Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Special exhibition at the Neue Galerie, extended through October 9.

No matter how many times I experience it, the dramatic difference between viewing a familiar painting in a book or on a computer screen and viewing it in person still startles me. Fixed images give you the illusion of having experienced a painting, but they don’t really show you how large or small the painting is or how the brushwork looks in three dimensions or how vibrant the colors are or how the painting changes when viewed from different angles. Being in the presence of a painting touches you in a way that simply seeing it cannot. I have to relearn that lesson every time I visit a museum, and this time I relearned it at the Neue Galerie.

I’d seen Gustav Klimt’s first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer countless times alongside the numerous articles about its acquisition by the Neue Galerie, but the painting surprised me nonetheless. Photographs don’t do it justice. In person, the luster of the gold and silver and the bold accents of red and blue and green make it look almost mystical, like a religious icon.

AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion

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

As anyone who has ever met me can attest, I am no fashionista: I dress not to stand out but to blend in. But once I realized that truly high-end fashion, the haute couture of runway shows, often isn't meant to be worn in any kind of real-world setting, I began to take more of an interest in fashion. Once I got past the knee-jerk, who-would-actually-wear-this-stuff? mindset and started thinking about couture as wearable art, it become much more intriguing.

The Met's special fashion exhibit, "AngloMania," is a case in point. Much of the garb on display is outrageous and completely unwearable, but it's marvelous not just despite that but also because of it. The exhibit revels in wild juxtapositions, the "tradition and transgression" of the exhibit's subtitle. Consequently, the curators have, for example, displayed one of Queen Victoria's black mourning dresses next to an Alexander McQueen dress with a ghoulish memento mori in the form of a "spine corset" (external aluminum ribs and vertebrae) designed by jeweler Shaun Leane.

Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night

Survey exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art through May 28.

The Whitney Museum of American Art always intimidates me. I appreciate the hulking, modernist building, but it's not exactly welcoming. It makes me feel small and lowly, unworthy and perhaps incapable of appreciating what lies within. Because of my inferiority complex (and to be fair, I'm easily intimidated, so architect Marcel Breuer is probably not to blame), I put off attending the Whitney's biennial survey of contemporary art until the closing of the exhibition was imminent. But once I accustomed myself to the windowless rooms and low-ceilinged stairwell, I enjoyed meandering among the paintings and sculptures and installations.

The biennial had a theme, "Day for Night," which referred to the artifice of American culture, but I can't begin to think of everything I saw under the blanket of a single overarching idea, however open. I can't even begin to write about the biennial as a whole. Instead, I'm going to write about a few of my favorite works at the enormously varied exhibition.

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh

Special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through July 9.

Whenever I look back at history, I always have to remind myself that my own frames of reference usually don’t provide the most appropriate context for understanding centuries-old events. It’s tempting to take the isolated bits of information we have and extrapolate wildly, creating stories and heroes and villains with roots more in our imagination and contemporary values than in our maddeningly incomplete archives of the past.

One reason I admired the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit on Hatshepsut was that it gently reined me in whenever I was ready to leap into a flight of fancy. Such flights were tempting because Hatshepsut is a perfect subject for imaginative exploitation: She was a female pharaoh who ruled over a period of great prosperity during Egypt’s 18th dynasty. But even after the museum carefully acknowledges what we still don’t know about her, that which remains is fascinating.