The Metropolis as Muse in “New York, New York” 

It’s a hell of a town. So nice they named it twice. Add your own favorite cliché or song lyric and you’ll already have a sense of the reach and flavor of the Nassau County Museum of Art’s popular exhibit “New York, New York.”  But don’t look for hackneyed approaches by any of the dozens of artists represented by some 140 works that fill the museum’s two floors.  Instead, you’ll encounter lovely Impressionistic paintings by 19th century artists, masterpieces and early works by icons of the 20th and 21st centuries, and, in one gallery, the most fun to be found in any museum in the area at the moment.  (More on that in a bit.)

Leon Knoll, “Broadway Looking South (in snow)” 1914

Part history of the city, part history of the past 100 years of art, the exhibition, which runs through November 5th, is filled with delights and surprises.  Amidst the thousand things you’ll recognize – from Coney Island to the Brooklyn Bridge – there are countless that you’ve almost certainly never seen before.

Mark Rothko, “Untitled (The Subway Station)” 1937

There’s a huge, vibrant three-panel painting of Times Square by Yvonne Jacquette that practically engulfs the viewer in traffic and neon, but at the same time is filled with lyrical and beautiful passages of painting. There’s a fascinating early work by Mark Rothko that, while totally different from his color field abstractions, hints at a palette and the depths and layers of both meaning and vision that appear in his work decades later.

Fairfield Porter’s 1964 view of “East 56th Street” 

In William Glackens’ “Washington Square” from 1912 at the beginning of the exhibition, the familiar brick row houses front a very different park, filled with green spaces, soft trees and women in long dresses. Like many works in the show, it’s familiar, yet unknown, like a borrowed memory, a glimpse of the past through the eyes of an artist. Later, a silkscreened vision of a downtown street by Robert Rauschenberg captures the city in the 1960s with all its traffic and excitement – also another time, yet closer.

Robert Rauschenberg’s “Untitled (Surplus Dance Theater”, 1964, Oil and silkscreen on canvas, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

The museum’s Director Emerita, Constance Schwartz, filled large galleries with carefully selected works and loans from a host of public and private collections that paint a portrait of the city.  A wonderful addition are thoughtful wall texts that impart the sense of having a curator walk the galleries next to you, adding historical and artistic insights to the works.  Sensitive touches by Schwartz are felt throughout the galleries.  One that’s particularly affecting was the decision to document immigrant artists by both their countries of birth and their status as Americans – an important point to remember in today’s world.

Russian/American artist Max Weber’s 1915 “New York, Rush Hour” on loan from the National Gallery of Art 

Schwartz’s juxtapositions and callbacks add delight to the experience.  A gorgeous photograph by Berenice Abbott in crisp black and white captures the complexity of words and rectangles, history intersecting with a moment, flatness and depth that are hallmarks of a newspaper stand.  A comical take on the same subject is found in Red Grooms’ “The Alley,” a knockout of an installation that’s the highlight of the show and, by itself, worth the trip and the price of admission.

A truck careening around a bend in Red Grooms’ “The Alley” a work that’s rarely on display and always a delight

A large part of the museum’s first floor is filled with Grooms’ hilarious, hectic, chaotic vision of the Lower East Side neighborhood which he lived in and documented.  Floor to ceiling sculptures of tenements, loading docks, trucks and storefronts capture the color and texture, detail and fun, and a sense of city streets.  In a cartoon come to life, visitors wind their way through a narrow alley populated by almost full-sized caricatures of cops, robbers, trucks, businessmen, and even scurrying foam rubber rats.  Grooms’ treatment may seem over-the-top, and that’s its delight, but it’s based on an artist’s unflinching eye.  “The Alley” seems more real than some of New York’s recently gentrified streets.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s is one of several renditions of the Brooklyn Bridge in “New York,New York” 

In sections such as Olde New York, Streets in Transition, Life’s Pleasures, The Bridge to New York City, The New York Dreamscape, and City on the Move, exhibition highlights include paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, John Sloane, Fairfield Porter, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Milton Avery, George Bellows, Romare Bearden, Photorealists Tom Blackwell and Richard Estes, and works by Andy Warhol, Christo and Jean-Claude, Edward Hopper and a host of other major and equally important under-recognized artists.  It’s an inspired and inspiring look at the city that never sleeps that makes a New Yorker proud.

Opening photo: Yvonne Jacquette’s “Times Square Triptych II” and a Red Grooms sculpture share a gallery and present a vision of New York

Nassau County Museum of Art
One Museum Dr, Roslyn, NY 11576
(516) 484-9338