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D e s i g n   A r c h i t e c t u r e   A r t   F a s h i o n






Aug 22
COVER CHARGE
There’s a small exhibit at the Morgan Library of literary documents from the collection of Carter Burden.  It includes first editions, galleys, manuscripts, handwritten letters, and an aerogram, all related to canonical twentieth-century novels.  It’s really a love song to books, assembled at a time when so many of us read and write mostly on screens, and have stopped reading and writing seriously (that is, for anything more than information) at all.  It’s humbling to walk through the gallery and recall what was required to produce a book in times before the computer: the rounds of drafting, typing, printing, revising and proofreading.  Now these steps, and maybe even the act of writing itself, have become frictionless, requiring little physical exertion.
The exhibit also serves as an excellent survey of book cover artwork.  There is The Great Gatsby, with a sly, smiling face in the night sky over East Egg, an image that’s kooky and glamorous, and that remains in use today.  There is the The Sun Also Rises, with a muse in toga and sandals, a romantic figure at odds with the book’s bluntly contemporary narrative and syntax.  And there is Light in August, with a small house on a hill rendered in a deco style that disguises the complex, broken language and souls of the story.
The most audacious cover on display is the one for Saul Bellow’s Herzog. It gives us a heroic, Motherwell-like cloud of black paint hovering on a blank, peacock blue field.  It’s the kind of action painting one would find hanging in a Manhattan psychiatrist’s office in the early 60’s, when the book was first published, and also the kind of ink blot test he might administer.  The image speaks to masculine bravado and the tumult of personal desire, themes appropriate to Bellow’s dense, textured writing and to the novel itself.  The graphic is economic, and uses just three colors, one type face, and one figure.  It’s simple and symphonic.
Photograph courtesy of Viking Press.

COVER CHARGE

There’s a small exhibit at the Morgan Library of literary documents from the collection of Carter Burden.  It includes first editions, galleys, manuscripts, handwritten letters, and an aerogram, all related to canonical twentieth-century novels.  It’s really a love song to books, assembled at a time when so many of us read and write mostly on screens, and have stopped reading and writing seriously (that is, for anything more than information) at all.  It’s humbling to walk through the gallery and recall what was required to produce a book in times before the computer: the rounds of drafting, typing, printing, revising and proofreading.  Now these steps, and maybe even the act of writing itself, have become frictionless, requiring little physical exertion.

The exhibit also serves as an excellent survey of book cover artwork.  There is The Great Gatsby, with a sly, smiling face in the night sky over East Egg, an image that’s kooky and glamorous, and that remains in use today.  There is the The Sun Also Rises, with a muse in toga and sandals, a romantic figure at odds with the book’s bluntly contemporary narrative and syntax.  And there is Light in August, with a small house on a hill rendered in a deco style that disguises the complex, broken language and souls of the story.

The most audacious cover on display is the one for Saul Bellow’s Herzog. It gives us a heroic, Motherwell-like cloud of black paint hovering on a blank, peacock blue field.  It’s the kind of action painting one would find hanging in a Manhattan psychiatrist’s office in the early 60’s, when the book was first published, and also the kind of ink blot test he might administer.  The image speaks to masculine bravado and the tumult of personal desire, themes appropriate to Bellow’s dense, textured writing and to the novel itself.  The graphic is economic, and uses just three colors, one type face, and one figure.  It’s simple and symphonic.

Photograph courtesy of Viking Press.


