Last weekend, I had a very art-and-music-filled Saturday. The Whitney was throwing a block party for the grand opening of their new building in the Meatpacking district and it was the first Saturday of the month, which means free admission and lots of music/lectures/workshops at the Brooklyn Museum through the evening.
I had a blast at both (and I learned what Vogue dancing is!), but I was particularly excited by two special exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum. So, of course, I came back to school Monday and proposed a trip 🙂 To my delight, there were seven people who wanted to come!
The Brooklyn Museum is one of my favorite museums in the city. Their walk-through storage area opens conversations about working in collections management and how exhibits/collections are assembled; their frequently colored walls raise questions about why white walls are more normal in other museums. They have a wing of feminist art. They consistently and prominently exhibit works by artists who are people of color. They have shown work by local, lesser-known artists. And they aren’t afraid of politically charged works…their Ai Wei Wei exhibit was remarkable, and they presently have a Zanele Muholi exhibit with a piece about the murders of LGBTQ* South Africans which left me a bit shaken (not from surprise or shock so much as sadness). It’s a museum I can visit over and over again and still find new inspiration in each time.
Last time I led an ALC trip to the Brooklyn Museum, two kids went and I let them lead us wandering around the museum. This time, though, there were seven kids and we were on a mission. I’d learned on Saturday that the museum’s current special exhibits included a gallery exploring Jean-Michelle Basquiat’s notebooks (with two videos and a couple of canvases) and the striking portrait work of Khinde Wiley. During a conversation on Monday about human bodies being awe-some and so different from each other, a certain artwork came up as exploring the intersection of body image and genitalia…but it’s in Europe…so I promised to show Thanos The Dinner Party.
We started with the Khinde Wiley exhibit. Wiley was classically trained in portraiture…he learned to paint by copying the works of the Western old masters. He has some smaller works–icons, stained glass, and sculpture–but most of his works are giant oil paintings on canvas. He adapts old works in which the settings, poses, and props give the subject a sense of power, majesty, or holiness. He replaces the European, white, male subjects with models he found and photographed, first in Harlem and then around the world. Most of his models are men of color, and his website mentions that this is because he wanted to be able to see himself reflected in his works (and to see men of color shown as regal and beautiful). He later started playing with portrayals of gender, and he eventually did a series of portraits featuring strong, gorgeous women of color. They’re in the same style–the subjects of an updated version of Judith and Holofernes, for example (which meant I got to tell that story in the middle of the gallery…)–except that some are in costumes created by Givenchy (the men he painted in their own clothes).
We then went downstairs into the Basquiat exhibit. I had been excited to show @thewitchqueen908 and @lillaw the Wiley exhibit because of Wiley’s technical talent and challenge to the whiteness of art history // museum art. I was excited to share Basquiat with @kingthanos, because of his interest in graffiti culture, and with @failspy, because of the symbolism, evocative wordplay, and language deconstruction that sometimes make Basquiat’s canvases feel (to me) like puzzles. I had watched the Basquiat bio-pic with @shadowjack on Wednesday and done some reading in preparation for the trip, so I was able to give a little context regarding Basquiat’s youth, reception in the art world, friendship with Andy Warhol, battle to be recognized as an artist (rather than always as a “black artist” or “street artist”), and unfortunately his drug use and early death. I wasn’t sure how the kids would feel about the exhibit; they didn’t have too much to say (other than lots of questions about the significance of his work), but they surprised me with the thoroughness they showed reading so many of the pages from his notebooks.
The Basquiat exhibit leads out into the Elizabeth Sackler gallery, of the wing for feminist art. An NYU professor once explained that the artist Judy Chicago got frustrated with art being by men, about men, and exhibited in museums/galleries run by men. She created a piece which imagined a giant dinner party, in which powerful and important women who history textbooks (like the art world, being by men, about men, and published by men) ignored were gathered around a single table. They have their own custom place-setting, with symbols of their legacies on each. And all of the plates are colorfully designed, inspired by each woman’s achievements, and evocative of…vulvas. The piece is called The Dinner Party, and the Chicago had a tough time finding a museum which would agree to show it. When the Brooklyn Museum finally agreed, the prominent Elizabeth Sackler was so pleased that she donated money for the museum to build a feminist wing that would permanently house the piece and showcase works by women (usually about gender and/or sexuality, though not always) around it. Of course, I didn’t say any of this walking into the gallery. Usually with young people and this gallery, I let them explore, ask them what they notice and think the piece is about, then explain what they were just looking at. The kids on this trip seemed to appreciate the message of the piece and to be completely comfortable talking about it. They were more disturbed by the one plate–Ethel Smyth’s–which looked like a piano. Vulva-plates, fine. Piano-vulva-plate, too weird.
When we finished in that gallery, we went to rest by the reconstructions of historic houses. We decided that instead of exploring the rest of the museum we wanted to go outside to eat and run around a bit. So we did.
Grateful to @kingthanos @thewitchqueen908 @lillaw @failspy @douglasawesome and @agilealfie for coming all the way to Brooklyn, for playing so the train ride felt short, for asking thoughtful questions, and for knowing how to adjust your ways of being inside and outside of museums (I know it can be hard! And all those other kids were failing at it! I’m so glad I can trust you to speak up when you need a sunshine-break!). Thanks for art nerding with me; thanks for making Solomon feel welcome; and thanks for playing so sweetly with the toddlers on the playground who obviously thought you were Super Heroes.