Islamic Art | 14 Centuries of Icon-less Splendor

What happens to creativity in an artistic tradition without icons? We know – too well – that depictions of living human and animal forms are extremely controversial in Islam. So what’s left? How do those of us used to a figurative narrative format make sense of and understand the value of what we are seeing in Islamic art?

Just over a year ago I heard the Metropolitan Museum’s Curator of Islamic Art, Navina Najat Haider, speak on this very topic during an “Icons”-themed TEDx event. Haider notes that Islamic art has evolved over fourteen centuries and because of this the issue of icons is “not a pedantic art historical point, it is a mindset.” She makes a compelling case for the increased importance of abstraction and metaphor in Islamic art in the absence of an icon as a single point of focus. Her complete talk is below; newsletter readers click here to watch the video.

Be sure to watch through to the end to witness the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into the creation of the Met’s recently renovated Islamic galleries. How can we think of missing depictions of the figure of man when the hand – and infinite creativity – of humankind is on display all around us?

Further reading: Figural Representation in Islamic Art

3 NYC Art Shows with Extended Dates

Viewing dates have been extended for these three shows, take advantage!

1. Chris Ofili: Night and Day (New Museum)
Originally scheduled to close January 25th, this mid-career retrospective has been extended through February 1, 2015. Last week visitors were surprised to discover Ofili in the lobby making buttons…you never know what might happen!


2. Matisse: The Cut-Outs (MoMA)
It’s just a wee extension – two days – but every day counts for this justifiably popular show. It’s a must-see, now on view through February 10, 2015. If I can handle the crowds (pro-tip: get the audio guide) you can too. It’s worth it.


3. Egon Schiele: Portraits (Neue Galerie)
This show, one of the most popular in the museum’s history, has been extended three months, through April 20, 2015. Learn how this Viennese wunderkind changed the status quo for portraiture for good at one of my favorite museums in Manhattan.


Miscellany | Favorites No. 4


Welcome to 2015! This edition of favorites includes my usual recommendations along with some unvetted suggestions that have been lingering on my “explore these soon” list for too long. What better time than the new year – and winter – to replenish our sources of inspiration? Let’s begin.

Goodbye 2014, or, How to Make an Exit
This is how it’s done. The flower adorned willow casket of Deborah Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is exactly right for this renowned nature lover, preservationist, and entrepreneur. The only way this picture could be improved upon for me is if the casket were trailed by a pack of Lurchers and a gaggle of the Duchess’s favorite hens. Stylish to the very end.

Do you know about Debo? The Mitford sisters? Chatsworth? Voila, a brief reading list:

Obituary for Deborah Mitford Cavendish
Wait for Me!: Memoirs (by Deborah Mitford)
The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family (by Mary S. Lovell)
Chatsworth: The House
Georgiana: The Duchess of Devonshire (by Amanda Foreman)
Love in Cold Climate / The Pursuit of Love (by Nancy Mitford)

And, of course, resources for finding your own willow casket. Too soon? Well, read on for livelier pursuits.

The Annotation Tuesday! series from Neiman Storyboard gives a fascinating look at how journalists construct the stories we all read. Each installment includes a previously published article, annotated by the author to highlight key plot and decision points. One of my favorites is Susan Orlean’s annotation of her cover article “The American Man, Age 10” for Esquire (which is not about Macauley Caulkin, by the way). Read the entire series here.


I’d love to see “What the Garbageman Knows” by Peter Hessler in Annotation Tuesdays! one day. Hessler’s writing is so vivid and his storytelling so encompassing. In the immediate story of the trash picker, Sayyid, we are also learning a small part of the story of modern life in Cairo. Here is the author, briefly, on how he approached the story and on the fact checking conducted by the New Yorker.

A few more to consider:
If you’ve read Unbroken and Seabiscuit, you are already familiar with author Laura Hillenbrand’s talents; I think your esteem will only increase when you read about the obstacles she has overcome in order to research and write these wonderful books.

“The Lives of Ronald Pinn”, by Andrew O’Hagan, outlines the author’s experiment and investigation into creating a false identity and its online afterlife; a must read for anyone with an online presence.

Next up on my list: Empire of Cotton, “deeply researched and eminently readable, [this book] gives new insight into the relentless expansion of global capitalism.”

And finally, who doesn’t love a smart listicle? 21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting Shakespeare.

The Americans, an FX series, returns for a 3rd season on January 28th. The drama centers on two Russian spies raising their American born children and engaging in spy craft at the height of the Cold War in 1980’s Washington, D.C. History buffs and Le Carré fans will love this. Prepare for its return by binge watching the first two seasons, now available on Netflix.

At this point, I may be the only person who hasn’t listened to the Serial podcast. But that’s changing this week – I want to make sure to hear all twelve episodes before reading too much more about the case online. In addition to keeping up to with favorites like This American Life, this list of new-to-me podcasts is well worth exploring too. Don’t Backstory and Death, Sex and Money sound interesting?


Finally, consider the Perpetual Disappointments Diary for staying organized in 2015. Among its offerings are a weekly planner with “a list of notable deaths, a blank section called “Notes Toward an Abandoned Screenplay,” a place for the addresses of people who never call and useful phrases in five languages (including “I am on the wrong plane” and “Do you have any very cheap wine?”).” In other words, a must-buy.

Happy New Year to all – here’s to a great year ahead!


Credit for Fireworks image: via @ashleyhicks1970 on Instagram with the following caption, “Print showing Servandoni’s 1749 firework machine in action, as hoped, at least, with 10,000 fireworks set off after Handel’s Musick for the Royal Fireworks. On the drizzly night itself, everything went sadly wrong, with confusion between British and Italian masters of explosives (including a swordfight) and one of the pavilions blowing up entirely.”

