Friday, August 11, 2017

POST #146: Art On the Bowery

I’m no longer much of a museumgoer. It’s not that I have anything against museums, they’re important educational institutions, but it’s a case of too much ‘been there, done that.’ However, if I don’t linger too long or go too often, a museum visit can be enjoyable and worthwhile.

My friend Elena recently offered to drive me to New York to a “museum of my choice” and I was happy to accept. I suggested we go to the New Museum on the Bowery, having just received an enthusiastic report about the work of Carol Rava an Italian woman artist who died two years ago at the age of 95.  It’s hard to categorize her since she’s basically an “outsider” artist, but a “faux” outsider, a highly sophisticated one influenced by several important 20th century movements including Dada and Arte Povera. Her elegantly framed water colors (frankly, I found the frames more interesting than the art), are uninhibited, scatological, and obsessed with sexuality and bodily excrement, She was quite a character. During her long life she knew ‘everybody important’ in mid 20th c art and, now that she is dead, is finally being recognized.  The best part for me, I have to confess, was the way her work was framed.

I’ve reached the point in my life where I don’t want to be influenced by anybody else’s art! It’s just a distraction. What I do get from seeing other artists’ work are ideas on technique and presentation: how to frame and organize the images, what new materials I can use; basically, ‘the tricks of the trade.’ In Rava’s case, the frames were more interesting than the art they enclosed, transforming what would otherwise be slightly obscene water color sketches into museum quality art. Where did her gallery find them? They looked as if they had been hand carved back in the 1920s. Something else I saw in this show helped me figure out how I could frame some oversize linoleum blocks I carved decades ago. I’ve been struggling for years for a way to display them and found the perfect solution at Rava’s show.

The other exhibit I found interesting (for similar reasons) was the work of a West Coast artist (another woman, but much younger and still living), Kaari Upson. What interested me most was her roomful of oversized pencil drawings on sheets of 8’x5’white paper,  I could make those large charcoal drawings I’ve been doing on brown wrapping paper that size! Then maybe the New Museum would give me a show! 

On our way out, I paid my obligatory visit to the bookstore, filled as usual with overpriced and poorly reproduced tomes on artists you barely (or never) heard of.  I doubt if anyone ever read past Page 5 of anything on the shelves; I no longer even try. But again, something practical and useful came out of the visit. The store had a glass case containing a set of ceramic dinner plates designed by artists of minor repute. As my readers know, I’ve been ‘making plates’ for a couple of years now, only mine are paper and don’t go in the dishwasher. Every once in a while, someone suggests I find a place (like China) to get them produced as real ceramics, and maybe (the Holy Grail I’ll never reach) make some money off them. What shocked me about the Museum Store’s plates was their price. A set of six was priced at $600 (reduced to $520. for museum members). Could you eat off them? Not at those prices!

As Elena and I walked out of the museum into the bright summer sun and the noise and disorder of the street with its hawkers and hippies and Chinese storekeepers, I looked up at the awning on the rundown store next door. It had beautiful rust patina-ed iron gears that moved the awning up and down but looked like something Kurt Schwitters would have assembled in the 1920s.  On aesthetic quality alone, it beat anything we had seen in the museum.


Renee Kahn