Historical and Contemporary All at Once

My friend Carolyn and I adventured downtown today for a bit of history and the art of 5 minutes ago.

What’s so wonderful about the Merchant’s House Museum is that the furnishings are intact from when the last family member Gertrude died in the 1930s.  She apparently did not have a penchant for change and kept the house reflective of her family’s life from the 1840s forward.  She even lived without electricity, except for a couple of outlets.

Fan DoorWhen the wealthy merchant family moved here, architectural styles were shifting from Federal to Greek Revival, as you can see in the front doorway.  You have the lovely fanlight above the door–Federal–and the Ionic style columns of the Greek Revival.  The house has the verticality of the Federal style with the balance and symmetry of Greek Revival, notable in the double parlors.  Check out the gasolier lighting and the beautiful plaster work, mirrored in each the parlor.

Gasolier and molding

What I also love about the house are the oldest extant Irish servant quarters in New York.  Not terrible, although you climb a lot of narrow, steep stairs to get there.  Some would say their apartment is about the same size and not in as good condition.

Then we moved a few blocks south to the New Museum, where we didn’t have the benefit of a tour with Penny, but I benefited from Carolyn’s sharp eye and good taste.

She instantly preferred Rosemarie Trockel’s ordered sensibility to the artists influenced by her.  Trockel definitely has a way with texture, as you may be able to make out here.  And she uses interesting materials, including acrystal, which is an acrylic resin, along with wool, platinum, and felt.

As always, I can be a bit baffled by the New Museum, a reminder that I’m not hep anymore.

We then debriefed at the lounge of the Bowery Hotel.  We sat in those low-slung brown chairs at center, right by the fireplace.  If you haven’t seen this place, stop in at E3rd and 3rd Avenue.  It brought us full circle to a historic feeling place that’s completely contemporary, literally–a fitting mash-up for the day.



Meaning and Purpose

Atlas and RCATo see what the big deal is, I went on a walking tour of Rockefeller Center this morning, with architectural historian Tony Robins.  He made the massive complex, that stretches from 48th to 51st Streets and the very long block from 5th Ave to 6th Ave, come together with meaning and coherence.

Originally John D. Rockefeller, the philanthropist son of the robber baron, invited the Metropolitan Opera to be the center of the complex, intending for profits from retail and office rentals to subsidize the Opera.  But it was 1933, and the Met couldn’t pull it off.  John D. was without a theme, and he wasn’t your typical real estate developer.  He wanted to contribute to the world with this building complex, at the center of the city, at the center of the world.  Tony described John D. like Atlas pictured above, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, both as a philanthropist and now, as a man with a problem.


Construction continued, as labor and steel were cheap in the Depression.  You see the unimpeded, dramatic view from ground to the top of the 70 story RCA Building, now known as 30 Rock after the TV show.  The whole complex is tied together aesthetically through the use of the same colored stone, vertical windows, vertical banding, all to make our spirits soar, as our eyes inevitably rise to skyward.

But each building is also different in design, even as they are aligned on an axis toward the center (today, the ice skating rink).  The complex is very much like a stage set, with lead architect Raymond Hood creating the desired ‘effect’.

Since he was committed to “international understanding,” John D., in search of a theme for his complex, decided to devote the 5th Ave side of the Center to foreign affairs, now home to consulates and international airlines.  Each of the four buildings that serve as the 5th Ave ‘doorway’ to Rock Center was given over design-wise to a country.  Each had the opportunity to present its face to New York, to create its own image.

British Empire Bldg door

The British Empire Building front door has three parts.  The arch at the top is a tribute to royalty with a lion, unicorn, and the Latin phrase for ‘God and my Right,’ referring to the divine right of the king.  But look at the center part of the door, with these nine sculptures.  Wow!

In gold, all about the wealth, eight are labelled: salt, wheat, wool, coal, cotton, tobacco, and sugar.  You recognize products of the colonies.  Even in 1933, England advertises itself as an Empire, symbolized by that rising sun at the bottom center.

Now compare that toFrench Building, Marianne the French.  Also an industrial power with an empire, France instead promotes its Revolution with Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité and the emblem of the country in Marianne, who carries the torch of liberty.


