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.

The Forty-Part Motet

Special installation at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the White Light Festival through November 13.

The idea is so simple that it’s easy to underestimate. The installation divides the individual voices of a choir onto separate speakers that surround visitors as they listen to a performance of a sixteenth-century motet. One can sit in the center of the oval, awash in the music, or one can walk up to the speakers and hear the choir atomize back into individual voices. There’s not much to it.

Yet however simple an idea it is, multimedia artist Janet Cardiff executes it beautifully. For starters, choosing Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium was a stroke of genius. The motet features forty parts or, more precisely, eight quintets, with intricate polyphony both inside and among the fivesomes. At the center of the room, you hear the music moving around the oval, in front of you and behind you, introducing new ideas, echoing old ones, until suddenly all the voices sound at once in an almost overwhelming deluge of sound.

Chaos and Classicism

Special exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through January 9.

I think I would have guessed that romanticism is the more dangerous end on the classicism-romanticism continuum. Extreme romanticism has a perverse infatuation with insanity, mania, and death; extreme classicism … well, I probably would have brushed that off as mere cold rigidity about aesthetic formulae. No doubt that’s the casual assumption of one trained in music, where classicism really is that harmless, but after wandering through the Guggenheim’s exhibition on art in France, Italy, and Germany from 1918 to 1936 (alarm bells!), I feel rather stupid.

Not that everything in Chaos and Classicism is fascistic. Some artists were simply reacting to the destruction and horror of the first World War by turning back toward classical order and beauty. The literature associated with the exhibit makes this sound almost cowardly (“Rather than frank confrontation, a self-conscious forgetting determined many of the significant new forms of art”), but I think that’s unfair (and perhaps unintended). Some of Pablo Picasso’s neoclassic paintings, for example, are heartbreakingly lovely, and that kind of beauty holds its own sort of truth—a very different truth from something like Guernica, obviously, but an invaluable truth nonetheless.

Big Bambú

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through October 31.

Truth be told, I went mainly for the view. The Met isn’t very tall—certainly not by New York City standards—but the building juts into Central Park, and from atop it, you can see the park in a stunning panorama, end to end, with the city skyline as a backdrop. That outlook makes the roof garden exhibits worth visiting under any circumstances, and Big Bambú, an enormous bamboo structure with walkable pathways that take you another forty feet up, seemed like an even better draw simply because it provides an even better view.

I was pleased to find, however, that Doug and Mike Starn’s grand construction is worth seeing for itself. The rooftop sometimes swallows up the art on display there, but Bambú is a site-specific work, and the open air and spectacular views feel like a part of it rather than an overwhelming frame. When you first step out of the stairwell onto the landing, you enter a small forest of bamboo, the stalks rising from the ground to support the structure above. From the side, you can see that the thousands of bamboo poles, bound together by nylon rope, actually take the shape of a cresting wave—a striking image against the blue sky above.

Vermeer’s Masterpiece “The Milkmaid”

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 29.

There are many reasons to find Thomas Kinkade annoying, but top on the list for me is his trademark of “Painter of Light” as a nickname for himself. The term is hopelessly cheesy, of course, but even setting that aside, it’s offensively presumptuous. If anyone deserves such an exalted sobriquet, surely it’s someone like Johannes Vermeer.

That, at least, is what I was raised to believe. Vermeer is one of my father’s favorite artists, and I have a vivid childhood memory of Dad showing me reproductions of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Girl with a Pearl Earring and teaching me how to follow the sources of light in the paintings and recognize how Vermeer captured the way light reflected differently on different surfaces. It’s one of those little moments that, for whatever reason, really stuck with me. I always seek out the Dutch master’s works when I have the opportunity, and when Mom and Dad happened to visit New York while the Met had a special Vermeer exhibit on display, of course there was no question that we would go.