Hassan Hajjaj

This summer, as I was getting ready for my trip to Morocco, I came across this article by Mickalene Thomas in the New York Times Style Magazine.  It’s a travelogue of her trip to Italy, where she participated in the “Black Portraiture{s} II” conference hosted by NYU.  But in addition to participating in the conference, she shared her unique glimpses into art and life in Italy, allowing us to see it too through her artist’s eyes, from graffiti to leather craftsmen to adverts.  She also shared some of the contemporary art she visited during her travels.

And the image she shared of one of Hassan Hajjaj’s photographs stopped me in my tracks.

I’d been trying to learn more about Moroccan art in advance of my trip: both the traditional artisan trajectories of textile artists and wood carvers and leather workers — and contemporary Moroccan art.  Hassan Hajjaj’s work is gorgeous: rich, sumptuous colors; portraiture that plays with Moroccan motifs and textiles and is unabashedly modern.

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Helen PJI by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

Rider by Hassan Hajjaj (source)

I didn’t get a chance to see any of Hajjaj’s work during my travels in Morocco, but have kept an eye on his work since I first came across him.

So imagine my surprise when I met a friend at the Worcester Art Museum this weekend and found they had a full-on Hassan Hajjaj installation (on exhibit through March 6).  Hajjaj’s work is even more luminous and texturally active in person: the photographs of such a high resolution that the textiles have a palpable tactile quality, the borders of the photographs woven.

The exhibit at WAM is part portrait photography, part video installation, part environmental immersion.  And seeing Hajjaj’s work in this context gave it new dimension.  The exhibit’s walls are painted with patterns borrowed Moroccan textile and decorative motifs.  And the installation includes furniture Hajjaj designed fusing sources such as the traditional leather Moroccan ottoman and the utilitarian material culture of contemporary life: milk crates, plastic paint buckets.

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj

Mandisa Dumezweni by Hassan Hajjaj (source: Worcester Art Museum)

Titled “My Rock Stars,” the exhibit features portraits of contemporary musicians whose work has inspired Hajjaj and a dynamic film installation of their performance work.  Having just returned from a stay in Essouira, the Gnawan music felt particularly powerful, though the real impact of the film installation came from the collaging of sounds as distinct, individually compelling, and collectively texturally rich as these.

The exhibit is a must-see if you find yourself in New England.  And Hajjaj an artist to watch no matter where you live.

I am crushed that I missed his visit to WAM earlier this year.  So here’s this for an intention: Let my work matter enough that someday Hassan Hajjaj will photograph me.



Mickalene Thomas

I’ve been fascinated by Mickalene Thomas since I saw her piece at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond this spring.  I’ve seen a few of her pieces in person since then, and have found her interiors particularly interesting.  Thomas’s work in her portraits and her interiorscapes is often lush and richly materialed.

Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires

Mickalene Thomas’s Sleep: Deux Femmes Noires at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

I have found myself increasingly compelled by the creative capacity of material culture in my own  life: drawn to textile and ceramic and the richness of interior space.  A year or two ago on one of my many visits to the Baltimore Museum of Art’s inimitable Cone Collection, it occurred to me how important surrounding himself with material culture — and particularly textiles — had been in Matisse’s work, and how resonant that feels in my own creative life.

Thomas’s work has always struck me as falling into this same lineage.  Full of the energy of material, both in her subject and her technique.

So I was delighted to see this video of Thomas’s home this week.  (And it includes a Matisse!)

For more on Mickalene Thomas and her work, I was fascinated by her reflections on interior space and her own artistic evolution in this interview.


One day when I was in Maine, I went up to Rockland to see the Farnsworth Art Museum.  By pure luck I happened to make this trip the day the museum stayed open late.  Which meant that I got to explore the museum’s main building at leisure, take a break for lobster, and then head back over to the museum again.

Andrew Wyeth -- In Her Room

The Farnsworth has a number of good exhibits and collections — including an interesting special exhibit on Shaker design — but its collection of Wyeth paintings is really the heart of this museum.  I’ve known Andrew Wyeth’s work tangentially over the years, but don’t know that I gave his paintings as much thought as I might have.  In person I found his work deeply compelling.  There’s such a subtlety in his brushwork, a patina that requires in-person viewing to fully understand.

