The Queen of Accessories Reigns

Iris Apfel in her museum-like apartment

ris Apfel is more than the sum of her parts in the same way a unicorn is not just a horse with a horn. She trails magic dust and casts a mysterious shadow in filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) outstanding valentine, “Iris,” the documentary pioneer’s last movie before he died in March at 88 years old.

By contrast, Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. At 93 years old, the pint-sized nonconformist with the signature oversized round glasses still trolls Harlem (albeit from a wheelchair and with a driver) in pursuit of the perfect addition to her madcap collection of contemporary fashion. (“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she deadpans).

“I like to improvise,” she explains in the opening scene, as she vamps for the camera and concocts “another mad outfit” she might wear to a party. “I always think I do things like I’m playing jazz.” As she layers enormous amber and silver necklaces and bracelets onto her birdlike frame, the audience marvels as much at her ability to remain upright as at the final quirky ensemble.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Astoria, Queens, in 1921, Iris Barrell developed her fearless sense of individuality and style as a child, helping her fashion boutique owner mother dress windows and accompanying her importer father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio. She studied fine arts at New York University and eventually began a fabulously successful interior design business.

Early on, a mentor singled her out and bluntly told her that although she wasn’t pretty, she had something more important because it would outlast her looks: she had style. Apfel has been taking that piece of advice to the bank ever since, inventing and re-inventing her unique self.

In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, a fabric manufacturing firm, after Apfel couldn’t find the fabrics and furnishings she envisioned for her many high-end clients. The two spent over half a century traveling and collecting.

Their palatial Park Avenue apartment and Palm Beach home are brimming with the eclectic fruits of their shopping expeditions. The overflow is housed in a storage loft.

In 2005, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Apfel. The 600-piece show, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” traveled to various museums after its New York run, arriving at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 2009.

Apfel fell in love with PEM. “It was the climax [of the show’s tour]. They have soaring ceilings and they did a really great job,” she remarks in the film. She subsequently bequeathed the entire show plus more to the museum, substantially expanding and modernizing its permanent textiles and fashion department.

The collection and its final resting place are important to Apfel. “This is a very personal collection. I wore almost everything in it. It’s nice to see where it’s going,” she says. An additional bequest will fund a fashion gallery in the PEM’s new wing that is slated to open in 2017.

Although several academic talking heads analyze and pay homage to Apfel’s pioneering contributions (“She is the perfect example of the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” comments Margaret Russel, “Architectural Digest” editor), it is Apfel whose pithy asides cut to the chase.

Putting together the right outfit requires skill and chutzpah. “I’m brazen,” she explains as she bargains shamelessly with a street vendor for a bauble she cannot live without and then whips out her gold American Express card to pay for it. She is also serious with a firmly embedded work ethic. “It’s hard work. Everything I have, I have to go out and find,” she says.

Apfel’s credo is that fashion should be fun. “You might as well amuse people when you dress,” she comments as she pairs priceless tribal vestments with a plastic ladybug bracelet she found at a flea market. Her flamboyant and self-confident free spirit is infectious.

Although Apfel’s larger-thanlife persona could devour the screen for the film’s 83 minutes, the moments when we glimpse her sweet and trusting relationship with director Maysles temper her nonstop chatter and activity. The few scenes when she silently turns to the camera are the film’s most intimate.

“Iris” is a playful, entertaining and beautifully shot film of a woman who has spent her life marching to her own drummer and, at age 93, is still living her dream. Recommended.

Check local theaters for times.

PEM’s Calder Exhibit a Dance in Slow Motion

Peabody Essex Museum’s exclusive East Coast presentation of “Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic” is everything an art exhibit should be. It is welldesigned, sensually pleasing and intellectually stimulating. The 40 pieces by one of the most influential and innovative artists of the 20th century reinforce PEM’s commitment to American art and celebrate Alexander Calder’s contribution of single-handedly transforming what would be thereafter thought of as “sculpture.”

Visiting the show is like entering an elegant abstract landscape, one where shadows have mass and gravity is irrelevant. The theatrical, dancing mobiles, which Calder invented, and stabiles (grounded pieces that still move) activate time and space in a way that creates an atmosphere of performance. Background avantgarde music by such composers as John Cage adds to the multi­sensory experience.

