Art Talk and a Desert Double Feature

Our visit to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie last weekend reminded me why it takes more than a great collection to create a stellar arts operation.

While Neue Galerie’s collection is indeed remarkable, no question about that, their $20 per head admission fee, small exhibition space, densely-packed hanging of the art, and lack of curatorial exposition on what we were seeing made the Galerie feel like it was something of an elistist, high-brow, insider operation. I’m well-studied in the arts, so I understood why some of what I was seeing was quite special, but I don’t think that an arts novice would be able to walk into the Neue Galerie unprepared and glean such an appreciation. And absent such a sense of deeper understanding after viewing the collection, I think a lot of people might leave feeling like they had not gotten their twenty bucks worth of illumination and inspiration. I didn’t myself, truth be told. Compare and contrast that experience to our last visit to a New York museum, when Marcia and I both felt like we got our money’s worth, and then some, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mirό: The Dutch Interiors exhibition.

Value for money notwithstanding, I tend to most highly value arts organizations that make it a priority to not only acquire great collections and traveling exhibitions, but to present them as widely and openly to the public as possible, while also providing expert curatorial context for those who may desire a deeper understanding of what they are seeing. During our many years in Albany, the magnificent Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts provided us (and many others) with such value-added programming. In Iowa, I’ve been thrilled to discover that the Des Moines Art Center is equally adept at, and commited to maintaining, that community-enhancing balance between outreach, accessibility, education and illumination — all in support of an outstanding collection of fine art.

Simon of the Desert

Here’s a current example that, as it turns out, just happens to involve two of my very favorite films. Art Center Senior Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized a wonderful single-artist exhibition called Miguel Angel Ríos: Walkabout that will be on display in the Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery through April 22, 2012. Admission is free (though, as always in the nonprofit world, donations are appreciated), the curatorial value-added is high, and the art presented is evocative, both visually and in terms of the themes that underpin the exhibition: rites of passage, spiritual awakenings, and the self-awareness that come from solitary encounters in the desert landscape. It’s not just a collection of “important” art, but rather a holistic presentation that works on a variety of creative, intellectual and intuitive levels. Well done!

But it gets even better: this Sunday (March 18) at 1:00 PM, the Art Center will present a double film feature of Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) — both of which are films that I adore and highly recommend, either for first-time or repeat viewing. The Buñuel film is a mischievous satire from the father of film surrealism, based on the story of Saint Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pedestal in the middle of a desert for years to show his devotion to God. Walkabout depicts an unexpected chance encounter in Australia between an aboriginal boy, who has embarked on his solitary rite of passage into manhood, and a pair of European children who are stranded in the Outback.


In both cases, the films’ protagonists set forth into the desert seeking purification and transformation. In both cases, they achieve those goals, though not in the ways that they might have expected or desired. While both films feature strong performances from their actors (especially Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in Walkabout, the first major film for them both), the true star of both movies is the desert itself.

Nicolas Roeg had a long career as a cinematographer before he began directing his own films, and his painterly, attentive and radiant images of the Outback capture both its uplifting and destroying power, and its role as a crucible in the lives of those who enter it. Buñuel, still working in black and white when he made Simon, captures most effectively the gritty, grey, dusty and dirty aspects of the desert experience, where wind shapes the environment more than water, and the land is ever-changing and unchanging, at the same time.

The combination of these two powerful films, the strong curatorial effort by Gilbert Vicario, and the exceptional art and vision of Miguel Angel Ríos should make Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center a transformative desert experience for all those who participate. Plus, it won’t cost a nickel to attend — although I always encourage people to make contributions commensurate with the value of their experience, and their ability to give, as they leave nonprofit arts organizations’ spaces.

Personally, I’m thinking the experience this Sunday will feel like it’s worth well more than the twenty bucks we each spent last week in New York . . .

