Friday, February 19, 2010


So much to do this weekend, so little time to do it all.

At 8 p.m. tomorrow, singer/songwriters Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky team at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill. 914-739-2333,

Sunday it's Mardi Gras time with Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra at New Rochelle Public Library at 3 p.m. 914-632-7878,

Finally, both tomorrow and Sunday you can see M & M Productions' "The Lincoln Continental," about a girl, her dad and the car that binds them through the years. It's at Irvington Public Library at 2 p.m. 914-591-7840,

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Men at work

Been trying to watch the men's long program on NBC while reading The New York Times' live blogging on the same, and thought I'd try a little live blogging of my own.

As an arts writer, I'm amused (in an irate way, of course) by the number of comments — presumably from young men — are on how figure skating should be eliminated from the Olympics because it's just a lot of dancing. Listen: I've been a Yankee fan most of my life and an attendee of the New York City Ballet for almost as long, and I agree with the great Lou Gehrig, who said that dancers make the best athletes.

I've covered dance for all of my professional life — indeed my first published piece as an adult was a review of a modern-dance troupe performing at Harrison High School — and I've got to say that I've never seen an athlete who had the combination of power, grace, stamina, technique, charisma and beauty that you will find in a top-flight male dancer. Remember that dancers don't "play" once a week or once a day during a particular season. They take morning technique class, rehearse and then perform in the evening, often twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays because of matinees. Their off-season involves free-lancing. And they often have to act as well as dance. Few athletes approach that standard. (Few athletes could stand looking good while maintaining that pace.)

But a few come close. I covered the balletic ice skater John Curry, who formed his own skating company after he won gold at the 1976 Olympics. I recall the trouble The Metropolitan Opera House had converting its stage into an ice rink for his performances. But I also remember Curry's noble effort to transcend his sport by truly merging it with dance.

That said the greatest ice skater I ever saw was Robin Cousins, another Englishman, who succeeded Curry in winning gold four years later. I once saw Cousins simulate a soft-shoe routine on ice to Gershwin that defied logic. It was dynamite.

So yes, skating is a lot like dancing — when it's at its best.

I'm also struck by all the skittishness bordering on homophobia in the snarky comments about the men's costumes. Granted, sometimes they get in the way of a performance, but I could say the same about plenty of women's get-ups. Judging from the male respondents, I must conclude that men are uncomfortable with being viewed as sex objects by women as well as other men. Yet throughout much of art history — until the rise of the middle-class in the Victorian era, when women were either put on pedestals or lusted over in back-rooms — men were the primary sex symbols in the all-important categories of history painting, allegorical works and even religious art.

My advice to male Olympic watchers is Relax and enjoy the form-fitting costumes and triple-toe loops.

P.S.: Evan Lysacek just took the gold. I picked him from the beginning, not only for his steady temperament and superb work ethic but because he is the most complete male skater, combining athleticism and art.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gallery Getaway: At the Neu

In a recent post, I wrote that the appointment of Patrice Giasson as curator of Latin-American art at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art reflected the rise of Latino culture in Westchester County.

Now that appointment has born tangy fruit in the form of the new show "Contemporary Latin American Art From the Luis Calzadilla Collection." The show features 27 of the 35 works bequeathed to the museum by the estate of the late Miami-based architect. I wish I could write about each one of them, they are that interesting. Suffice it to say that singly and together, they manage to be distinctly Latin-American while evoking the great art of Western Europe.

"Hombres (Men)" (1992), an oil and charcoal diptych by Çosta Rica's Miguel Hernández Bastos, suggests the tortured torsos of the late great Cuban artist Felix González-Torres and the bloody palette of Spanish painting. Venezuelan Henry Bermúdez's "Parjaro con Pinta de Tigre (A Bird With A Tiger's Appearance)," a 1991 oil seen here, conjures one of Henri Rousseau's jungles, while Nelson Díaz's "Study for Primates (Estudio para Primates)," a 1988 work, gives us a variation on Francis Bacon's grotesque, howling figures.

Meanwhile, the crumbling tile in Cuba depicting a headless horseman and the color photograph of that subject, which together make up Carlos Garaicoa's "En Busca del Santo Grial (Seeking the Holy Grail)" (1993) speak to the foolishness of obsession, religious or otherwise.

