Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between at the Met


Text by Mary Gregory, Photographs by Adel Gorgy

In between is an apt title for the exhibition of Rei Kawakubo’s daring, unconventional designs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The garments the maverick Kawakubo constructs fall somewhere between idea and reality, fashion and sculpture, clothing and performance.

Kawakubo’s name, while known around the world, is less recognizable to many than the name of her label, Comme des Garçons (French for “like some boys”).  By the late 1970s and early ’80s when punk rocked the cultural scene and Madonna turned underwear into outerwear, Kawakubo had already been planting seeds of sedition for a decade.  She put forward fashion on its own ground, rather than as a means to flatter the wearer.  Her creations mirrored the environment around her (on the streets and in nature) as well as her philosophy, her understanding of the world, and her views on history and politics.

Yet, as subversive, radical and revolutionary as her designs were and are, Kawakubo stated, “I am not against fashion.  This is something else, another direction.”  Her direction would lead her to completely rethink what clothing could be.  In the exhibition of some 140 garments, we see jackets that have sleeves in numbers that don’t match human anatomy (sometimes 3 or 4, or even none).  There are skirts that have extra openings for legs (or are they alternate waists?).

By flouting convention, Kawakubo created a genre that didn’t exist before: conceptual clothing.  And yet, they’re not so out-there that they can’t be functional and even perfect.  Lady Gaga, a canny fashionista, joined Kawakubo’s artistic statements with her own in 2012, when buzz arose about her weight.  She defiantly wore one of Kawakubo’s “Flat” pieces, that looks like a cut-out paper doll’s dress (above) hiding her form while proudly proclaiming its beauty.

This goes to the heart of Kawakubo’s vision.  She’s, in part, giving voice to the Eastern idea of wabi-sabi, a Japanese Buddhist-inspired precept that acknowledges and embraces the beauty in the imperfect, incomplete and evolving.  Nine sections of the exhibition present such dichotomies as Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, High/Low, Then/Now, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes.  They’re staged in an inspired installation of circular forms, stacked platforms, and overhead catwalks, all in pure white, that both isolate and highlight aspects of the designer’s vision.  (They also give a sense of the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking into someone else’s closet.)  These rooms within rooms serve to join certain pieces and extract and pinpoint ideas.  Almost blindingly lit by overhead fluorescent bulbs, there’s no fuzzy, soft focus here.  These are bold statements about shape and color, line and form, that just happen to be adapted to the human body.

Curator Andrew Bolton stated that Kawakubo’s designs aren’t really about clothing at all.  They’re more conduits for performance art.  “It wasn’t really about wearability,” he said. “She’s been forced to enter the debate of art and fashion.”  Inherent in her fashions are all the questions and statements that attend serious works of art.  She raises ideas of beauty and ugliness, the natural state versus the artificial, East and West, male and female, completion, opposition, asymmetry, juxtaposition, history, conformity and identity.

Cocoon dresses, bulging with gossamer humps, contradict the feminine ideal, but recall the perfection of nature.   In her 1997 collection, “Body Meets Dress—Dress meets Body” fantastical shapes challenge ideals but do so in sweet pink and blue gingham.  They’re simultaneously shocking and charming.

There’s a dress that resembles a vacuum cleaner filter, a leather biker jacket paired with a tutu, a gown that looks like a crumpled paper bag, and a coat made from damask, sequins and leather that channels Samurai armor via Louis XIV.

By some of the later collections, she’d almost stopped thinking about clothing and was working with pure abstraction of color and form.  “I don’t care about function at all,” Kawakubo stated.  “When I hear ‘where could you wear that?’ or ‘it’s not very wearable,’ or ‘who would wear that?’ to me it’s just a sign that someone missed the point.”

Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between
Costume Institute, at The Met Fifth Avenue through September 4, 2017

Making Space for Women Artists and Remembering My Mother, Joan Sommers


No woman wants to be a “woman artist.” If you are a woman and an artist, you want to be judged on your work. Period. As Georgia O’Keefe said, “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”

Gender qualification in the art world carries the stink of second-class value or exception-to-the-rule accomplishment.  We shouldn’t need to gender qualify “women artists” but, of course, we do and MoMA’s revelatory new exhibit, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction,” on view through August 13th, proves why.

