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The art of summer in NYC

Sculpture, photography, art, even waterfalls – New York's exhibitions entertain with their originality.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 18, 2008

Cartier-Bresson's 1933 photo of a bullfighting ring in Valencia, Spain, is at the Metropolitan.

the metropolitan museum of art

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New York

Summer art exhibitions in New York City tend to be crowd-pleasing visual extravaganzas of wide public appeal, akin more to a beach novel than an existential tract. The edgier, more challenging offerings are deferred until fall, when the public is more inclined to ponder than laze. This season's shows are indeed alluring, rivaling the siren call of outdoor activities, but they also radiate an indispensable quality of durable art: originality.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts two shows by aesthetic pioneers: "Framing a Century: Master Photographers, 1840-1940" (through Sept. 1) and "J.M.W. Turner" (through Sept. 21). The Turner retrospective includes 140 paintings and watercolors, displaying the evolution of this British artist's style over six decades. One sees his early precocity and restless refusal to be confined within the approved genre of history painting.

Born in 1775, Turner developed in an age of political revolution. He set off a revolution himself in paint, as gradually his love of the sublime, awe-inspiring aspects of nature took over his canvases, infusing them with dramatic atmospheric effects. Today, Turner is hailed as a precursor to Impressionism and abstraction. Ironically, the traits we now praise earned him ridicule in his own day. Critics disparaged the "indistinctness" of his style, which was called "crude blotches," "pictures of nothing," and "the contents of a spittoon."

As a critic finally acknowledged in 1906, 55 years after his death, "Turner painted not so much objects he saw as the light which played around them." His landscapes and maritime paintings are a blur of color applied with a palette knife, the subjects almost unrecognizable in a scumble of pigment depicting moonlight, firelight, and blazing sunlight.

•The Met is also showing a dream team of Old Master photographers: 13 early practitioners who invented and perfected the medium. Beginning with the first photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, and Gustave Le Gray, with about a dozen outstanding prints by each, the exhibition showcases later portrait photographers such as Nadar, Édouard Baldus, and Julia Margaret Cameron, up to modernist, midcentury masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray. You see each photographer's eye for composition as the art form develops from embryo to maturity.

•The Jewish Museum presents a group of painters who shifted the hub of avant-garde art from Paris to New York in the middle of the last century. "Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976" (through Sept. 21) highlights the inventors of Abstract Expressionism. All the big names of this golden age of experimentation are here: after Pollock and de Kooning come giants of the New York School such as Rothko, Gorky, and Hans Hofmann. Innovation was king; abstraction reigned supreme. Two critics who explained this radical art to the public are enshrined as its godfathers: Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.