There is, however, nothing foolish about the fascination felt here. This is a wonderful introduction to these artists and the collection of cultures they represent. 914-251-6100,

Photo courtesy of the Neuberger.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Art and sport

Those of you who are enjoying the Olympics this week were no doubt put out by Christopher Hitchens' invective against the Olympics in particular and sports in general in the current Newsweek magazine.

In his essay, "Fool's Gold," Hitchens theorizes that bad sportsmanship is sportsmanship, that sports breed violence, cheating and other immoral behavior. Say what you what about the iconoclastic Hitchens, who has taken on no less than God and Mother Teresa. (So from that perspective, newly anointed bronze medalist and reforming bad boy Bode Miller would not be that much of a challenge.) But no one does acidic contempt quite so elegantly as he does. (Hitchens, that is.)

Here's a sample of his vituperation:

"I can't count the number of times that I have picked up the newspaper at a time of crisis and found whole swaths of the front page given over either to the already known result of some other dull game or to the moral or criminal depredations of some overpaid steroid swallower."

Hey, when the Yankees win the World Series — a term that Hitchens deems a bloated misnomer — I want whole swaths of the front page trumpeting the news, particularly if the paper is from Boston.

In his Stewie-like hissyfit, Hitchens misses the biathlonic mark: Like art, with which it has much in common, sport is about metaphor. The athlete who plays through her pain or who completes the race in memory of his beloved sister may or may not be the best exemplar of humanity. But he or she offers an example of the very human ability and determination to endure the agon (a Greek word meaning contest). If that example gives me comfort or you courage or someone else a momentary escape from the grind of daily life, well, isn't that something to savor?

Still, I sympathize with Hitchens, who writes with the disenchantment of a nerdy high-school yearbook editor bemoaning the attention paid to the star quarterback and the head cheerleader. When I hear Olympic officials decrying the lack of money for American luge, I say, Where is the money for the arts? When's the last time the "Today" show — which is all over the event like a blanket of fresh snow on Whistler Mountain — interviewed a ballet dancer? How about the American women's hockey player who said there's not much to do at the team's Minnesota training camp except play hockey. Really? Ever heard of picking up a book? What about listening to Mozart? Better yet, what about playing Mozart?

And speaking of Mozart, would it be too much to ask for the figure-skating commentators to announce the piece of classical music the skater is using? (Adam Rippon did a beautiful long program at the U.S. Nationals championship to the Barber Violin Concerto but you wouldn't know it.) More to the point, wouldn't it be better if the jumps were integrated into the choreography the way tours en l'air are in ballet dancing?

Hitchens does have an argument: Too much attention is paid to sports at the expense of subjects that are more serious or at least more important to others.

I wish would could embrace the true spirit of the ancient games, in which the Greeks reveled in art as much as in sport.

And, uh, go Yankees.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Faces of eternity

The sedately beautiful, almost too painful new exhibit on Lincoln and the Civil War at the Bruce Museum is about many things. It's about leadership in crisis — something all too rare in our world today. It's about the inescapable touchstone that this period in our history has become. It's about the insidious cancer that is slavery.

But it's also about a subject that has long fascinated me and that is how leaders use the media of their time to express both the universality of leadership and the particularity of personhood. In the modern era, for instance, we are familiar with how President John F. Kennedy used TV and photography to present himself not only as a vigorous, youthful statesman but a playful father and an adoring spouse of an iconic wife.

Lincoln, too, used the then-newfangled medium of photography to further his political ambitions, record events and present himself as an empathetic wartime leader, says Rye resident Harold Holzer, who as both a Lincoln scholar and a Metropolitan Museum executive is well-qualified to speak on Lincoln and the visual arts.

Indeed, Lincoln — who was well-aware that some people thought his striking but unconventional face was ugly and employed his self-deprecating wit as a defense mechanism — was vain enough to take a young admirer's advice that he grow whiskers to give his thin mug some sophistication. As he became shrewder photographic subject, the tousled auburn hair got smoother, the suits darker and crisper.

But Honest Abe wouldn't brook any chicanery. He wouldn't, for example, allow folks to think that the book he and youngest son Tad were looking at in one of his most famous photographs was the Bible when it was really an album of photos. (In other words, unlike some of our present-day politicians, he wouldn't exploit religion for personal gain. Isn't that refreshing.) And I think that's why when you look at Lincoln's haunted, haunting face — in the exhibit but especially in the companion book "Lincoln, Life Size" (Alfred A. Knopf) — you see not only the president but the man.

