Museum of the City of New York

A few weeks ago I visited the Museum of the City of New York for the first time, specifically to see The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis, focusing on New York's central role in disseminating and popularizing the style nationwide. With a wide array of decorative and graphic materials, the exhibition presents an edited but cogent survey of the style and its varied applications over time.

Visitors first encounter a door by Peter Pennoyer Architects, creating a sense of entering a domestic space such as those that are depicted throughout the show. Sketchy white on cream renderings on the walls of particular architectural elements, such as plane-glass windows and columns, suggest that the items are on display within a Colonial Revival space. Elsewhere, the James Boyd wallpaper gracing several walls suggests such themes in a completely different manner. One of these designs, playing off the idea of cameo jewelry, humorously depicts various incongruous historical figures in silhouette. Another was created expressly for this exhibition, inspired by Colonial imagery depicted in a learn-to-draw kit found inside a Chautauqua Industrial Art Desk dating from 1913. I'm sorry, is this a brand new iteration of Colonial Revival occurring before our very eyes? Why yes!

All photos by author unless otherwise noted.


I love that visitors are given the chance to expand upon the exhibit outside the museum through their own personal experience: look for the printed brochure by the door highlighting various Colonial Revival buildings around the city. Aesthetically, however, I found it somewhat distracting that some of the wall labels were printed on a different material than others, especially because it caused a disparity in the appearance of the text.

In terms of content, I found the most compelling area of the exhibit to be that discussing the romanticized historicism reflected in the founding of Colonial Williamsburg and the themes of certain Civil-War-era public events. And I was fascinated to learn that the colonial revival was treated not only as an evocation of the past, but also as a harbinger of the future—model houses in the Colonial Revival style were actually installed in the Town of Tomorrow at the New York World Fair of 1939/40. Interesting!


On to part 2: when visiting the museum, be sure not to miss the excellent exhibition entitled Moveable Feast: Fresh Produce and the NYC Green Cart Program. Through the entirely disparate and equally illuminating approaches of five photographers, these images reveal as much about fascinatingly diverse artistic processes and creative visions as they do about the initiative they were commissioned to document.

A few works by each photograph precede visitors' entrances into the gallery space and, without any explication as yet, seem to lack any unifying principle besides that of food. They do, however, engender a certain amount of curiosity, as one hopes the connection will become clear in the exhibition itself. When moving through the room and encountering the various works, the brief and powerful artists' statements quickly engage and explain the choices made; one finds that Shen Wei's "portraits" of the produce found on NYC Green Carts are just as relevant to the exhibition as the portraits of consumers taken by LaToya Ruby Frazier. Gabriele Stabile also captured several patrons of a particular cart, but she was invited into their homes and recorded the cooking and sharing of the purchased food. Will Steacy documented "a cross section of food options within a ten-block radius" of a certain food cart in the Bronx, for which is provided a helpful map indicating the location at which each image was taken.


It's unclear why Thomas Holton's powerful study of a particular family occupies what might be considered a privileged position in the cubic area created in the middle of the room. I thought perhaps it had to do with the three-dimensional materials contained in waist-level cases situated below his images; I imagine these were concealed out of immediate sight rather than breaking up the clean aesthetic of the outer gallery space. However their contents were not directly pertinent to Holton's work. It was nevertheless wonderful to see the Green Cart promotional material, which added another layer of comprehension to the subject matter, as well as the photograph journal on display—a nod to process which, oddly enough, belongs to another of the photographers.

When exiting the space, one finds archival photographs of food cart vendors that provide a fun and interesting comparison to those just seen, offering contrast but also suggesting a strain of continuity. Situating the present day phenomenon within the history of New York, this effectively brings to a close an exhibition that addresses sociocultural issues and efforts at reform while also championing the autonomy of the artist and the photographic medium. I was sorely disappointed there was no catalogue.

Do make time to see the 22-minute film Timescapes: A Multimedia Portrait of New York, a new concise narrated history of the city presented on three screens that incorporates primary source material, archival footage, and animated maps. It's a really enjoyable film that will hold something of value even for the jaded New Yorker who feels he/she knows all there is about the city.

The American Style: Colonial Revival and the Modern Metropolis runs through October 30 and Movable Feast is on view through August 28 at the Museum of the City of New York, located at 1220 Fifth Avenue (b/t 103rd and 104th), open Mon. – Sun. 10am – 6pm (summer hours through September 26) and until 9pm on Wed. (through August 31). Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and students.

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Corning Museum of Glass