Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Spinning Webs and Seeing Art History in a New Light

Free the Air. Photo: Susan Yung
Years ago, I went to a wedding where I knew almost nobody. It took place in a beautiful setting next to a marina. I walked down a dock, and found a spider spinning a web. I watched as it toiled away, making a beautiful net out of gossamer silk. Perhaps it was the way the sunlight glistened on the water caught on the threads, or the extremely methodical process by the spider to make cross braces, or the fact that I was somewhat distant from the wedding party itself and found something on which to focus… in any case, it made a deep impression on me.

Clearly I wasn’t alone, as evidenced in Tomás Saraceno’s interactive installation Free the Air: how to hear the universe in a spider/web, part of his show, Particular Matter(s), at The Shed through April 17. Saraceno has suspended pseudowebs in the vast space—vibrating metal mesh platforms, embedded with sound amplifiers, imparting an eight-minute interpretation of what spiders experience. The performative element is enveloping—after entering an all-white, foggy space and lying down on the undulating platform, you’re enfolded in darkness, and begin to feel waves of energy and hear booms and hisses—"terrestrial and cosmic vibrations, including spiders playing their webs," per The Shed. At moments, the energy undulations threaten to develop into stomach-churning strength before waning. And then it’s over.

Tomás Saraceno,Webs of At-tent(s)-ion(detail), 2020.
Seven spider frames, spider sil
k,carbon fibers, lights.
Photo: Nicholas Knight. 
Courtesy the artist; spider/webs;
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles; and 
Neugerriemschneider, Berlin. Photo courtesy The Shed
The performance’s brevity, alas, is somewhat overshadowed by the procedures required to access it. It’s kind of like going to Disneyworld, where you have to park, trek, pay (tickets go from $35 for the experience, down to $12 for exhibition access for non-members), and wait on line before reaching "the experience", which lasts for only a few minutes. The day I went, I thought I’d hit the jackpot with the weather—in the 50s and not raining. But Hudson Yards is amenable only on the best of days, and despite the mild temps, the wind blew mercilessly. Navigating to the exhibition’s entrance is circuitous and a bit mysterious, after which you ascend on escalators for a few stories. After queuing outside the installation, you’re led into an antechamber/locker room and instructed on what not to do (run), and stow your stuff in a locker, then led into another antechamber and stairway to wait again before entering the space itself. I understand these are all necessary for safety and crowd control (though to be clear, the groups are very small), but it still overpowers the actual event.

Speaking of being overshadowed, there are two galleries with incredible installations to flesh out Saracen’s concepts. One gallery contains sculptures in plexi boxes—structures that have apparently been fashioned from filaments on which spiders have spun webs, and another room with an intense light beam which catches dust motes and floating junk to create an alarmingly solid-looking shaft of stuff we breathe. On the floor above sits Museo Aero Solar (made by a collective including Saracen), a gigantic inflated bubble, made of discarded plastic bags and detritus, which you walk into. There are a number of other works that reflect Saracen’s vivid sense of curiosity, devotion to nature and its preservation, and poetic touch. (That said, the signage and guards/docents posted could be more helpful.) 

Installation view at Frick Madison of Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1476–78).
Photo: Joseph Coscia Jr.

The Frick has relocated some of its trove to the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, the old Whitney/Met space. What a trip to see the Rembrandts, Fragonards, Goyas, and Turners hung in the context of crisp modernity. While the pre-Meatpacking relocation bickering over the Whitney’s expansion lingers in memory, the Madison Avenue building always was just the right temperament and size for a museum visit. Take the elevator up, walk down while visiting each floor, and always check on the little stairway pueblo installation by Charles Simonds, which is still there! 

For many my generation, the Frick’s collection is like a real-life installation of Janson’s History of Art, the ubiquitous if flawed art history textbook, once considered a bible. The foundations of Western modern art, and the continued primacy of this legacy in the most popular museums, are seen on the Frick’s walls, and in part because of the rote drills I underwent to absorb this canon, many of the works evoke reflexive awe. Rembrandt’s Polish Rider! Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert! The Fragonard suite! And the Frick has included some contemporary works in a somewhat pale effort to modernize the art collection, a highlight being Giuseppe Penone’s series of shield-sized porcelains embellished with his fingerprint whorls. 

But while the Frick's home at 1 East 70th St. continues to be renovated, the Madison Avenue space is a wonderful solution to keep some of the collection on view, while making use of a still sturdy museum shell. After the collection moves out, we'll see what happens with the Breuer.

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