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,

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Forbidden fruits?

Should museums tailor general exhibits for children? It's a tantalizing question that has become even more relevant as schools rely increasingly on museums for arts education and museums rely increasingly on arts education for their viability.

Local museums have taken a variety of approaches to the issue. At a summer show on Roy Lichtenstein that included a bevy of nude beach beauties, the Katonah Museum of Art put up white screens in front of the works for a school-group visit. The current "British Subjects" exhibit at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art has an entrance sign warning that some of the works may be unsuitable for youngsters and that parents should preview the show first. The Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill does not admit children under age 8 to Tomas Hirschhorn's "The Laundrette" (2004), a permanent recreation of a laundromat that has political and sexual overtones.

And yet, says HVCCA co-founder Livia Straus, if you put up a "No Admittance" sign like the one in front of "The Laundrette," children are sure to run to that work, like so many pint-sized Adams and Eves chomping on the verboten apple. (Me, I live in the hope that one day I'll be able to get a load of laundry done at "The Laundrette" while visiting other HVCCA works.)

Straus, who has a background in teaching, says the key is to be judicious.

"When school groups come in, I don't do the whole show," she says. "I focus on works that are useful for them."

So for the provocative "Double Dutch," Straus will steer them toward Lara Schnitger's "Negligee Duet" (pictured here) but certainly not toward her installation "Everybody Happy," which contains an erotic fabric canvas.

What do you think: Are these measures a form of censorship or examples of necessary pragmatism as the arts struggle to ensure a future audience?

Photo by Dale Leifeste, courtesy of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Backyard Getaway

Is there a better vacation in recessionary times than a trip to The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx?

With a mere Metro North ride (on the Harlem line) from Westchester County, you're transported to the tropics or the desert, sometimes all at once.

Right now, The Botanical Garden is bringing visitors a touch of Kyoto, Japan with "Kiku in the Japanese Autumn Garden." In the courtyards of The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, crimson maples, ebony pines and amber bamboos shelter painstaking kiku displays that evoke cascading waterfalls and the snowy peak of Mount Fuji. ("Kiku" is Japanese for chrysanthemum.)

What I love about The Garden is that whenever it brings back a favorite like "Kiku," it does so in a new way. I hadn't seen the "Driving Rain" arrangements before — which include the Mount Fuji salute (pictured here) — or the elegantly spare stone garden. These keep the familiar fresh.

There's also a 10th-century Japanese poem that captures the mood of autumn in New York as well:

They have not yet begun to fall but already
I regret their passing
When I see the colors of
The autumn leaves at their peak.

Inside the conservatory, you'll find a charming bonsai exhibit, festooned as simply as with a dish of acorns on fall leaves. Lovely. (My sister Gina calls this The Botanical Garden's "Martha Stewart moment.")

Just as exquisite are the man-made botanical works on view at the garden's library, home to some 500,000 books and more than 20,000 prints and watercolors. In the William D. Rondina and Giovanni Foroni LoFaro Gallery, you'll find "Ex Libris: Treasures From the LuEsther T. Mertz Library." The library's works, which date from the Middle Ages, are so well-preserved and the colors are so fresh that you'll just want to pluck "The Blue Egyptian Water Lily" (seen here) from "Temple of Flora" (1807) or grab a slice of the luscious orange melon that beckons from "Pomona Britannica" (1817).

With all the talk these days of books going digital, library director Susan Fraser says, "There's nothing that compares to these."

"Kiku" runs only through Nov. 15. But "Ex Libris" is up through Jan. 10. 718-817-8700,

Photos courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden.

Monday, October 19, 2009


"Fumetto" is Italian for "a little puff of smoke" and thus, for the bubble that conveys the thoughts of a cartoon's character. It's also the title of a new exhibit at ArtsWestchester in White Plains that celebrates the joys of storytelling.