Aug 19
SO FAR
After finishing Americanah, a novel set in Nigeria, I was starved for another experience of Africa, any experience of Africa.  I began listening to West African-themed playlists online, and one brought me to this album by the late Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Red & Green.  Because I don’t understand the words, the music seems incredibly abstract, built from streams of sound (some tinkling, some swirling, some pulsating) that move forward in endless, gentle surges, so that the compositions don’t begin and end so much as come and go.
Touré, who died in 2006, recorded and toured abroad, but lived his entire adult life in Niafunké, the village where he had grown up. Yet this photograph of him in caftan and trousers, leaning on his acoustic guitar beneath a concrete fence, is profoundly urban.  It has the formality, and rich black and white tones, of studio portraits by Malian photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, and also the same sense that the subject is summoning his finest self for the camera.  But the way that Touré’s body, and the entire composition, open so broadly to the left, suggest that the musician is not entirely captured here, that something slips away.
It’s a strongly graphic image, with bold, contrasting patterns: the grid of the fence, the hatching on the caftan, the stripes down the trousers.  These are tied together by a cluster of criss-crossing lines: Toure’s figure sloped right, his guitar tilted left, and the wall falling off to the far left.  Touré wears generic twentieth-century century sandals, trousers and wristwatch, and plays a guitar that looks like one an American folk singer would.  But the scene is clearly African.  There is something about the low slant of the light, the bare ground, and Touré’s inscrutable expression — both remote and joyous — that tells us so.  Here Touré, and Africa too, seem far away.
Photograph courtesy of World Circuit.

SO FAR

After finishing Americanah, a novel set in Nigeria, I was starved for another experience of Africa, any experience of Africa.  I began listening to West African-themed playlists online, and one brought me to this album by the late Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Red & Green.  Because I don’t understand the words, the music seems incredibly abstract, built from streams of sound (some tinkling, some swirling, some pulsating) that move forward in endless, gentle surges, so that the compositions don’t begin and end so much as come and go.

Touré, who died in 2006, recorded and toured abroad, but lived his entire adult life in Niafunké, the village where he had grown up. Yet this photograph of him in caftan and trousers, leaning on his acoustic guitar beneath a concrete fence, is profoundly urban.  It has the formality, and rich black and white tones, of studio portraits by Malian photographers Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe, and also the same sense that the subject is summoning his finest self for the camera.  But the way that Touré’s body, and the entire composition, open so broadly to the left, suggest that the musician is not entirely captured here, that something slips away.

It’s a strongly graphic image, with bold, contrasting patterns: the grid of the fence, the hatching on the caftan, the stripes down the trousers.  These are tied together by a cluster of criss-crossing lines: Toure’s figure sloped right, his guitar tilted left, and the wall falling off to the far left.  Touré wears generic twentieth-century century sandals, trousers and wristwatch, and plays a guitar that looks like one an American folk singer would.  But the scene is clearly African.  There is something about the low slant of the light, the bare ground, and Touré’s inscrutable expression — both remote and joyous — that tells us so.  Here Touré, and Africa too, seem far away.

Photograph courtesy of World Circuit.


Aug 5
ENGLISH ECCENTRIC
The comic setpiece of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is the hero’s birth, reenacted by actor Steve Coogan, who writhes anxiously while suspended naked, upside-down, inside a giant, sweating, pink foam womb.  But the movie’s most unforgettable image comes right at the beginning, as an adult Tristram addresses us (that is, the camera) in front of his family home.  Photographed in luscious hues, in the gauzy light of a summer morning, the stately brick house makes an indelible backdrop, one that establishes instantly that we are in Great Britain, centuries ago, and that we are among the landed gentry.
The house (it’s Heydon Hall in Norfolk, England) was built in the late sixteenth century in typical Jacobean fashion, from red brick, with stone accents and a steep tiled roof.  It’s tautly composed, absolutely symmetrical about its center bay, and richly textured, with a storm of ornament.  Its front facade is dressed with so many dormers, windows, entablatures and finials that there is hardly any blank wall at all.  And the ridge of its roof is capped, musically, with a string of elements that are all nearly a story high: a central cupola, two lone chimneys, and, to each side of them, runs of five identical chimneys.  The house is both restrained  and ridiculous, which might also be said of Tristram himself.
Photograph by Steven Brooks.

ENGLISH ECCENTRIC

The comic setpiece of Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is the hero’s birth, reenacted by actor Steve Coogan, who writhes anxiously while suspended naked, upside-down, inside a giant, sweating, pink foam womb.  But the movie’s most unforgettable image comes right at the beginning, as an adult Tristram addresses us (that is, the camera) in front of his family home.  Photographed in luscious hues, in the gauzy light of a summer morning, the stately brick house makes an indelible backdrop, one that establishes instantly that we are in Great Britain, centuries ago, and that we are among the landed gentry.

