Friday, June 9, 2017


My friend Phyllis recently asked me if I wanted to go to the Brooklyn Museum with her to see the Georgia O’Keeffe show. She was going to reserve tickets for us and said she would drive in. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I haven’t been to the Brooklyn Museum in decades, literally, and besides, I hoped to be able to squeeze in a studio visit to my son Ned’s friend, Chico MacMurtrie, at his Amorphic Robot Works in nearby “up and coming” Red Hook.

Luise Kaunert (Mrs. MacMurtrie) and Renee Kahn inside Chico's Robot workshop
I have fond memories of the Brooklyn Museum with its grand entry stair and neo Classical facade. They have some really great collections including a sculpture garden composed of relics salvaged from demolished Manhattan buildings. The O’Keeffe exhibit was beautifully designed but not terribly exciting and didn’t add much to my knowledge of her. However, we unexpectedly came across an installation of Judy Chicago’s famous “Dinner Party” from the 60s that blew me away. I’m no fan of Judy Chicago, but I have to confess I’ve never seen her iconic feminist piece in person and this was a stunning installation, alone well worth the trip to the museum. I was also surprised and overwhelmed by the row of monumental, 7’ high alabaster wall reliefs from the Assyrian palace at Nimrud, c 880 B.C. - the granddaddy of site- specific installation art. I knew the museum was famous for its Egyptian art collection, but this was an exhibit I never expected to see.

Chico MacMurtrie - Amorphic Robot Works
After a couple of hours at the museum, we’d had enough “high culture” and were ready to head home, but I figured it was early enough to call Ned’s sculptor friend Chico, and see if it was convenient to pay him a visit. Ned had shared a studio with him about thirty years ago in San Francisco. At the time, Chico was creating small robotic figures who fought mock battles on the city’s streets. According to Ned, a crowd would gather to watch and eventually the police would arrive to break it up. Chico would then quickly scoop up the combatants and disappear

MacMurtrie's studio in converted
Norwegian Seamen's Church in
Red Hook, Brooklyn
The voice from the dashboard said we were only twenty minutes away from Chico’s place so I called the number he had given me a while ago (saying “stop by any time”) - but only got a fax.  His studio was in an abandoned Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Red Hook, a seedy waterfront neighborhood once populated by immigrants who worked in nearby factories and on the docks. Like much of the rest of Brooklyn, I had heard that the area was being “gentrified.’ We took a chance and found ourselves at the door of a dilapidated, Romanesque-style brick basilica, home to Chico MacMurtrie’s “Church of Robotic Saints”. Chico, it turned out, was out of the country installing a piece in Austria somewhere, but his wife, Luise, upon hearing that I was “Ned Kahn’s mother,” invited us in and gave us a tour. (Ned’s “mother” apparently carried quite a bit of weight.) The church, abandoned by the seamen several decades ago, had been converted to a factory and from there to the home of fifty or so computer-controlled musicians made out of discarded machinery and other industrial detritus: They were Chico’s “saints. According to his web site “these machines mesmerize with their percussive sounds and gestures.” It goes on to say: “They express themselves through rhythm and body language, ranging from introspective solos to powerful ensembles erupting from different corners of the space.” The robotic band performs every few months so I signed up for the mailing list. I’m pretty sure I can talk someone into going with me.

Anyhow, the point of this blog – yes, there IS a point – is that the best part of the trip we agreed afterwards, wasn’t the grand museum with its carefully curated exhibits, but Chico’s ramshackle pile in the middle of nowhere – populated by a band of disreputable mechanical saints creating holy music for a new world.

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