In Chelsea, S&M Goes High-Fashion, Pastels Go High-Octane

Balenciaga by Demna Gvasalia, part of “Power Mode: The Force of a Fashion” at the FIT Museum. Puffer coat, red polyester, duck down, metal, fall 2016, France. (Museum purchase)
The Fashion Institute’s museum and the FLAG Art Foundation mount new shows.

Last week, I wrote about Poster House, the new museum on 23rd Street in Chelsea focusing on poster art, a discrete medium that’s both a print, usually a lithograph, and produced on a massive scale for advertising. From Toulouse-Lautrec to circus posters and recruitment art in wartime to movie posters and protest art, posters have a special magic and, now, a new place of pride. It’s the only poster museum in the country. I adored one of the two shows on view but thought that the other — with its trite, boring posters from the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. — was an abuse of museology. How many times can an art show say, “I’m aggrieved,” but only about politically correct issues? It’s a new museum, though, and I think its potential is big.

From posters, I’ll go to pastels and power suits. In the same Chelsea neighborhood, far from Museum Mile, are the FLAG Art Foundation and museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology. Both are free art spaces, smartly and elegantly programmed, and both promote contemplation and learning. FLAG is a privately funded, experimental art space on 25th Street and Tenth Avenue, amid the high-end contemporary art dealers. It’s open to the public and a welcoming place. The FIT museum belongs to the school. It’s got a great fashion collection — fashion is indeed art — and considers the body as a canvas for the best design and materials from the exotic to the synthetic to the prosaic.

“Nicolas Party: Pastel” is the unassuming title of the new show at FLAG. Party (b. 1981) is Swiss but ubiquitous and endlessly clever. Party curated the show and was given much leeway, but that’s FLAG’s mission. It empowers artists, writers, and offbeat art historians to curate.

The space is copious. The building is modern, but it’s got the spirit of the many old warehouses and factories in the neighborhood. Big spaces and high ceilings make for a dramatic stage. Set in spaces with so sleekly utilitarian a vibe is a celebration of soft pastel, the warmest and fuzziest of media. It’s an exhibition with layers of juxtaposition and surprise.

Installation view of “Nicolas Party: Pastel” at The FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. (Photograph: Steven Probert)

Pastel is pure, powdered pigment in the form of a crayon or stick, like colored chalk. It looks soft and buttery on the surface — paper with a surface textured enough to hold the powder. “Pastel” might imply a pale palette, but pastel color can be bright or intensely saturated. It’s natural, dried pigment that runs the color gamut.

Party selected half a dozen Old Master pastels as the exhibition’s anchor. Most of the old pastels come from the medium’s heyday in ancien régime France and Venice. Rosalba Carriera (1673–1757) was one of pastel’s pioneers. Based in Venice, she equipped her subjects with a look that’s casual and lustrous. Rosalba’s portrait of an unknown woman is subtly radiant. Pastels aren’t varnished, so they are less likely to discolor. They always look fresh.

Pastel is made of tiny atoms of powder. Pastel leaves a matte surface but has a compelling chromatic sheen. Unlike viscous paint, these particles have infinitesimal bits of space between them. Ambient light bounces off the dots of powder. We’re not conscious of it, and we can barely see the blue of the paper, but the effect is both ethereal and shimmering.

Rosalba’s pastel, and pastels by Mary Cassatt (1844–1926), Edgar Degas (1834–1917), and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau (1715­–1783) are surrounded by site-specific wall pastels by Party. Rosalba’s and Perronneau’s pastels are portraits. Party surrounds them with his own riffs on famously frothy landscape and mythological settings by François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, in effect giving figure pictures a landscape setting. I’ve never seen wall color as assertive but, at the same time, as companionable. Both Boucher and Fragonard thought that pastel veered toward the decadent. As a medium, it was a tad too delicate and made the subjects look like fancy desserts. It wasn’t serious, as painstaking as pastel picture-making is. It was too intimate and couldn’t convey power.

Party shows how high-octane pastel could be. His are hyper-chromatic. He’s a superb colorist but commands walls with big forms. There are about 1,600 different pastel colors so his arsenal is wide-ranging. As a colorist, he can make his forms, from fruit to foliage to people, be whatever he wants them to be.

Left: Mark 1984, 2008, by Billy Sullivan. Pastel on paper. (Courtesy the artist and kaufmann repetto, New York/Milan).
Right: Mrs. Alexander J. Cassatt in Blue Evening Gown Seated at a Tapestry Frame, n.d., by Mary Cassatt. Pastel on paper. (Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries)

The show is the most delicious history of a medium I’ve ever seen. Pastel declined for most of the 19th century until Cassatt and Degas revived it, Cassatt using it to convey domestic warmth and coziness in her portraits of mothers and babies. The Degas pastel’s sketchy look and intense color evoke balletic movement or hushed, quick chats among friends in the city. Party also picked contemporary work in pastel by artists he likes, showing that the medium has 21st-century legs. Billy Sullivan’s large pastel of a shirtless young man has contrasts. The palette is high-keyed and electric, but the subject’s face, with a very young Troy Donahue look, oozes both sex and vulnerability. Pastel’s gauzy line gives him softness and spontaneity. Party displays it next to a pastel portrait by Cassatt of Mrs. Alexander Cassatt. She’s a formidable old lady, but pastel softens and smooths her. Sullivan (b. 1946) is a great figure artist, as is Louis Fratino (b. 1993), who uses pastel in intimate scenes of lovers. Smudged lines here and there as well as muted color turn the volume down to a whisper.