Drawing exclusively from the museum’s archives, curators Starr Figura and Sara Meister, assisted by Hillary Reder, have put together a show of art by women created in that slippery pocket of time between the end of World War II and the emergence late-60s, second-wave feminism. Networks of support for women artists had yet to coalesce, and entrenched thinking in the art world was dismissive of women artists. While some women achieved exception-to-the-rule status, among them familiar names like Lee Krassner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, and Elaine De Kooning, all brilliant and all either lovers, disciples, or wives of the period’s male art stars, those outside the “macho mystique” orbit had little choice but to forge their own paths, make their own space.

With nearly 100 works presented by 50-plus women artists – some recent acquisitions to collection, others pulled from storage to be displayed on MoMA’s walls for the first time – “Making Space” reroutes the exclusivity of the white-men only narrative of modern abstraction with work by women that collectively amplifies the gender and geographic bandwidth of abstraction in late-20th art in profound ways.

Grace Hartigan, Shinnecock Canal, 1957

Opening the exhibit with a work by Grace Hartigan, an Abstract Expressionist from the New York School, positions us with a familiar reference point. Her Shinnecock Canal (1957) is a powerhouse painting, where brushstrokes collide with such combustible energy the canvas feels ready to burst.  And that is what “Making Space” does. It bursts with thrilling work that spans nearly 30 years and multiple evolutions of abstraction. By the end of “Making Space,” LIFE Magazine’s 1958 accolade of Hartigan as one of the “most celebrated of the young American Women painters” feels even more onerous in its exception-to-the rule implications.

(Ironically, Grace Hartigan’s “Shinnecock Canal,” originally featured as the opening painting for “Making Space,” was removed to make space for an exhibition on architects, despite the fact that “Making Space” runs through August 13th.)

Walking through the galleries, I was overcome with a vicarious, albeit bittersweet sense of vindication. My mother, Joan Sommers, a 1948 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, like many of the women in this show, spent a lifetime fighting to assert her primary identity as an artist in a world that worked hard to subordinate that identity to her roles as wife and mother.  In the mid-50s, one reviewer wrote of her, “For most wives and mothers, the multiple duties and responsibilities of rearing children present challenge enough.  But not so for painter Joan Sommers…” No wonder my mother abhorred interviews.

MoMA’s exhibit illuminates what the curators call “the stunning achievements” of these artists, but read between the lines and the stories of how these women willed their art into existence emerge. Their art lives independently but, given the gender prejudice, their stories matter too and are inextricably linked to the passions that drove them.

Joan Mitchell, Ladybug, 1957

It was wonderful to take in Mitchell’s Ladybug (1957), but even more exciting to discover, directly across from Ladybug, Janet Sobel’s little-known gem, Untitled, (1946). In this small but stunning work, Sobel is the first to experiment with drip painting.  A self-taught artist and mother of five, who passed through Ellis Island from the Ukraine in 1908, it should be noted that Pollock, the epitome of Abstract Expressionism’s heroic male art star, discovered his signature innovation through her work.

Nearby is a piece by Alma Woodsey Thomas, an African American junior high art school teacher from Washington, DC whose retirement in 1960, at the age of 68, unleashed an outpouring of creativity. Working out of her kitchen, she created her most important work. In Untitled, (1968), strips of paper, filled with multiple splashes of color, build into columns and, at a distance, the work hints of flowers cascading down a wall. Get closer and you’ll discover the meticulous application of paint obliterates any reality-based reference. What remains is a sublime distillation of color. Michelle Obama had the vision to hang Thomas’s work in the White House.

Alma Woodsey Thomas, Untitled, 1968

The extensive inclusion of Latin American women signals the exhibits’ international scope. Most of these artists are unfamiliar. A series of recently acquired of photographs (1952) by Brazilian artist Gertrudes Altschul, alluring in their organic sensibility, turn shape, light and shadow into sensual abstractions. Uruguayan painter and sculptor Maria Freire, a leading figure in her country’s art concrete movement, is represented by Untitled (1954), a flat work, devoid of the emotionalism of the New York School but strangely soothing to contemplate. A major work by Brazilian artist Lygia Pape, Orange (1955), on view for the first time at MoMA, is yet another revelation. As the exhibit notes explain, women in South America, especially Brazil, had an easier time of it. Why that was so is not exactly clear.

