the Union (Gifford) and the Confederacy (William D. Washington), bore witness to the front lines (Winslow Homer) and saw their families torn apart (the portrait-painting Healys). Yet, like Whitman, who volunteered in Washington military hospitals for much of the war, these artists never forgot the suffering of others. The fugitive slave, the determined recruit (like the one portrayed below by Thomas Waterman Wood), the widow lost in grief — all were comforted by the artists' compassionate touch.

There is comfort, too, in the knowledge that in a time of greater turbulence than our own, Whitman and these artists kept creating.

"Bold, Cautious, True" is a lesson in how to boldly, cautiously, truly endure.

For more, log on to or call 914-232-9555.

All images courtesy of the Katonah Museum of Art.

Friday, October 23, 2009


If it's Friday, it must be time to consider what to do this weekend.

From 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow, there's a closing reception at The Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill for "Undertow: Thinking Water," an exhibit of aquatic meditations by Andrew Courtney, Howard Goodman, Ira Leff, Penny Ventura, Joseph Squillante and William C. Maxwell. 914-739-2333,

Squillante, who specializes in Hudson River photography, has been a particularly busy beaver, given the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's exploration of the region. You can see his misty, moody black-and-white work — like this shot of Peekskill Bay — at the Field Library in his hometown of Peekskill (through Nov. 30), in "Dutch New York" at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers (through Jan. 10), at the Alan Kotz Gallery in Manhattan through Halloween and at the Albany Institute of History and Art through Jan. 4.

At 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow and 4 p.m. Sunday, theater buffs can check out Broadway and TV actress Annie McGreevey in Martin Sherman's "Rose" at The Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls. Inspired by Sherman's maternal grandmother — who looks back on a life that took her from a shetl in the Ukraine to the Warsaw ghetto to America — "Rose" had a successful run in London and was nominated for an Olivier Award for best new play in 2000.

There are additional performance Oct. 29-Nov. 1. 914-277-8477,