French Empire Bldg

Below her are sculptural reliefs of diplomacy, with the emblem of New York greeting Paris at lower Manhattan.  Below that scene are three female nudes for Poetry, Beauty, and Elegance.

And we haven’t even entered the complex yet!

Along the sides of these two buildings are simpler over-door decorations.  For France, Marianne as a rustic girl, spreading seeds shaped like fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France.  And above the British doorway, Mercury, god of commerce.  Those messages are consistent, loud, and clear!

French side

Marianne spreading seeds of France






Mercury spreading British commerce

The sides of the buildings take you into the promenade called the “Channel Gardens,” like crossing the English Channel–get it?  You also see the water motifs below each figure’s feet.

The promenade is sloped down to kinesthetically invite the visitor into the complex, down to the skating rink at the center.  The incline device is used throughout the complex, inspired by the design of Grand Central.

By the way, the Italian and International Building entrances aren’t nearly so interesting visually.  But historically, they are: the generic International Building came to pass after the newly empowered Nazis turned down the opportunity to have a dedicated German building, and the Italian 1930s fascist-driven ornamentation was replaced in the 1960s to a bland branch.

No Rock Center visit would be complete without seeing the murals in the RCA building.  Done in grisaille (shades of grays), they are actually very understated.  Of course the backstory is anything but.  After Picasso and Matisse said no to decorating the interior, Diego Rivera said yes.  As a known Communist painting for a man Rivera believed symbolized capitalism, ya might think something would be up.  But no.  He goes right ahead and starts work.  Rivera paints the mural of the working man, then the mural of the upper class drinkers, before doing an enormous portrait of Lenin.  Oops.

Down come the murals.

John D., who was also involved with MoMA, just a couple of blocks away, said the murals would be moved to the museum.  But for whatever reason, ha, they were destroyed in the process.  Rivera was paid $21,000 and went home to Mexico, where he promptly recreated the murals as paintings on canvas.  The upper class drinkers now included a portrait of John D, a known teatotaler.  So there!  Hope you had a chance to see the paintings at the recent MoMA show of Rivera works.

Mural, 30 RockOf the current murals by Jose Marillo Sert, I especially love those on the ceiling.  Look at this gargantuan figure, one of the workers raising the city of the sky, with airplanes up above instead of angels.  The illusionism is awesome.  We don’t get to see much ceiling painting in the U.S., and this is di sotto in su (looking up from below) at its best.


Then there’s the mural as you exit the RCA building onto 6th Ave.  Its lengthy narrative wraps around a very large space, encompassing John D.’s themes about the progress of man.  At the center is Thought, with the Written Word on one side and the Spoken Word on the other.  Wonderful!

We ended with a peek at Radio City Music Hall, which replaced the Met Opera as the artistic group housed at the complex.  But instead of being at the center, as was intended for the Met, Radio City is on the outskirts on 6th Ave.  Of course, the Rockettes were named for Rockefeller Center, but did you know they originally were going to be named the Roxyettes?

Look above the tacky neon on the side of the building to see the medallions of the arts.

Medallion 1Medallion 2







Comedy and Tragedy masks




Rockefeller Center brings together the beauty and elegance of the symmetry–an axial design of many buildings radiating out from the center–and asymmetry–the uniqueness of architectural design, ornamentation, and theme.  It was built at a time of hope, despite the Depression and the impending war.  It was filled with meaning and values that celebrated possibility.

While the throngs were there to see a tree with lights, I left satisfied from this saturation of Beauty and Purpose.  As I walked the 46 blocks home on this beautiful, cold New York day, I, too, could look past the difficulties of our daily life to hope for a better future in 2013.

Flowers and dolls, angels and tomboys

The Newark Museum has a rich, textured, well curated show called Angels and Tomboys, Girlhood in 19th century American art.

Consistently, the images depict girls with dolls and flowers.  Dolls were a socializing agent, teaching girls how to become mothers.  Flowers suggested promise for the future and fertility, and specific flowers carried additional meanings based on the 19th century floral dictionaries.

