Sunday, April 4, 2010

Magical Connections: Art in Philadelphia

Maybe it's the amazing confluence of smaller scale, universities and museums, wonderful public art, and creative responses to development that make  Philadelphia such a low key yet inviting and fun place to visit. While Brooklyn, posing an alternative to Manhattan, has developed its own issues and complications vis-a-vis development, higher housing and commercial costs, Philadelphia, a city of  1.5 million with a greater metro area of 5 million plus, still ranks 6th largest in the US (NYC Is #1) but still feels liveable, especially as a center of art and culture.

Picasso Self Portrait
We dropped down to Philadelphia for an overnight, scoring comfy center city hotel accommodations, plus parking and tickets included to the huge "Picasso and t he Avant Garde in Paris" show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Works by the master, along with contemporaries George Braques, Juan Gris, Marcel Duchamp, and other artists of the period. The show is comprehensive, well structured and informative. We caught it on a late  Friday afternoon which coincided with their "First Friday" show,and despite its being the Friday before the Easter holiday, there was a huge after work crowd hanging and listening to a dynamic women's world music group that rocked the rafters of the huge museum.

The Philadelphia Museum of  Art:  Internationally recognized as one of the most innovative and influential artists of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) was at his most ferociously inventive between 1905 and 1945. Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris surveys his work during these crucial decades, when he transformed the history of art through his innate virtuosity and protean creativity. The exhibition follows the trajectory of Picasso’s career from his early experiments with abstraction to his pioneering role in the development of Cubism, as well as his dialogue with Surrealism and other important art movements in the ensuing decades. The exhibition will also explore the important role that the city of Paris played in the history of modern art during the first half of the twentieth century, when artists from around the world followed Picasso’s example and moved to the French capital. It will include works by expatriate artists like Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Patrick Henry Bruce, and Man Ray, who collectively formed a vibrant, international avant-garde group known, for posterity, as the School of Paris.



Drawn from the Museum’s extraordinary collection of paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings by Picasso, with additional loans from private American collections, this exhibition provides a unique opportunity to reconsider the cross-fertilization of ideas that took place in Paris during one of the most experimental and creative periods in Western art. Two-hundred fourteen paintings, sculptures, and works on paper will be on view, including Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921), a grand summation of the artist’s decade-long exploration of Synthetic Cubism in which the artist seems to cast himself and his poet friends Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob as players in a radical form of Cubist concert.

The feeling of Philadelphia as an art friendly also is anchored by the amazing public work of Isaiah Zagar.  Zagar is a an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on over 100 public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and around the world. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar received his B.F.A. in Painting and Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. He became known to many outside of his home city due to the success of the independent award-winning documentary about him and his wife and partner, Julia, entitled In a Dream, that was directed by Jeremiah Zagar, his son (currently of Brooklyn). This fascinating and brave  portrait was,  I believe, short-listed for Academy Award consideration, winning numerous other awards and making ongoing appearances on HBO. Catch it if you haven't.  Also available on DVD.

The Magic Garden, Zagar's largest South Street mural, is an indoor/outdoor maze of mosaics inlaid with various pieces of poetry. One line reads, "I built this sanctuary to be inhabited by my ideas and my fantasies." Another says, "Remember walking around in this work of fiction."

It really established South Street in Philadelphia as an art district, giving a strong sense of creativity and public art to South Philly, just as Gary Indiana's LOVE or the Claes Oldenberg clothespin   or many of the other monumental public  arts works that dot the Center City and museum district.  But Zagar's work, with its strong avant garde and folk art ethic, mesh perfectly with South Street's electic shops, bars and other arts, crafts and music venues.


A shop on South Street.

The Magic Gardens offer self-guided tours of the site on South Street as well as walking tours of other Zagar artworks in the area.  Like all fascinating art, it is equal parts obsession and vision, transcending both. Must see.


South Street Storefront by Isaiah Zagar: "Art is the center of the real world."




Photos above from the Magic Gardens and South Street by Anthony Napoli - Deep in the Heart of Brooklyn


Isaiah Zagar photo credit: Tex Dex

More on Mr. Zagar here:

More on Philadephia's Magic Gardens here

Finally, on the way home, we made a side trip to the Fabric Workshop and Museum on Arch Street near the Convention Center. Although a number of new shows were in preparation and not available at the time of our visit, we did catch a video of a work by Cai Guo Qiang, who was the subject of a major recent show at NYC's Guggenheim Museum. This work, Fallen Blossoms, showed  an enormous firework display that the resident artist performed on the massive steps of the Philadelphia Museum. The Fabric Workshop and Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently  presented a multi-site exhibition of the work of Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the most prominent contemporary artists on the international art scene. Cai Guo-Qiang: Fallen Blossoms which was the remaining work and which we caught consists of a poetic meditation on the passing of time, memory, and memorializing.  Happily, a few works by Louise Bourgeois and other fabric and textile artists from the permanent collection were on display.

We look forward to visiting the museum again later this year for some new upcoming shows.

We visited the City of Brotherly Love in the past when our kids were  younger, since it was an easy trip and   Philadelphia, with the Liberty Bell and Franklin Insittute is a great place to see American history up close and personal. However, it was great to visit with My Better Half and experience a wide sampling of the great art experiences that the city has to offer. Check it out sometime.

--Brooklyn Beat

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