The house (it’s Heydon Hall in Norfolk, England) was built in the late sixteenth century in typical Jacobean fashion, from red brick, with stone accents and a steep tiled roof.  It’s tautly composed, absolutely symmetrical about its center bay, and richly textured, with a storm of ornament.  Its front facade is dressed with so many dormers, windows, entablatures and finials that there is hardly any blank wall at all.  And the ridge of its roof is capped, musically, with a string of elements that are all nearly a story high: a central cupola, two lone chimneys, and, to each side of them, runs of five identical chimneys.  The house is both restrained  and ridiculous, which might also be said of Tristram himself.

Photograph by Steven Brooks.


Aug 1
PRETTY UGLY
Sigmar Polke said, “The unforseeable is what turns out to be interesting.”  He might have added, There is no telling what the unforseeable is going to look like; it could be very ugly.    As I walked through the Polke exhibit at MoMA I was bowled over by the passion and energy in the work.  There’s a vitality to every sketch, every canvas and collage, every page of every notebook, on display.  Polke generated ideas feverishly and implemented them with startling immediacy.  Each piece, however small in scale or ambition, looks as if it absolutely had to be made, as if, in it, the artist is searching for something essential.
Of course there’s no covenant that art must be pretty, but it’s something I hope for.  In addition to being  powerful (i.e. carrying indelible emotional impact), and surprising (i.e. exposing something unseen) I expect a great painting or sculpture to be complexly internally balanced, judiciously composed, possessing a deep order, a formal beauty, that stills and silences.
Polke’s work, which is substantial, has something altogether different: an untidy, over-ripe physicality.  He makes collages cluttered with roughly cut magazine clippings, and paintings with arrays of images running across patchworks of printed fabrics.  His is a strange, unglamorous style.  He leaves audacious stretches of a canvas bare, he draws by filling the margins of a page with cartoons, he studs plywood and wire sculptures with little baby potatoes.  The uncensored aesthetic gives his work a highly personal, expressive character.  It’s not ugly, really, because it’s unconcerned with what is beautiful.
Image courtesy of the Estate of Sigmar Polke.

PRETTY UGLY

Sigmar Polke said, “The unforseeable is what turns out to be interesting.”  He might have added, There is no telling what the unforseeable is going to look like; it could be very ugly.    As I walked through the Polke exhibit at MoMA I was bowled over by the passion and energy in the work.  There’s a vitality to every sketch, every canvas and collage, every page of every notebook, on display.  Polke generated ideas feverishly and implemented them with startling immediacy.  Each piece, however small in scale or ambition, looks as if it absolutely had to be made, as if, in it, the artist is searching for something essential.

Of course there’s no covenant that art must be pretty, but it’s something I hope for.  In addition to being  powerful (i.e. carrying indelible emotional impact), and surprising (i.e. exposing something unseen) I expect a great painting or sculpture to be complexly internally balanced, judiciously composed, possessing a deep order, a formal beauty, that stills and silences.

Polke’s work, which is substantial, has something altogether different: an untidy, over-ripe physicality.  He makes collages cluttered with roughly cut magazine clippings, and paintings with arrays of images running across patchworks of printed fabrics.  His is a strange, unglamorous style.  He leaves audacious stretches of a canvas bare, he draws by filling the margins of a page with cartoons, he studs plywood and wire sculptures with little baby potatoes.  The uncensored aesthetic gives his work a highly personal, expressive character.  It’s not ugly, really, because it’s unconcerned with what is beautiful.

Image courtesy of the Estate of Sigmar Polke.