Gertrudes Altschub, Untitled, photograph, c. 1952

Agnes Martin and Ann Truitt are but two of the talents that anchor the minimalist gallery, or as the curators call it reductive abstractionism. Faint influences from the east shadow their work. Truitt’s Sumi drawings, created in Japan in 1966, pit the austerity of vertical stripes against the softness of Sumi-e ink, resulting in a yin-yang effect of cold and warmth, while Martin’s The Tree (1964), with its painstakingly contoured grid, unifies, as you step back, into a transcendent oneness.

Other works to pay special attention to are Bridget Riley’s Current (1964); its synthetic polymer painted lines magically ripple across the canvas in real time. And Yayoi Kusuma’s two works, Infinity Nets (1951) and No. F (1959), along with Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Blue, Green (1964-65), make irrefutable the case that women were key players in the divergence from gestural abstraction to minimalism.

Ruth Asawa, Untitled, 1955

By the mid-sixties, a conscious feminist intent to elevate marginalized women’s disciplines, like weaving and crafting, took hold and yarn and wire became materials of choice. Among the works to look for are Shelia Hicks Prayer Rug (1965), Magdalena Abakanowicz’s hefty Yellow Abakan (1967-68), and Ruth Asawa’s hanging wire sculpture Untitled (1955). Of course, Anni Albers, Lygia Pape and Yayoi Kusuma had been creating textiles since the forties and fifties and those presented in the exhibit are stunning.


I left the exhibit with mixed emotions. Exhilarated by the work, amazed at the paths these women travelled, and deflated that 40-years after the rise of second-wave feminism, shows like this are still necessary.  Of course, I applaud MoMA’s efforts to rethink the deficiencies in their representation of women artists but am impatient with the pace. As with so many narratives of inequality, the reality, especially when it comes to women, is that turning the corner is a process that never ends.

Anne Ryan, Collage 585, 1949

There were two artists I couldn’t stop thinking about. One was Anne Ryan.  For me, she was the standout discovery.  So was her story. Born in 1889 in New Jersey, she was a printmaker/poet and first-generation Abstract Expressionist. In 1948, at the age of 57, she came across Kurt Schwitters’ collage work and saw the potential to visualize her poetry through this new medium. For the last six years of her life, she focused exclusively on collage, producing around 400 pieces with magnificent effect.  Mastering a new medium at that stage in her career is reminiscent of Matisse conjuring cutouts during his final years.

The other artist I couldn’t stop thinking about was my mother, Joan Sommers. Like so many of the women in “Making Space,” she forged her own artistic path, but did so by taking a dramatically different turn. A classmate of Joan Mitchell, my mother was a full scholarship student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating a year after Mitchell. Although friends, they were not close. Both mid-western girls, they shared a talent for ice-skating. Mitchell won the Midwest Junior Pairs Championship; my mother toured professionally with Shipstead & Johnson’s Ice Follies. They both embraced Abstract Expressionism. But that’s where the similarities ended. Mitchell was a Chicago debutante and steel-heiress with a combative personality, well suited for New York. My mother, the daughter of a machine engineer in Duluth, was averse to confrontation but her graceful countenance masked steely resolve.

First row, far right: Joan Sommers, Art Institute of Chicago, 1947

For most of the 50s, she remained in the Midwest, balancing her art with marriage and motherhood. However, both my parents bristled under the constraints of suburban life. My father, a poet and town manager, sought a bigger stage. My mother, straightjacketed by the conformity of American domesticity, longed to escape. When, in the early 60s, an opportunity arose for them to move to Southeast Asia, they jumped at the chance and never looked back.

