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The Weird and the Wonderful at New York City Museums

By Steven Rosen · August 10th, 2010 · The Big Picture
On my trip last week to New York City, I bypassed the blockbuster shows at the major art museums in favor of secondary shows and institutions. Secondary in visibility, maybe, in America’s busiest arts city, but not in quality. In fact, every institution — in different ways — was pushing its own envelope in order to offer new, provocative ideas about the art it displays. That included the ones you might think staid (the Museum of Art and Design, formerly the American Crafts Museum) as well as ones with a more cutting-edge reputation (New Museum).

Here’s a brief overview, along with the closing dates and Web sites, should you get to New York in coming months:

Museum of Art and Design (www.madmuseum.org) was in many ways the biggest and best surprise, moving way beyond the usual ceramics and glassware with a show called Dead or Alive: Nature Becomes Art featuring some 30 artists who use organic or once-alive material to create installations commenting on ecology and our relationship with the world around us. It’s hard to convey just how beautiful a mandala constructed of 1,155 sardines can be unless you see it (“Moon” by Tracy Heneberger). The show is full of such revelations. (Through Oct. 24.)

• Yes, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) is an august and cautious institution, but up on its roof it’s taking big risks. In fact, the risks associated with Doug Mike Starn’s sculptural installation “Big Bambu” (pictured above) are so great I had to sign a waiver before walking on the elevated trails that are part of this forest-like but carefully constructed thicket of bamboo.

An ongoing work-in-progress that ultimately will rise 50 feet high, it’s as thrilling as it is appealing and about as close as a New York City artwork can come to being like a walk in the rainforest. (Through Oct. 31.)

• Folk art might seem safe and even quaint to many people, but when you get into “outsider” territory it can get very edgy. And there’s nobody edgier than the late Henry Darger, the Chicago recluse who illustrated his epic, 15,000-page fantasy manuscript with watercolors of “the Vivian Girls” engaged in violent war, sometimes unclothed and with male genitalia. The American Folk Art Museum (www.folkartmuseum.org), a major repository of Darger’s work, is displaying the fascinating Private Collection of Henry Darger to show some of the strange material he scavenged to get ideas for his work. The show can get pretty odd — such as his correspondence unsuccessfully seeking to adopt a child. (Through Oct. 24.)

Henry Darger, Untitled (Ornate Interior with Multiple Figures of Girls and Blengins)

• The architecturally stunning New Museum (www.newmuseum.org) in the Lower East Side basically shows ultra-contemporary work by living artists. But it has made a worthy exception for the late Brion Gysin, who died in 1986. As much a cultural-history exhibit as an art one, the heavily curated Brion Gysin: Dream Machine collects correspondence, interviews, films, biographical material, written work, paintings and sculpture by this British-born Beat/post-Beat spiritual seeker/avant-gardist who, among other things, pioneered the cut-and-paste writing technique that friend William S. Burroughs popularized, and invented the trance-inducing, psychedelic “Dreamachine,” one of which is on display. The surprise is how beautiful Gysin’s paintings are — calligraphy-influenced, grid-based abstractions that fit well with color-field work of the day. (Through Oct. 3.)

The Whitney Museum (www.whitneymuseum.org) is not only trying to elevate regard for the late (and largely forgotten) Ohio-born landscape watercolorist Charles Burchfield with the current Heat Waves in a Swamp but also simultaneously recast his legacy from that of a Hopper-affiliated chronicler of Depression-era America to a more eccentric and personal fantasist. Sculptor Robert Gober curated, originally for L.A.’s Hammer Museum. (Through Oct. 17.)

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: HYPERLINK "mailto:srosen@citybeat.com"srosen@citybeat.com



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