Monet’s Garden

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through October 21.

It never occurred to me to wonder about all the flowers Claude Monet painted, and in retrospect, that seems like a real failure of imagination. Surely the artist's affinity for florals was worth pondering. How could I have gazed at the massive Water Lilies triptych at the MoMA some six, seven, eight times and never once reflected on where an elderly turn-of-the-century Frenchman might have found a massive Japanese-style water garden to paint?

The explanation, as it turns out, is that Monet himself created his splendid gardens at Giverny—one in a traditional French style, the other inspired by Japanese water gardens—and used them not only as subjects for his paintings but also as creative media in their own right, experimenting with different color combinations and varieties to stunning effect. Much of what he wrote indicates that he thought of himself as a gardener as much of a painter and considered his gardens some of his greatest work.

The New York Botanical Garden's exhibit on Monet's gardens seeks to celebrate the eminent painter's perhaps underappreciated genius as a gardener, re-creating his "paint box" flowerbeds, his use of wildflowers alongside more cultivated species, his iconic Japanese footbridge, and, of course, his dramatic pools of water lilies. The result is tantalizing—no doubt an exceedingly poor substitute for Giverny itself but a lovely botanical experience even so.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 19.

After the showstopping tragic-rock-star flash of the Alexander McQueen exhibit last summer, the Met's Costume Institute seems to have swung all the way in the opposite direction. This summer's exhibit is a cerebral, fashion-nerd pairing of the work of two designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada, with relatively little in common—so little, in fact, that the combination is inscrutable at first. The two women are several generations apart (Schiaparelli was born in 1890, Prada in 1949), with such different attitudes toward and approaches to fashion that the comparisons and contrasts drawn between their work often feel cute but shallow: Schiaparelli emphasized a woman's head and torso, while Prada focuses attention on legs and feet! Okay, then. So?

It turns out the "So?" is where the exhibit comes to life. Inspired, apparently, by a series of "Imaginary Interviews" that ran in Vanity Fair in the 1930s, the curators truly have imagined what a conversation between Schiaparelli (who died in 1973) and today's Prada might sound like. They highlight writings and interviews with the designers, of course, but then, in their most audacious choice, they invited director Baz Luhrmann to create videos in which "Schiaparelli" (a heavily made-up Judy Davis) and Prada converse over a long dining table. And as whimsically bizarre as those videos are, they're not frivolous. They engage with the designers' ideas and philosophies and inspirations—riffing on Schiaparelli's documented thoughts and a probing interview of Prada—and in that, they're fascinating.

Cloud City

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 4.

Visiting Tomás Saraceno's Cloud City, this summer's Met rooftop installation, inevitably provokes memories of Doug and Mike Starn's Big Bambú, the 2010 installation. Both are enormous structures that one can walk through; both encourage participants to seek new vantage points from which to view Central Park and the structure itself; and both come equipped with considerable academic-intellectual justifications of their artfulness.

But only with Big Bambú did I truly buy what that academic-intellectual justification was selling. The organically constructed, gorgeously chaotic Bambú stirred in me an aesthetic response, an emotional response, while the architectural Cloud leaves me cold. Cloud is undoubtedly cool—it's "participatory" and fun to tromp around in—but unlike Bambú (also "participatory" and fun), it doesn't seem to transcend that kind of shallow experience. No matter what kind of big words you use to describe it, it's still just a high-end jungle gym for grown-ups.

Diego Rivera: Murals for the Museum of Modern Art

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through May 14.

Whenever I see Diego Rivera's distinctive art, my first thought is always to wonder once again why Nelson Rockefeller thought he'd be happy with one of Rivera's murals in Rockefeller Center. Not only were Rivera's socialist beliefs well known (he was a founding member of Mexico's Communist party!), they inform virtually all of his work, so why in the world would the scion of one of the United States' most famous capitalist families expect his own vision of "Man at the Crossroads" (the assigned subject) to be compatible with Rivera's?!*

Rockefeller's naïveté and arrogance become even funnier when you see the murals that brought Rivera to New York in the first place. Because so much of the internationally renowned artist's work was fixed to the site of its creation, the fledgling Museum of Modern Art invited Rivera to create relatively portable murals at the museum itself. When he arrived, he created five frescoes with Mexican subject matter and three directly inspired by his visit to New York, and all of them deal with revolution, laborers, or inequality.

In short, nothing about the murals screams, "I belong in your family's art deco temple of capitalism!"—except, of course, the fact that they're beautiful and striking and bold. And in that the murals exemplify Rivera. His artistry is such that any fair observer would have to recognize it, but that artistry cannot be separated from Rivera's political perspective any more than Bach's St. John Passion can be separated from its liturgical foundation. That impassioned point of view is part of what makes the art so affecting and meaningful in the first place.


Special exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., through May 13.