Joan Sommers, Untitled, oil on canvas,1954

For someone who had never been abroad before, the move to Thailand was simultaneously a journey into the unknown and, unexpectedly, the start of a harmonizing of her artistic identity. The eastern aesthetic held deep resonance for her and offered a kind of artistic rebirth. She traveled extensively – Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, Indonesia, and eventually China – but it was her encounter with Chinese calligraphy and painting that redefined her evolution as an artist.  Through Bangkok’s Chinese community, she found a revered master willing to teach her the ancient techniques of calligraphy, and so began a life-long practice.

In retrospect, her embrace of calligraphy seems destined. Whether carving the ice of frozen Duluth lakes with her skates or letting her “chi” flow from hand to brush, her innate sense of line was intrinsic to her physical being. And in Chinese calligraphy’s abstract quality and gestural capacity, she saw possibilities for innovation that would move her beyond the conventions of western abstraction.  Her experimentation resulted in black ink paintings that balanced ideas of western abstraction with the spontaneity and controlled brushwork at the heart of Chinese calligraphy.

Joan Sommers, Cat’s Cradle, ink on rice paper with undercoat, c. 1990s

As she remarked years later, “It is that tension between East and West that has been my inspiration; the desire to blend and balance ideas of contrast and similarity, continuity and disruption.” Overtime, she applied these ideas to black ink, collage, landscapes, oil, and even the hot-wax techniques of batik.

Joan Sommers, Indonesian Night, hot wax batik technique, 1976

As an adult, I spent hours with her in her studio, watching her work and dissecting her process.  By nature, she was not a particularly verbal person, but I pushed and over time our discussions went deep. A bond formed between us, one that transcended the vicissitudes of our mother-daughter relationship. I like to think that our friendship during those later years took the edge off her feelings of isolation. She was fully confident in her vision, extremely self-critical and experimented endlessly. Having grown up in Asia myself, her trajectory felt natural to me. But discussing her art with others was exhausting, filled as it was with unexpected twists and turns.

Joan Sommers, Bamboo with Enso, ink on rice paper and collage, c. 1990s

A gifted ice skater, she quit the Ice Follies in favor of art school. A fervent Abstract Expressionist, she turned her back on New York in favor of the East. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she thrived most while studying at the China National Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, China. Her identity as an artist was paramount but she was the mother of six and her marriage a love story that lasted a lifetime. She worked simultaneously in multiple mediums but Chinese calligraphy was her sustenance, her daily practice. Hers was a contradictory narrative, with so many moving parts, that explaining it to others left me at a loss.  Predictably, my mother had no interest in explaining anything to anyone.

Joan Sommers, Sudden Landscape, ink on rice paper, 2002

In December 2013, a mere three weeks after she passed away on Thanksgiving Day, a show opened at the Metropolitan Museum in New York that struck me like a lightning bolt.  “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” was a landmark exhibit by contemporary Chinese artists who used their artistic heritage to create contemporary, non-western, global art.  Lingering in the galleries, I could feel my mother’s ideas echo throughout the exhibit. And my jaw dropped when I saw work by two of the show’s major artists: Wang Dongling and Wenda Gu.  These were her friends. Artists she had painted alongside and shared ideas with, artists she had learned from and bonded with. How often and passionately she had spoken to me about their work.  Before that moment, their names were just that, names, lodged in my memory with no visual reference, no larger context.  Now, here they were, the full glory of their work on display in a show that was one of the most exciting art experiences of my life.  Finally, I had a context for my mother’s work and journey as an artist.

Second from left: Wang Dongling, Joan Sommers, and William Sommers

Later, I learned from my father that before my mother passed away, they made a final trip to Hangzhou and paid a surprise visit to Wang Dongling, universally revered as China’s greatest living calligrapher and an art star on the contemporary global stage.  His joy upon seeing my mother was immediate and a feast was quickly arranged. Their last photograph together is one I treasure and symbolizes the wholeness of her journey.  My mother, the ultimate outsider, had been welcomed back to Hangzhou as an insider and shown respect by an artist who mattered most to her.

Photos of Joan Sommers and images of Joan Sommers’ work courtesy of Daria Sommers; All other images courtesy of Museum of Modern Art.

Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction
Museum of Modern Art
Now thru August 13, 2017

Marvels of Man and Nature at The Cloisters


Heaven seems closer at The Cloisters   


Looking for a bit of heaven?  No need to leave this life, or even Manhattan. A trip to The Cloisters will get you so close you won’t be able to tell if you’ve passed through the portals of the museum or the pearly gates, themselves.


The gorgeous Merode Altarpiece has communicated piety, simplicity and God’s glory for over 600 years  

Particularly when spring is bestowing her gifts and forsythias spread their blossoms like a young girl shaking out long, blonde curls, a visit to the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art focused on medieval art and architecture is pure delight. The Cloister gardens are green and filled with daffodils, apple blossoms, grape hyacinths, and herbs. Sparrows sing and scrabble over bits of twig as they build nests among the time worn terracotta tiles, and the place (a pastiche of many places joined together) is filled with beauty amidst quietude, peace and a sense of renewal.


Timelessness and the joys of the season coexist at The Cloisters  

Considering the countless footsteps that have worn smooth the stone steps, sensing the silently echoing presence of tonsured monks in sandals who lived and prayed in these spaces makes one feel small against the stretch of hundreds of years, the way we feel small at the edge of the ocean or gazing at the night sky. Tiny, but connected to something immense. The Cloisters is a singular place in a bustling city that can bring us to the distant past and help us to be fully in the present at the same time.


The medieval artist who carved this Madonna and baby Jesus captured a lively pose    


The famed Unicorn Tapestries fill a hall at The Cloisters  

There’s never been a better time to make the journey.  In addition to the glories of spring, an astonishingly beautiful exhibition, “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures,” is on view through May 21st. Four dozen extremely delicate and rare miniature boxwood carvings from the middle ages have been gathered together by Dr. Barbara Drake Boehm, Paul and Jill Ruddock, Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, in an exhibition co-organized by the Rijksmuseum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Beheld and cherished as objects of wonder by European kings and queens, these marvels of engineering and artistry were mostly made in the Netherlands in the 1500s.  They are devotional objects depicting scenes from the Bible that were fashioned by incredibly skilled artists into tiny altars, rosary or prayer beads and even tiny coffins, complete with even tinier skeletons. To compound the marvels, the artists circumscribed each scene with minutely carved inscriptions.


An exquisite carved rosary that once belonged to King Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon is a highlight of “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures”  

It’s hard to believe human hands could create something so complex and compelling within the confines of a sphere of carved wood no larger than a small egg.  Castled landscapes, forests with trees and animals, and, in the Met’s own rosary bead a crucifixion scene with three crosses, soldiers, horses, and mourners, have been carved into tiny, yet breathtaking sculptures. In fact, it’s partly because they’re so tiny that they are so amazing.

Dr. Boehm states in her exhibition description, “Over the course of more than 500 years these works of art have repeatedly been described as “ingenious,” “artful,” “exquisite,” and “subtle.” Even so, no adjective has ever been adequate to express the sense of wonder and amazement that the miniatures elicit.” Indeed, gasps were heard throughout the gallery. You can get a sense of these incredible objects from a video on the Met’s website.


The sun and moon and a field of tiny plants and flowers decorate this unique crucifixion scene at The Cloisters   

“Small Wonders” is reason enough to visit The Cloisters, but their exquisite collection of  paintings, sculptures, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts; the stunning stained glass windows; and the gardens and the architectural elements that recreate a sense of medieval Europe, combine to make an experience that transcends everyday life and transports the viewer across time and place all while never leaving the city.

Photos by Adel Gorgy

Georges Seurat’s Sideshow
at The Met


Taking as its focus one of its more engaging masterpieces, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has organized a thematic exhibition that offers a unique historical context for appreciating the tradition and allure of the enchanting Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque) (1887-88) by the French Post-Impressionist Georges Seurat (1859-91).

