N.Y.C. With Kids: Think Outside the Frame

By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

We try to be good parents. Really, we do! We've worn our brain cells to little nubs giving our two daughters a grounding in the arts. Piano lessons? Check. The National Gallery? Check. Dance classes, art camp, concerts at the Kennedy Center? Check, check, check again.

Sure, threats may have been employed, and possibly a little light bribery from time to time. If that's what it takes to nurture young aesthetes in a YouTube world, so be it.

But there was one important area we'd always neglected: the world of contemporary art.

So with a recent vacation upon us, we got a bright idea. Instead of the usual fun, relaxing week on a Florida beach, we'd head to New York for a cultural vacation. It would be great -- four days of intensive immersion in modern art, going to galleries and exploring the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum of American Art and, of course, the mother ship: the Museum of Modern Art.

We probably wouldn't get very tan. But we'd come home with our brains tingling, bonding as a family over lively discussions of the latest ideas in avant-garde art.

Okay, fellow parents, stop laughing.

* * *

Armed with optimism, we found ourselves a few weeks later on the Upper East Side, pushing through the crowded lobby of the Whitney. It seemed like the perfect place to start, since it happened to be hosting the famous Whitney Biennial, a major survey of new work by the country's most cutting-edge artists. It promised to define "where American art stands today." What better introduction could there be?

But it looked like a pretty advanced show, so I gave the girls a "Modern Art 101" pep talk over dinner the night before.

"A lot of what we'll see may seem weird," I told them. "But give it a chance, even if you don't get it right away. It's going to be fun! Artists are basically playful -- they're playing with ideas, turning things on their head, creating surprising, beautiful stuff designed to make you think in new ways. So let's go with an open mind. It's going to be an adventure."

But now, standing in the Whitney and staring into Jason Rhoades's "The Grand Machine/THEAREOLA," I wasn't so sure. The piece consists of a huge room filled with -- not to get overly technical about it -- junk. Really: a shambles of old office chairs, candy wrappers and other trash strewed across the floor.

Christina, the eldest, raised a teenage eyebrow at me. "So -- is this 'art'?" she said, making little quote marks with her fingers.

I was at a loss for words, so I turned to the catalogue for help. Rhoades's work, it explained, tried to "obscure any clear artist intention by overloading the viewer with information and multivalent imagery."

Righty-o. "Let's go upstairs and see what else there is," I said brightly.

Room after room was filled with rough, in-your-face constructions of two-by-fours, broken glass and chunks of concrete. There were sculptures literally made of garbage and others modeled on bird droppings. One artist contributed a pile of cinder blocks; another was exhibiting an old box spring found in the trash.

I looked at the girls. They were being good sports. But expressions of wonder and delight weren't exactly dancing across their young faces.

"Not going well," I whispered to my wife.

"No," she whispered back. "Let's go for cannolis."

* * *

Now, the trip could have ended there in bitter defeat, with the girls scarred for life and unwilling to risk anything more edgy than a haystack or two by Monet. But after a day of regrouping -- i.e., clothes-shopping, a rock show at the Town Hall and more than one cannoli -- we tried again.

And this time we did it right. Instead of isolating ourselves for hours in a museum grappling with Big Serious Issues, we explored the art scene lightly, as part of the city's life. We strolled the streets of SoHo and Chelsea, spending as much time eating ice cream and talking with people as going into galleries. We glided down the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim to take in the sculptures of Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, then headed for a romp in Central Park. We stopped in at Walter de Maria's serene "New York Earth Room" (an elegant SoHo gallery that, for more than 30 years, has been filled to a depth of two feet with carefully groomed dirt) and, feeling oddly refreshed, ambled down Mercer Street to try on shoes.

We found art in almost every corner of Manhattan and museums for every taste, from folk art to ultra-contemporary. There's so much diversity, in fact, that you're bound to stumble across something really extraordinary. For us, that happened on our last day, when we finally got around to the Museum of Modern Art.

MoMA's an enormous place, where a serious art lover could happily wander for days. But we skipped past the Cézannes and Matisses and elevatored directly to the top floor, where a new show called "Design and the Elastic Mind" had opened.

Suddenly, we were in the playground of the imagination we'd been looking for. On the walls, ghostly computer-generated "light weeds" swayed to virtual winds, while a huge Mylar manta ray swam in the air overhead. A meticulously crafted honeycomb vase, made entirely by bees to human instructions, glowed in a glass case.

There were sculptures that responded to the life around them, outlandish chairs "grown" by mimicking human biology, maps of the world that constantly changed shape as data flowed in from around the planet. On and on it went, each piece more wonderful and thought-provoking than the last.

The girls ran excitedly from room to room, and we finally caught up with them in Philip Worthington's installation, "Shadow Monsters." It's an amazing piece that projects people's silhouettes against a wall, transforming them in real time into hysterically funny new creatures, and the girls were dancing and laughing as they watched themselves sprout wings, horns and long, bouncing antennae.

I looked at my wife and grinned. Contemporary art, it seemed, had won a couple of new converts. The exhibits we saw have since closed, but with new shows opening every week, there's bound to be something new to discover. We'll be back.

· NYC & Company, the city's official tourism organization, includes a guide to museums on its Web site, http://www.nycvisit.com.

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