Happy 43/53 Anniversary!


The holidays are always busy, but this year it’s been doubly so as we – my brother, my sister, and I – help my father prepare his house for sale. As I’m sure you know, the longer you live in a place, the more stuff you accumulate.* In this case we are talking 43 years of stuff. Sorting it through is a big job and a trip down memory lane for each of us. But before you get out your violins, I’ll share this pro-tip: any lingering sentimentality is replaced very quickly with a laser-sharp focus on disposing of all goods as efficiently and easily as possible.

Today would have been my parents’ 53rd wedding anniversary, and in their honor I share this glamorous wedding picture, complete with close friends and family who are still in our lives today. Obviously there are three significant future people and several important future dogs missing from this picture, but I think those absences, plus the fact that they hadn’t bought the house yet, might just explain why they look so young and carefree here! Happy anniversary, Dad!


*Let this be a lesson to all of us: beware of stuff. Unless it’s really good, obviously.

Roundup | 8 Art Shows to See Over the Holidays in NYC

Since we’re all looking for some fun activities for the holiday season, either for ourselves or our guests, I thought I’d share a quick roundup of shows to visit in New York City.

1. Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

(Upper East Side)

The Cooper-Hewitt reopened this week after an extensive three-year renovation. In reimagining itself and what a museum can be for 21st century visitors, it serves as an experimental lab for all cultural institutions. Based on recent reviews (here and here), it seems to be loaded with innovation and opportunities for hands-on interaction with objects, design, and even rooms. It will, of course, be packed – we all want to visit – but go anyway, and then stroll down the street to the Neue Galerie for a restorative lunch.

2. Egon Schiele: Portraits

Neue Galerie (Upper East Side)
Until January 19, 2015

The Neue Galerie is one of my favorite museums in New York City. Housed in a mansion across from Central Park, the museum focuses on early twentieth-century German and Austrian art and design. Visiting is always a serene experience: the building’s small scale means the exhibitions are a manageable size, the curatorial approach celebrates both intellectual and visual engagement, and the well-regarded restaurant, Café Sabarsky, provides an elegant respite from gallery gazing.

I visited the Schiele show last month; while he is not my favorite artist, the show makes a compelling case for his significance in introducing modernism into portraiture. What surprised me was that he died at such a young age (at 28, of Spanish Flu); his artistic renown is such that I had envisioned a much older artist.

3. Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Upper East Side)
Until February 15, 2015

This show is a master class in Cubist art. Collector Leonard A. Lauder has promised these paintings, drawings, and sculpture (81 works in all) to the museum. The gift is a game-changer for the museum and a really interesting example of philanthropy: the collection was meticulously built by Lauder with a future bequest in mind. He has said, “Many people collect to possess. I collect to preserve, and no sooner do I have a collection put together than I am looking for a home for it in a public institution.”*

Give yourself time with this best-in-class show, and definitely get the audio guide. There’s a lot to see and learn, and it’s much easier and more interesting with the guide.

While you are at the Met, pop downstairs to the Costume Institute to see Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, which I wrote about here. This small show displays mourning fashion and includes wonderful quotes on the trial and tribulations of maintaining a mourning wardrobe. Through February 1, 2015.

4. The Power of Style: Verdura at 75

Verdura (5th & 57th)
Until December 23, 2014

Just two weeks left to see this dazzling show of gem-encrusted jewels and objets. Read my take here.

5. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

MoMA (Midtown)
Until February 8, 2015

A beautiful, happy show. The stained glass window above, Nuit de Noel, was made for a Christmas display in Rockefeller Center in 1953. The show is well worth seeing despite the hordes of visitors that will be there alongside you; again, take advantage of the audio guide to get the most out of the show and quiet the distractions around you. Read my full write-up here; tickets can and should be purchased in advance.

6. Chris Ofili: Night and Day

The New Museum (Downtown)
Until January 25, 2015

This mid-career survey of Chris Ofili’s work left me eager to see what he does next. Ofili may be familiar to you from his first appearance on the art scene in New York City back in the 90’s, when then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani momentarily lost his mind over the fact that Ofili’s painting (on view in a group show at the Brooklyn Museum) incorporated elephant dung. Mind you, it was basically fossilized dung combined with resin, i.e. barely dung at all, as we think of it, but Guiliani’s sense of decency was so offended that he tried to pull all state funding from the Brooklyn Museum. As a result of this brouhaha, I learned about Ofili for the first time and have been interested in him ever since. You know the saying…there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

This show displays some the same series of paintings that were shown in Brooklyn as well as later works, and along the way we see Ofili exploring history, mythology and folklore. I was glad to learn about his process (start with something small each day before moving into the studio to work on the large-scale works) but enjoyed following his thinking, and seeing how he chooses to visualize it, the most.

7. Kara Walker: Afterword
Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (Chelsea)
Until January 17, 2015

Kara Walker’s installation of the Sugar Sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory was one of my favorite shows of 2014, as you can tell from my review. With this exhibition Walker shares preparatory sketches for the installation, reactions to how the public experienced the Sugar Sphinx (she was filming the show) and also introduces new works, including video, that relate to the themes introduced by the Sphinx. I am really looking forward to seeing this show myself.

8. “Hard Hat Tour” of Unrestored Hospital Buildings on Ellis Island

Ellis Island

The weather may not be ideal for this one, but this new tour of Ellis Island’s abandoned hospital buildings sounds like an offbeat, potentially spooky adventure that is just a ferry ride away. According the site “Guided tours will take you to select areas such as the mortuary and autopsy room in the 750-bed Ellis Island Hospital Complex… At the time, this was the largest Public Health Facility in the United States.” Perfect for those who need a more active outing, and a great opportunity to use those photography skills. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

What would you add to this list?


Note: Leonard Lauder quote can be found here.