Art Plus

By staff October 1, 2002

I used to go to Miami for kicks. The beach, the restaurants, the nightlife-they were all unique in the world; and I must admit, I took a little taste of each. I was like St. Thomas Aquinas-giving in to temptation in order to understand it better, then getting a book deal.

But something happened. All these young people started appearing. They took over the place, what with their tans and taut bodies and tattoos. I was perfectly willing to make an accommodation with them but they weren't interested in me; and today's Miami belongs to them. Now, when I visit the city, I have sunk so low on the "cool scale" as to actually go to museums.

That's how I stumbled across the Wolfsonian. I'd heard about it for years. It was the private collection of some rich guy, and it sounded strange. It wasn't really art, it wasn't really design, it was all sorts of objects-paintings, furniture, posters, appliances-arranged in such a way that they gave insight into the culture they came from. This struck a chord, for, you see, I have my own collection-things I've accumulated over the years, from garage sales, thrift stores, Guatemalan marketplaces, dead relatives, etc. Some representative items: a lamp in the shape of Woody Woodpecker, with original shade (American, circa 1945); a small porcelain bathtub, approximately six inches long, advertising a plumbing supply company in Buffalo, N.Y.; and a meat cleaver that once belonged to Justice Felix Frankfurter. How, I wondered, could this Wolfsonian guy top this?

The Wolfsonian is located right the middle of the trendiest part of South Beach, at Washington Avenue and 10th Street. It's housed in a big, vaguely Art Deco warehouse and storage building. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the space is devoted to exhibits; you are warned by the ticket seller to take the elevator to the fifth floor and the fifth floor only. But once you get there and step out into the foyer and catch a glimpse of all the stuff, you know you're going to enjoy this.

The Wolfsonian operates on a principle different from most museums. I call it Art Plus. In most museums you just get art. Yes, it's very pretty, but what can your mind do with it other than think, how pretty? At the Wolfsonian a whole other layer is added. It's full of beautiful paintings and pieces of sculpture, but they are arranged and explained in such a way that you understand, as a sign on the wall put it, "how the events in the past resonate in our lives today." It's like it's been curated by Paul Harvey-you get "the rest of the story."

An example: On display is a gorgeous stained glass window by Harry Clarke, circa 1923. As the labels explain, it was commissioned by the Irish Free State for presentation to the League of Nations. The style is Celtic Revival and each of its 12 panels celebrates a famous Irish writer. Several of the panels celebrate a little too enthusiastically, though, depicting wenching and boozing, so there was a big uproar and the presentation was called off. Just look at everything you get-global politics, Irish literature, morals, sexy people drinking beer-all in a great stained glass window. What other museum can offer this value?

You learn many lessons at the Wolfsonian, and here are a few that I learned:

Dutch furniture is real ugly. No matter what period it's from, it just looks awful. There were some big Art Nouveau oak cupboards that were so depressing I wouldn't give them houseroom. When it comes to wood, the Venetians had the right idea-keep it painted.

In art that glorifies The Worker, he and his humble family always look fat. Why is this? Is it supposed to show he's well-fed? And that his wife is fecund? There's a statue of a worker's family from the 1939 World's Fair, and they look like they've been pumped up with a bicycle pump.

When imagining the future, they never got it right. Technology always intervened in a way that no one foresaw. At the telephone display, we learn that Alexander Graham Bell was astonished when people started talking on the telephone. He thought they'd use it to broadcast music from city to city. And there's a wonderful painting of a giant "floating island" from the 1930s, when it was thought that transatlantic flights would stop at such places to refuel and the passengers would get out, stretch their legs, do a little shopping, shower, etc.

The genius behind the Wolfsonian is named Mitchell Wolfson Jr., and he's the heir to a family fortune. I met him once at a party and I was very impressed. Even his clothes looked like collectors' items: a sports jacket in the Tyrolean style, over a silk vest that looked Tibetan in origin. Mickey, as he is known to everyone, is the sort of person who travels with an entourage. I was dying to be invited to join, but this was not to be. He did, however, tell me in confidential tones that he had just bought a piece of carpet from the Titanic. "Gee," I said, "Wasn't it awfully soggy?" But it turns out that the rug wasn't actually on the Titanic. It was a remnant. He got it for $9,000, which he felt was a very good price.

The Wolfsonian is a gold mine of fascinating objects, but it has a strange problem as a tourist attraction-it's not big enough. The permanent exhibit takes less than an hour to examine; there are also special shows from time to time (currently on display are propaganda posters from the Spanish Civil War), but the bulk of Mickey Wolfson's collection is in storage somewhere. It breaks your heart. You're just getting warmed up, then suddenly it's over. If you're a rich person with, say, $50 million you're not quite sure what to do with, I would highly recommend donating it to the Wolfsonian so they can expand.

The gift shop could stand some enlarging, too. There are some good, hard-to-find books on design and some excellent, very hip items-key chains, glasses, pens, a wonderful doll house ($340)-but again, it just whets your appetite for more, more, more.

I had to wait in front of the museum for my ride, and while doing so I was amazed at how my perspective had already changed by the viewing experience I had just been through. The cars driving by were no longer just cars, they were moving art, heavy with symbolic references. The Betsy Johnson boutique in the next block took on a whole new meaning, as did Sinergy, which sells lingerie for the S&M crowd.

Even the people. The Venezuelan girls in their skintight pants and crucifixes and platform sandals-living examples of the cross-cultural influence of Catholic imagery colliding with permissive sexual mores. And the body builders, the young men who parade these streets with their spectacular tanned and pneumatic torsos-a true design breakthrough. The visual in our society has become so important that young men now design their own bodies. They use as references classical Greek sculpture and comic book action heroes. Yes, those taut young men and women are loaded with artistic and cultural symbolism. And still they won't pay any attention to me.

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