City of Tiny Lites

1. Thursday was Family Birthday-Day: Marcia and Katelin share March 8th as their big one, and this year was a particularly big year for Katelin, as she turned 21. We all met in New York City for a nice three day weekend together. Marcia and I flew in via Newark, and got a great suite in Jersey City, a couple of blocks from the Newport-Pavonia PATH Station. You get twice the room at half the price there, compared to Manhattan, for the cost of a $2.00 train ticket and a couple of extra subway stops. Highly recommended, since you can see more of the Manhattan skyline from that side of the river than you can from within it. Katelin rode down from Geneseo to Peekskill with a friend, then took the train into Grand Central Station, where we met her, before heading out to an exquisite dinner at Salute.  While Marcia and Katelin did spa visits and shopped on Saturday, I did about an 11-mile walkabout in Manhattan, including The High Line, Central Park, Times Square (where my Dad once ran the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot), and various streets and avenues in between. I stopped for tasties and wine at La Nacional, which Time Out New York had dubbed the best tapas restaurant in the City. Very traditional, in a cool walk-down dining room, where I was the only person not speaking Spanish. I am a sucker for bacalao (traditional Spanish-Basque salted cod), and they made it divine here, along with some fab albondigas (meatballs in sofrito sauce). Later that night, the three of us met a good friend and returned to Barbes, a great Mediterranean/African restaurant where Marcia and I had eaten a couple of years ago. It was worth the return visit, and my brochettes de merguez were to die for, again. On Sunday, Katelin went to visit a high school friend, and Marcia and I walked uptown to see the Intrepid Museum and the Neue Galerie. I’m a sucker for anything involving planes, so the former was a big hit for me, needless to say, especially since they have an A-12 (precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird) and a Concorde there. I used to watch the Concordes coming in overhead to JFK when I lived at Mitchel Field in the 1970s.  The Neue Galerie has an amazing collection of (mostly) 20th Century German, Swiss, Russian and Spanish art (think Klimt, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, etc.), though the gallery was small, the art tighly packed and oddly lit, and with little to no curatorial insight provided. It’s a great collection, but still a work in progress as a museum, I think. We met up for dinner, and hit La Nacional again, since it was good enough for an immediate return visit. Today, we scattered: Marcia flew to Detroit for a work conference, Katelin and two friends flew to Aruba for Spring Break, and I returned to Des Moines. As I crested the hill on Fleur Avenue and saw the Des Moines skyline after four great days away, it felt like I was home. That’s a good thing. Here are some snaps of the trip:

South End of The High Line

South End of the High Line.

My father’s office for much of the late 1970s.

A-12 and I. Mmmmm . . . speedy . . .

Business end of a Concorde, including the “oops” wheel that kept the pilots from inadvertently dragging the tail.

Bridge tower of the Intrepid. Love the way the light hits the flag at center!

2. I did not watch the NCAA Selection Sunday show for the first time in many years, and I might never do so again, since I am quite pleased with the results, as a whopping eleven Mid-Major At Large (MMAL) teams made the field. This is the second largest MMAL draw since I started tracking this facet of the tournament in 1998, when twelve made the field, a feat which was repeated in 2004. Per my ongoing Cinderella Point analysis, this should result in a Sweet Sixteen with a lot of low seeded teams in it, which makes for great fun in bracket busting. And that means you definitely want to join the Indie Albany-Indie Moines hoops pick ’em contest, since I will be putting my money where my mouth is with all sorts of crazy person Sweet Sixteen picks, so the opportunities for mockery are likely to be bountiful and ripe.

3. Des Moines is host to one of the four regional finals in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament this year, and we purchased tickets for the local games before the field was announced, just on principle. So imagine how delighted we were when we realized that, if things go according to seed, we are likely to see undefeated Baylor and Brittney Griner, national high-scorer Elena Delle Donne and her Delaware team, the legendary Pat Summitt and her Tennesse team, and Georgia Tech of my beloved ACC. Normally, I root for underdogs, but in this case, I want to see all four of those teams play. And if that wasn’t great enough, the women of both of my almae matres (Navy and UAlbany) made the tournament this year too! Go Danes! Go Mids! In those games, I will be rooting for the upstart upsets.

4. At 10:08 AM last Wednesday, I drove into Benton County, Iowa, and completed my Full Grassley: I have now spent time in all 99 of the State’s counties. I drove myself through every one of them, never using NAV or GPS, but instead depending on an old school, folded paper map, and keeping my eyes open for happy accidents and interesting detours. I conclude that the politicians who do it while sitting in the back of campaign buses, having drivers plot the optimal courses, really don’t achieve any sort of meaningful sense of the State as a whole. It’s the happy, unplanned accidental discoveries that really make Iowa special, I think. The best part about doing the trip in deep winter is it gives me a great sense of the parts of Iowa I want to revisit when the weather is nice, and also which regions I’ll probably not need to return to, unless work takes me there. It was a great exercise, which I started on something of a whim, but which I am now grateful to have had the chance and time to complete. Here’s the route map of my travels, which most often included one or two day loops from Des Moines and back to different corners of the state, zig-zagging along the way to visit towns and attractions of interest:

My Full Grassley: November 2011 to March 2012.