Jul 30
DOTTY
German artist Sigmar Polke, who was active from the early 1960’s right up until his death in 2012, was all over the place.  He started out as a painter, and then moved between that medium and collage, photography, installation, performance, film and even xerox.  His current  restrospective at MoMA honors this eclecticism. At the heart of the exhibit, there are two small rooms that display paintings completed on bedsheets, framed collages, and films projected in endless loops on the walls while their soundtracks (featuring artists like Captain Beefheart) get mixed up with one another.  The work makes a joyful clutter.
Still, there’s something special about Polke’s most restrained work, the dot paintings he completed early in his career.  These canvases reproduce newspaper and magazine images with the benday dot technique, in which our eyes “mix” individually colored dots optically, using dots enlarged to the size of quarters.  Polke’s dot pictures are not slickly graphic, as Lichtenstein’s are.  And they do not  critique representation, as Gerhard Richter’s paintings of newspaper images do.  They are, for the most part, untroubling fantasy images (babes, tropical beaches, portraits of heroic men), set at slightly-off-plumb angles, with strips of canvas left bare, and layered with additional fields of dots that obscure the image without rendering it entirely illegible.
Polke’s dot canvases, which fill one of the exhibit’s first galleries, possess a reassuring rationalism.  Though gritty in execution — rendered with unnatural hues, a grainy surface, and artful smearing — they are highly elegant in their concept and structure.  What follows, the work we see in the remaining galleries, can be understood as a monumental unwinding of this rigor.
Image courtesy of the MoMA and the Estate of Sigmar Polke.

DOTTY

German artist Sigmar Polke, who was active from the early 1960’s right up until his death in 2012, was all over the place.  He started out as a painter, and then moved between that medium and collage, photography, installation, performance, film and even xerox.  His current  restrospective at MoMA honors this eclecticism. At the heart of the exhibit, there are two small rooms that display paintings completed on bedsheets, framed collages, and films projected in endless loops on the walls while their soundtracks (featuring artists like Captain Beefheart) get mixed up with one another.  The work makes a joyful clutter.

Still, there’s something special about Polke’s most restrained work, the dot paintings he completed early in his career.  These canvases reproduce newspaper and magazine images with the benday dot technique, in which our eyes “mix” individually colored dots optically, using dots enlarged to the size of quarters.  Polke’s dot pictures are not slickly graphic, as Lichtenstein’s are.  And they do not  critique representation, as Gerhard Richter’s paintings of newspaper images do.  They are, for the most part, untroubling fantasy images (babes, tropical beaches, portraits of heroic men), set at slightly-off-plumb angles, with strips of canvas left bare, and layered with additional fields of dots that obscure the image without rendering it entirely illegible.

Polke’s dot canvases, which fill one of the exhibit’s first galleries, possess a reassuring rationalism.  Though gritty in execution — rendered with unnatural hues, a grainy surface, and artful smearing — they are highly elegant in their concept and structure.  What follows, the work we see in the remaining galleries, can be understood as a monumental unwinding of this rigor.

Image courtesy of the MoMA and the Estate of Sigmar Polke.


Jul 20
PAINT INTO SPIRIT
As I read a review of the new biography of James MacNeill Whistler, A Life for Art’s Sake, I learned that he was 5’-3” tall, a dear friend of Oscar Wilde’s, and, basically, a cad and a profligate.  These final revelations sat oddly with the gorgeous delicacy of his paintings, particularly the nocturnes, which flicker between abstraction and depiction before settling, gloriously, into abstraction.
So I hunted down the Whistler paintings at the Met.  There are two of them in the main galleries: a formal portrait of French art critic Theodore Duret, and a nighttime view of Cremorne Gardens in London.  The portrait is lovely, and exactly what one expects: a flattering depiction of a fop in a tuxedo, top hat and pince nez posed against a plain white backdrop.  It’s executed in feathery, fluid brushtrokes that give the entire image, even the tiniest details, a tone of dreamy indecision.
The painting of Cremorne Gardens is a revelation.  While it depicts a complex, vivid scene, of fashionable men and women seated in the garden at night, it stays close to abstraction.   A few broad strokes from left to right, across the top of the narrow, horizontal canvas, make a line of tree tops.  Some strokes across the bottom of the canvas make a sandy, open ground.  And a dark slash in the between them opens the middle distance, giving depth to the canvas and life to the illusion.  On the left-hand side, one vertical stroke — a flick of the wrist, a smear of blue paint — is a woman in a fancy dress and hat standing and taking in the scene.
After looking at the canvas for a few seconds the brushstrokes, ethereal, come to the forefront, and it is they, not the scene, that linger in memory.  The paint has no substance; it seems to hover above the canvas like smoke.
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