It wasn't only that way. In ancient times, leaders went for idealization over reality. Ramesses the Great, who was a past master at propaganda, liked to lop off the heads of the sculptures of previous pharaohs and substitute his own. At places like Abu Simpel, he gave us the face of eternity — perfectly symmetrical and exquisitely chiseled, with almond-shaped eyes, a straight nose that flares slightly at the nostrils and a bow-shaped mouth.

Did Ramesses actually look like that? Judging from the hook-nosed mummy in the Cairo Museum, he did not. But then, a corpse may not be the best clue to what someone looked like in life.

By the time you get to the Greeks and Alexander the Great, you begin to see the coalescence of romance and reality. Alexander was another great propagandist, so much so that he tried to ensure that only three people — the painter Apelles, the sculpture Lysippos and the gem-carver Pyrgoteles — were allowed to fashion his image. But the upward tilt of the head, the liquescent eyes and the leonine hair were apparently all Alexander. And if they happened to dovetail with his image of himself as the new Achilles fulfilling the Homeric ideal of excellence in his conquest of the Persian Empire, well, so much the better.

In Alexander, the man, the media and the message merged beautifully. Leaders have been trying to replicate that recipe ever since, with mixed results.

Not everyone is pleased that they make the effort at all. That superb iconoclast Percy Bysshe Shelley mocked the once-powerful Ramesses' shattered stone remains in his well-anthologized sonnet "Ozymandias." But Shelley — himself immortalized by a sensual neoclassical sculpture at Oxford University — misses the point.

It's not that Ramesses has been reduced to fragments, Alexander to a coin or Lincoln to a calling card. It's that these survive at all, and through them the leaders they represent.

Long after we're gone, those leaders and their images will still be here.

"Lincoln, Life Size" — based on the collections of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation at Purchase College, is on view today through June 6. 203-869-0376, The Meserve-Kunhardt collections are open to the public by appointment. For more information, call 914-251-4474 or log on to

And if you're interested in the subject of leadership imagery, you might want to take a look at the chapter on "Art and Power" in Nigel Spivey's "How Art Made the World" (Basic Books) and Andrew Stewart's "Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics" (University of California Press).

The Lincoln images are courtesy of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

American Arcadia

If you happened to catch the recent piece in The New York Times on Montgomery Place, or my article in the Westchester Eye, you know that Historic Hudson Valley in Tarrytown has been reconsidering how to manage this its largest property and the only one outside Westchester County. (It's in Dutchess.)

Spokesman Rob Schweitzer had told me that HHV decided to reinterpret the site — once the home of prominent Revolutionary War widow Janet Livingston Montgomery — as an American Arcadia, much as it reinvented Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow to focus on the contributions of the African slaves who actually ran that 18th-century mill and farm. Beginning this spring, new text panels at Montgomery Place, a 380-acre complex in Annandale-on-Hudson, will explore the natural and artistic landscape.

Now Schweitzer tells The Arts Muse that several Hudson Valley preservationists have pledged $675,000 over a five-year period to enhance programming and access at Montgomery Place. This will be the springboard for a campaign to increase visitation, volunteerism and other financial support.

What does this mean for you and me? Well, effective immediately, the grounds will open to everyone except pets (sorry, Fausto, my sister Gina's Chihuahua) daily from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The main house will be open for tours May 15-Oct. 31, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays.

It's appropriate that Montgomery Place is coming back so strongly in the spring, the season of hope and renewed vigor.

In the winter of our financial discontent, this is heartening news. 914-631-8200,

Photos of Montgomery Place courtesy of Historic Hudson Valley.

Friday, February 5, 2010


Where to begin in discussing Cuban installation/performance artist Tania Bruguera, whose new show, "On the Political Imaginary" is at Purchase College's Neuberger Museum of Art through April 11?

Bruguera is one of those in-your-face artists who uses images that are controversial, blatantly sexual and often downright disgusting — rotting sugarcane, nude performers burdened by raw meat and animal carcasses, gun-wielding actors, costumes made of earth and rusty nails to mimic African icons — as a way of provoking a response from the audience, which then becomes part of her art. At her best in this show, she approaches the brilliance of Douglas Gordon's "30 seconds text," whose exploration of life-in-dying is one of the most chilling and mesmerizing works I've ever seen.