This past weekend, Sean and I visited Washington, D.C., a relatively spur-of-the-moment trip inspired in part by Sean's desire to see the new Art of Video Games exhibit at the American Art Museum. Frankly, we were both a bit disappointed in that exhibit, which was diverting enough but shallow and predictable.* Later, though, we visited another Smithsonian art museum on little more than a whim and were absolutely enchanted with the featured exhibit there.

The irony was that Suprasensorial is an exhibit of art explicitly described in the literature as "accessible," rejecting the "exclusivity and elitism of the art world"—a philosophy that the Video Games curators no doubt had in mind as well. And yet Suprasensorial was far more compelling, beautiful and evocative and unusually emotional for abstract art. It was a reminder that accessible doesn't necessarily indicate lowest-common-denominator work.** At its best, accessible describes something elemental, something universal, something worth aspiring to.

Cindy Sherman

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through June 11.

At first glance, artist Cindy Sherman, who first leapt to prominence in the 1970s, seems to have anticipated today's endlessly self-photographing, narcissistic culture because she, too, photographs herself. Just as many people now constantly capture images of themselves and curate entire galleries of them online, the MoMA's retrospective of Sherman's art features Sherman's face in all but a handful of the photographs.

And yet that's misleading, for though Sherman is the model for her photographs, she's never the subject. Before she ever snaps a photo, Sherman the artist has costumed and styled herself to create a character, often to such an extent that Sherman the individual is unrecognizable. Her art is self-obscuring, not self-revealing—which is not to say that it lacks a point of view. Her perspective (like that of any artist) is definitely there. When you look at one of Sherman's photographs, you're not simply looking at her; you're simultaneously looking at her and at not-her and through her eyes, and that strange paradox is part of what makes her work so fascinating.

To a Great City

Second edition of the Guggenheim Museum's stillspotting nyc project.

Despite what many non–New York residents think, there actually are quiet, serene places in New York City (I'm partial to the North Woods in Central Park), but frankly, I don't think the financial district is the best place to look for them. Arriving in Battery Park to visit the first "stillspot" selected by the architectural firm Snøhetta to provide a space that "transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing," I was skeptical. And that skepticism never quite dissipated. The five To a Great City stillspots vary dramatically in their transportive ability, and the journeys from one to the next are somewhat exhausting.

But then the work concludes with a final stillspot so spectacular that the inadequacies of the previous ones seem irrelevant. In retrospect, I have a niggling suspicion that the show's creators knew that would be the case and didn't bother overmuch with the first four, and that makes me feel a little bit cheap. I can't work up too much indignation, though—not when the memory of that fifth stillspot is so glorious.

Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through August 7.

One can easily imagine the late designer Alexander McQueen as a painter or a sculptor. His artistic point of view is so strong that it seems to transcend the medium; it could work elsewhere. At the same time, one of the best things about his work is the craftsmanship itself: the embrace of his particular medium and the impeccable, intricate construction of each piece.

Walking through the Met’s retrospective of McQueen’s too-short career, one is dazzled by both the grand vision and the finely wrought detail, and I think it’s that—the union of stunning creativity and stunning technique—that makes his work fit in so well in an art museum. It’s what makes this art.

Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius

Special exhibition at Discovery Times Square through September 5.

The famous maxim has it that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but comedy isn’t the only yield of that equation. You also get a ghoulish sort of wonder. Sure, if you choose to imagine what it might have been like in the Roman city of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE—if you truly contemplate the violent tremors and the widespread fires and the blackened sky—the event becomes almost unbearably grim. But why do that? With a few steps and more than nineteen centuries back, it’s not grim so much as fascinating: a thriving city preserved like a mosquito in amber. It’s incredible.

So I admit I half resented Discovery Times Square’s exhibit on Pompeii for rattling my sense of distance. I was happiest marveling at the artifacts of daily Roman life and reading over the scientific descriptions of the volcano eruption, but the exhibit seemed determined to strip me of my intellectualized stance. The famous plaster casts of the volcano’s victims are heartbreakingly detailed up close. You can see the faces contorted in fear, the hands grasping for loved ones, and in a dark room, with an eerie white noise filling your ears, the humanity of those victims and the horror they endured feels uncomfortably present. The effect is powerful—and appropriate, I suppose—but nonetheless, I missed my academic aloofness.

The Orchid Show: On Broadway

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 25.

When you enter the conservatory for the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show, you’re directed first through the permanent exhibition of desert and rainforest habitats—the latter of which is augmented with extra orchids for the occasion. In a lesser garden, this might be a drag, but the permanent exhibition is stunning, packed with plants so colorful and dramatic and unusual that they look unreal. Viewing the orchids in this context, with the accompanying literature, also provides some sense of how they fit into the natural world, clinging to the branches of a tree or huddled, small and secret, on the forest floor. Amid their native compatriots, the flowers seem all the more precious for being uncultivated and wild, not tame hothouse flowers but savage beauties, their grandeur innate in their bold colors and extravagant petals.