Truth in advertising: Since this blog is a partnership with ArtsWestchester, I approached reviewing its latest exhibit — featuring environmental comic strips that were part of the 2008 Fumetto International Comix-Festival sponsored by Armonk-associated Swiss Re — with some trepidation. Hate the exhibit, you displease your partner. Praise it, and your critique looks suspicious.

I've been at this long enough to know, however, that you must follow the truth where it leads you, and let the chips fall where they may. The truth about "Fumetto" — the third in a trio of environmental-art shows by ArtsWestchester — is that it is an exhibit of strengths and weaknesses.

If like me you're not a great fan of comics, cartoons and sociopolitical art, you'll notice the weaknesses right away. Global warming, the theme of several of the strips represented here, is a complex subject, perhaps too large for this medium. Having piano-playing polar bears float on the ice doesn't do it justice. It doesn't explain, for example, the role that ocean currents or nature's cycles play in climate change. Environmental malfeasance is just one factor in global warming.

Then, too, some of the comic-strip figures aren't particularly well-drawn. They don't invite you in the way, say, the characters in a New Yorker cartoon does before it zings you with the punch line.

What ultimately saves "Fumetto" is the quality of the storytelling in some of these strips. Two of the strongest are from artists out of South Africa. Nicolene Louw's "Taiwan" considers her adventures, and misadventures teaching English in Taiwan. Louw really captures the culture shock that is often the downside of making money in a foreign country.

What makes Louw's strip work is that it is about something larger than a political viewpoint. That also holds for countrywoman Catherine Clarke's "Capetown," which recounts the kind of magical summer vacation we all had, or wanted to have, as children. Having taken place in the title Southern Hemisphere city, Clarke's enchanted summer includes Christmas at the beach and a child who is barely aware of the poverty and racial oppression beyond her privileged life.

It ends as all summer idylls must. Fall arrives, and with it, a grownup sense that the world is not a place of infinite possibilities. Never again will summer be that open road stretching out endlessly before you.

Still it's nice to think so, isn't it?

"Fumetto" is at ArtsWestchester through Nov. 10. For more information, call 914-428-4220, ext. 223 or log on to

Friday, October 16, 2009


By now there isn't a person left in America who has not endured the deathless blather about the child supposedly trapped in the helium-filled balloon.

The nation apparently was "riveted" by the event. Well, I'm part of the nation, and I wasn't. First of all, I knew right away that there was no one in the balloon. I've always had good gut instincts, but after 30 years in the news business, believe me, you can smell baloney 10 miles away.

No, I wasn't riveted. I was annoyed. And then I was outraged. Let's leave aside the notion of people so psychologically damaged that they must exhibit themselves on TV for doing nothing of importance. How dare members of the media spend their time — and ours — on an unconfirmed report and then ask experts to speculate on the speculation. It's the very worst kind of journalism.

These same national journalists could never be bothered to do a story on the arts, unless some violinist is murdered at The Metropolitan Opera or some painting is stolen from a museum. NBC anchor Brian Williams did have a little note about the booing at the opening of The Met's new "Tosca," then added a snarky, "so I've been told." He wanted to ensure America that he would never condescend to actually attend the opera.

There are many reasons for the decline of culture in this country. Among the main is the media's contemptuous attitude toward the arts in an attempt to pander to a public it no longer serves but instead slavishly follows. What the media should hold in contempt are people who'll do anything to become celebrities.

As for the little boy at the center of the storm vomiting on national TV, well, there are plenty of people gifted with taste and a sense of justice who felt the same way.

By the by, if you want to read a good story that begins with a child trapped in a hot-air balloon, I recommend Ian McEwan's novel "Enduring Love" and the film of the same title, both vastly superior to his more famous (and badly reasoned) "Atonement."

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is often a whole lot better.

Meet the Mets, part one

Here's the first of two posts on those other Mets — The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Opera.

At The Met Museum, you'll find a number of new exhibits that reveal the museum to be a great teaching institution as well as a repository of art.

