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.

The High Line

Section 1, running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street.

In the heart of Central Park, or Fort Tryon Park farther uptown or Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you can almost forget you’re in the city. The street sounds fade to near silence, and the canopy of trees obscures much of the skyline. That’s part of the fun of visiting—the convenient escape.

The High Line, by contrast, makes no pretensions at escape. It is an unabashedly urban park, an abandoned elevated railway once slated for demolition but now lovingly repurposed as public green space above the busy city streets. The design embraces the park’s industrial history, with benches evoking railway ties, and celebrates the plants that found a home there when the line fell into disuse and neglect. Visiting the High Line, you never leave the city, never even pretend to, but you glimpse it from a different angle, taking in the old buildings and new buildings and the Hudson River and the greenery all at once. It’s an interesting experience, an elegant experiment in conservation in a dense city.

Journey to the Stars

Planetarium show at the American Museum of Natural History.

Planetarium shows should never, under any circumstances, feature the words “Now that’s STAR power.” That’s not even a fun bad pun. It’s just stupid, especially when delivered by Whoopi Goldberg in the broadest possible manner. Just … no.

Frank Lloyd Wright: From Within Outward

Special exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum through August 23.

Growing up in Florida, I visited Florida Southern College on numerous occasions—for church events, for music camp, to see the name of my grandmother, valedictorian of the class of 1952, immortalized on a kind of Sidewalk of Honor (I love you, Grandma!)—so I spent a good deal of time wandering around the campus Frank Lloyd Wright designed, the largest collection of his work in the world. This could have been a charming story if I’d appreciated that work, but in fact, I hated it. I considered the long, flat buildings and especially the unnervingly low-ceilinged esplanades to be squat and oppressive, and the sharp angles and red glass of the chapel felt angry and disquieting.

Later, my brother pointed out that the graceful white building that serves as the site for Ophelia’s mad scene in Michael Almereyda’s modern-day Hamlet (intriguing but clumsy, by the way) is the Guggenheim, also designed by Wright, which just confused me. How could the same architect have designed both the menacing slab buildings of the college campus and the pure, soaring spiral of the museum? Frankly, even now that I know more about Wright than I did as a child, I find it difficult to reconcile my wildly mixed feelings about his work.

The Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 12.

When I first started elementary school, I was enrolled in a class for “gifted” students in which we studied a variety of topics one at a time, each in immersive depth: a week on octopuses, for example, or an entire month on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not entirely sure what the philosophy behind the program was, but I remember loving it. One of my favorite units was on artist Georgia O’Keeffe. At the age of six or seven, I could identify her paintings immediately and talk about the abstraction and the New Mexico landscape and the colors and what the skulls might symbolize and on and on and on, but being six or seven, I completely missed the … shall we say subtext of O’Keeffe’s florals, which were my favorite. Years later, when I was in college, I was deeply flustered to discover that most people read those extreme close-ups as, at least in part, a celebration of female genitalia and sexuality. Suddenly that was all I could see, too. For good or ill, the pretty, pretty flowers of my childhood had been irrevocably eroticized.

Wandering through the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid show, I felt embarrassed for my teenage self all over again because, honestly, how do you not see it? Orchids, in particular, with the outer petals and inner petals, frills and tendrils, bright blushing colors, damp from the tropical humidity, all opening themselves toward the sun—it’s like a botanical burlesque show.

George Lois: The Esquire Covers

Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through March 30.

The thing that interests me most about the MoMA’s small but absorbing exhibit of designer George Lois’s work for Esquire—spanning a decade, from 1962 to 1972—is how much some of it annoys me. Take the iconic March 1965 cover, which features a close-up of actress Virna Lisi shaving her face, with the cover line “The masculinization of the American woman.” I hate the sniggery image, hate the alarmism, hate the implicit binary and the gender essentialism, but it’s striking and memorable—I’ll give Lois that—and it draws me in. I want to read the featured story to find out whether it’s as smug and insecure (a seemingly paradoxical pairing) as Lois’s visuals would suggest.

And that, of course, is the whole point of a cover: to make us want to pick up the damn magazine. Lois’s work does that in a charmingly provocative manner that few do today. Viewing the MoMA’s retrospective, it would be easy to make an old-is-better argument—sneering at today’s heavily focus-grouped, celebrity-driven, Photoshopped covers—but in truth, Lois’s singular covers, demonstrating a strong individual perspective and produced with very little editorial input, were a novelty even in his own time and a risk in any.

J. M. W. Turner

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21.

The meaning of the word sublime has faded over time. Now it’s just a generic expression of greatness—a gorgeous dress, a delicious meal, a beautiful evening, all can be sublime—but sublime once held deeper significance. Only something vast and breathtaking, perhaps even frightening, could be sublime. Sublime described something literally beyond compare. It was a word to describe the wonders of nature: an immense chasm, a crashing wave, the boundless expanse of space.

I love that old meaning. It’s easy to forget, easy to abuse the word, like using awesome when you don’t feel anything like reverence, but I think we lost something when we pulled such beautifully deferential words down to our own level. When you look at the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, for example, you need sublime, in its original sense, because that’s what the artist is trying to convey, the overwhelming power and grandeur of the natural world: the sublime—there’s no better way to express it.