The show is about color, with the final touch a symphony of rich, sometimes electric wall colors: passion pink, pine green, Aruba blue, and magenta among them. They’re not pastel but Benjamin Moore paint, applied in multiple coats for the most saturation. The pastel works on view more than hold their own.

The FLAG Art Foundation opened in 2008. It’s done group shows and single-artist shows, and the focus stays on the art. There are no preachy, intrusive wall texts. It privileges an intimate conversation between art and visitor, with no pat script. My favorite shows from the past were focus exhibitions of work by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jane Hammond, really tiny slices of their careers. One show triggered a miracle: It persuaded me to think I might like Jeff Koons. Not quite Saul on the road to Damascus but the goosebumps were real.

The nearby FIT Museum is about culture, craftsmanship, design, materials, style, and human nature. Power Mode: The Force of a Fashion is its new show and very much about all of the above. Don’t expect to plug your electric car anywhere for recharging. We’re talking about sartorial power, which might get you farther. Its five succinct sections — military uniforms, suits, status dressing, resistance or protest attire, and sexy fashion — take everyday things that surround us, literally and figuratively, and make them totems of big cultural shifts. It’s not a big exhibition, but it’s jet-propulsion smart.

Left: Yves Saint Laurent, suit, off-white wool with grey pinstripes, 1979, France. (Gift of Lauren Bacall) Middle: Shorts, cotton denim and embroidery, circa 1970, USA. (Gift of the Nancy Hariton Gewirz Collection) Right: Givenchy by Ricardo Tisci, ensemble, black leather, silk chiffon, and metal, spring 2011, France. (Gift of Givenchy by Ricardo Tisci)

War, cold and hot, was the 20th century’s central motif, so it makes sense that military style would seep into the world of fashion. Yves St. Laurent introduced the dark blue, wool, double-breasted coat for men and women, with broad lapels and gold buttons, in the mid-’60s, inspired by coats men wore in the Navy. Then, Navy surplus stores catapulted this mundane garment to fashion-show runways. The classic power wear for men was the gray flannel suit. It clothed the white-collar worker with seriousness, prowess, and authority. It was civilian life’s uniform. In corporate America, it signaled conformity to rules, in the office as well as in life. It’s not surprising that professional women in the workplace wore variations of the gray flannel suit or, in the 1970s, the gender-denying pants suit, which was basically a men’s tuxedo modeled for a woman’s shape.

Adornment might have been déclassé in post-war, corporate America for men and women, but until the Victorian age, men and women projected power through adornment galore. A man’s formal get-up from 1745 Scotland, on display in the space on status, starts with a canvas of red wool decorated with embroidery, silver gilt thread, sequins, taffeta, fake pearls, gilded buttons, and elaborate shoe brasses. He was no less bedecked than an elegant woman, and no less a riot of color and texture. Exuberant, expensive materials scream status but, in our day, so do brand names making garments into billboards. It could be as obvious as “Balenciaga” on a puffer coat or the subtler Louis Vuitton logo. If wealth and discernment project power, these alone can do the trick.

In the 1960s, leopard-fur coats gave women wearers a touch of exoticism and wildcat sex appeal, even when the women were first ladies like Jacqueline Kennedy. No good Republican cloth coats for the queens of fashion. Before long, fashion collided with environmental politics. Starting in the 1980s, fake fur was in and mink unemployment soared. A Dolce and Gabbana imitation-tiger-fur coat from 1992 is aggressively and deliberately fake, its inauthenticity a fashion plus.

The 1980s and 1990s saw the evolution of the men’s T-shirt, once an undergarment, into protest fashion, with the anti-AIDS Act Up shirts a pioneer. T-shirts were the ultimate in casual wear but at moments countercultural. No one would wear a T-shirt to class, work, church, a wake, or a first date. Worn in a public setting, it breached propriety. It was cheap to decorate, too. As a billboard for political opinion, it ranked with power patches sewn on jeans. Peace symbols, the American flag, and logos for the burgeoning identity industry took personal opinion out of the private sphere and emblazoned it on the body for all to see.

The show ends with leather and metal. High-heeled, black leather boots and lingerie with black leather straps and mock rivets are indebted to S&M fetishes. I’m not sure how well dominatrix wear would play in an office setting, even in the 2020s and even if Karl Lagerfeld designed it. Versace had a bondage line of fashion in 1992 called “Miss S&M,” reviving it just last year. One socialite complained to Vogue in 1992 that “it took four pairs of hands to strap me into my evening gown.” I guess power does corrupt. As for me, I think I’ll pass on those $850 bondage-print sweatpants.

Power Mode isn’t comprehensive or scholarly. It’s provocative, to be sure, and serious but also fun. I’m a people watcher, and now I’ve got a new file in my brain for ways people dress for success or for conquest, to advertise status or fire a polemic. It’s another great show for FIT.

Over the years, I’ve seen shows on denim, the color pink, the biker jacket, fashion during the Depression, the Ivy League look, Halston, and the fashion sense of Lauren Bacall. I’ve never been a high-fashion dresser. In rural Vermont, couture is far likelier to come from the local hardware store than from Paris — “new spring wear, one aisle over from extension cords and motor oil.” The FIT makes clear — through smart, focused shows such as these — how important high fashion is in art history.

Next week I’m writing about the Six Mummies show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal. It’s a fascinating British Museum exhibition combining art, the culture of death, science, and the very earliest examples of the wraparound look in fashion.

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