The enlightening "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" (through Jan. 24), for example, contains George Cochran Lambdin's "The Consecration, 1861" (1865), which captures the Civil War ritual of a wife kissing her soldier-hubby's sword. It was her pledge of fealty not only to him but to the Union cause — no small commitment four weary years into the war. I had never heard of the ceremony — until I saw Lambdin's painting.

This survey of genre paintings also demonstrates the shift in the American attitude from viewing art as a utilitarian craft — as portraitist John Singleton Copley grumbled — to appreciating it for its own sake. (My own view is that we Americans still think of art as something that must be useful and thus devalue it, because we can't quantify it.)

The appreciation of art for its own sake took off in the late-19th century with the rise of the leisure class and such American Impressionists works as William Merritt Chase's "Idle Hours" (circa 1894, pictured above). Not surprisingly, this is where the exhibit takes off, too, becoming lighter and airier in the rarefied company of paintings by Chase, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent.

While the American Impressionists were busy painting, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was making iconic works like "Standing Lincoln," the "Adams Memorial," "Diana" and the "Shaw Memorial." "Augustus Saint-Gaudens in The Metropolitan Museum of Art" (through Nov. 15) is a moving tribute to the man who imbued stone and metal with such feeling and individualism. The exhibit is located off the newly renovated Charles Engelhard Court, which has been raised and filled with rapturous but cool marbles. Me? I prefer the old sunken courtyard with its warm wooden benches dominated by Saint-Gaudens' commanding, burnished "Diana" (1893-94, pictured left).

Saint-Gaudens may have found inspiration in Diana, goddess of the hunt. But the early-18t-century French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau preferred her half-sister, Venus. His "The Island of Cythera (L'Isle de Cythère)" (circa 1709-10, pictured here) is the ultimate "fete galante" painting, with smartly swathed revelers departing for the misty classicism of the love goddess' abode — a fantasy island that is not without a sense of forbodding.

It's all part of the elegant "Watteau, Music and Theater" (through Nov. 29), which juxtaposes the power of public art — much of it created for the Sun King himself, Louis XIV — with the intimacy of private entertainment. Both are a long way from our time, in which people expect to be entertained by TV and the Web instead of creating entertainment for themselves.

Claudius Innocentius du Paquier was one of Watteau's contemporaries. In 1718, he founded a porcelain factory in Vienna — only the second European factory to make porcelain in the manner of the Chinese, turning out exquisite tulip vases, like the one seen here, little oil and vinegar pitchers and fanciful architectural candelabra. "Imperial Privilege: Vienna Porcelain of Du Paquier, 1718-44" (through March 21) fills the gallery right before you enter The Lehman Wing. It's a confined space, but it always has something interesting from The Met's European decorative arts collection, proving the museum's commitment to exhibits big and small.

For more on these and other shows, call 212-535-7710 or log on to Advance tickets are available at 800-965-4827.

Photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Something wicked

ave you seen the new ABC series "Eastwick," loosely based — very loosely based — on John Updike's "The Witches of Eastwick"?

While it's not a great show, I find it a guilty pleasure, with the three witches representing the three faces of the goddess. There's the maiden (pert reporter Joanna, played by Lindsay Price of the late guilty pleasure "Lipstick Jungle"); the mother (loving nurse Kat, Jaime Ray Newman); and the wise crone (bodacious artist Roxanne, Rebecca Romijn). They're all bewitched, bothered and bewildered by a devilish gazillionaire named Darryl (Paul Gross).

The trio has nothing, however, on "the witches of Westchester" — 22 of them to be exact. They'll be bubbling toil and trouble as the Taconic Opera presents Giuseppe Verdi's "Macbeth" Friday through Sunday at Yorktown Stage and Oct. 24 at Harrison High School. (photo courtesy of Taconic Opera)

"This is Verdi's biggest chorus opera," says Taconic general director Dan Montez.

