Monday, April 27, 2015

The New Whitney Flings Open its Doors

Gansevoort St. Photo: Karin Jobst

Touring the new Whitney, I thought about how Hurricane Sandy has inadvertently seeped into our collective thought processes about how to live in this city on a practical level. How since we are ultimately at the mercy of nature, perhaps we are better off going with the flow, or at least learning to live within its foreseeable dictates rather than building a fortress against it. 

View to an outdoor terrace and staircase. Photo: Susan Yung

Thus the Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, seems at every chance to embrace the outdoors. Numerous doors lead to vast terraces with sculptures. There's an outdoor staircase, an alternative to an interior one (albeit bestowed with great river views) or a set of elevators with whimsical designs by Richard Artschwager. From nearly every point, it's possible to see daylight, and in a few steps, be outside. It's a stark contrast to the interiority of the stately Breuer building, a veritable cocoon, albeit welcoming in a different way. The new building uses reclaimed pine flooring, which goes a long way toward warming up the galleries.
A gallery, with wooden floor. Photo: Susan Yung
The fact sheet about the new building includes a substantial section on flood mitigation. And while most of the points in this section discuss enhanced waterproofing and flood gates and barriers, the main lobby could conceivably open its many glass doors and simply let the storm surge pass through without much damage to the art, while the bulk of the museum hovers safely above. 

This might well apply to the hordes that will surely descend upon the museum, funneled neatly from the popular Highline. This 1.5 mile promenade—the latest, hottest city park—has pioneered the idea of re-use and has embraced urbanity while providing a place to bask in some sunshine and fresh river-borne air. Pedestrians will pass through the Whitney just as they pass through Meatpacking and Chelsea, a flow of humanity soaking up the sights. There are fewer and fewer barriers between inside and out, in a way that is perhaps unprecedented in the city. It's quite possibly the opposite result one might expect from the apocalyptic scenario of Hurricane Sandy.

A Jonathan Borofsky hangs above leather
couches on the river side of a gallery wall.
Photo: Susan Yung
A Rothko observes the conservation studio.
Photo: Susan Yung

The inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, is a well-organized, 23-section reason to view legacy artworks from the collection—many old friends—such as Hoppers and O'Keefes with work from recent generations, grouped chronologically. Around 400 artists are represented; it's essentially a roll call of luminaries from the last century or so. Of course, it's not without holes—Mary Heilman created an installation for a terrace primarily comprising dozens of brightly colored chairs, but as a friend pointed out, her glorious paintings are not included in the interior exhibition. 

Studio for photography and documentation.
Photo: Susan Yung
Adding to the air of openness, the museum allowed access to chambers normally not closed to the public, such as the conservation studio, where a Rothko stood waiting patiently, vying for attention with the demanding vista of river, and a slate-hued documentation room with its equipment poised to work. There's an education center, a theater, special project rooms, and caf├ęs.       

A light sculpture by Felix Gonzales-Torres hangs in a lower interior stairway that leads from the ground floor up. There's a balcony on a landing from where one can observe the busy lobby, a large open space containing the shop and a restaurant. It's a human-scale iteration of the terrifying Atrium at MoMA, where looking down from the upper floors can feel like a suicidal siren call even to those of us unafraid of heights. 

The Whitney is a friendlier place that embraces the city in a fresh way that might only be possible in the wake of the floods of Sandy and the repurposed Highline. It's a seismic shift to Meatpacking that was largely solidified by Chelsea becoming the center of the art world over the past decade. Welcome to a new art paradigm for New York City.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Sculpture, Having a Chelsea Moment

James Siena, Just Read the Instructions. 2013, cherry wood. @ 48 x 69 x 60". Photo: Susan Yung

Chelsea/Meatpacking is abuzz with the impending opening of the new Whitney this week, and some warmer weather. A few shows of note:

James Siena, Pace Gallery
Siena is known for his paintings and drawings, graphic OCD works that seem to diagram the imperfect, if ultimately effective logic systems that humans can create. In this group of sculptures, his  exploratory, inquisitive thought process is somewhat revealed. A series of maquettes is built around grape stems. Siena takes this natural, functional structure and extrudes it with toothpicks, building a kind of exoskeleton. He has scaled up a few into wood and bronze, creating satisfying and delightful lattices. Another series explores the cube and its varying multiples; the works approach architectural explorations. Through April 25.