Georges Seurat, Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88

Joined by a remarkable group of seventeen related works by the artist that illuminates the lineage of the motif in Seurat’s inimitable conté crayon drawings, the exhibition explores the fascination the subject held for other 19th century artists from the influential 19th century caricaturist Honoré Daumier, whose caricatures lampooned the changing political climate in 19th century France, to a young Pablo Picasso at the fin de siècle. More than 100 works are on loan ranging from drawings, prints, vintage posters, illustrated journals and musical instruments that vividly depict traveling circuses and fairs of the period. One of the many viewing pleasures is the whiff of Parisian joie de vivre and the city’s bustling art scene.

Georges Seurat, Trombonist, 1887–88

Seurat worked on Circus Sideshow for six years and it represents one of a half dozen figurative paintings he produced. The artist is known for his draftsmanship seen in the painting’s precise geometric shapes, as well as his innovative use of pointillism (brush strokes of dots) and divisionism (separating and dividing color), techniques he developed leading to the Neo-Impressionist era.

Honoré Daumier, The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66

Circus Sideshow details the purchase of tickets and the attendant Parade, a come-on or sideshow featuring groups of Saltimbangues (circus performers) and rousing music as free entertainment. Customers are expected to queue up the stairs to the box office. On the makeshift stage under the glow of nine twinkling gaslights, five musicians, a ringmaster and clown play to the assembled crowd of onlookers whose assorted hats add a wry and rhythmic note to the foreground of this austere nocturnal painting, the only nighttime composition Seurat produced before his untimely death at 31.

Fernand Pelez, Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888

Among the Seurats on display are three surviving preparatory studies for Circus Sideshow and a suite of five drawings of cafe society singers. The other Seurat painting is the small version of “Models” (Poseuses) 1887-88, in which the artist reverses direction rendering daylight, flesh and a moment of relaxation. The larger version resides in the Barnes Collection and debuted with Circus Sideshow in the 1888 Salon des Indépendants.

Jean-François Raffaëlli, Les Saltimbanques-L’Orchestre en parade, 1884

Other highlights: Rembrandt’s dry painted Christ Presented To the People (1655); a first-time showing in the U.S. of Fernand Pelez’s monumental Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques (Petit Palais, Paris), which was presented at the Salon of 1888, at the same time as Seurat’s brooding masterpiece debuted at the Salon des Indépendants. And catch such favorites as Pierre Bonnard, Lucien Pissarro, Emile Bernard, and the American Maurice Pendergast, among others.

Kudos must go to historian and guest curator Richard Thomas professor of Fine Arts at the University of Edinburgh and the Met’s Susan Alysin Stein, curator of Nineteenth Century European Paintings in the Department of European Paintings for the brilliant installation and fine catalogue.

Through May 29, 2017, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 

Images (in order):

Opening Image:
Georges Seurat
Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque), 1887–88
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960

Georges Seurat
Pierrot and Colombine, ca. 1886–88
Kasama Nichido Museum of Art

Georges Seurat
Trombonist, 1887–88
Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of
Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

Honoré Daumier
The Sideshow (La Parade), ca. 1865–66
Private collection

Fernand Pelez (French, 1848–1913)
Grimaces and Misery—The Saltimbanques, 1888
Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Collection Dutuit

Jean-François Raffaëlli (French, 1850–1924)
Saltimbanques—The Sideshow Orchestra
(Les Saltimbanques—L’Orchestre en parade), ca. 1884
Private collection

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven


Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven, a landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, co-curated by Barbara Drake Boehm, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Senior Curator for The Met Cloisters, and Melanie Holcomb, Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, runs through January 8th. The stunning works in the exhibition give voice to the various religious and cultural traditions that have defined Jerusalem through the ages. There are some 200 spectacular works of art from 60 international collections included.  What follow are some of my visions, responses and reflections. To fully experience the glory of these works, visit the exhibition and form your own.

The exhibition begins with the quote “Jerusalem has been chosen and sanctified by God, trodden by His feet, honored by angels and frequented by every people under heaven.” Jacques de Vitry (ca. 1160/70–1240), bishop of Acre in the Holy Land.

