Mesmerizing Museum Shows

Beautiful Books, Everyday Objects and Wooden ToysMatisse, Henri, Proof of Icarus pochoir, Jazz, version two without shadows, TMP 2014-229.11, Collection of the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation.

New York is especially beautiful in December as the city bedecks itself for the holidays. The season’s festive atmosphere carries over into NYC’s cultural institutions, as many museums put on especially delightful exhibits that appeal to all ages. Here are a few of the month’s highlights:

Perhaps more than any other fine artist, Henri Matisse considered books an important means of artistic expression. Graphic Passion: Henri Matisse and the Book Arts, a landmark exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum featuring 30 books illustrated by Matisse, marks the first time that they have ever appeared together. Renowned for his paintings, sculptures and cut-outs, Matisse was involved in nearly 50 book projects between 1912 and his death in 1954. In many cases he oversaw not only illustrations and cover design, but typography and page layout, in pursuit of the ideal mix of image and text. Many of these works are considered among the greatest artists’ books of the 20th century. His characteristic bright colors, distinctive silhouettes and bold lettering are on full display in books such as 1947’s Jazz, which includes the artist’s own poetic thoughts. The exhibit is yet more proof that Henri Matisse was one of the most versatile artists of his time. (Through 1/18, 225 Madison Ave. at 36th St.)

Can everyday objects be art? Many artists have met that challenge, and their diverse, wide-ranging results are the focus of Take an Object at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit takes its name from a directive that Jasper Johns scrawled in a 1964 sketchbook: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Taken from MoMA’s own collection and ranging from the 1950s to the 1970s, the pieces on display reflect various artists’ embrace of humble objects and non-fine art materials to create their work. Included are Johns’ seminal Flag, constructed from three canvases over which red white and blue encaustic is painted on newspaper; Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed, which incorporates the artist’s own pillow and bedclothes; and Claes Oldenburg’s playful Pastry Case, featuring plaster and paint copies of cakes and other desserts in a glass display. Whether viewed as an important approach to nontraditional art or a fun assortment of fabulous objects, the show is appealing on many levels. (Through 2/28, 11 W. 53rd St. at 6th Ave.)

Equally charming and educational, Swedish Wooden Toys at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery features over 300 playthings created between the 17th century and the present day. Sweden has a long tradition of designing and producing wooden toys, a result of the country’s abundant natural (forest) resources and its progressive ideas about child raising and education. On view are items ranging from simple carved toys to intricate dollhouses and games, both unique one-of-a-kind pieces and popular mass-produced items. Puzzles, pull toys, rocking horses and all manner of transportation vehicles represent the Swedish practice of handicraft (slöjd) and the emphasis on quality materials. One of the show’s many fascinating objects is the game Labyrinth, a maze on a tilting board through which a player guides a steel marble. Designed in the 1940s, it was used to rehabilitate British fighter pilots. Another is a 1912 dollhouse filled with Victorian furniture and decorative objects, plus a working elevator. The rise of technology and digital amusements has curtailed the production of these fabulous toys, and the exhibit is a beautiful ode to an earlier era. (Through 1/17, 18 W. 86th St. at Columbus Ave.)

(Photo Credit: The Morgan Library)