With apologies to Charles Dickens, it was the best of days. It was the worst of days.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. When Telluride Inside… and Out visited New York yesterday, we discovered a poster child for Obama's new New Deal. The BIg Apple remains a work in process, its infrastructure falling apart. At one point in our day, a water main broke down so the 7th Avenue subway lines were not running. On our way to the theatre, people were packed like sardines into the overcrowded "E" train. Shades of Tokyo at rush hour. On our way home, access to the upper ramp on the George Washington bridge was blocked. The detour to the lower ramp felt like that really creepy scene from "Bonfires of the Vanities." All day long, streets were blocked with traffic, the ripple effect of meetings at the U.N. Bottom line: moving around town was as always, at best, challenging, but also as always, worth the slog.
First stop: Willem de Kooning at the Museum of Modern Art.
The de Kooning retrospective is the first major museum exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of an artist widely considered to be among the most important and prolific of the 20th century: 200 works in all, paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, covering seven decades (and MOMA's entire 6th floor).
Among the key works on some of the artist's landmark paintings: "Pink Angels" (c.1945), "Excavation" (1950), and the celebrated third "Woman" series (1950 – 1953), plus figurative paintings from the early 1940s, black-and-white compositions of 1948– 1949, urban abstractions of the mid-1950s, figuratiions (the return) from the 1960s, and gestural abstraction from the 1970s. Also included in the show is de Koonings's famous yet rarely seen theatrical backdrop, the 17-foot "Labyrinth," (1946).
In MOMA's press packet for the event, John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, states: "The importance of Willem de Kooning as one of the very foremost artists of the New York School is widely accepted, as is his revolutionary importance to modern art as a whole. Far less well understood is what his artistic career actually comprised in its almost seven decades of development. The exhibition demonstrates how de Kooning never followed any single, narrowly defined path, repudiating the modernist view of art as developing towards an increasingly refined, allover abstraction to find continuity in continual change."
Trying to grasp de Kooning is like trying to hold on to quicksilver. "Isms" like Abstract Expressionism, defined him, but only for an instant. But after the death of Jackson "The Dripper" Pollack in 1956, he defined that "ism: – then moved on. Again. The hat trick de Kooning pulled off with aplomb was having his cake and eating it too: he managed to fuse figurative representation with abstraction, past (his muscular, contorted planes winked at Baroque giant Peter Paul Rubens) and future (abstraction's decorative and sensuous force). Was de Kooning a misogynist as many think his depictions of women suggest? For my answer, I turn to a notion about dream that holds we are everything and everyone we conjure in our sleep. My theory is that painters paint themselves onto their canvases, warts and all. De Koonings's women are surrogates for the artist' s fierce creativity and inner turmoil. Spaces open up and lines soften as de Kooning's world contracts with dementia.
And while we are on the subject of woman and distortion we finished our day with a play about women, "The Klucking of Hens."The reading, part of a series "Words By Women" took place at part-time Telluride local Frances Hill Barlow's theatre, Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street.
Urban Stages is an award-winning not-for-profit off-Broadway theatre company founded by Frances in 1984. The mission of Urban Stages is to discover, nurture and produce exceptional new words by artists of diverse cultural backgrounds.
"We strive to give authors a venue to address the multi-faceted issues facing our contemporary world," explains Frances. "From our open submission policy to our open casting policies, Urban Stages is committed to discovering and developing new professional theatre and theatre artists representing the whole of our society."
Even that society's dark underbelly. "The Klucking of Hens" is aplay about the wives of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, the Klan. According to author Carole Lockwood, membership in the Klan is at an all-time high right now. The American Klan, based in Indiana, alone holds over 164 websites. And female membership is experiencing a meteoric rise under the banner of patriotism, motherhood and apple pie. You know, "old fashioned values." One of the stars of the evening's staged reading was the remarkable young actress Stephanie Cozart. In "Klucking of Hens," she played a cat with very sharp claws. When Telluride first met Stephanie, she played the talking dog in the comedy "Sylvia." What a difference a day makes.
Coming soon to Urban Stages is mime extraordinaire Bill Bowers in his production, "Beyond Words," whom Stephanie described as an actor beyond superlatives. If you have not been to Urban Stages, you are missing one little corner of New York that really works.
(photo of de Kooning's "Pink Angels" courtesy of MoMA)