PAINT INTO SPIRIT

As I read a review of the new biography of James MacNeill Whistler, A Life for Art’s Sake, I learned that he was 5’-3” tall, a dear friend of Oscar Wilde’s, and, basically, a cad and a profligate.  These final revelations sat oddly with the gorgeous delicacy of his paintings, particularly the nocturnes, which flicker between abstraction and depiction before settling, gloriously, into abstraction.

So I hunted down the Whistler paintings at the Met.  There are two of them in the main galleries: a formal portrait of French art critic Theodore Duret, and a nighttime view of Cremorne Gardens in London.  The portrait is lovely, and exactly what one expects: a flattering depiction of a fop in a tuxedo, top hat and pince nez posed against a plain white backdrop.  It’s executed in feathery, fluid brushtrokes that give the entire image, even the tiniest details, a tone of dreamy indecision.

The painting of Cremorne Gardens is a revelation.  While it depicts a complex, vivid scene, of fashionable men and women seated in the garden at night, it stays close to abstraction.   A few broad strokes from left to right, across the top of the narrow, horizontal canvas, make a line of tree tops.  Some strokes across the bottom of the canvas make a sandy, open ground.  And a dark slash in the between them opens the middle distance, giving depth to the canvas and life to the illusion.  On the left-hand side, one vertical stroke — a flick of the wrist, a smear of blue paint — is a woman in a fancy dress and hat standing and taking in the scene.

After looking at the canvas for a few seconds the brushstrokes, ethereal, come to the forefront, and it is they, not the scene, that linger in memory.  The paint has no substance; it seems to hover above the canvas like smoke.

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.


Jul 19
SCREEN CAPTURE
Does it make artists crazy when architects make art?  Because it makes me crazy when artists make architecture.  Too often, when artists use architectural forms they fashion structures that are unintentionally naive.  That’s as it is with the current installation on the roof of the Met, a collaboration between artist Dan Graham and landscape architect Christian Vogt.
The roof is covered in padded green astroturf, which gives it the hyper-real intensity of a manicured suburban lawn.  Right at the center there’s a paved stone pad about the size of a two-car garage.  This pad is bound on its east and west sides by eight-foot-high green walls, lush with vines. Between these green walls, connecting their far corners, is an “S”-shaped screen made of two-way mirror glass, set in a heavy steel frame.  As one looks at the screen one is met with reflections of oneself, the rooftop lawn, the foliage in Central Park , and the Manhattan skyline, all collapsed onto views of what one sees through the glass.
It’s a rich effect, executed with details that are, when considered architecturally, awkward.  Why isn’t the glass a single piece, rather than two separate ones that meet with a gap right at the critical point where the two curves meet and turn?  Why isn’t the frame made from a polished metal with a clean, narrow profile, to heighten the barely-there nature of the glass?  Why isn’t the screen freestanding, pulled away from the green walls, so that visitors can circle it and take in more fully its shifting, cinematic views?  And why doesn’t the whole screen sit directly on the lawn, so that it rises from it like an apparition? 
Rather than an instrument that reorients visitors within the roofscape and the city, the screen ends up being an object on the lawn, not so different from a traditional sculpture.  One sees it, walks towards it, catches the web of reflections on its surface, and then turns around to lose oneself in the magnificent, unobstructed views of Central Park all around.  Those views, while static, are immediate, and stirring.
Photograph by Nalina Moses.

SCREEN CAPTURE

Does it make artists crazy when architects make art?  Because it makes me crazy when artists make architecture.  Too often, when artists use architectural forms they fashion structures that are unintentionally naive.  That’s as it is with the current installation on the roof of the Met, a collaboration between artist Dan Graham and landscape architect Christian Vogt.

