As we become better at counterfeiting images, objects, and even places, it seems meaning still resides in what remains. Several exhibits I saw recently in New York impressed that sense on me.
1. "The Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade" (through January 5th): At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which seems to have woken from a long slumber to become one of the liveliest cultural institutions in the city, an exhibit of textiles shows how international trade and cultural exchange wove the world together. The "Interwoven Globe" exhibit makes the abstract notion that the Silk Road, shipping routes, colonial conquest, the development of mass market goods for specific markets, and just about every other component of our modern economy are evident in tapestries, bolts of cloth, dresses, and religious outfits that ensnare your eyes in intricate patterns evoking exactly the specificity of the natural world of one place that all this trade tends to wipe out. The pieces seduce through craft and luxury: you marvel at the ability of their creators to make such intricate patterns, but also at the design of the interwoven vines, menageries, sprays of flowers, and abstract geometries; then you realize the amount of gold that glitters in the patterns. Such art memorializes knowledge, skill, wealth, and a commonality of imagery that what wove and weaves our world together is a common desire to make something that fixes our dreams into tangible forms.
2. "Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations" (through January 12th): Next door to the textile exhibit, the French artist Balthus shows another kind of luxury and skill in "Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations." Balthasar Klossowski, who largely taught himself and gave himself the one-named moniker Balthus, obsessed for most of his career about painting prepubescent girls in interiors. That hardly seems like a promising focus for an art that would hold your interest, but Balthus’ great achievement is to draw us into places where we shiver at the implied sexuality, but marvel at the way he makes his subject part of a fetishism about interiors. His spaces envelop you with textures he washes with pale colors, defines with sharp edges, flattens out, and then uses to fill the canvas. In this continuity of color, a knife in a loaf of bread or the sudden view out a window have the ability to pierce you out of place and open you up to how space can escape.
3. "Robert Motherwell: Early Collages" (through January 5th): At the Guggenheim Museum, Robert Motherwell's early collages not only presage his later abstractions, but also show him gathering together art from the leftovers of his studio, the street, and his memories of the Second World War. Created in 1940s and early 1950s, the collages jar you out of your notion of American Abstract Expressionism having appeared out of nowhere, making its roots in pre-War collage and assemblage clear. But these delicate pieces, many of which show their age by having faded, also break you out of the idea of art as either a balm or an expression of emotion, instead showing how through the mere act of assembly you can fix for the public’s view the discordant and violent reality in which Motherwell found himself.
4. "Richard Serra: New Sculpture" (through January 25th): Downtown at the Gagosian Gallery, Richard Serra shows off his latest metal in "New Sculpture." I have to admit that I still feel more fondness for his “torqued ellipses” and other curving pieces (a magnificent example of which is on view at the Gallery’s other space), but the new work, which consists mainly of slabs of steel standing guard or forming a simple, if large, Z-shape, retains the power to make space into a fact. You cannot escape Serra’s work. It is a challenge to architects and architecture because it takes the framing, space making, and materiality that is latent in buildings and presents them with a clarity that is brutal—or lyrical.
What is missing from all of this art is use or commodity. What it gives back in return is a celebration of what it is we make and how we know our world in remaking it.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.