Even women artists like Cecilia Beaux used the device of the flowers-in-the-lap, the promise of a fertile future for this girl.  But Beaux is sly, choosing to show pansies, the flower of thoughts and thoughtfulness.  Beaux introduces us to Fanny Travis Cochran from 1887, an intelligent, serious girl who gazes directly at us.  “I’m here.  Consider me,” she demands.

Ten years later, Beaux presents Dorothea in the Woods to us.  Notice how the girl is not only direct in her gaze, but also by being placed in nature, takes on more sensuality.  This girl has reached adolescence.  Our engagement with her is more complex, potentially more troubling.

I have never seen Beaux be so personal, even in her self-portraits.  Dorothea and Beaux have a relationship worth exploring.  One woman depicting another on the verge.  Who this girl will become in the new century shows how far girls and women came in that same 10 year period.

Interesting how many male artists show the girl or young woman gazing dreamily to the side, which also disempowers her, making her an object for our gaze and pleasure.

Charles Curran in his Lotus Lilies from 1888 literally immerses his girls in flowers.  Lilies represent purity and sweetness, as well as the exotic, and the painting is sumptuous.  Just hard not to notice how men and women depict women and girls differently.  We see these girls as flowers, and they are not even worthy of being named.

Since I’m currently researching and writing about Lilly Martin Spencer, I loved seeing the two late works of hers in the exhibit, and the additional painting in the permanent collection.  There is so much going on in Home of the Red, White, and Blue from 1867.  Let me know if you want to talk about it.

And her trademark wit is all over the apparently sentimental War Spirit at Home from 1866, while she also subtly challenges gender and racial roles.  I can hardly wait to work more with these images, especially now that I’ve lingered over them in person!

Spencer, War Spirit at Home, 1866












But enough of my soliloquizing.  The show is smart.  It includes stages of life and roles for girls and women, plus challenging works about working children and race.  It has revelatory works that we know and quite a few fresh faces.

The Newark Museum also incorporates a Victorian era house of a wealthy 19th century brewer.  The house is very dark, not only from (mock) gas lamp lighting, but also from Victorian tastes.  Still, in this slide show, you’ll get a sense of what it’s like.  Very evocative, and oh so nice for the season.



Hey Copper

Today I learned something important.  Why is a policeman called a cop?  Police were called Coppers in days gone by because they wore copper buttons.  This delicious fact comes straight to you from the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT.

Mattatuck is several museums under one roof: a transcendent butto_MG_1452.jpgn museum, a history of industrial Waterbury, and an art museum.  I went for the Connecticut WPA (Works Progress Administration) exhibit.   The Federal Arts Program that ran the WPA had a goal of educating the public regarding American art and cultural history.  I was educated by the chance to meet new artists from one of my favorite periods of American art–the 1930s.  There were the American scene painters, the urban realists, and the painters of Connecticut beaches, farms, and factories.  There were women, as well as men.  And it was good.

Check out some highlights in this slide show, along with a taste of the button collection.


Picture 1 of 26


Mattatuck Button Museum 1While surrounded by displays of buttons from around the world, as well as those made in Waterbury, I thought about my grandmother Nettie who saved buttons in a jar.  She was a seamstress to my grandfather Bernard’s tailor.  My mother said Nettie made all her clothes and that they were beauties.  Sadly, none have survived.  But my mother did keep a jar of Nettie’s buttons.  Closing up my parents’ house, I had to throw them away because when I opened the jar, they stank.  A shame, because like the buttons in the museum, you don’t see anything like them now.


So after a wistful moment or two in the Button Museum, I rejoiced again in the Art for Everyone.  This mosaic of the past is worth calling out, “Hey Copper!”

Meet George Jetson

Sometimes I think I live in the wrong era.  Today, 30,000 Santas have descended upon New York and have been given a map of where to go drink until 3 a.m.  Yes, really.  All the proceeds from their drinking will go to Hurricane Sandy victims.  I already had some surreal encounters today with Santa men and Santa women.  Imagine what the streets and subways will be like later, with drunk Santa men and drunk Santa women.