All texts are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Stavelot Triptych (Top Photo)

Gilded copper with champlevé and cloisonné enamel, silver, émail brun, and semiprecious stones Ca. 1156–58, Meuse River valley, Morgan Library and Museum, New York

Gold and enamel here ennoble the most precious of relics, wood from the Cross of Jesus. The medallions on the left wing stress the importance of the Cross to the history of Christian Europe. They tell of the conversion of Constantine (ca. 273–337), the first Christian emperor, a consequence of his success in battle under the standard of the Cross. The medallions at right detail his mother Helena’s successful search for the Cross in Jerusalem. The triptych was created in northern Europe, a realm that feared correctly that it was on the verge of losing the hard-won prize of Jerusalem. The churchman generally considered the patron of the triptych, Wibald (1098–1153), abbot of Stavelot, played a key role within a network of Crusader leaders.

02_gorgy_jersalemBottle with Christian Scenes

Glass, gold, and enamel paint, Mid-13th century, Syria, Furusiyya Art Foundation

Using lively line and color, the artist of this spectacular bottle brings a local Christian community to life. Imposing buildings, clearly designated with crosses, alternate with charming details of agricultural activities, from harvesting dates and picking grapes to plowing fields.


Virgin and Child Enthroned and the Crucifixion

Tempera and gold on wood panels with gilded plaster, Ca. 1275–85, Acre

Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection

Pilgrims to the Holy Land could buy icons and other devotional objects at both holy sites and special shops in major cities. The purchaser of this icon, who is pictured to the left of the Virgin’s throne, likely bought the diptych in Acre, the last Crusader outpost in the Holy Land. Workshops there specialized in providing holy images, modeled on Byzantine paintings, to European Christians.


Mosque Lamp of Sultan al-Zahir Baybars

Brass, inlaid with silver and black compound, Probably 1277 (a.h. 676), Damascus

Museum of Islamic Art, Doha

The light that emanated from this pierced metal lamp was surely more suited to creating an atmosphere of mystery and reverence than to reading. Indeed, the inscription reveals that it was made for the tomb of Sultan Baybars (reigned 1260–1277), who played a significant role in expelling the Franks from the Holy Land.


Mosque Lamps of Sultan Barquq

Glass with gold and enamel, 1382–99, Egypt or Syria

Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917

For reasons both practical and symbolic, hanging glass oil lamps were an integral component of mosques and Islamic schools. At the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque, they numbered in the hundreds. In an Islamic context, they often include words from the Qur’an: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” Each of these lamps also bears the name of their donor, Sultan Barquq (died 1399), an active patron of architecture in his capital, Cairo, and in Jerusalem.


Icon with Saint George and the Young Boy of Mytilene

Tempera and gold leaf on gesso and woven textile (linen?) over wood support

Mid-13th century, Holy Land, British Museum, London

Protector of the weak, Saint George is a legendary warrior. European and Eastern Christians as well as Muslims looked to his example and visited his shrine. Crusaders rebuilt a cathedral dedicated to him at Lydda (Lod), near Jerusalem. This icon places the saint in a partisan Christian role: he rescues a boy from the Greek city of Mytilene who had been taken captive and forced to serve as a cupbearer to a local emir.


Goblet of Charlemagne

Goblet: glass with gold and enamel; mount: gilded silver

Glass: second half of the 12th century, Syria; mount: 13th–14th century, Paris(?), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres

According to a richly embroidered legend, Charlemagne, crowned by the Pope and revered as a saint, brought this goblet back from the Holy Land. In fact, it was created some 400 years after his death in 814. A souvenir from a foreign culture, it was prized enough that its French owner had it set on a gilded silver foot.


The Book of Divine Service

From the Mishneh Torah, Tempera, gold leaf, and ink on parchment

Written by Maimonides (1135–1204), illumination attributed to the Master of the Barbo Missal, and copied by Nehemiah for Moshe Anauv be Yitzchak Ca. 1457, Venetian region or Lombardy

Jointly owned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Priests perform sacrifices in the Temple courtyard, introducing the eighth book of the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides’s monumental codification of Jewish law. The text explicates the construction of and worship in the Temple, including detailed descriptions of its rituals and vessels. This intense study was vital to a community that was not only studying the historic Temple but also forever readying itself for the future one. Law books were rarely illustrated so sumptuously, attesting to the high esteem in which Maimonides’s work was held.