But the number of witches hasn't expanded merely to accommodate the composer's choral demands, he adds: "(Designer) Sean Martin has built an interesting set that reshapes itself as the witches manipulate it."

And conjure the destinies of the ambitious Macbeth (baritone Jerett Gieseler on Friday and Sunday; Constantinos Yannoudes on Saturday and Oct. 24) and his power-mad wife (soprano Francesca Mondanaro on Friday and Sunday; Samia Bahu on Saturday and Oct. 24).

While the Taconic Opera production promises "a few magical surprises," Montez says it has a traditional Renaissance-y setting.

Not that he's against updates. (Remember the company's "Otello" — set in a 21st-century White House — which looked mighty au courant considering the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American president?)

Still, Montez — who has the courage of his convictions — is not a fan of the hip minimalism that has sparked so much controversy in The Metropolitan Opera's current "Tosca."

"I was actually disturbed by it," he says of Luc Bondy's grimly spare production, which replaced Franco Zeffirelli's architecturally sumptuous crowd-pleaser. "(Zeffirelli's) were sets to make your eyes pop out."

If you're going to use minimalism, Montez adds, there has to be great purpose to it.

Kudos to the Taconic Opera, which has reached an agreement with Circolo Culturale Mola to televise its spring production simultaneously in Italy.

"We knew we couldn't just try to survive anymore, but had to grow and change more drastically if we wanted to continue to bring this amazing art form to Westchester."

For "Macbeth" tickets, log on to or call 914-245-3415.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dutch masters

Today is Columbus Day and an unusual one at that as the observed holiday coincides with the actual historical date.

In the spirit of exploration that Christopher Columbus typified, the Arts Muse has rounded up a number of Dutch-themed exhibits and events commemorating Henry Hudson's encounter 400 years ago with the region that now bears his name.

This is a holiday Monday for The Metropolitian Museum of Art in Manhattan, meaning that the museum is open until 5:30 p.m. There you'll find "Vermeer's Masterpiece 'The Milkmaid'" (through Nov. 29).

The presentation of this creamy, luminous work by the 17th-century painter is one of those "Pietà" moments in New York: Indeed, the last time "The Milkmaid," owned by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was seen here was at the 1939 World's Fair. (Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

One of the great strengths of The Met is that it educates its public without being didactic. For this show, the museum has placed Johannes Vermeer's masterwork in the context of the 35-some paintings he created. These are reproduced as small images in the introduction to the exhibit. Also on display are the five Vermeers in The Met's collection. (Three more are at the neighboring Frick Collection.) You begin to understand the importance of light, color, character and domestic interiors in Vermeer's work. But you also see how mood shifts with subject matter and how Vermeer's religious works differ from his domestic scenes.

To these, The Met has added paintings by such Vermeer contemporaries as Pieter de Hooch, and Gabriël Metsu. You get a sense that while the Dutch loved their homes, they were also at home in the world. 212-535-7710,

Don't forget that Hudson River Museum curator Bart Bland is also giving a tour of that museum's excellent "Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture" at 2 p.m. today in Yonkers. 914-963-4550,

Continue your Dutch exploration at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art in Peekskill, where "Double Dutch" is on view through July 26. The show spotlights 16 artists from the Netherlands — many of whom have never exhibited here before.

"This has been for us the most exciting show we've ever done," says Livia Straus, who founded HVCCA with her husband, Marc.

That's because it's the center's first exhibit made up of works from entirely outside the collection. Though the Strauses are well-known collectors, Livia Straus says it was never their intention to feature only their works.

The great appeal of "Double Dutch" is that it reveals its artists to be the true heirs of Vermeer and other Dutch masters. The passion for design and architecture; the love of homeland balanced by a global perspective; the ideal of religious tolerance (which does not mitigate the Dutch role in the slave trade) — they're evidenced here in Alon Levin's totemic constructions, Dylan Graham's ravishing astrological cutouts and Erik van Lieshout's humorous videos.