Charles Ray, Matthew Marks
In stark contrast to the organic lightness of Siena's show is that of Charles Ray, with two new sculptures. Baled Truck appears to be a densely crushed truck, such as one might see at a junkyard—a hunky rectangle of metal. In reality, Ray machine carved the sculpture from a solid block of stainless steel; the work weighs 13 tons. The second work, Girl on Pony, is a relief panel carved of aluminum, resembling the manner of a coin. Closed.

Robert Irwin, Blue Lou (detail). 2014—15. light + shadow + reflection + color. Photo: Phillipp Scholz Ritterman.

Janine Antoni, Luhring Augustine
Antoni has been taking inspiration from, and collaborating with, choreographers in recent seasons. These new works, of polyurethane resin, take human ribcages and bones and morphs them into delicate, eerie pieces, some with reassigned functions—rib baskets, intertwined spines, some physical manifestations of emotional connections. Through April 25.

Robert Irwin, Pace Gallery
Irwin has long used light as a medium, creating otherworldly atmospheres with the help of scrim fabric. His new series employs fluorescent tubes, combining them in rhythmic pattern and color juxtaposition. The media he gives tells it all: light + shadow + reflection + color. Intensely hued sections take on individual characters, helped in part by the often witty names, such as Blue Lou. Through May 9.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An American in Paris, and Ballet on Broadway

Robert Fairchild & Leanne Cope. Photo: Angela Sterling
Broadway has a new pair of ballet-bred stars: Robert Fairchild (Jerry) and Leanne Cope (Lise) in An American in Paris, opening today at the Palace. Both are superbly cast as the leads—one an optimistic American ex-GI roaming Paris as an artist, the other a blossoming ballet star tethered by moral debts and expectations. Ballet native Christopher Wheeldon's direction and choreography brings elegance and intelligence to this popular milieu. The book, adapted from the movie, is by Craig Lucas, and doesn't shy from acknowledging the all-consuming war, including the resistance and the persecution of Nazi sympathizers.  

Those of us fortunate enough to have followed Fairchild's starry career at New York City Ballet have seen his athleticism, his jazzy approach, his irresistible enthusiasm and generosity in performances. A natural in Jerome Robbins' work—a stepping stone between ballet and musical theater—it seems perfectly logical to move to Broadway. He can sing as well, and if not his strongest suit, certainly as well as other famous dancers-with-other-skills such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, his role model. Fairchild's ballet training is his secret superpower; his leaps on the relatively small stage appear even more heroic and weightless than at the Koch; his turns top-like. And as a chatty viewer behind me exclaimed every time he began a solo, he is so smooth. Smoothsmoothsmooth!

Cope, a Brit of Royal Ballet pedigree, possesses an intangible magnetism that, in the show, quite understandably makes her the object of three men's affections. A petite gamine with a million-dollar bob, she has gorgeous lines and feet. She also manages to convey humility and a secretiveness so essential to contrast with Jerry's American openness. The supporting roles are deftly cast as well, including Max von Essen (Henri), Brandon Uranowitz (Adam), and Jill Paice (Milo). 

Fairchild in flight. Photo: Angela Sterling
The production should appeal to Broadway audiences seeking the Gershwins' sturdy romantic pop standards (music is overseen by Rob Fisher) sprinkled with old favorites such as "I Got Rhythm," "The Man I Love," and "'S Wonderful." But for those of us who don't care for the shrill, unsubtle performances so often seen on Broadway, the good news is that Wheeldon's production is tasteful and smart. His choreography, not surprisingly, tends toward the balletic, with jazzy angular arms and a low center of gravity. There's little of the abject need for attention so often felt in Broadway production numbers.