"Untitled (Kassel, 2002)" has something of that work's spellbinding frisson. You enter through the darkened maze that was once the museum's cavernous Theater Gallery. Under the glare of a bank of lights in one of the constructed rooms, you notice a woman in a dark suit patrolling a mezzanine with a pistol. It's a toy gun, of course, you wonder. (You hope.) Then you think, Is she going to point it at me? That clicking sound you hear when the lights go off is the gun being loading and reloaded. (The work was originally performed in Kassel, Germany, site of a munitions factory in World War II.) Actually, I wasn't aware of the clicking sound. I was too busy concentrating on getting out of the gallery as soon as the lights came back on.

And that's what Bruguera wants: Coming as she does from a country that has been under a dictatorship for decades, she wants you to experience the paralytic power of imprisonment, physical and psychological, as well as the visceral thrill of vicarious bondage.

Bruguera is nothing if not a multi-layered artist. In the 1998-99 video "Displacement," above, she donned an earthen costume (also on display) to conjure the African deity Nkisi Nkonde, whom Afro-Cubans petition with requests by puncturing the figure with rusted nails. This also evokes the image of Jesus nailed to the cross and makes you wonder why one would torture a god to whom one prays.

Like a lot of clever artists, however, Bruguera sometimes overplays her hand. She doesn't trust the audience to get her work. The layers are piled on thick. In "Poetic Justice" (2002-03), right, based on her four-week residency in India, textured brown walls made of used teabags couch small video screens in which a hand is treated with a salve, for instance. The accompanying handout describes it thus: "The luminous scenes combine the dematerialized spectacle of technological modernity with the earthliness and immediacy of more traditional Indian products." Huh? This makes no verbal sense and obfuscates the visual metaphor of the teabag — a source of national pride in India and a symbol of colonial oppression.

Then there is Bruguera's troubling use of the body, particularly the female body. In "Studio Study" (1996), performed in the South Gallery 1:30-2:10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, a nude actress encased in metal rings and tufts of cotton leans forward on a small pedestal, cupping a piece of raw meat. (Needless to say, this is not a show for kids.) It's is a loaded work that suggests everything from the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna, divesting herself as she descends to the underworld, where she hangs on a hook, to the HIV-positive performance artist Tim Miller, who got into such trouble in the Reagan era by cutting himself onstage and sending blood-laced pieces of paper out into the audience.

But "Studio Study," along with other works in the show, also makes you wonder why Bruguera feels the need to explore the debasement of the body, particularly the female body.

The actress Geneviève White, who performs the role four times a week, sees it differently.

"There's an element of restriction but also an element of freedom," she told me as she was leaving the museum after today's performance. "In a way, it's like putting me in a cage. But it's also keeping me from falling off a pedestal. It's harsh as metal and soft as cotton. It's empowering and diminishing."

I reminded her that some have used these same words to describe prostitution, stripping and porn.

Is "On the Political Imaginary" great art? Probably not. But it does make you think. And that alone is worth the price of admission.

The show is accompanied by "Contemporary Latin American Art from the Luis Calzadilla Collection," a wonderful introduction to this specialty. More about this exhibit in an upcoming post. 914-251-6100,

Photos courtesy of the Neuberger Museum.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Shall we dance?

Attention, amateur toe-tappers!

Purchase College's Performing Arts Center is not to be outdone by the current crop of singing-dancing reality shows. The center has commissioned choreographer Larry Keigwin of New York City's Keigwin + Company to reprise his "Bolero" project, in which everyday folks get together for a community dance event.

The center has announced an open casting call for participants (all ages and skills) for high noon Saturday at its locale on the college campus, off Anderson Hill Road between Purchase and King streets.

Wiley Hausam, who now heads the PAC, commissioned Keigwin to do his first "Bolero," called "Bolero NYC," in 2007 when he was at NYU. Already, Keigwin has worked with fourth- and fifth-graders at the King Street School on some dances for "Bolero Suburbia," which will be presented May 6 and 8.

As Hausam told The Arts Muse: "'Bolero Suburbia' will be a celebration of life in Westchester and Fairfield Counties."

So get out those dancing shoes! For more information, check out