Among the most wholly satisfying works, shown at right, is "Human Behaviour," an installation by Armenian-born Karen Sargsyan, one of three artists in the show who was also an HVCCA artist-in-residence. Sargsyan does these life-size paper figures that capture the shamanistic aspect of theater. Here the figures and some smaller models illustrate the bewitching "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's "The Magic Flute," whose demonic coloratura runs play on a loop. (photo by Dale Leifeste courtesy of Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art)

Equally thrilling are Fendry Ekel's shimmering views of The Millennium Hilton and Century 21, in the shadow of Ground Zero, which link the Dutch gift for architecture with the cosmopolis that grew out of one of the Netherlands' colonies.

Other works require a great deal of explanation, too much to be successful as contained objects. (In a sense, art is like a joke: If you have to explain it, it doesn't work.)

Still other works need more critical thinking to go along with their superb craftsmanship.(It doesn't help that one of the themes of the show and of European artists — American imperialism — seems old-hat in the Age of Obama.)

Other easy targets prove just as slippery. One of Erik van Lieshout's videos — which finds him on an amusing tour of the stars' homes, or rather, the gates of the stars' homes, in Hollywood — contains a line about Marilyn Monroe being the Paris Hilton of her time. But surely Monroe — who read widely and studied at the Actors' Studio — was more aspirational than Hilton. Surely Hilton, whatever her limitations as a performer, has marketed herself brilliantly.

And surely, an artist of all people should realize that human beings are more complex than their images.

Then, too, Job Koelewjin's "Sanctuary" — a 46-foot gas station made out of 3,000 of the artist's own art books — is a terrific construction that will evoke for the viewer everything from Pop Art to family trips. Still, it's made out of real books with screws driven into them. (It reminds me of Martha Stewart's advice that you should rip out the pages of botanical books and frame them for your kitchen.) To a writer, you might as well be driving screws into a human being.

To be a great artist, it's not enough to plump the construction of a gas station. You must also plumb the construction of the mind.914.788.0100 or

Finally, the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan has "From East to West: The World of Margrieta van Varick" (through Jan. 3), considering the life and varied collection of the 17th-century textile merchant, who lived in Flatbush. I haven't seen this show, but if it's anything like the Bard's shows on the Shakers and the neoclassical designer Thomas Hope, it will be a feast of fine and decorative art — something Vermeer himself would've appreciated. 212-501-3000,

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Two for the show

Decisions, decisions: What to do this weekend?

Here are two suggestions: At 8 tonight, the Purchase Symphony Orchestra opens its season with a particularly challenging program. Michael Adelson leads the student ensemble in Ives' "The Unanswered Question," Bartok's "Dance Suite" and Brahms' "Symphony No. 2."

Says Adelson (right), who'll be making his debut as the orchestra's music director: "The PSO is a fantastic ensemble of highly polished young musicians who go for the jugular with each performance. I am thrilled to be making music with them."

Good luck to all on what will be a night of firsts.

Whenever I think of Ives' "Unanswered Question," I think of the wonderful coming-of-age ballet Eliot Feld created for the New York City Ballet and in particular Damian Woetzel's performance as the young man who discovers that the unanswered question is life.

The PSO opener takes place at Purchase College's Performing Arts Center, Anderson Hill Road between Purchase and King streets. Tickets are $20 and can be obtained by calling 914-251-6200 or logging on to

On Sunday, questions of a more material nature arise as the Katonah Museum of Art presents Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art. He'll be discussing "Art's Self-Sufficiency in a Boom/Bust Art World" at Chappaqua Crossing Auditorium (the former Reader's Digest) in Chappaqua. (The museum's galleries are currently closed for the installation of "Bold, Cautious, True: Walt Whitman and American Art of the Civil War Era," opening Oct. 18 and sure to be one of the highlights of the fall season.)

