Personal Blockbuster

Most New Yorkers have an imaginary gallery of the mind hung with favorite works from our world-class museums—painting, drawing, sculpture—that they can visit like old friends when Chelsea's hurly-burly becomes overwhelming or the art world is shuttered against the dog days of August. This small sampling of my own self-curated blockbuster begins (where else?) at the Met. Vermeer's Young Woman With a Water Pitcher(1644–45) is a no-brainer. As one of her hands opens a leaded window, sunlight bathes every surface, transforming the woman's starched linen cowl into snowy planes and gives her skirt with an ultramarine halo. Although astoundingly lifelike—you want to stand on tiptoe to peer inside a jewelry box tilted just enough to keep its contents hidden—the discrete patches of color that form the tablecloth's reflection in a shiny basin are as abstract as a Mondrian grid. Next up, El Greco's Grand Inquisitor—is the paint still wet, or what? The Cardinal's crimson robe is brushed with furious abandon, and his lace trimmings feel like spattered milk—this is action painting 350 years before Harold Rosenberg coined the term. Few artists have felt so consistently of the moment: Cardinal Don Fernando's gaze is as penetrating as a nail gun; one hand clutches an armrest , barely containing his righteous wrath. Perhaps The Greek didn't much approve of His Eminence. Jacob Lawrence was equally unsentimental—his 1942 watercolor of a Harlem pool parlor is a symphony of diagonals: Smoke zigzags up from cigarettes; pool cues, arms, and legs form energetic chevrons; and the colorful balls add to the staccato rhythm. The image is imbued with the sense of deadly serious play. You wouldn't want to take a pool cue to the oxblood vase from China (ca. 1700)—the organically rich red glaze appears to hover just above the surface, lending this slender vessel a preternatural weightlessness.

Pollock, Warhol, Sherman

Full Fathom Five feels as dense and volatile as plutonium. Jackson Pollock studded his thick layers of aluminum radiator paint with cigarettes, nails, and other studio detritus. Completed in 1947, when Pollock was developing his drip technique, there's a sense of agitation as the artist began to forgo contact with the canvas and work from above without a net, hurling paint and struggling for rough-hewn control. Warhol was never visibly agitated: The left panel of Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, 1963, is covered with coarse silk-screen prints of mangled steel and flesh. The other huge section is pure orange oblivion, a bright, blank limbo awaiting this diehard Catholic artist. Cindy Sherman pre–"Film Stills" from the late '70s are an imitation of life, the just-so sets and characters representing various American specimens—the floozy, the ingenue, the tough broad—that we know in our bones even if we can't pin these exact narratives down. Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd, 212-708-9400. Ongoing.

Vermeer's Woman with a Water Pitcher
photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Vermeer's Woman with a Water Pitcher

Fred Wilson and Eva Hesse

Narratives get pretty twisted at the Whitney with two visceral sculptures. Fred Wilson's 1991 Guarded View never fails to deliver a jolt: Four dark-skinned, headless mannequins, dressed in staid blue and gray uniforms adorned with the names of the museums they patrol, represent the servant class of America's high culture. Eva Hesse's 1970 Rope Piece, with its looped and snarled skeins covered in gloppy latex, is a thing of attenuated beauty, but, hung from ceiling hooks, it can also feel wounded, even hopeless. We live then die, it seems to say, often with a knotted mess in between. Whitney Museum, 945 Madison, 800-WHITNEY. Ongoing.

Ancient Egypt

Mortality has haunted us from time immemorial but it's easy to get lost in the Brooklyn Museum's wonderfully intimate Egyptian collection by wandering in that abyss between vanished religious beliefs and the timeless beauty of their expression. A limestone fragment of a queen—painted headdress, nose, lips, chin—and a jar carved from serpentine are both delicate yet unimaginably tough. Think about it—how much Chelsea bric-a-brac will still be around 5,000 years from now? Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy, 718-638-5000. Ongoing.

 
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