Larry Wheeler’s letter from the art world

by Larry Wheeler
director, North Carolina Museum of Art

At the North Carolina Museum of Art’s annual art auction, Marion Church of Raleigh won a weekend in New York with me. So the long-anticipated adventure – a three-day weekend of probing New York-North Carolina art connections – began on Sept. 27, a Thursday. Marion’s sister, Lou Johanson, Glen Medders, Paul Coggins, and Don Doskey completed the art party.

A car whisked us across the Brooklyn Bridge to our first stop, The Brooklyn Museum of Art, where we were guests of Director Arnold Lehman. Mickalene Thomas, whose The Three Graces the Museum acquired last year, was opening a show there of her new work, comprised of glittery landscapes, room interiors, and portraits inspired by her mother. It was one of those lively hipster events, including a mob of Mickalene groupies. After encountering a lolling, barely clad model on a living room couch – a performance piece of sorts – we turned the corner and ran into Mickalene herself. We air-kissed and hugged; she is a friend. Mickalene gave the group a heartfelt welcome and promised to come see us in North Carolina. When Roberta Smith’s glowing review of the show appeared in the next day’s New York Times and a feature on Mickalene appeared in the New York Times Magazine, we all felt we’d had a ringside seat for a big event.

Three Graces, Mickalene Thomas 2011

Dinner that evening was at Reynard’s, a newish and very fine restaurant in the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg. Drinks preceded at the rooftop bar, affording spectacular views of Manhattan, where we were joined by Lauren and Tommy Ryan. Tommy is an architect in the city, and Lauren, who was a curatorial assistant at NCMA, advises collectors on major art acquisitions. It was a great beginning.

More North Carolina connections 

My great friend Patrick Sears, director of the Rubin Museum, hosted us for coffee on Friday morning. Pat was chief designer of NCMA from 1980 to 1984, when it first opened on Blue Ridge Road. A graduate of N.C. State University’s College of Design, Pat has gone on to key posts with the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler museums of Asian art in Washington, D.C., and now the Rubin.

Housed in the old Barney’s department store at 17th Street and Seventh Avenue, the Rubin Museum, which opened in 2004, is the premier museum of Himalayan art in the Western hemisphere. In addition to its stunning collection, the Rubin presents some of the most interesting exhibitions and educational programs in the city.

Pat provided a personal tour of the museum’s four floors of galleries, while a young specialist helped us explore Buddhist symbolism and the meditative qualities of extraordinary thangkas (scroll paintings) hundreds of years old.  We left for our next stop, the Frick, in a state of inner peace.

A swank lunch at the Frick, on the corner of 70th Street and Fifth Avenue, was hosted by director Ian Wardropper in his private dining room in the mansion. Aperitifs, pre-luncheon chat about North Carolina and the art world, a beautifully appointed table, poached salmon, white wine, and berries and cream complemented the visit.

Wardropper, previously a top curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has strong ties to the Triangle: It just so happens that his mother lives in Durham, and Wardropper spent part of his youth there when his father was a professor at Duke.

After lunch, Susan Grace Galassi, senior curator at the Frick, led our peppy group on a walking tour of the highlights of the collection, including several Rembrandts that could not travel to the NCMA exhibition last year. For a thrilling encounter with some of the greatest European paintings in the world, the Frick is an essential stop. The mansion and gardens, right in the heart of the city, are pretty nice stress relievers, as well.

Discovering Columbus

A treat in the afternoon was reservations for the much-publicized public art project Discovering Columbus at Columbus Circle. The Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi built a full-scale living room round the Columbus statue, not at the base of the statue but around the statue itself – six stories above the street. After a short wait, we were whisked to the top, where we were greeted by the PR director, a young graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. Of course.

The living room, 64 feet in the air, was equipped with full gear –sofas, television, lamps, wallpaper designed by the artist, and typical furnishings. On the coffee table sat the 13-foot-tall statue of Columbus. We laughed in amazement at the ingenuity. Tatzu Nishi was present and greeted us.

The top of the Standard Hotel, home to a bar with the most amazing 360-degree view of the city, was the gathering place for Friday cocktails. Perhaps you remember it from the 2011 movie Shame, where Carey Mulligan sang a scintillating adagio interpretation of New York, New York.

Sarah and Victor Lytvinenko, founders of Raleigh Denim, who were in the process of opening their new boutique on Elizabeth Street in the Village, joined us. They gave us perfect cover in this teeming, stylish scene. Dinner was at the Standard Grill downstairs. ’Twas a boisterous evening.

When the galleries opened in Chelsea on Saturday morning, we were there. Greeted by Yancey Richardson at her gallery on West 22nd Street, the ladies bought a thing or two. Julie Saul walked us through the latest show at her gallery in the same building. Then we did the slow walk up West 24th Street, hitting many of the major galleries, including Gagosian, Mary Boone, Barbara Gladstone, Metro Pictures, and so many more. Lunch was at Bottino on 10th Avenue between 24th and 25th streets, a spot frequented by the arts mafia. We felt we blended in.

In the later afternoon, we trekked to the new Raleigh Denim store, where Sarah and Victor greeted us with chocolates and a preview of their cleverly designed installation. After a short rest, we headed for Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel for our final weekend cocktail fête. Our dear friend Cyma Rubin joined us. She is a Tony- and Emmy-award-winning director of plays and documentaries, and a graduate of N.C. State’s College of Textiles. We proved that Southern accents can drown out the best of piano playing. Dinner was across the street at Café Boulud, where we occupied the large center table, demicelebs that we were.

Enough already. We returned to Raleigh exhausted, exhilarated and well entertained – nearly always by New Yorkers with North Carolina connections. We were proud of that, and of the perspective on the arts in Raleigh that a New York visit can shape.

Unititled, Claude Howell 1962

After a week of recovery – of all types – I spent a morning roaming galleries in Raleigh.

I particularly wanted to visit Lee Hansley’s place on Glenwood Avenue. We had in New York encountered much interesting material from the ’50s and ’60s, or at least contemporary references to an earlier modernist aesthetic. Raleigh and North Carolina were and still are well-known for contributions to the midcentury movement. I remembered that Lee has been a devoted advocate for such artists as George Bireline, Joe Cox, Chuck Hinman, Maud Gatewood, Claude Howell, and other well-known N.C. greats.

Lee greeted me, showed me his hidden treasures, and discussed his newest exhibition featuring Howard Thomas, an amazing midcentury painter and draftsman from Greensboro. I could have been in New York. Works by his second wife, Amy Wall Thomas, were impressive as well. And then there was this elegant, layered drawing by Joe Cox. I could barely leave without it.