Storr is the recipient of the Katonah Museum of Art's first Himmel Award, named for arts advocate Betty Himmel, who was integral in shaping the museum's vision.

The talk is from 5 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $85 for the general public; $75 for museum members; $25 for students. A wine reception precedes the program. The auditorium is at 480 Bedford Road. Information: 914-232-9555, ext. 2978.

Now if Storr could just help the rest of us who are not artistes survive the boom/bust world.

Portraits of the artist

I must admit I couldn't wait to see the pair of Sam Taylor-Wood portraits in the "British Subjects" exhibit at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art, including "Escape Artist (Pink and Green)," seen here.

That wasn't so much because of the works themselves — delightful sleights of hand though they be — but because of what another Taylor-Wood portrait series means to me.

Several years ago, I saw some of the images in her "Crying Men" series (2002-04) in an issue of British GQ and began a quest to find a copy of the actual portfolio. Long story short: After viewing the resplendent "Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese" show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston this past spring, I found the portfolio in the museum's book shop for $75. (Published by Steidl in a limited edition of 2,500 copies, the book sells for as much as $400 on some Web sites.) It was one of the happiest days of my life.

What is it about a work of art — or series of works — that sets you on a treasure hunt while another fails to grab you? I might as well ask why you fall in love with one person and not another. In the case of "Crying Men," it is the multiplicity of meanings the series offers, each more complex than the last.

"Crying Men" consists of 28 photographs — 22 in color, six in black and white — that depict a group of male movie stars weeping. They range from "Star Wars'" Hayden Christensen to the late Paul Newman. Most, including Oscar winner Sean Penn and James Bond du jour Daniel Craig, are very famous. Some, like Craig and Tim Roth, are actors I've long admired. Others, like Woody Harrelson, I've rarely thought about.

Because Taylor-Wood chose well-known men — as opposed to everyday men in states of distress — her series underscores the tension between reality and the theatricality of art. These are, after all, players who've been instructed to cry on cue, players like Jude Law, Broadway's current fine Hamlet — who sits in a corner, knees drawn up, his crossed arms pressed against his pained features.

He's still shedding real tears, though. He's still experiencing a genuine physical sensation that mirrors the authenticity of our reaction as viewers. We are moved by these pictures, marveling, for instance, at the classical beauty of Laurence Fishburne — tears trickling down his face — framed by a bathroom window as if it were the halo of a religious icon.

If the art-historical allusions tickle us, the gender reversal tantalizes. These are male subjects viewed through the female lens, the moon to their Endymions. Do women see men — or for that matter, any subject — differently than men do? It's hard to say. Women certainly have a reputation for viewing men as all of a piece, which is more than can be said for the countless men who have objectified women. (Here I must confess to getting a certain thrill from seeing these men subjected to a woman's will.)

Taylor-Wood, however, is better than that. The last photo in the portfolio — a 2002 study of Robert Downey Jr. — is the most telling here. It's the only horizontal and the only nude. Downey lies lightly draped in a sparse bedroom — his bedroom, we're told — an arm tenting his face but not so much that we can't catch its contemplative cast. The torque of the body and the languor of the raised arm suggest Anne-Louis Girodet's "Sleeping Endymion" (1791). In the insightful companion essay to "Crying Men," the great feminist art historian Linda Nochlin actually compares the Girodet to another Taylor-Wood image, of David Beckham, which is not part of the series. But the Downey photo is, I think, more analogous to the Girodet painting.

If the poses are similar, the attitudes are not. Taylor-Wood's treatment of Downey is less sensual and more compassionate. Perhaps that's because we know the actor's tabloid story. Perhaps it's because we know what it's like to lie in bed and realize that the addiction, the cancer, the loss — whatever demon eats us awake — is still there.

Perhaps it's because we know, too, Taylor-Wood's story. Before "Crying Men," there was the "Pietà" video, also with Downey, who seems to have been something of a muse for her. And before that, there were her two bouts with breast cancer.

