Saturday, April 12, 2014

Flirtation with the New

You know you're running late when you're putting on mascara at a gas station while you fill your tank.

I made it to the VMFA with minutes to spare and got in line for my ticket to see tonight's James River Film Festival offering, "The Great Confusion: The 1913 Armory Show."

For an art history geek, the Armory show is legendary, the holy grail, the official introduction of modern art to Americans.

Even though I arrived after most of the crowd, I was able to slide into a choice seat because there was one (and only one) open front and center. It pays to be dateless sometimes.

On hand was the director Michael Maglara, an opera singer turned record label owner turned filmmaker who also happens to be an insurance consultant.

So there was that.

He began by talking about the American audacity of the armory show and went on to praise the bravery (and audacity) of Virginia for building an art museum in 1936 as the country was trying to crawl out of the Great Depression.

Telling us that the VMFA has works by  36 of the artists who exhibited at the show, he emphasized that the 1913 event represented the beginning of America's flirtation with the new.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Maglara's "essay in film," but what we got was an odd and disjointed look at the men behind the organization of the show (several of whom were drop dead handsome), shots that inexplicably panned over individual works from the show (instead of just showing us the entire work) and inappropriately swelling music to tell us when to feel strongly.

It's not that there weren't interesting parts to the story. I had no idea how much of the exhibit focused on European painters like Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin and Degas. The very first Cezanne to be purchased for an American museum came from this show,

The organizers from the Association of American Painters and Sculptors actually went to the studios of the European painters and hand chose things for the show. They took so long doing that that they left very little time to choose the American art.

Turns out the show was much bigger than I knew - 1000-1300 works of over 300 artists in octagonal galleries that forced juxtapositions of works to elicit associations and comparisons.

And, as it turned out, outrage. Gallery I became known as the chamber of horrors because of Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending Staircase," not that Matisse's "Blue Nude" didn't get quite a few panties in a wad, too.

Amazingly, the show was affordable with etchings, drawings and lithographs going for as little as $10 and paintings for $3000.

Although the film's narrative and execution turned me off, it provided scads of new-to-me artists whom I now want to research and see their work.

The brilliant colorist William Glackens, Odilon Redon who sold more pieces than anyone there, and the surprising number of female artists in the show: Edith Dimock, Florence Howell Barkley.

And in the "the more things change, the more they stay the same department," despite the exhibition running for a month, on the very last day of the show, 12,000 people came, causing a traffic jam on Lexington Avenue. Sounds a lot like the last week of VMFA's blockbuster shows, if you ask me.

I didn't stay for the Q & A with the director because I would have wanted to comment on what I didn't like about the movie- things like how the same stock shots were used over and over again- and since I've never made a movie, I really have no business judging someone else's.

Instead, I took myself upstairs to Amuse for a bite, happily running into a friend at the bar who invited me to join him.

The new Spring menu, both food and cocktail, premiered this week, and even has snacks on it now. Snacks at the art museum, could life get any better?

Starting with a glass of Montand sparkling brut rose (and isn't it wonderful that we're back in rose season?), I ordered housemade beef jerky, a pairing that perhaps only I could love (and did) while my friend told me about his new love interest.

He was especially pleased with himself because for the first time, he was purposely taking things slow, enjoying the wooing process and savoring the anticipation of each time they got together.

It was turning out to be terribly romantic, he said, making him wonder why he'd rushed into past relationships and skipped this delightful stage.

Beats me. I, for one, can enjoy the wooing stage as long as I have someone worthy willing to woo.

When I couldn't decide what to eat, I asked my server for a recommendation and ended up with roasted red and golden beets over deliriously decadent Marcona almond cream with sherry vinaigrette and - ta da!- a blue cheese doughnut.

Just thing about that for a minute: fried dough with blue cheese in the center. Hello, gorgeous.

A couple he knew came up to chat and they had also seen the film. While the guys talked, she and I discussed the film and found that we shared the same opinion of it.

"I felt manipulated by it and why did he show us just bits of the paintings that way?" she asked. When I mentioned the bad music and lack of narrative, she got worked up. "The more I think about it, the more I realize how much I didn't like it. I feel better knowing it wasn't just me."

And after she managed to drag her husband to an art film, too. "He'll never do that again," she sighed before high-fiving me as they left.

My friend is planning a trip to California, his first, so we talked about my experiences there - staying overnight on a vintage ocean liner, the pleasures of the L.A. Museum, oceanfront walking and wine tasting in Santa Barbara, the limited amounts of wine country I was lucky enough to see and taste through.

"Ooh, I want a Karen California itinerary," he enthused, but I had to deflect credit to my companion since all I'd had to do was eat, drink and absorb, with naps when it all the wine became overwhelming.

When you're flirting with the new - a coast you've never been to, somebody you just met and are getting to know- sometimes it's best to take things slowly and savor the anticipation.

No one should be in so much of a hurry that they're putting on mascara at a gas station.

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