Last night, on Oct. 10, 2001, the New York art world gathered in the atrium of the Whitney Museum's satellite space at Philip Morris across from Grand Central Station on 42nd Street for a little party celebrating a new installation by the hot young artist E.V. Day. A veteran of the 2000 Whitney Biennial -- her work there was bought by British supercollector Charles Saatchi -- Day first came to public notice in "Greater New York" in 2000 for a set of four exploded pink plastic sex doll suspended from wires in a front gallery at P.S. 1.
This time around, her installation, titled "G-Force," featured 200 pairs of thong underwear in either pink, blue or white, each stretched out on an armature, the lot suspended far overhead in flight formations, like squadrons of geese, or jet planes. "I was going to make 1,000," she said, with the sense of budgetary overkill that would make the Joint Chiefs proud.
What was at first a fun celebration of post-feminist sexuality has now become a pointed symbol of battling the Taliban's fanatical repression of women's sexuality. Yikes.
If you need proof of the annoying Postmodernist proposition that artistic meaning is a construction, look no further. A week ago, following the dire events of Sept. 11, everything in an art gallery looked like an elegy. Today, it's all about war. As Art in America editor Stephanie Cash pointed out, the magazine's October issue went to press several days before the destruction of the World Trade Center. Nevertheless, it seems timely and to the point, with the aggressive Moslem symbolism of Shirin Neshat on the cover, and inside things like Hiroshi Sugimoto's photo of a wax dummy of Arafat and Frank Stella's slag-heap sculpture Moby Dick.
* * *
Meanwhile, out on Eastern Parkway, the Brooklyn Museum of Art is unveiling "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960," Oct. 12, 2001-Jan. 6, 2002. This utterly groovy show is as much about biomorphic design in the 1950s as it is about World War II, but it's hard not to focus on dark works like Alexander Calder's striking The Root (1947), a mostly black mobile made of salvaged aluminum -- no gay circus colors here -- and Isamu Noguchi's tragic model for a memorial, This Tortured Earth (1943).
The show is a reminder of the degree to which much art of the later '40s is about death and destruction. In one gallery, its walls painted almost black, horrifyingly gnarly works by out-of-fashion Abstract Expressionist sculptors Herbert Ferber and David Hare share space with mournful pieces by Louise Nevelson, Ellsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollock and others.
Even a group of costumes from 1942-45 by Claire McCardell, celebrated as convenient wool jersey dresses that express the body, now read as simple pleated shifts with rope belts -- perfect On the Beach wear for an apocalyptic age.
It must be said here that "Vital Forms" includes more than 250 items, most with little to do with dire world events -- a 1950s sports car, a Slinky, Tupperwear, K rations and some period video footage a along with familiar and unfamiliar artworks. There's a lot of biomorphic furniture and design -- the museum has a notoriously good design collection -- that doesn't look particularly utopian but was probably meant to be. "A lot of these artists were working with the Bauhaus idea that if you design it perfectly, you can save mankind," noted Miani Johnson.
The show is organized by Brooklyn's Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Kevin L. Stayton, with the consultation of Martin Filler and Mildred Friedman. The installation is particularly lively, with brightly colored walls and eclectic juxtapositions of high and low, engineered by Matthew Yokobosky. He's also responsible for the design of "American Identities: A New Look," a reinstallation of the museum's American art holdings that debuted on the fifth floor last month.
Both shows are full of fresh material (and old favorites), freshly presented, and worth seeing for their own sakes as well as for examples of the new craft of museum presentation. With these two offerings, the Brooklyn Museum has launched itself in the forefront of the movement to make museum exhibitions more lively, populist and interdisciplinary.
* * *
Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, nobody does it better than the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which still seems to put the demands of connoisseurship ahead of marketing considerations. Plus, it's a very pleasant place to be. A few Sundays ago, while the events of Sept. 11 still resonated outside, the Met was packed with visitors. A haven, indeed.
The latest super-show there is "Signac 1863-1935: Master Neo-Impressionist," Oct. 9-Dec. 30, 2001. With some 70 oils and 120 works in all, there's more multicolored dots than anyone could want. Most of the works depict rivers, harbors and the Mediterranean coast. An exception is the fantastic Portrait of Félix Fénéon, Opus 217 (1890-91), an exercise in controlled psychedelia that depicts the suspected anarchist and incisive art critic (he coined the term "Neo-Impressionist") who later became an art dealer. (The gift shop has a scarf based on this painting for about $50.)
More than anything, though, the show is a demonstration of a certain kind of futile artistic endeavor -- in Signac's case, the determined application of a "scientific" painting method that in the end proved to be little more than a mannerist conceit. Visual perception is of course more complicated than a simple study of rods and cones might suggest, and towards the end of his life, the artist seems to have tired of making an "ordinary" drawing and then converting it to a field of dots. These late works, fluid and airy, seem almost Fauvist.
* * *
In midtown, the Museum of Modern Art unveiled its two-floor survey of 90 sculptures, paintings, drawings and other works by "Alberto Giacometti," Oct. 11, 2001-Jan. 8, 2002. It's a beautiful show, elegantly installed in spacious, gray-walled rooms, the kind of complete package that MoMA does so well. At first, Giacometti's trademark skinny figures seem like emblems of a puritanical humanism, so popular that they verge on becoming kitsch, sort of like Boehm porcelain in reverse. But then it becomes clear that the work is about World War II and the Holocaust, and again we're thinking of ominous events outside in the real world.
Giacometti, who was born in 1901 and died in 1966, had a lot of options as a Surrealist in the '20s and '30s, devising "objects of symbolic function," as Dalí put it. He could make evocative, stage-set sculptures in polished wood or stone like MoMA's Palace at 4 a.m.(1932), which includes doll-house sized versions of a female mannequin, a backbone, a pterodactyl skeleton and a kind of Arp sculpture. He could make evocative abstractions like Cube (Nocturnal Pavilion) (1934) or weird space alien figures like Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (1934).
But after World War II everything changed. Giacometti began making his stick figures and became the exemplar of Existential man. Sartre even wrote the catalogue essay for his first New York show in 1948. Today, the expressive power of his portraits is undeniable, their psychological intensity in part a result of his obsessive reworkings, as if to demonstrate Marx's observation that the true value of a thing reflects the amount of labor expended on it.
Giacometti's post-war work casts us back 70 years into the heart of darkness, when the world mobilized against the forces of evil -- again, in eerie concordance with George W. Bush's rhetorical campaign against "evil-doers."
Which makes it that much harder to knock Giacometti for turning into a cornball emblem of human angst. For one thing, Surrealism has been overcome by the Hollywood of E.T., Close Encounters and A.I. A painting like Portrait of David Thompson (1957), with its shrunken head, is now unavoidably Beetlejuice, while a work like The Leg (1958), which towers seven feet tall, seems almost comic. And some of the feet, especially on the women -- dare we say, Minnie Mouse?
Even the artist's persona is that of Punchinello, sad and endearing. One of the very first stories I heard in art class had a shaggy, plaster-covered bum wandering into a newly installed Giacometti exhibition and furtively begin scraping away at one of the statues -- it turned out to be the artist himself, of course, making one more adjustment.
* * *
Why artists invented performance art: In the New York Times Oct. 11 review of The Shape of Things, a play by Neil LaBute that had a successful run last year in London and that is now opening in New York, Ben Brantley describes the set-up like so: "Boy is named Adam... Girl is named Evelyn... They meet before a statue of God in an art gallery, where he works as a security guard and she is ominously carrying a can of spray paint." Hmmm, can't wait.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.