In a sense, every work is a window onto an artist's soul whether it is a self-portrait or not. In "Still Lives" (Steidl), another book of Taylor-Wood photographs, she observes of "Crying Men": "It was also about stepping into a room and asking someone to display feelings that I felt I couldn't necessarily display myself in the work."

"Crying Men," then, is a portrait of the artist in grief.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dutch buoy

Bart Bland is anything but.

If you've seen his shows at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers or had the pleasure of interviewing him, then you know this curator to be a knowledgeable enthusiast of the arts and history, with an unusual eye for telling their stories.

So Bland's Columbus Day tour of the museum's brilliant "Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture" should be like spending time with a witty, charming luncheon companion as he navigates the vagaries in 400 years of Dutch-American relations. What better way to commemorate Columbus than with another explorer of the New World, Henry Hudson?

As Bland observes: "This Columbus Day gives us a chance to see the many sides of early America. The Dutch who settled America are made the paintings of their legends, the furniture from their homes and the objects that filled their world."

The talk sets sail at 2 p.m. Monday. For more, call 914-963-4550 or log on to

And look for a special Columbus Day blog filled with Dutch treats!

Friday, October 2, 2009

A chronicle of our times

Some people collect china; others, baseball cards. Me? I collect Hamlets and have ever since I saw Brian Bedford play the role at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn.

Years later, I interviewed Bedford for an article on Hamlet, and he predicted — correctly — that Ralph Fiennes would win a Tony Award that year for his portrayal of the role.

I fondly remember Fiennes' Hamlet, along with Laurence Olivier's; Derek Jacobi's; Mel Gibson's; Kenneth Branagh's; Kevin Kline's (in two productions); Liev Schrieber's; and Jason Asprey's at Purchase College's Performing Arts Center.

To these I can now add Jude Law's at the Broadhurst Theatre in Manhattan.

One of the truisms of arts criticism is that if you do it long enough, you'll end up proving yourself wrong from time to time. I must admit I always considered Law to be an overrated movie star whose main part on the world stage was as fodder for the celebrity mags.

But Law's Hamlet is good, very good, surprisingly good. Certainly, his performance stunned the ladies seated behind me at a recent matinee and sent them riffling through their programs at intermission for his other credits. (I for one am now really looking forward to him playing Dr. Watson to Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes in the January film release.)

One of the most miraculous things about "Hamlet" is that each actor who plays the title role always does at least one thing better than any other Hamlet, no matter the quality of the production or his overall performance. I remember, for instance, not loving Fiennes' rapid-fire "To be, or not to be." But I thought his transformation from the damaged Mama's boy of the earlier acts to the serious man who comes to accept the responsibilities of life and the reality of death was just terrific.

Law's gift to the role is a superbly lucid portrait of a rational man — a Renaissance geek as it were, often scribbling — who cannot wrap his mind around the murderous mediocrity that is his uncle. At the same time Law makes clear that Hamlet's bell jar of grief and disenchantment is not merely the result of his circumstances but his own inability to transcend them.

"For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," Hamlet tells frenemies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

But he cannot move himself to act on that belief, or perhaps he doesn't really believe it.

They say we get the Hamlet we need. Watching Law wring every bit of poetic bitterness from "What a piece of work is man," I couldn't help but think that his melancholy Dane was perfectly suited to our depressed times. It helps that Christopher Oram's stage design and Neil Austin's lighting render Elsinore truly the bare, wintry prison of Hamlet's mind.

Then, too, Kevin R. McNally's Claudius follows in the tradition of most recent interpreters of the usurper, presenting him like one of those middling managers who's done so much to destroy the American economy — jocular, venal and ultimately cowardly.

"That one can smile and smile and be a villain," Hamlet the geek notes emphatically in his journal.


"Hamlet" opens at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre Oct. 6 for a limited run. Tickets are available at, 212-239-6200. Catch Jude Law tonight at 11 on PBS' "Charlie Rose."