The roof is covered in padded green astroturf, which gives it the hyper-real intensity of a manicured suburban lawn.  Right at the center there’s a paved stone pad about the size of a two-car garage.  This pad is bound on its east and west sides by eight-foot-high green walls, lush with vines. Between these green walls, connecting their far corners, is an “S”-shaped screen made of two-way mirror glass, set in a heavy steel frame.  As one looks at the screen one is met with reflections of oneself, the rooftop lawn, the foliage in Central Park , and the Manhattan skyline, all collapsed onto views of what one sees through the glass.

It’s a rich effect, executed with details that are, when considered architecturally, awkward.  Why isn’t the glass a single piece, rather than two separate ones that meet with a gap right at the critical point where the two curves meet and turn?  Why isn’t the frame made from a polished metal with a clean, narrow profile, to heighten the barely-there nature of the glass?  Why isn’t the screen freestanding, pulled away from the green walls, so that visitors can circle it and take in more fully its shifting, cinematic views?  And why doesn’t the whole screen sit directly on the lawn, so that it rises from it like an apparition? 

Rather than an instrument that reorients visitors within the roofscape and the city, the screen ends up being an object on the lawn, not so different from a traditional sculpture.  One sees it, walks towards it, catches the web of reflections on its surface, and then turns around to lose oneself in the magnificent, unobstructed views of Central Park all around.  Those views, while static, are immediate, and stirring.

Photograph by Nalina Moses.


Jul 18
OH!  CALCUTTA!
Sandwiched between other designers who showed Bollywood-style getups on models strutting to booming film music, Joy Mitra’s presentation at the Splendid India Closet event was memorable for its restraint.  That’s not a quality one typically associates with Indian fashion.
The designer took inspiration from Devdas, a novel set in nineteenth-century Calcutta that has spawned several well-known film adaptations, most recently a  blockbuster starring Aishwarya Rai and Shahrukh Khan.  The models wore billowing ankle-length skirts and pantaloons with short, fitted blouses that buttoned up the back, and sheer draped shawls.  Each piece was in a strong, saturated hue with subdued, coppery undertones, and was mixed with pieces in contrasting colors.  The combinations were unforgettable: tangerine orange with peacock blue, mustard yellow with burgundy, teal with chocolate brown.   The fabrics were embellished with gold seed beads and lines of embroidery in delicate, traditional motifs.  But this ornament didn’t have the bright yellow shine of typical zari.  Insted it reminded me of gold jewelry that has been worn for decades — dull, mottled, with all the polish worn away.
The models carried cloth purses, puckered like dumplings, on colored cords from their wrists, wore little embroidered patches in their hair, and held their heads high, staring somberly into the distance.  They looked like they were on their way to the market or to school; they were not simply swanning about.  The modesty in cut (there were a few exposed bellies, but no ankles or cleavage) and decoration, coupled with the richness in the palette, set a somber, nostalgic mood.  The garments evoked another time and place, one with its own unchanging codes of dress and behavior.  The friend I was with remarked that the clothing was “very old Calcutta.”  I’ve never visited that city, but after seeing Mitra’s clothes I have a full fantasy of it.
Image courtesy of JOY Designs.

OH!  CALCUTTA!

Sandwiched between other designers who showed Bollywood-style getups on models strutting to booming film music, Joy Mitra’s presentation at the Splendid India Closet event was memorable for its restraint.  That’s not a quality one typically associates with Indian fashion.

The designer took inspiration from Devdas, a novel set in nineteenth-century Calcutta that has spawned several well-known film adaptations, most recently a  blockbuster starring Aishwarya Rai and Shahrukh Khan.  The models wore billowing ankle-length skirts and pantaloons with short, fitted blouses that buttoned up the back, and sheer draped shawls.  Each piece was in a strong, saturated hue with subdued, coppery undertones, and was mixed with pieces in contrasting colors.  The combinations were unforgettable: tangerine orange with peacock blue, mustard yellow with burgundy, teal with chocolate brown.   The fabrics were embellished with gold seed beads and lines of embroidery in delicate, traditional motifs.  But this ornament didn’t have the bright yellow shine of typical zari.  Insted it reminded me of gold jewelry that has been worn for decades — dull, mottled, with all the polish worn away.