Calder was raised in Pennsylvania and his family included accomplished sculptors. He travelled to Paris frequently during the 1920’s and 30’s, befriending such surrealist and abstract artists as Joan Miro, Jean Arp and Marcel Duchamp. When he saw Piet Mondrian’s paintings, which only used primary colors, Calder exclaimed, “I would like to do that, but I would like it to move.”

Trained as an engineer, Calder became fascinated by the challenge of liberating sculpture from its historical limitations. His goal was to take the static, hollow, pedestalled medium and reinvent it. “Just as one can compose colors or forms,” Calder said, “so one can compose motion.”

Calder started working with wire in 1930, and the gallery’s first pieces explore his development of mobiles, ethereal works that create lines in space and, thanks to the superb lighting design, moving shadows. Many of the works, such as a trilogy of mobiles mounted in front of colored panels, are owned by the Calder Foundation N.Y. and are rarely exhibited.

“Little Face” is a choreographer’s delight, untethered parts creating a cohesive whole. Calder’s engineering genius is evident in his knowledge of the precise weight and density of each black piece that would counter the elements above and below.

From the magical, slow wake of the mobiles, one next explores his stabiles. Moving more slowly, subtly and quietly than the mobiles, their effect is one of benevolent creatures that happily invite the viewer to connect emotionally.

The exciting “Un effet du japonais” is like an anthropomorphic animal dance, its three legs stationary, its two arms poised, ready for the frenzy a puff of air would create. “Southern Cross,” displayed nearby, is a blend of mass and weightlessness, of movement and stillness. The effect is spell-binding, and prompted Albert Einstein to remark, “I wish I’d thought of that.”

Before his death, Calder also revolutionized monumental sculpture constructed for large outdoor spaces. La Grande Vitesse, a landmark in Grand Rapids, Michigan, marked the first time the public embraced abstract sculpture.

Pictured at top: 2014 Calder Foundation, New York/Art Resource Un effet du japonais (1941)

California Dreamin’ at Peabody Essex Museum

If ever there were a day to be California Dreamin’, it was a recent day when the sky was gray, the leaves were brown, and there was no doubt that it was warmer in L.A. Luckily, there was shelter from the gloom at the Peabody Essex Museum’s sleek and sunny new exhibit, “California Design 1930-1965: Living In A Modern Way.” 

Five years in the making, the exhibit asks the question, “What is the California way of life?” It answers it with 250 mid-century design objects broken into four themes: shaping, making, living and selling. These objects cover a lot of territory and commemorate the innovation, experimentation and freedom that characterized the golden era of the Golden State. The galleries are chockfull of items, from furnishings and architectural renderings of homes, to jewelry and toys. There is a shiny aluminum 1930’s Air Stream Clipper, and Esther Williams’s glittering gold lame swimsuit.


Woman’s bathing suit, late 1950s. Gift of Esther Ginsberg and Linda Davis in honor of Jennifer Blake. Margit Fellegi Estate; Reproduced with permission of The Warnaco Group Inc. For Authentic Fitness Corp., Cole of California. MuseumAssociates/LACMA

Wandering the fashion and home decor sections, one feels like an intruder on the “Mad Men” set. In somewhat academic fashion, the exhibit explores the various historical influences that shaped and marketed the distinctive “California aesthetic.” Unprecedented population and economic explosions during the 1920’s and 1930’s insulated California from the suffering much of the rest of the country experienced after the Great Depression. Oil, agriculture and movie industries took seed and thrived. The vintage aerial views contrasting the 1922 and 1930 intersections of Wilshire and Fairfax Boulevards are visual proof.

After World War II, 850,000 GIs received California subsidized housing, looking for an indoor/outdoor lifestyle of warmth, surf and fun. Designers, including many avant-garde European immigrants who had fled Nazi persecution, heard of California’s reputation for encouraging professional originality and daring, and flocked there.


Dan Johnson and Hayden Hall, Desk, 1947. LACMA, purchased with funds provided by The Buddy Taub Foundation, Dennis A. Roach and Jill Roach, Directors. 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Developments of new materials during the war (such as molded plywood, fiberglass and steel) and new commercial technologies after the war together created, for the first time, the ability to mass-produce goods. Moreover, the confluence of three conditions generated the perfect consumerist storm: enormous population growth, economic boom and postwar optimism. Add permanently sunny skies and spontaneous cultural combustion seemed inevitable.

