Functional Art Forms

Heavenly Handbags, Distinctive Décor, and Beautiful Body Art

Ellen DeGeneres SelectsThe most satisfying art is often both attractive and functional. This month we take a look at museum exhibitions that feature brilliantly creative versions of the humble handbag, eclectic home furnishings reflecting the personal taste of a celebrity curator, and one of the oldest and most celebrated forms of body adornment. This is art that serves a variety of purposes.

Ellen DeGeneres Selects at the Cooper HewittPicasso Plate
For Cooper-Hewitt’s 14th installment of its Selects series (which feature objects from the museum’s collection chosen by prominent personalities), TV host/writer/producer Ellen DeGeneres has put together an installation of 50 works that reflect her personal design aesthetic. Her eclectic sensibilities are shown in a wide range of styles and time periods, ranging from “ancient Egypt and Peru to mid-20th-century Scandinavia and 21st-century Brooklyn.”

Several objects represent DeGeneres’s love of animals, including a terra cotta figure from 800- 600 BC and a Picasso-designed plate featuring a sheep’s head. In addition to museum holdings, there are a few objects on display from DeGeneres’ private collection, including lamps she found in a Parisian flea market. As she sums up the show, “The exhibition represents all the qualities I love and cultivate in my own home. I hope that visitors find it interesting and it sparks their own creativity.” (Through 5/21, 2 East 91st Street)


Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story at the Museum of Art and Design
Judith LeiberBeautiful handbags have always been popular, but Judith Leiber has truly elevated the must- have accessory into fine art. The exhibition Judith Leiber: Crafting a New York Story at the Museum of Art and Design features a selection of the designer’s remarkable pieces, from refined leather bags to whimsical, Swarovski crystal-studded creations. A formally trained artisan in her native Hungary, Leiber eventually moved to New York, where her company flourished as she created bags for various First Ladies and other celebrities.

Inspired by fine art, Leiber created designs that referenced work by Mondrian, Braque, and Sonia
Delaunay, among others. Pushing the boundaries of handbag design, she used exotic textiles and often incorporated unusual materials such as Lucite and seashells. Delightful animal- and food- shaped clutches include an asparagus minaudière with multicolored crystal rhinestones. In addition to showcasing Leiber’s skill and creativity, the show explores the significance of the handbag in Western culture and the role of immigrant entrepreneurship in New York. (4/4 through 8/6, 2 Columbus Circle)


Tattooed New York at the New York Historical Society
An exhibition that should be of interest to a wide Tattooed New Yorkrange of visitors, Tattooed New York at the New York Historical Society is a 300-year retrospective of tattoo art, from a set of 18th century prints depicting local Indian chiefs to photos of work by current artists. The show is packed with information as well as stunning visuals. In the 19th century, tattoos became synonymous with sailors, who subjected themselves to crude, pre-mechanical methods of inking. During the Civil War, soldiers had their names tattooed on themselves for ID purposes in case they died in battle. The show tracks the increase in elaborate designs, which resulted from the advent of tattoo machines in the 1930s, and also pays homage to pioneering New York-based artists such as Ed Smith, Charlie Wagner, and Jack Redcloud.

There’s a fascinating section on tattooed women of the early 20th century, several of whom became circus or burlesque attractions. When tattooing became illegal in NYC in the early 1960s (blamed for an outbreak of hepatitis), it flourished underground before emerging in the 1990s as an increasingly popular art form that shows no signs of fading (pun intended!). (Through 4/30, 170 Central Park West)