The museum also does a great job contextualizing Wyeth’s work, both through its placement in galleries and special exhibits, and through thoughtful interpretive plaques.  I especially appreciated reading Wyeth’s reflections on his own creative process, which struck me as grounded and generous.  On his use of tempera, he wrote:

 “I love the quality of the colors: the earths, the terra verde, the ochers, the Indian reds, and the blue-reds. They aren’t artificial. I like to pick the colors up and hold them in my fingers. Tempera is something with which I build — like building in great layers the way the earth was itself built. Tempera is not the medium for swiftness.”

When I got to the Farnsworth’s Wyeth Center, a satellite gallery located in a repurposed old church across the street, I was the sole remaining visitor for the museum’s last hour.  Which meant that I had the galleries — and a small group of dedicated exhibit docents — to myself for a little while.  It was helpful to learn more about the entire Wyeth family — work by all of whom was on display — and to have long, solitary moments in front of paintings like In Her Room.

Part of what appeals to me so much about the Farnsworth’s Wyeth paintings is their predominantly Maine context.  The light and coloration and portraits of lobstermen resonate with me.  Perhaps in part because of my own long and early connection to that landscape.  But there’s also something deeply meditative about the experience of these paintings.  After leaving the museum, I walked along the long stone breakwater, out into the dimming night.  Local men were walking barefoot along the rocks to fish, rain was coming.  It felt like the space I needed to digest these paintings, this experience of place.

Wyeth’s reflections about the creative process are so often true across form and genre.  “I dream a lot,” he wrote.  “I do more painting when I’m not painting.  It’s in the subconscious.”  So true of writing, too.

p.s. For those of you not able to get to the Farnsworth, the National Gallery also has a special exhibit of Andrew Wyeth’s window paintings titled Looking Out, Looking In, on view through November 30.  I’m so looking forward to stopping in DC to see it.


On Saturday my friend Laura and I went down to The Phillips Collection in DC.  I’ve been wanting to visit The Phillips Collection since I moved to Maryland nine years ago, so this visit was long overdue.  The Phillips happened to open its special Van Gogh exhibit on Saturday, and between that and the government shutdown (this is one of the few DC museums open), the line to get into the museum went all the way down the block.

The wait was entirely worth it.

Laib Wax Room

{Image courtesy of The Phillips Collection}

I was especially taken with The Phillips’ new Laib wax room.  The room is made from 440 pounds of beeswax, and even before you step into the room itself you experience the fragrance.  Inside, that deep, golden amber seems just luminous.  The wax, flecked with dark burgundy, has an incredibly tactile surface, a certain organic dimension that felt as earthy as adobe, and yet somehow also otherworldly.

The Phillips literature describes the piece as a “meditative chamber,” and that description captures the nearly spiritual quality of this space.

If you’re in DC (or even if you aren’t), you’ll have to head down to the Phillips to experience this piece.  It’s brand new (commissioned from Wolfgang Laib this year) and, in U.S. permanent collections, entirely unique.

Ballet Russes

I made a last-minute trip down to DC this weekend to see the Ballet Russes exhibit at the National Gallery.  I’ve always loved ballet and modern dance, so this collection was going to be of interest right from the start.  But the exhibit was really a testament to the way many art forms — music, visual art, dance — collaborated in and propelled one another’s stylistic revolutions.

From Stravinsky to Matisse to Picasso to Chanel, the exhibit commands full sensory commitment.  I was awed by the scale of the art on the full stage curtains, by Picasso’s massive Cubist costumes, by the music and dance recordings strategically played throughout the space.  Then, contrasted against that majesty of scale, Chanel’s bathing costumes, the sketches of set designs.  I was so taken by the costume sketches of Leon Bakst (like the one above).

Much as I was awed as I walked through the Gallery yesterday, this is not an exhibit you can comprehend as you see it.  It takes longer than that. Thirty-six hours later, I am still absorbing its impact.

p.s. If you’re near DC (and the government isn’t still shutdown), definitely check out the Ballet Russes exhibit before it closes next weekend.  

p.p.s. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for this documentary.



Lean, MoMA

While I stopped in the MoMA lobby to draw up plans for my visit to its galleries, I was caught by this image of a fellow visitor standing by the window, glancing between his museum floorplan and the view outside.  I love the shape of the man and the statue, each leaning in their different ways.

Two Pieces at MoMA

A couple of weeks ago, I made it up to the MoMA in New York.  The MoMA is where I first fell in love with Cézanne’s landscapes back in the late 1990s.  I haven’t returned the museum since its renovation, and I had two pieces of artwork I was especially excited to see on this visit.