The show’s open floor plan mirrors the California architects’ concepts of collapsed boundaries between rooms and fluidity of space. Strolling the show is like a scavenger hunt down memory lane. Charles and Ray Eames’ famous “Eames chair,” Barbie and Ken dolls, and the Polaroid Swinger camera are near a kidney-shaped pool and icons of the glamour of Hollywood (including Cedric Gibbons’ 1927 Oscar statue). Floor lamps with attitude, flatware with personality, and fashion with flair round out the offerings.

The overriding theme of the exhibit, however, is that the “California Dream” was meant to fulfill everyman’s dream of the modern, middle-class utopia.

“The goal was to provide well-designed, accessible and affordable modern homes and furnishings to millions of Californians, and those around the country who craved them,” said Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s American Art curator. “The designers wanted to make everyday life comfortable and beautiful. Their motto was, ‘The best for the most for the least,’” she added.

The show’s 1930-1965 time bracket is deliberate. It starts at modern California’s birth, amidst 1930’s economic and cultural optimism, and winds down with 1965’s dawn of the counter-culture, political protest and individualism. In between, however, is a magical wonderland of color, charm and joie de vivre. Revel in its sheer joy and envy its giddy innocence of what the future holds.

Pictured at top: Raymond Loewy, Studebaker Avanti, 1964. Private Collection of Richard Vaux. Walter Silver/PEM


PEM’s Impressionists On The Water: A New Look At Old Favorites

Walking into a room of Impressionist paintings always feels like coming home; there is a calm to the predictably pleasant. It takes a bold and innovative approach to snap one out of this complacency, and Peabody Essex Museum’s new exhibit, “Impressionists On The Water,” is that and more.

With over 90 paintings, prints, model boats and photographs, the exhibition focuses its lens on the influence waterways had on French Impressionists Monet, Renoir, Matisse, Signac, Pissarro, Caillebotte and Daubigny.

The unconventional staging of the show is masterful. Each display is punctuated with models of the boats illustrated in the nearby paintings. Of the two full-sized boats, the replica of the craft in Caillebotte’s “Boating on the Yerres” is a work of art in its own right. The curators have overlooked no detail: even the gallery walls are treated with sculptural elements that evoke a watercraft.

France’s many rivers and ocean harbors inspired its national pastime of pleasure boating. Among the most passionate sailors and yachtsmen were our beloved painters, and each has a maritime story to share.

PEM-BoatFull-sized model of the boat in Caillebotte’s “Boating on the Yerres.” (Shelley A. Sackett)

Caillebotte designed and created more than 20 boats; a racing rule bears his name. Signac owned 30 boats. Daubigny and his protege, Monet, lived on studio boats so they could be closer to their subject matter.

Throughout the exhibit we sense a celebration of light, water and sky. These painters brought the hallmarks of the Impressionist movement to their water experiences: spontaneity, sunlight, exhilarating color and a devotion to painting outdoors. They painted what they saw and felt; there is passion in their palettes.

Among the harbors, regattas, beaches and waves, one painting really stands out. Eugene Delatre’s “Woman Rowing” is a watercolor of a solitary woman in shadow, rowing towards sunrise. She is the lone female of the show and the lone loner; every other boating painting depicts at least two men.


Claude Monet, “Monet’s Studio-boat, (Le bateau-atelier).” Collection Krller-Mller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. (Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum)

The most unexpected and wonderful surprise of the exhibit, however, is the lifesized reproduction of the floating boat Monet painted in the adjacent “Monet’s Studio-boat.” We are encouraged to enter and take a seat. The boat is outfitted with every appliance and comfort, and video displays mimic a water-line perspective. Like Alice and her rabbit hole, we have stepped into another world.

By the time we reach Monet’s “Waves Breaking,” the last painting in the show, we are looking through eyes that have gained a fundamental understanding of the artistic possibilities inherent in water and boats. We linger a bit before leaving, seeing what Monet saw, breathing the salt air and celebrating a single moment of just standing by the sea.

Pictured at top: Gustave Caillebotte, “Boating on the Yerres (Prissoires sur L’Yerres).” Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Milwaukee Journal Company, in honor of Miss Faye McBeath. Photograph by John R. Glembin. (Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum)