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After the rally, I met [personal profile] ghost_lingering and Jon at MoMa. They had a sort of special installation in recognition of Trump's travel ban on visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries. I say sort of because I'm not sure whether it really comprises an installation, exactly, except that it does.

The installation, such as it is, consists of seven paintings by contemporary artists installed in MoMa's fifth floor galleries, which typically host the museum's permanent collections- that amazing and confusing collection of Picassos, Matisses, Magrittes and Van Goghs that are the museum's most reliable draw for visitors. I've written before about how MoMa constitutes a canonical avant garde, a 'Revolutionary Orthodoxy'. The seven paintings installed in this gallery present a deliberate and sometimes really unsettling disruption of this paradoxical conservatism.

I commented partway through that it sort of felt like a treasure hunt, to wander through these familiar galleries and spot the painting that was out of place. Sometimes it was instantly obvious; other times the work blended until you took a closer look. A Sudanese painting set beside a Picasso guitar sculpture showed similar geometries and a similar color palette- and an utterly different sense of composition.

Each of the paintings had a note beside it noting that the artist was from a country whose travel into the US was being restricted by the executive order, making clear how such an executive order would impact our artistic and cultural exchange with the world. But the positioning of the art within the context of MoMa's permanent collection made a sort of opposite argument, namely that these works of art are not scary, they are not foreign and weird, they're perfectly recognizable as part of the normal discourse of the art world. And that cutting these seven countries out of our American lives isn't cutting out the Other, something separate- it's cutting something out of our very heart.
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About a decade ago, back when I was still in college and had free entry to MoMa whenever wanted, there was an amazing exhibit on Dadaism at MoMa. [ profile] alixtii memorialized the exhibit in a Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist fic, which is bizarre since by their account they never went to the exhibit, but I went. I enjoyed getting the wide angle on Duchamp's work, as I've loved Duchamp since Pinkwater first exposed me to Dadaism in Young Adult Novel. It was neat seeing the elements of Dada that don't usually show up at museums- posters and homemade magazines and so on, the community of Dadaists. But the most revelatory aspect of the exhibit for me was my initial exposure to the paintings of Francis Picabia.

There wasn't much Picabia in the exhibit, maybe four or five paintings, but they were spellbinding. They were electrifying. One of those paintings, Parade Amoureuse, particularly moved me.

It depicts a sort of Rube Goldberg device, mechanical linkages ostensibly capable of transforming linear motion to rotary motion, rotary motion to linear motion, and linear and rotary motion to eccentric cam motion. Love Parade! The colors, the haphazard splash of red leaping out amidst the dull browns and tans! The off-kilter perspective: the flatness of the foreground evoking a draftsman's projections set against a background with an asymmetric axonometric projection of a room! It is an engineer's love parade, the mechanical transforming into the emotional by means of a fantastic mechanism. It is transfixing.

MoMa is now staging a special exhibition on Picabia's whole career, and I went to see it today. It was fucking amazing.

Apparently Picabia began his career as an Impressionist- his first show was a set of paintings in clear imitation of Monet, and they are good Impressionist paintings- not quite as technically subtle as Monet, but elegant and attractive. Though apparently Picabia cheated- rather than involving himself in the process of the Impressionists, of painting outdoors "en plein air", he took photographs and then created his Impressionist works from those references. From the beginning, there was this engagement with the way technology was changing art- this would seem to have been one of the only constants in Picabia's career.

After that initial show, Picabia reinvented himself for the first time with a set of sort of Cubist paintings that moved into full abstraction. "The Spring" is one of the paintings that MoMa's curators keyed the exhibit around- it is striking in its size and energy, and in the muted earth tone palette that Picabia reused several times in this period.

This paintings are interesting, and attractive, in their intricate geometries, but they are probably mostly notable as early attempts at Abstraction. Picabia's next transformation, though, is where it's at. The curators suggest a connection between Picabia's early experience with a letter press and his new aesthetic interest in mechanical objects, but it's not entirely convincing. Be that as it may, Picabia's next period, which coincides with the rise of Dada, was characterized by figurations known as 'mechanomorphs' - machine shapes. There are a several different types of these. Some are direct takes on machinists' prints, sometimes doing little more to reinterpret them than giving them a new, fanciful Dadaist title- the print as the Readymade in place of the object produced. Some use the techniques of mechanical drafting toward more creative ends, combining mechanical objects in unexpected ways.

Here's "Reverence", with the angled white line off-balance not in a pictorial way, but in a mechanical way, recalling a cam shaft in motion, on top of circles arranged like a planetary gearset.

Here's "Fuel Pump", a colorized, stylized rendering of a schematic of a fuel pump.

And here's Picabia's take on a carburetor, in a painting with the legend "L'Enfant Carbureteur", the Child Carburetor.

And of course the centerpiece for me was seeing Parade Amoureuse for the first time in a decade. I probably stood in front of it for ten or fifteen minutes total- I kept coming back to it again and again. Even after I left the exhibit and saw a few more things in the regular collection that I always go to see at MoMa, I went back to see Parade Amoureuse one last time. I just love it so much.

I love the mechanomorphs because they recognize the art of the machine, the art that comes from designing something to be useful, but also the art that comes from representing this beauty on the page. Much of my job involves sitting at a CAD station, and my greatest moments of joy in the job come when a functional design emerges with an unexpected beauty. Picabia's mechanomorphs draw this phenomenon out and brings it to the gallery. It was electrifyingly exciting to see an Atwood Machine in an art gallery.

Everything after that in the furious reinventions of Picabia was a letdown for me, but that doesn't mean there weren't some amazing things anyway. Picabia was apparently involved in the creation of Rene Clair's avant garde film "Entr'acte", which I was forced to watch in a film history class. He followed this with a period in which he used garish commercial paints to create monstrous portraits of grotesque lovers.

Often in this period Picabia was using these commercial enamel paints to paint over his previous, more classical paintings. The contrast between the oil paints and the enamels is fascinatingly strong in a way that photos on the internet do not communicate. Also, the way the contrast uses remix as a way to overlay new ideas over old without losing sight of the old.

Picabia exceeded himself in this respect with the next set of paintings, which I don't think I should even bother posting any photos of, because you need to see them to believe. He took older oil paintings of his and layered a clear resin on top, and then painted new grotesque mythological images on top of the resin, sometimes layering four or five layers on top of each other. I've never seen anything like these paints. You've almost certainly never seen anything like these paintings. They're amazing and they have to be seen to be believed. in one painting, a putative self portrait, he took a realist portrait of himself painted by another painter and painted over it a series of odd figures- faces, hands, bodies. It is without question Picabia in a nutshell.

One way to see these paintings is as Picabia doing Photoshop before there was Photoshop. I would love to see what Picabia would have done with Photoshop; I feel certain he would have been one of the first artists creating art with computers if he'd had the chance. Picabia's lifelong interest in photography saw another resurgence in the 1940s, when he did a series of paintings directly taken from magazine photographs, often pornographic magazines, retaining the lighting and costuming effects that make these photographs live in the unsettling uncanny valley that is 'photorealism'. Of these, I do want to mention one in particular as puzzling but interesting to me, a painting titled "The Wandering Jew".

I don't know what to make of this painting, which has in its upper right corner a misspelled Hebrew attempt to write "Lech Lecha"- the injunction from God to Abraham to become a wanderer and leave Ur for Canaan. The male figure, presumably the eponymous wandering Jew, is in lurid action magazine style, but he somehow doesn't seem negatively caricatured to me. His face is worn and stressed, but there is life in it. And there is the naked woman, his seductress companion. What is she doing? What is her connection to the wandering?

After this final period of figuration, Picabia's last decade was devoted to the rise of Abstract Art, a movement he'd pioneered decades early only to find he had been, as usual, ahead of the curve. Again, I see no value in posting any photographs of these paintings- they are so texturally dramatic that they need to be seen in person to be appreciated.

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Sunday I met up with a friend visiting the City at the Frick. Last time I visited the Frick was with [personal profile] morbane two years ago. It's my favorite museum in New York- the perfect combination of iconic, beautiful art, a magnificent venue for displaying it, and a size that gives you plenty to take in without overwhelming you. You can see everything there is to see at the Frick in an hour or an hour and a half. (You can see everything at the Met in a week... if you rush.)

The special exhibit was a Cagnacci painting, the Repentant Magdalene, a 17th century Italian religious painting with a powerful sensuality, which you can see inadequately represented here:

Oddly, the highlight of the painting is not Magdalene, but her sister Martha, whose reality and sincerity in pose and facial expression anchors the more out there elements of the painting. But it's a generally remarkable composition, with six or seven focal centers without seeming all that busy.

The other best part of the trip was my usual pilgrimage to Velazquez's portrait of Philip IV, which remains one of my favorite paintings. Velazquez somehow makes him seem both regal and completely middling at the same time, which is a neat trick.

Last night I went to see Guillaume Tell at the Met. Made many jokes all week about the lunatic who decided that spilling the ashes of a loved one over the orchestra pit at intermission last Saturday was a good idea.

I had transportation difficulty- traffic on 287, but I still got to the train station at a reasonable time. But then the train got into the station five minutes late, it got into Penn another five minutes late, and then the subway had delays that gave me the choice of waiting for the 1 Train to take me to Lincoln Center (but with an estimated wait time of 20 minutes) or taking the 3 Train to 72nd and running back down to Lincoln Center. I chose the second option, since it at least gave me a shot at getting there on time, but ended up pulling into Lincoln Center three or four minutes after curtain. This gave me exposure once more to the worst thing about the Met: their policy of not letting latecomers in until the intermission and instead shunting them to a tiny, overly hot screening room where an indifferently filmed simulcast shows the action.

This rather ruined the experience. Guillaume Tell is an unpopular opera that is rarely staged, and is only famous for its rather brilliant overture, part of which was famously turned into the Lone Ranger theme. Getting there three minutes late meant I had to listen to the overture over speakers, which was infuriating. We then had to watch the tepid first act, badly lit and weirdly costumed, on the screen before we could take our seats an hour and a half into the opera. Three minutes late, caused by half an hour worth of traffic on an hour and a half trip, ruining a 40 dollar ticket purchase! And not just mine. There were over 50 people in that damned screening room. It's such a bullshit policy. And they don't even go to the technically trivial effort of displaying subtitles, so unless already you know the opera you probably can't even follow it. I can't figure out why this is, other than to think that the Met actually regards sending you to the screening room as a just punishment for the sin of coming late to the opera.

We saw the second and third acts from our seats. There were memorable moments- the convocation of the cantons at the end of Act II is one of the greatest operatic choral scenes I've ever seen. But mostly the opera was just off-putting. I know I can't fairly judge any opera when I had to spend the first act in the penalty box- I even struggled with Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream when that happened. But I think a lot of my issues with Guillaume Tell transcend my personal frustration.

The use of color was atrocious- all of the Swiss wore white, flowing robes, all of the Austrians wore black, the backdrop was all-blue, the Swiss Alps were brown, and the only other color in the whole opera came when everyone was bathed in darkroom red for the scene when the Swiss were made to submit to the Emperor's authority. A)White vs. Black for good vs. evil is about the laziest visual symbolism you can use. B) If you're going to use white and black with nothing else, lighting is everything. You do not want a stage where shadows are all over the place messing with the contrast, or it'll look washed out and ugly as hell. C) How the hell are people in the cheap seats supposed to tell characters apart when they're all wearing the same thing?

The dancing was very well done, though.

And the romance was very pastede on yay, in a story that was really fundamentally a war story rather than a love story. Rossini operas often end up like this- an infuriating combination of brilliant music and half-baked plot.

The opera stretched out for another hour past the third act, but we decided to skip the final act because we were exhausted and not enthralled.

Which was, I think, a good choice, as it let me catch the last three innings of the World Series. WOW. The Mountain Goats' "Cubs in 5" has been playing in my head all morning, but the strategy and the heroics and the chaos and the rain delay just to let you pause and appreciate how amazing the game was... I'm so glad I got to see some of it.


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