Thursday, April 24, 2008

Philadelphia Roll (mmm...sushi...)

Today I went to Philadelphia. It was a school trip, and very enjoyable. I've been to that city a few times before, once with a church-group where we got lost and almost had several traffic accidents maneuvering a 15-passenger van through Philly's narrow streets, and then a couple other times on buying trips for the gallery, which were always in the dead of winter so I would never venture out of my hotel. This time was much different.

It was a leisurely morning busride, surprisingly short, giving me the perfect opportunity to catch up on my magazine reading and listen to saved podcasts. Arriving in Philadelphia, our first stop was the shop of Amy Finkel, a dealer in antiques who specializes in textiles and needlework pieces. She gave us a fascinating tour of her business and shared valuable knowledge from years spent in the antiques world--telling us the ins and outs of running an antiques business. This was terrific, probably the best talk we've had in our whole course, full of practical, useful advice. I left inspired.

Before our next appointment, everyone scattered for lunch, and I wandered the city's historic downtown, circling City Hall, pictured above. This building is simply (maybe that's not the right word) amazing! It is the largest stone building in the world, with no steel framework holding it together--just carved and placed stone, like an Egyptian pyramid. The sculptures that decorate the building were made by Alexander Milne Calder, the grandfather of the modernist sculptor we now associate with minimalist mobiles.

In fact, I read an interesting thing the other day. I was at the Whitney Museum the other day, where there are several Calders on display, including a piece called The Brass Family, a pyramid-like construction made just of twisted wire forming a stack of circus performers. It is brilliant--I wish I had a picture of it to show! So anyway, it made me go home and read about Calder. He once told someone, "Most American sculpture is awful. The only thing to do about it is to pretend that you don't know anything about it at all and then forget it." !!! This from a man whose grandfather and father were master sculptors. Granted, the youngest Calder was a genius artist and did practically invent the mobile, but that's no excuse. At the Pennsylvania Academy museum, his father's sculpting tools are on display, well-worn and still covered in clay dust.

Our next visit was to Freeman's, the oldest auction house in America. It is still housed in the remarkable 1920s building specifically designed to be a state of the art auction center. They were setting up their English and Continental furniture exhibitions which open tomorrow, but were happy to give my class a sneak preview and let us wander amongst the pieces, whose forms seemed strange to eyes that have spent the past 6 months immersed in the study of srictly American works.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art was the last and best stop. The school is the oldest art school in America (Philadelphia seems to be the first in many things--it was the first capitol, too, wasn't it?) and what is now a museum is a building built for the Academy in 1876, the year of the nation's centennial. The building is amazing--like a giant jewel box. The paintings housed within are also really great. Of especial importance is "The Gross Clinic" by Thomas Eakins. This is one of those paintings that was horribly scandalous when first painted. While we might describe it as "gross" today, it depicts the famous Dr. Gross in the middle of his surgery, which at that time took place with an audience of students, and no sterilization. When it was first revealed, it was considered too gruesome a subject for polite sensibilities, and hidden away until it eventually became a beloved Philadelphia icon. A few years ago when it was about to be sold to Alice Walton's Crystal Bridges Museum to raise money for the college that owned it, the outcry from Philadelphians was such that an art emergency was declared and the city was able to raise enough money to save it. In fact, this very morning it was announced that the piece is paid for and officially a Philadelphia possession.

It was quite moving to see the painting in real life. Reproductions don't begin to do it justice, even though it is very dark with age. The power and drama in it is palpable, and I can understand why it was so offensive to 19th century eyes. Looking at the blood spatters against the white cuffs and collars of the doctors, and the masterful figure of Gross himself, I was fascinated and repelled at the same time.

Another treat at the Pennsylvania Academy was a room displaying recent acquisitions. After seeing the Whitney Biennial, I was feeling dismayed over the state of contemporary art, which seems to be comprised of mostly odd, ugly, and seemingly pointless assemblages called scultpure (a stack of computer-printed paper is art?) I'll rant more about this later, but I assure you that my faith in art was restored by seeing the Academy's acquisitions, which included some extremely fine pieces by obviously talented contemporary artists. It was heartening to see.

So, after a hot April day of wandering around Philadelphia, I was whisked back to New York. Such a full day spent between two cities! My mind is still spinning with thoughts and impressions. But for now, sleep.

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