I much prefer the Museum of the City of New York’s approach.  This summer, I worked on inventorying their huge collection of Currier & Ives prints, so it was fun to see the show finally come together.

Whereas I don’t fantasize about being a part of that 19th century world, I did get a huge kick out of the sleigh and sleigh bells, the festive dress and winter coat, and the obvious need for the fur blanket (check out the slide show below for more).

I’m ready to go.  Want to join me?



Another really fun show there is “Designing Tomorrow: America’s Worlds Fairs of the 1930s.”  Now you’re talking an era where I’ve always felt like I fit.  And I just love every aspect of the design elements the exhibit shows off, even in its weirdly cramped space.  You know I love a weird gee-gaw, and I salivated over the souvenir cans (yes, really), makeup compacts, banks, razors, charms, neck ties, and napkin rings.  I’d take one of each, but literally have nowhere to put them.

Now this was a time when my hometown of Dallas (yes, really) was a shining light.  In case you didn’t know, Dallas is a city that’s all about the money, never more evident than with the National Cash Register Building at the 1936 World’s Fair in Dallas (yes, really).

The fair celebrated the 100th birthday of Texas as a state.  But interestingly, the deco design had Apache influence (not a tribe known for being in Texas).  Some of the buildings, albeit a bit crumbly, are still there, in Fair Park, and the State Fair of Texas is still an awesome annual event to visit.


The architectural program wasn’t built to last.  Just like all the other fairs (and so much of the American ethic), it was meant to be destroyed when the fair closed.  What hasn’t been torn down marks some of the classiest buildings in Dallas.

Check out the people sitting on top of the future in the “Futurama Spectators,” Margaret Bourke White’s famous photograph from the GM Building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  This was back when the U.S. had a vision for the future, and I don’t think there was a drunk Santa in sight.



Easily my favorite was Elecktro the Moto Man, from Westinghouse–my “Meet George Jetson” moment.  Elecktro is made of vacuum tubes, a 79 rpm record player, mesh, gears, and motors so it can walk and is much bigger than life size.

The exhibit features a film from the period, demonstrating Elecktro’s ability to respond to commands (take that, Siri!).  It was a pretty big Wow for the audience.

The idea was to help people embrace technology, when science fiction had been using it to generate fear.  Elecktro was described as a “friendly Frankenstein” — “all kindness and geniality.”

Hmm, what do you think?

Herb & Dorothy

You may remember Herb and Dorothy Vogel, who on their postal worker and Brooklyn librarian salaries amassed a contemporary art collection of over 4000 works, all kept in their one bedroom New York apartment.

To share their art legacy, they gave about 2500 works to the National Gallery (their rationale: they worked for the government, earning the money to buy art, and then returned the art to the people at this free museum).  Then they gave 50 works to one museum in each of the 50 states.  Their ’50×50′ program.  Remarkable.

But what did they do?  They continued collecting.

The Herb & Dorothy documentary is an utter joy, so life-affirming and moving, no matter what you think about the art they collected.

The Delaware Art Museum was one of the recipient’s of 50 works, while I was a docent there.  A camera crew came by, to film part of their follow-up documentary.  Looks like they’re going to excerpt from one of my Vogel tours for the new film.  Meantime to see more about that documentary, check out these clips.

You can also follow them on Facebook.


Herb died not too long ago, to all our great sadness.  My heart wept at seeing him shrunken in a wheelchair at the Delaware Art Museum, so terribly frail, still wanting to be a part, as Dorothy took the lead.  That’s not how we’ll remember him though, thanks to these wonderful films.

Roll out the red carpet

My friend Penny gives “good tour”!  She’s added Grand Central Terminal to her repertoire, and if you’re interested in going on one of her Municipal Arts Society tours, let me know, and I’ll connect you two.

Grand Central, well, it’s just grand.  Mr. Vanderbilt, as with everything he built, didn’t skimp.  This Beaux Arts building is full of his symbol, the acorn–from little seeds, grow big trees–and secrets, according to Penny.  She shared some of those secrets:  the dirtiest place in New York, the two most romantic places in New York, Track 61 as FDR’s supposedly private track in the adjoining Wadlorf-Astoria, the secret staircase in the information booth, and and Grand Central’s space age connection.