The models carried cloth purses, puckered like dumplings, on colored cords from their wrists, wore little embroidered patches in their hair, and held their heads high, staring somberly into the distance.  They looked like they were on their way to the market or to school; they were not simply swanning about.  The modesty in cut (there were a few exposed bellies, but no ankles or cleavage) and decoration, coupled with the richness in the palette, set a somber, nostalgic mood.  The garments evoked another time and place, one with its own unchanging codes of dress and behavior.  The friend I was with remarked that the clothing was “very old Calcutta.”  I’ve never visited that city, but after seeing Mitra’s clothes I have a full fantasy of it.

Image courtesy of JOY Designs.


Jul 17
MAKING THE OLD BOLD
I nearly fell off my chair when a cluster of models wearing saris designed by Masaba Gupta for Satya Paul hit the runway at the Splendid India Closet show.  I’ve never seen anything like them.  They use large-scale contemporary graphics to highlight the garment’s classically fluid, draped form.  Masaba’s most recent collection takes pop imagery including road maps, phone booths, and lipstick tubes and smears, and prints them on gauzy silk chiffon.  I can only imagine the drama that erupts when a woman wearing a lipstick sari walks into a cocktail party in Mumbai.  Surely she makes it clear that she is the wittiest, most modern, and elegantly appointed woman in the room.
A sari is, very simply, a six-yard length of 44”-wide fabric.  It’s the way it’s draped and folded and tucked that gives it its dynamic, graceful shape.  So to incorporate a sizeable graphic, rather than a small, all-over pattern, it’s necessary to plot out where every bit of fabric will land on the figure, how it will fall, and how it will move as a women walks in it.  Masaba plays with ombre, incorporating long stretches of dove grey, bubble gum pink and electric yellow that accentuate, in turn, hips, legs and shoulders.  She adds contrasting hot pink and cherry red borders to set off stark black and white motifs.  And she sets the boldest graphics on the length that winds across the front of the torso rather than saving it for the pulloo, the end that falls freely over the shoulder and that, typically, receives the most specialized decoration.  The graphics she selects are bold and loaded with pop cultural references (Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist), but they don’t distract from the garment’s traditional silhouette. Masaba is executing centuries-old draping, masterfully, in a style that’s audaciously contemporary.
Ombre Grey Digital-Print Lipstick Saree by Masaba Gupta, 2014.  Image courtesy of Satya Paul.

MAKING THE OLD BOLD

I nearly fell off my chair when a cluster of models wearing saris designed by Masaba Gupta for Satya Paul hit the runway at the Splendid India Closet show.  I’ve never seen anything like them.  They use large-scale contemporary graphics to highlight the garment’s classically fluid, draped form.  Masaba’s most recent collection takes pop imagery including road maps, phone booths, and lipstick tubes and smears, and prints them on gauzy silk chiffon.  I can only imagine the drama that erupts when a woman wearing a lipstick sari walks into a cocktail party in Mumbai.  Surely she makes it clear that she is the wittiest, most modern, and elegantly appointed woman in the room.

A sari is, very simply, a six-yard length of 44”-wide fabric.  It’s the way it’s draped and folded and tucked that gives it its dynamic, graceful shape.  So to incorporate a sizeable graphic, rather than a small, all-over pattern, it’s necessary to plot out where every bit of fabric will land on the figure, how it will fall, and how it will move as a women walks in it.  Masaba plays with ombre, incorporating long stretches of dove grey, bubble gum pink and electric yellow that accentuate, in turn, hips, legs and shoulders.  She adds contrasting hot pink and cherry red borders to set off stark black and white motifs.  And she sets the boldest graphics on the length that winds across the front of the torso rather than saving it for the pulloo, the end that falls freely over the shoulder and that, typically, receives the most specialized decoration.  The graphics she selects are bold and loaded with pop cultural references (Warhol, Picasso, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist), but they don’t distract from the garment’s traditional silhouette. Masaba is executing centuries-old draping, masterfully, in a style that’s audaciously contemporary.