All photographs by Adel Gorgy

Bike Riding Comes of Age


A June 1 article in the Boston Globe caught my eye: parents are hiring other people to teach their children how to ride a bike. What was once considered a bonding experience for a parent and a child (think of that scene in Kramer vs. Kramer when the dad played by Dustin Hoffman teaches his son how to ride a two-wheeler), has now been assigned to a “professional.” The story offered reasons why parents are dodging this job: no time, little patience, and the fact that many parents don’t know how to ride a bike themselves.

bike path small

Biking along the Potomac, with the Washington Monument (left) and the Jefferson Memorial (right) in the distance.

For some reason, the story made me sad, not only because many parents are missing the opportunity to teach their children how to ride a bike, but also that these adults themselves are missing out on such a fun sport. The previous week I had taken advantage of a beautiful sunny day in Alexandria to enjoy a roundtrip 12-mile ride into Washington. The bike path takes riders and runners through Old Town’s waterfront, past the Dangerfield Sailing Club, Reagan National Airport (watching planes land and take off is still a thrill), and alongside the Potomac River where the monuments can be seen across the water. Even in this urban oasis, the wildlife is abundant. Once a bald eagle swooped down in front of me before landing in a tree. I was so excited I nearly toppled off my bike. There have been other “moments.” Riding alongside participants in the Avon Breast Cancer walk, most outfitted in over-the-top pink outfits, I stopped to take a photo and hear their stories. Before Memorial Day, there were many military groups either running or riding bikes. Occasionally, low-flying helicopters serve as notice that security has been ramped up because POTUS is on the move.

I have been riding a bike since, well, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t ride a bike. And yes, my mom and dad got involved in teaching me. I know my first bike was a small one, definitely pink, maybe 16 or 18 inches high. As I became taller, so did my bike. Growing up in the fifties, bikes were our major mode of transportation. We rode them everywhere, often miles and miles from our homes. We rode in the parks, on city streets, even on highways. It was also great exercise, one reason why childhood obesity was never an issue. I had plastic streamers flowing from my handlebars. I also used clothes pins (remember those?) to attach playing cards on the spokes to create that tick-tick-tick sound that made my bike sound like a motorcycle (albeit a very low-powered one). We didn’t wear helmets, a safety precaution that was far in the future. I can’t remember ever sustaining any more than a scraped elbow or knee from a fall. What I do remember is how much fun we had riding our bikes.


Hello summer! Lasker Rink being transformed into a swimming pool.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestselling The Happiness Project, has said that one key to happiness is to think back to what made us happy when we were ten years-old. So no surprise that I get that happy feeling every time I hop back on a bike. A week after that Boston Globe article appeared, I was in New York, riding the six-mile loop in Central Park. It was a beautiful day and the park was teeming with people and there’s no better way to take in the action than by biking through the park.

Cat Hill

Being greeted by the “Cat” atop Central Park’s hill.

On the park’s northern end, I watched parents with strollers walking around the Harlem Meer and saw workers transforming Lasker Rink into a swimming pool. On the park’s west side, I glimpsed tourists and others struggling with oars on the boat pond. On the east side, after agonizing up “Cat Hill,” I was able to see the latest exhibit atop the roof at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Met Roof

Spying Cornelia Parker’s “Transitional Object” on the Met’s roof.

Unlike the bike path that goes from Alexandria into Washington, Central Park’s roads are jam packed. Along the way it’s necessary to dodge everyone else on the loop – other bike riders, roller-bladers, pedicabs, horse carriages, runners, and walkers. I have seen many accidents and have been grateful that helmets are now a necessary safety element. But despite the risks, I wouldn’t give up my ride.

The Boston Globe article cited a 2015 survey by YouGov which found that only 5 percent of people 55 and older can’t ride a bike, while 13 percent of 18 to 34 year-olds can’t ride. My advice: it’s never to late to learn what truly is an activity you can enjoy all your life. Millennials may want to think about taking some lessons themselves now so they can eventually teach their children to ride. I’m available and my rates are very low.

Photos by Charlene Giannetti