Did you know that the information desk clock where we all meet all the time, that clock is worth $10-20 million?  It’s made out of solid opal!

All those light bulbs, some 35,000 exposed bulbs, celebrate electricity.  I’m sure ConEd is thrilled, too!  See more pictures in the slide show below.

I loved that Penny talked about the less obvious aspects of the architecture.  Sure, there’s that magnificent statue of Mercury, Hercules, and Minerva atop the station, and the eagle perched off to the side.  And there’s the carved sculptural program both inside and out.  But I loved the explanation of the inclines (the station has no stairs).

Coming in, we’re on top of the world, as if a queen on a pedestal, then the incline down helps us hurry to our train.  On the way out of the station, the incline up encourages us to slow down before entering the bustle of New York City.

Everyone loves the Whispering Gallery, and on this tour, I got to try it out.  I turned into the corner of the barrel-vaulted space and said my name to the woman way on the other said of the space.  Our conversation was muffled, but understandable.  Sort of like talking cell phone to cell phone.  Weird and amazing and delightful.

Apparently, a marriage proposal happens there everyday, so if your partner takes you there and tells you to face the corner, you can probably anticipate what comes next.  This photo is of the vaulted tiling in the Whispering Gallery which I think is exquisite.







The old shoe shine stand is still set up, not far from where the Twentieth Century Train came in to the Terminal.  The red carpet was rolled out for its Hollywood stars and other train-riding celebrities.

In 1913, Grand Central opened, so in just a few short weeks, we can celebrate the centennial of this grand old place, by rolling out the red carpet for Grand Central!




P.S. Kudos to Penny for keeping her cool as a “Free Tibet” protest parade marched from the Chinese Embassy at 42nd and 12th, all the way to Grand Central, right past us, and beyond.

DC, my heart

Today, members of my Renaissance and Baroque Women Artists class went to DC to see some of this art in person.  As we got off the train, one friend said, “Smell the air…it’s so clean.”  And it was.  Another noted that pedestrians are given 45 seconds to cross the street.  “You don’t see that at home,” she said.  So true.  People can take their time crossing the street in DC.

Later, as I ventured temporarily away from the group to see a Civil War art exhibit at the American Art Museum, I made the mistake of walking through a street fair.  Without touching anyone, I weaved through the crowd, intent on finding the front door of the museum.  One person said, “Geez, slow down already.”

When I came out of the museum, I heard “When the Saints Go Marching In” and saw these guys doing their thing, the audience clapping along to the beat.

It was just so Southern.  So feel-good nice.

I felt odd and sad and nostalgic and a bit repelled, all at the same time.  It’s been ten years since I lived in DC, the last home I’ve known.  My heart is sore writing this.  Was life really this much easier, living in DC?  Is New York really that hard?  I think the answer is ‘no’ to the former and ‘yes’ to the latter.  And I’m now so aware of how my DNA has rearranged itself to be in New York.  My heart may never be quite the same.

Everywhere you look

Hard to believe at this age and stage of life I’m studying for final exams, but so it goes.  For the delightful Renaissance and Baroque Women Artists course I’ve taken, we have to memorize stats about images.  Really?

So in a quest to get to know a little known artist better, I ventured up to the Hispanic Society Museum today.  This clearly is one of most out of the way museums in Manhattan, but a great place to just relate to the art, with no crowds or interference.  Housed in a glorious Beaux Arts building, all the masters are there–Goya, Velazquez, Murillo, plus.

Sorolla, Vision of Spain, 1911-9

Then there’s the wonderful Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida I didn’t know before coming to this museum a few months ago.  I was happy to revisit the amazing, overwhelming, color saturated murals painted from 1911-9 celebrating the diverse customs of Spain.



Sorolla, Sea Idyll, 1908


And there’s his simply breathtaking paintings upstairs, four in a row.

Check out more of the images in the slideshow below.




But the artist I traveled to see was Louisa Roldán.  Just yesterday, one of her sculptures was taken down.  Boo.  I did get to really study The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene, c1690.  Everywhere you look, you see some wonderful detail–a squirrel poking out of foliage, a curled snake.  See what you can find!

Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene










Matisse: In Search of True PaintingThe Matisse exhibit at the Met is sweet, and I recommend making a trip to see it, but what’s haunting me right now comes from the Frick’s current drawing exhibit.  The exhibit is full of gems, and with minimal crowds, I could put my nose right up to each one.  I love that!

Yes, see the Rembrandt’s, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Durer and Michelangelo.  Enjoy the wit of Watteau and surprisingly Goya.  Every master of disegno is represented.

It’s Peter Paul Rubens who caught my eye and heart.

Of course, I love how he portrays his second, or is it third, wife Helena.  Don’t you?  Look at that hat!

But the Hercules drawing?  I had to go back and look at three times.  Of course, it’s beyond gorgeous.  No wonder artists through the ages have wanted to copy it.  I’d like to have that man in my life 24/7.

Maybe Anthony van Dyck did, too.  Perhaps that explains why AV Dyck is clear at the bottom of the print.  Or not.  I know van Dyck studied with and was mentored by Rubens.  This drawing is unequivocally attributed to Rubens.  So why does it bear that signature? 

I started asking around.  No one had noticed or knew anything about it. Then I was directed to check in the catalogue.  It references AV Dyck as part of the ‘condition’ of the print, but doesn’t make any reference to it in the contextual essay.  Which means the authors probably don’t know how to make sense of it.

Now you see just how much of an art history geek I am!  We arth geeks want to know…




Hurry!  The wonderful exhibition of Robert S. Duncanson paintings at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery is closing on Saturday.  The show is small, so that you can study every painting.  Tonight, I got a semi-private curator walk through, but the exhibit stands alone with a lot of interpretive material.

Duncanson was really extraordinary.  Born free to an African American family of craftspeople, he was inspired by Thomas Cole to become a landscape painter.  His spiritual light aligns him with second generation Hudson River School artists.

Duncanson MuralsA bit of an itinerant, he worked his way to Cincinnati, before the Civil War.  There, he lived off commissions (check out his murals now part of the Taft Museum, see left) and collaborating with a well-known daguerreotypist, James Presley Ball, also African American.

They lived through the hellish antebellum period of riots and fires in that city that bordered North and South.


Imagine how terrified Duncanson must have felt as a free black man in that tumultuous area. Finally, iIn 1862, he exiled himself to Canada and continued to paint landscapes and Neo-Classical scenes, few with overt political overtones.  The curator said he never had a harsh word for or about anyone.

Duncanson also made two Grand Tours to Europe, exhibiting in England, not the most open-minded of cultures.  That says something about the appeal of his work.  So get over to Columbia to see this show.  It’s a real rarity to have so many of his remarkable works in one place.

Chicken bones

Today, I went to a very entertaining talk on Regency era theater by Lorella Brocklesby, a professor at NYU.

In her very proper British accent, Lorella told us how actors accommodated for poor lighting by acting down toward the front of the stage by the audience, hence downstage.  The wealthiest notables got to sit on stage.  Anyone else was lucky to sit on a rough-hewn bench, and otherwise stood.

The producers put on two or three shows for one ticket price.  So Othello might be first bill, along with a comedy and a light musical.  Jane Austen, who at one  point lived very close to the Drury Lane theater, remarked on taking a carriage (apparently no one walked) and enjoying a 4 1/2 hour evening.  Now we complain if the show has an intermission and lasts longer than 90 minutes.

Still they would think nothing of editing Shakespeare down or having a 15 year old wunderkind play Hamlet.  I wonder if his voice squeaked when he said, “to be or not to be.”  As late as the Victorian era, the Queen was known to grouse about the unhappy endings in Shakespeare’s plays.  In the Regency era, the motto was to leave ’em happy.  Hence ending the performances with musical comedies–certainly my favorite mood elevator.

Lorella commented how polite we all were, attentively and quietly listening to her.  Regency era audiences would catcall, and if they didn’t like a performer or performance, they would throw chicken bones.  I’ve certainly wanted to throw a bone or two at some honkers I’ve seen.  Could a revival of customs be in store?