Ombre Grey Digital-Print Lipstick Saree by Masaba Gupta, 2014.  Image courtesy of Satya Paul.


Jul 15
DECORATIVE ARTS
I recently spent a day hiding out inside the Pierre Hotel, at the Splendid Indian Closet, a trunk show where twelve celebrated Indian-based designers showed their current collections.  As I watched the presentations I was struck by the persistence of tradition.  Virtually all of the clothes shown that day were traditional garment types (sari, lengha, kurta, salwar kameez), executed in traditional palettes (fuschia with red, saffron with burgundy, sea foam with navy) and with traditional embellishments (embroidery, lace, zari, beads).  The one designer who succeeded in taking these conventions and elevating them to dazzling, supernatural effect was Suneet Varma.
This designer’s work has a sense of refinement that’s not always evident in Indian fashion, which can be over-embellished without being purposefully so.  In many of the garments from this recent show, the ornament is so lavish that not much fabric is left bare.  But each ensemble remains monochromatic, built from layers of gauzy chiffons and slithering silks in a single glowing hue (pale peach, bright lime, berry red, sky blue).   And the ornament, while over-the-top, is carefully structured, repetitive, rhyming, pulling the entire garment together.
Varma worked as in intern in Paris, with a stint at Yves Saint Laurent, and there is a very French sense of exoticism (India!) and theatricality to his work.  The models moved down the runway slowly, self-consciously and regally.  They held enormous jewel-trimmed veils over their heads, rolled their hips like Jessica Rabbit, and took dramatic pauses in the middle of the runway.  They were styled with elaborate knights-of-arabia turbans, hooker-high gold heels, and glittering, shoulder-grazing chandelier earrings.  Like John Galliano’s gowns, Varma’s lenghas and saris are costume-like, magically transformative.  They turn the women wearing them into courtesans and movie stars, vamps and queens. 
Photograph courtesy of Suneet Varma.

DECORATIVE ARTS

I recently spent a day hiding out inside the Pierre Hotel, at the Splendid Indian Closet, a trunk show where twelve celebrated Indian-based designers showed their current collections.  As I watched the presentations I was struck by the persistence of tradition.  Virtually all of the clothes shown that day were traditional garment types (sari, lengha, kurta, salwar kameez), executed in traditional palettes (fuschia with red, saffron with burgundy, sea foam with navy) and with traditional embellishments (embroidery, lace, zari, beads).  The one designer who succeeded in taking these conventions and elevating them to dazzling, supernatural effect was Suneet Varma.

This designer’s work has a sense of refinement that’s not always evident in Indian fashion, which can be over-embellished without being purposefully so.  In many of the garments from this recent show, the ornament is so lavish that not much fabric is left bare.  But each ensemble remains monochromatic, built from layers of gauzy chiffons and slithering silks in a single glowing hue (pale peach, bright lime, berry red, sky blue).   And the ornament, while over-the-top, is carefully structured, repetitive, rhyming, pulling the entire garment together.

Varma worked as in intern in Paris, with a stint at Yves Saint Laurent, and there is a very French sense of exoticism (India!) and theatricality to his work.  The models moved down the runway slowly, self-consciously and regally.  They held enormous jewel-trimmed veils over their heads, rolled their hips like Jessica Rabbit, and took dramatic pauses in the middle of the runway.  They were styled with elaborate knights-of-arabia turbans, hooker-high gold heels, and glittering, shoulder-grazing chandelier earrings.  Like John Galliano’s gowns, Varma’s lenghas and saris are costume-like, magically transformative.  They turn the women wearing them into courtesans and movie stars, vamps and queens. 

Photograph courtesy of Suneet Varma.


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