The New York City Museum that Nobody Knows
Now occupying the grand mansion of Archer Milton Huntington, the National Academy Museum is a champion of nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first century American art. Jessica Ransom reviews the exhibition: Seismic Shifts: 10 Visionaries in Contemporary Art and Architecture, which ran from January 31 until May 5, 2013.
The average tourist list of New York City hot spots tends to skew heavily toward weighty institutions like the MOMA, the Empire State Building, and the Statue of Liberty. Though the intrepid traveler may include The Frick Collection or The Morgan Library, the National Academy Museum appears on few schedules. It takes an art history junkie to know about this hidden treasure on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The former mansion of railroad heir Archer Milton Huntington, this graceful Beaux-Arts style building is situated in the Millionaires Row section of 5th Avenue, a short walk from its more extravagant cousin the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET).
Unlike the MET with its spectacular blockbusters, the National Academy Museum cultivates a more intimate atmosphere and a gallery like appeal. Included in Seismic Shifts is Phoebe Washburn’s Nudes, Housed Within Their Own Clothes and Aware of Their Individual Thirst, Descending a Staircase. The Academy’s first site specific installation, the intricate wooden puzzle with a shape reminiscent of a beehive nestles into the atrium level of the museum’s spectacular Belle Epoque marble staircase and soars toward the skylight above. Washburn‘s work self-consciously references Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Nude Descending the Staircase No. 2 (1912) and pays homage to the meticulous and maniacal intensity of that modern master’s The Large Glass (1915-1923). Ascending the spiral staircase viewers can crouch down to peek through rabbit holes worthy of Alice in Wonderland, but in their geometrical repetition also reminiscent of the stairs—minus a nude. From above, the spotlights that illuminate the tunnels can be observed, as well as small pieces of blue painter’s tape still affixed to remind the art handlers which side is the ‘top’.
Through May 5th 2013, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Marshall N. Price’s group exhibition, Seismic Shifts: 10 Visionaries in Contemporary Art and Architecture, occupies many of the smaller rooms on each level. Works by Betye Saar, Nick Cave, Kate Orff/SCAPE, and Bill Viola challenge disciplinary boundaries, highlight curiosity and ingenuity in the use of materials, and represent a desire to effect change, be it social, cultural, political, or ecological.
On the first floor the artist Betye Saar commands her own space with collages and assemblages, including her recent Cage series. Though the Aunt Jemima figurines caged in one of the works is as subtle as a sledgehammer, Saar’s intricately cut, pieced, and layered collages strike a delicate balance between beautiful imagery and the forced confinement of slavery. In Flight of the Trickster (2012) the image of a black women dissolves into the handmade black paper while treacherously sharp porcupine quills point at the caged bird within her stomach.
In an upstairs chamber, Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, covered in sequins, buttons, or fur, stand at attention. Perhaps Cave, a trained Alvin Ailey dancer, has imbued them with the indescribable energy that they emanate—as if at any moment they will come alive and start dancing. Sharing this space is Kate Orff’s SCAPE Oyster-Tecture creation for Brooklyn’s Red Hook area and the polluted Gowanus Canal. A large diorama set nearly at eye level with tiny wooden silhouettes of people, nets, ladders, and platforms bring this ecologically advanced plan to repopulate the canal with toxin reducing oysters to life.
Watch Nick Cave's Soundsuites:
Perhaps the most engaging work in this exhibit is Bill Viola’s video The Raft (2004). The work references a nineteenth century painting by Theodore Gericault called The Raft of the Medusa, depicting the survivors of a French naval frigate that sank off the coast of Africa, desperately clinging to the hope of rescue. Created for the Athens Olympics, Viola’s work is presented in meditatively slow motion. The film begins with a group of people standing together and waiting—for what is unknown. Others join and the frame fills with a motley assortment, largely strangers, each in their own reverie. Without warning the group is suddenly deluged from both sides by a forceful blast of water as if from a high-pressure hose. Some individuals immediately collapse with the force of the blast while others fight to remain upright. Just as the viewers looking at a famous painting in one of Thomas Struth’s series of museum photographs, these people form a pyramid of bodies similar to those stricken on Gericault’s raft. The water itself becomes an abstract object, falling in glistening droplets and rebounding in mercurial waves. When the assault stops, the strangers, now bonded by the shared attack, all turn to their neighbors to make sure they are okay. Like its namesake, it is a powerful commentary on the strength of humans to hope.
Watch Bill Viola's The Raft:
Temporary exhibitions at the Academy share space with the over 2,000 Academicians who have been honored by this institution dedicated to highlighting American art and artists. In the upper level galleries Polly Apfelbaum, Richard Artschwager, and Cindy Sherman rub shoulders with earlier Academicians. Though there are no blockbusters to be found, this jewel is worth a visit.
By Jessican Ransom