New York Travelogue — Frick ‘n Crazy

Like the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum is devoted to modern art. The Longtime New York Friend and I spent an afternoon there a few days before the opening of its much-hyped Andy Warhol exhibit (“From A to B and Back Again”).

Warhol remains a divisive figure. It’s cool to like him, but I remain stubbornly uncool. As noted in a previous post, I follow Picasso’s definition of art as “a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” Warhol’s output is an unironic reflection of mass culture, and it serves, with equal dearth of irony, as a vehicle for his own celebrity. You can argue there’s truth of a sort in that, but if so, it’s banal truth. What’s special about saying “I want fame and fortune?” The only revelation is that, in today’s art market, you actually can get rich and famous as a “recycler and regurgitator of the obvious,” as eminent critic Jed Perl said of Warhol’s chief successor, Jeff Koons. According to Bloomberg.com, sales of Warhol productions grossed more than $200 million last year — down from over $500 million in 2014.

There actually is a haunting Warhol hanging at the Whitney — not by Warhol, but of Warhol, composed in 1970 by Alice Neel:

In addition to the feminine aspects — perhaps a nod to Warhol’s queerness, which I doubt was well-known in 1970 — I see hints of mortality in the portrait, although Warhol didn’t pass away for another 17 years.

As consolation for missing the Warhol show we went to the Whitney’s exhibit of computer-aided art, “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018.” It focused on “look what you can do with art and a laptop!” as opposed to “look what art with a laptop can do to you!” That was a disappointing contrast to the modern art section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included several paintings about the impact of mechanization on the soul. Here is the French cubist Fernand Leger’s take:

The Builders, 1920. Could the figure on the left have inspired the Tin Man’s costume in Wizard of Oz?

Impressive, but I find this work by the less-known Stuart Davis more accessible. You get a real sense of the two men’s confusion — in an almost comic way:

Men and Machine, 1934. To me, the reddish-brown circle and green angle above the first guy’s hat resemble a question mark, but I’m probably reading too much into it.

The Met’s main attraction was “the first comprehensive retrospective” in North America of the pre-Impressionist Frenchman Eugène Delacroix, most famous for “Liberty Leading the People,” an 1830 painting featured on old 100-franc notes (we still have one!):

Allons enfants de la patrie!

Sadly, that wasn’t in the exhibit. Instead the Longtime New York Friend and I saw lots of underlit, macabre works that spoke mainly to Delacroix’s dazzling technique. The one I liked most was perhaps Delacroix’s least characteristic, a country scene that anticipated the arrival of Impressionism by ten years:

View in the Forest of Sénart, 1850.

One last art stop: The Fabulous Wife and I visited the Frick Collection. Henry Clay Frick, right-hand man to 19th century plutocrat-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, built a mansion at 5th Avenue and 70th Street and loaded it with European art. After he died, the house opened as a museum. It’s refreshingly old-school: children under 10 aren’t allowed, you’re expected to be quiet, and you’re not allowed to take photos. The Frick is perhaps most famous for owning three of the 36 known paintings by Johannes Vermeer. It’s famous to me for more personal reasons: it’s the first art museum I was asked to take seriously — by friends of my parents during my freshman year of college. I didn’t live up to their expectations that day, but if Joe and Edith could see me now . . .

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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