Bob Crowley's sets are compact mobile pieces, some with picture frames or modern art motifs onto which imagery is cast (by 59 Projections). Large-scale projections in an Impressionist style grow and shimmer on the backdrop, including some of Paris' iconic sights. Key production numbers include one set in Galeries Lafayette, in which Jerry hops from showcase to showcase, his extended leg skimming the countertop. "Stairway to Paradise" moves from a jazz speakeasy to Radio City and back, and includes the requisite kickline done by both showgirls and tux-clad guys (the natty costumes are also by Crowley). 

An avant-garde, salon style ballet presentation features dancers making hilarious moves that manage to be just one notch to the left of real. And the beginning and end of the grand finale ballet cleverly situate us behind the stage, looking out past the performers (in Mondrian-esque costumes) into the "audience." Jerry and Lise are clad in sleek black outfits for the dream sequence—a snazzy, captivating duet in which the white set is reduced to simple geometric shapes, better to feature the couple. And as with the best dreams, we want them to keep dancing forever. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Petronio's Bloodlines, Part 1

Gino Grenek, Davalois Fearon, Nicholas Sciscione in RainforestPhoto: Yi-Chun Wu
The sea change of remaining current while preserving legacies continues full-strength in modern dance. The latest, and most intriguing iteration thus far, is being presented by Stephen Petronio Company at the Joyce this week, in the inaugural "Bloodlines" program, which combines Petronio's new work with a piece from the modern canon that influenced his work.

At the outset, it might seem brave of Petronio to juxtapose his latest work—Locomotor/Non Locomotor—with Rainforest (1968), one of Merce Cunningham's iconic dances. But the comparison shows how Merce's influence on Petronio's—the rigorous geometric architecture, the turned out positions, the supreme athleticism necessary. The premiere is also an aberration for Petronio, who often chooses visual collaborators in addition to musicians and lighting designers. L/NL is noteworthy for being a pure dance piece, without a set design, and with costumes by Narciso Rodriguez and Ken Tabachnik's lighting scheme. Clams Casino's striking, moody soundscore provides a spacious and imaginative underlayment for Petronio's propulsive and compelling movement. (I wrote about the premiere of the thrilling first part last year.) 

After the curtain falls and rises again, Non Locomotor picks up where Locomotor leaves off, with dancers leaping in arcs, always with a powerful impulse. They soon deposit at center stage Davalois Fearon, now the only dancer in a royal blue leotard vs. the others' black and cream ones. She begins to unspool the movement motifs that brand this section—predominantly planted feet in contrast to the rushing first section, the torso and arms carving shapes and gestural imagery. She's joined by three men, who at times strike artificial-feeling poses, like models. The relative stasis is a reminder of how terrific Petronio is at creating great movement and trajectory with the human body. But the contrast between sections is a welcome dynamic change.

Rainforest is a bit of flash and dash within Cunningham's rep, what with its animal inspired movement and glittering set of silver mylar helium-filled pillows by Andy Warhol. Depending on how much helium they contain, they have minds of their own from show to show. At the Joyce, the pillows burst out of the proscenium and zoomed up toward the lighting and vents. (In the last performance I saw, at BAM, they were lazier and only one left the stage.) They distracted somewhat from the five dancers, in tattered, flesh-toned leotards originally conceived by Jasper Johns. Petronio's dancers brought their own personalities to the varied roles, but they didn't—nor possibly can any company, going forward—match the concision and lucidity of Cunningham's company, in its prime. That said, Cunningham alum Toogood performed in the work, reminding us of the quiet ferocity brought with each performance by Merce's dancers, similar to the intelligent focus of Petronio's. The score, by David Tudor, was performed live. 

Petronio plans next to revive a work by Trisha Brown, a choreographer whose legacy is badly in need of support. As one of her ex-dancers, he is well equipped to do so. And yet commonalities are so readily identifiable with Cunningham that this year's presentation is eminently logical. The strategy is far more cogent than, say, Paul Taylor's, but the scale is far smaller. It's yet another fascinating example to watch while the history of modern dance unfolds and hard-working choreographers are forced to become archivists as well.