Spring Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society

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The "New York Girls," 1910In Spring 2014, the New-York Historical Society will present a range of exhibitions that will examine New York City architecture, fashion and photography through the lens of the legendary Bill Cunningham; the early history of African American basketball before the dawn of the National Basketball Association; the second installment of Audubon’s Aviary, showcasing New-York Historical’s collection of Audubon watercolors; and an exhibition of quilts and textiles created during the Civil War.

In a statement to the press, New-York Historical’s president and CEO Dr. Louise Mirrer said “The artworks on view at New-York Historical this fall from the original Armory Show (continuing through February 23rd) were both informed by the momentous events of their historical period and shaped history themselves. Our spring season follows on this focus with two exhibitions linked to epoch-making events, one featuring quilts and other textiles used by Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the other comprised of photographs taken by Bill Cunningham as New York’s historic preservation movement took off in a city whose infrastructure had sputtered and stalled.”

Bill Cunningham: Façades, on view March 14 through June 15, 2014, will explore the photographer’s eight-year project documenting the architectural riches and fashion history of New York City. Beginning in 1968, Cunningham scoured the city’s thrift stores, auction houses and street fairs for vintage clothing and scouted architectural sites on his bicycle. The result was a photographic essay entitled Façades, which paired models—most particularly his muse, fellow photographer Editta Sherman—posed in period costumes at historic New York settings, such as St. Paul’s Chapel, Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center.

Cunningham donated 88 gelatin silver prints from the series to the New-York Historical Society in 1976, and nearly four decades later his whimsical and bold work will be reconsidered in this presentation. Highlighting the historical perspective the photographs suggest—not just of the distant past, but of the particular time in which they were created—the exhibition will examine Cunningham’s project as part of the larger cultural zeitgeist in late 1960s-70s New York City, an era when historic preservation and urban issues loomed large.

Also opening on March 14 and on view through July 20, 2014 is The Black Fives, an exhibition exploring the pioneering history of the African American basketball teams that existed in New York City and elsewhere from the early 1900s through 1950, the year the National Basketball Association became racially integrated.

Just after the game of basketball was invented in 1891, teams were often called “fives” in reference to their five starting players. Teams made up entirely of African American players were referred to as “colored fives,” “Negro fives,” or “black fives,” and the period became known as the Black Fives Era. From its amateur beginnings, dozens of all-black professional teams emerged during the Black Fives Era in New York City, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlantic City, Cleveland, and other cities where a substantial African American population lived.

As much about the forward progress of black culture as a whole as it is about the history of basketball, the exhibition is a collaborative partnership between the New-York Historical Society and Claude Johnson, a historian and author who is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation. Drawn nearly entirely from the Foundation’s collection, the exhibition will feature memorabilia, photographs, documents and other historical materials from the Black Fives period.

Opening just after the official start of spring, New-York Historical will present Audubon’s Aviary: Parts Unknown (Part II of The Complete Flock), the second of three exhibitions offering an unprecedented opportunity to explore the evolution of John James Audubon’s watercolors in the order in which they were engraved. New-York Historical will showcase these masterpieces from its collection of Audubon’s preparatory watercolors for the sumptuous double-elephant-folio print edition of The Birds of America (1827–38).

New-York Historical holds all 435 watercolor models for its 435 plates, engraved by Robert Havell Jr., plus an additional 39 avian watercolors by Audubon. On view March 21 through May 26, 2014, Parts Unknown will consider Audubon as an established artist-naturalist, a world citizen, and a celebrity in an expanding nation—no longer the young Frenchman who created the works displayed in the first installment.

This once-in-a-lifetime exhibition follows Audubon into unchartered territories—geographic, artistic, and scientific—as he encountered and mapped new species and grappled with the disappearing illusion of America’s infinite wilderness. The vast majority of the watercolors in Parts Unknown are water birds, many of which are among Audubon’s most spectacular and largest birds, with numerous studies begun during his southeastern explorations and on his Labrador Expedition.

The New-York Historical Society also continues its contribution to the nationwide conversation on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the American Civil War (1861-65) through the exhibition Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War. On view April 4 through August 24, 2014, the exhibition offers a new perspective on the most divisive period in American history, reflecting the personal sacrifice, heroism, mourning and reconciliation that changed the course of the nation.

Using textiles, clothing, artifacts, and images—from the noose reportedly used to hang abolitionist John Brown, to a quilt made from Union Zouave uniform fabrics for a soldier returning from the war—Homefront & Battlefield will examine how textiles were both an expression of and a motivating force behind American politics and culture. Organized by the American Textile History Museum, this presentation will also feature significant artifacts from New-York Historical’s collection, including a Union officer’s uniform jacket worn during his ten months in Confederate prison, and a massive silk regimental banner rescued in battle during the Appomattox campaign.

Photo of the New York Girls basketball team, 1910. Courtesy of the Black Fives Foundation

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