Creating the Modern Stage

Creating the Modern Stage

By Aaron Britt
While in New York last week I made a stop into the Morgan Library to see the new show Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera, on view until August 16th.

Ranging from avant-garde theater to Wagner opera's, the several dozen sketches, paintings and ephemera in the small but worthwhile show chart the progressions of modern art and architecture across the stage. I was most interested in the pieces that depict strong, architectural set design, or as in a 1967 Lithuanian production of Porgy and Bess, woozy, forboding streetscapes rendered in a kind of pop art style.

This bit of set design by Mihail Fedorovitch Andreenko was done in 1927 for the ballet "The Acrobats." It's one of my favorites from the show Creating the Modern Stage.

The influence of masters from Kafka to Klimt to Corbu is apparent as you wander around the show, confirming that the early 20th century was a crucible of new artistic ideas that erupted across media, geography and time.

Renzo Piano's addition to the Morgan Library connects the mogul's Madison Avenue brownstone to his opulent private library. Photograph by Michel Denancé.

I also had another reason to pass the Morgan: to check out Renzo Piano's expansion and renovation of the courtyard linking JP Morgan's brownstone home to the McKim, Mead and White designed library. Though the library—done in the American Renaissance style—owes a clear debt to the ideas that came out of Italy some centuries beforehand, Piano's new building is as contemporary as it gets. A transparent glass box houses the lobby, gallery space, an education center and a cafe.

I was stunned at how open and light the whole addition felt, a truly modern connection between two old buildings. At times the atrium seemed to float away, leaving a neutral courtyard between Morgan's two haunts. Photograph by Michel Denancé

I found myself wandering the lobby, staring up at the soaring ceilings, wanting to ride again and again in the glass elevator and generally marvelling at a design that was by turns rapturously engaging and then seemed to disappear, bowing gracefully to the stately older buildings on both sides. So go for the Modern Stage and stay for the lobby. Oh, and the Morgan Library itself. That's not too shabby either, if you're into, you know, awe-inducing grandeur.

Alexander Exter's deeply architectural ideas in his "Construction for a Tragedy" from ca. 1925 shows the stripped down forms and expressionistic geometry that would come to take hold in the architecture of Le Corbusier and the like.


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