Pines and Rocks

The first was Cézanne’s Pines and Rocks, which is one of the landscapes that first drew me into a lifelong admiration for Cézanne.  I even wrote a paper on one of Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire landscapes when I was in graduate school.  But I hadn’t seen Pines and Rocks since my last visit to the MoMA, even though I remembered its impact on me and thought of it often in the intervening years.  After fifteen years, it was thrilling to be able to find this painting again.


The second piece I really wanted to see was Méret Oppenheim’s Object.  This is actually one I had never seen in person before, but a professor showed a slide of it during an art history class I took in college, and I felt immediately drawn to Object.  I’ve kept a pretty low-quality print out from that slide presentation ever since then, just so I could have an image of it.  We actually had a pretty hard time finding this piece in the museum at first, and we went back through the gallery twice, determined to find it.  I was so happy to finally see Oppenheim’s tiny sculpture in person, and happy also to replace my grainy print out with a high-quality postcard image from the MoMA gift shop.

Has anyone else visited or revisited a beloved piece of artwork recently?

Weekend in New York

I grew up near New York City and spent tons of time there when I was a kid.  But since we moved to Maryland, my husband and I had only been back once.  This year we decided to make a weekend trip up to the city to fix that.  We went in early January and lucked out with a beautiful, temperate weekend.

For this trip, we decided not to repeat anything we used to do when we lived in the area.  Instead, we stayed at a hotel on the Upper West Side.  We arrived in the early evening on a Friday, and it just so happened that the Neue Gallery is open late on the first Fridays of the month.  So we walked across Central Park, following a route we’d never taken before, strolling past the joggers and the lake.

The Neue Gallery is new since we lived nearby, so we’d never been there.  It’s famous mostly for its Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and for its exquisite cafe.  We were impressed with both.  I believe there are certain works of art where it really makes a difference to see them in person.  (Though I love both, seeing Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings or the Mona Lisa in person didn’t drastically change the way I understand the work.)  But this Klimt was revolutionized when I saw it in person: it was an entirely new painting.  I was mesmerized.

(If you’re planning to head up to see it, consider checking out the Rape of Europa documentary, which discusses the complex legal and ethical controversy surrounding its ownership.)

The rest of the gallery contains an admirable collection — and from what I’ve seen and heard, thoughtful and thought-provoking temporary exhibits.  But I had trouble tearing myself away from Adele Bloch-Bauer.  This has happened to me a handful of times in my life.  I wind up spending my entire visit to a museum staring at just one painting.  I feel like I cannot take it all in.  When I try to move away, I feel it behind me like a dynamic, living presence, engaging me back.

When the Gallery closed for the evening we waited in the long line for the cafe, which was as incredible as its reputation (and the constant line) suggests.  So pretty… and such exceptional coffee.  The best I’ve had on the East Coast.  (Though to be fair, I’m not usually a coffee drinker, so there may be equally great places I haven’t tried.  But as pretty as Cafe Sabarsky?  Probably not.)

The night was so beautiful that we decided to walk down to see the tree (a minor violation of our decision not to repeat anything we’d done before — but worthwhile if just for the long walk down along the east side of the park).  We also went on a surprisingly difficult quest to find the burger joint at the Le Parker Meridien Hotel (we walked up and down the same few blocks at least three times before we found it).  It wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was a solid burger, an awesome price for Manhattan, and a cool experience at a funky, unmarked, hidden spot.

After a subway ride back uptown, we ducked into Smoke on Broadway just in time for the late night jazz set.  I don’t have words for how much I love this place.  So much so that we went back again the next night AND made a second weekend trip to New York just for the purpose of checking out the late show at Smoke.  And to eat at Pisticci, which has stellar Italian food.  We fell in love with Pisticci at dinner on Saturday night and made a special point of squeezing in an early dinner there before our bus left for Baltimore on Sunday.

We spent a lot of time just wandering through Central Park during the remainder of our weekend, and we also had a chance to finally visit the renovated Greek and Roman Galleries at the Met (another project that hadn’t been finished when we moved away).  The renovations really are lovely: so open and expansive.  I especially loved some of the statues and the incredible re-assembled Roman room.  It’s just gorgeous.  Bright and ornate, and what a testament to art restoration.