Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ellsworth Kelly’s Magnolia

Ellsworth Kelly Magnolia

Every year, within a day or two of Father’s Day, the first magnolias appear on the tree we planted in my father’s memory. Often, three flowers appear at once. My two sisters and I take this as a sign our dad is present.

This Father’s Day morning, I was not in my mother’s front yard awaiting the annual blooms, but at the Met, strolling through the fabulous¬†Ellsworth Kelly Plant Drawings exhibit. Without thinking about the occasion, I came upon this sketch of a magnolia, admired it, then read the wall text and noticed it was drawn the year I was born.

Of course it was. Happy Father’s Day.

Zen and the Museum: Top Five for 2011

I’m reaching beyond the Beltway for my top five this year, to include the Met and–a nice surprise– the Denver Art Museum. My most memorable museum experiences this year ranged from contemplative to camp:

1. Fragments in Time and Space (Hirshhorn): Seeing Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Seascapes series, illuminated in a pitch-black gallery that mimicked the curve of the earth, was almost a religious experience. “Every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing,” Sugimoto writes of his work. A voyage of seeing. If I had a mantra, that would be it.

2. Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands (Metropolitan Museum of Art): If the aim of these newly renovated galleries is to present the “plurality of the Islamic tradition,” the Met succeeds beyond expectation. I visited last weekend and was blown away by the depth of this collection, particularly in the Iranian section. My sister, a high school history teacher in the DC area, is already planning a day trip for her AP students. I walked out of there thinking, I’m lucky I live a short train ride from New York.

3. Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (Metropolitan Museum of Art): I arrived first thing Sunday morning and only had to wait in line 40 minutes. So worth it, and extra fun coming on the heels of a royal wedding and New York’s same sex marriage victory. The clothes were astonishing; the creative genius behind them more so.

4. Nigeria Unmasked (National Museum of African Art): Because my experience in Africa is lacking–I’ve only been once, to Ouagadougou, of all places–this trip through Nigeria’s Benue River Valley was an eye-opener. The video installations in particular bring the region’s rich culture to life, showing ghostly 1960s footage of ritual masquerades. Made me wonder why I didn’t pursue anthropology. See it through March 4, 2012.

5. Robert Adams: The Place We Live (Denver Art Museum): I guess I should give Denver more credit; turns out the city supports a world-class art museum. On my first trip to the city this year, for a wedding, I spent a quiet afternoon studying Robert Adams’ spare black-and-white landscapes and thinking about what it means to be Western. Adams’ translation of Colorado’s wide open spaces made me understand a little bit better. Runs through January 1, 2012.

Travels with My Niece

My sister and I took my 10-year-old niece to New York for the first time last weekend. We walked up Fifth Avenue and admired the holiday windows at Tiffany’s (tiny carousels!). We saw Mary Poppins on Broadway. We took a lot of cab rides. And we spent Sunday morning at the Met.

Oh, the Met. Seeing one of the world’s great museums through 10-year-old eyes made me love it all over again.

I wasn’t sure my niece would be engaged, but she found something interesting everywhere we went: the fantastic new Art of the Arab Lands galleries, the Egyptian temples, the Chinese garden courtyard, the giant Buddhas. All of it, amplified by taking photos with her iPod Touch (“I’m a really good photographer,” she mused somewhere in the Southeast Asian wing).

There’s a lot to be said for preserving museums as places of quiet contemplation. “I’d like to see museums offer refuge from our devices,” blogged arts writer Judith Dobrzynski recently, lamenting the trend toward “participatory art museums.”

Normally, I’m something of a purist on this issue; I don’t even use audio guides when I visit museums. Then again, I’m an adult with no kids, and I crave quiet contemplation along with my art.

Last weekend forced me to reconsider. If mobile cameras prompt ‘tweens to consider 14th century Buddhist murals–and discuss them with their parents when they return home–they can’t be all bad.

McQueen at the Met

There was a happy vibe up and down Fifth Avenue today. Thousands of gay couples converged on Manhattan to celebrate Friday’s same-sex marriage victory and the culmination of gay pride week.

I didn’t attend the big parade. Instead, I spent the morning at the Met, studying the creative genius of one of the gay community’s fashion icons–the late Alexander McQueen. The museum’s summer blockbuster, “Savage Beauty” isn’t just a show, it’s an experience. I now understand better why people like Sarah Jessica Parker were devastated at McQueen’s death.

There’s a quote at the beginning of the exhibit wherein the designer says it’s his mission to break all the rules but maintain tradition. His intricately constructed garments–made of flowers, feathers, shells, tartan, silk–make you a believer. A series of tartan dresses, a nod to Scottish nationalism, appealed to the Scot in me, but I liked the Asian-inspired dresses best. This one (pictured), seemingly a reinvention of a kimono or qipao, was jaw-dropping. Operatic best describes it; you’d need a serious diva to carry this off.

I also liked the variety of Dr. Seuss-like hats and headpieces designed by Philip Treacy, creator of the Princess Eugenie “fascinator” so roundly disparaged at the recent royal wedding. Savage Beauty‘s video clips, showing McQueen’s dresses as they were presented at his fashion shows, add an important dimension; it’s obvious that he was a performer first.

I haven’t been this wowed by an exhibit in a long time, and I left wondering how so many ideas can spring from one person’s mind, while the rest of us are left grasping at straws.

Savage Beauty runs through August 7, 2011, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.