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The Impulsive Traveler: An art weekend in Philadelphia

By Robert DiGiacomo
Sunday, March 14, 2010; F06

If only my art history class had been as engaging as a series of exhibits and installations now on display in Philadelphia, I might have gotten that elusive A.

To take in "A Love Letter for You," a series of 50 murals painted on the rooftops and walls of a Philly neighborhood, I recently hopped on an elevated train to get a premium view. At the Moore College of Art & Design, I found myself surrounded by images of giant black bugs climbing all over a gallery-size installation, part of "Philagrafika 2010," a citywide festival that takes a multimedia approach to celebrating contemporary printmaking. And at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I sank into the huge "pouf" -- a custom-made round sofa -- in the vibrant red salon that's part of the museum's more traditional exhibit, "Picasso and the Avant-Garde in Paris." From this perch, the masterpieces by the great modernist and his contemporaries, stacked as high as 20 feet up on the wall, definitely commanded my attention.

Take it from this B student of art history: It all makes for an educational, entertaining and literally transporting weekend in the City of Brotherly Love.

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Start with "A Love Letter," which marks a homecoming of sorts for New York-based Steve Powers, who grew up in Philadelphia and first expressed his ambitions as a graffiti artist with the tag "Espo." Having channeled his talent into a successful career that has encompassed a Fulbright scholarship and gallery shows in New York, Powers wanted to give something back to his home town.

The result is a project for the city's Mural Arts Program that runs from 46th to 63rd streets, on buildings adjacent to the Market-Frankford line. The murals, which strut across the tops of businesses, churches and typical Philly rowhouses, offer a witty and often touching narrative of a guy's pursuit of a girl. Done in a style resembling old-school painted signs, the murals offer messages ranging from the lighthearted -- "We share defeats, we share receipts and we share the sheets" -- to the poignant: "Miss you too much not to love you."

Although you can see the works by downloading a map, buying a subway token and boarding the el in Center City, I think they're best experienced via a weekly tour given on Saturday. My guide, Jean, provided our group of 10 with details about the project and shouted out commands to look left, right, up or down as the train clattered along its route through West Philly.

If you go on your own, stop at 52nd Street on the westbound train to see a half-dozen murals from the platform, and eastbound at 60th and 56th for more good vantage points. Be careful if you exit the stations west of 46th Street, where the West Philadelphia neighborhood becomes more hardscrabble.

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For an even more varied graphic trip, I made several stops at Philagrafika, the first of what's meant to be a triennial show presenting printmaking on paper, on film and through installations. The ambitious undertaking is on exhibit at 88 venues, including five that have collaborated on the core exhibition, dubbed "The Graphic Unconscious."

Among those five locations are Moore College, home of the aforementioned bugs, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, whose ornate, Victorian-era building is the unlikely setting for a stop-motion video by the Indonesian collective Tromarama. The film clip, like many of the works shown at "Philagrafika," seeks to expand the definition of prints. It was made with a series of woodcuts used in traditional printmaking that have been "turned" at a rapid pace to animate the piece, which is set to a rock tune. The clip is much more entertaining than anything you might see on MTV, if it still showed videos.

Another major component of "Philagrafika" is "Out of Print," in which five contemporary artists have been matched with five of the city's institutions, where they have used the historic collections to make a new work. At the Rosenbach Museum & Library, for example, contemporary artist Enrique Chagoya has put a new spin on a 19th-century print called "The Head Ache." Chagoya substitutes the face of Barack Obama for the man in the George Cruikshank original as a commentary on today's health-care debate, which has been enough to make anyone reach for the aspirin.

Given the scope of Philagrafika, you'll have to pick and choose what to see based on location and your interests. Keep in mind that many venues are free and are quick hits that you can view in no more than 15 minutes.

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But you'll want to take more time, and reserve a timed-entry ticket in advance, for the Picasso show. The exhibition, which is drawn primarily from the museum's holdings, seeks to put Picasso's career-making years in Paris, in the first half of the 20th century, into context. This was the period when the artist developed his cubist style, influencing a generation of European and American artists, and began to stake his claim to the title of preeminent modern artist.

Of special note is the exhibit's red room, which attempts to re-create the feel of the 1912 Salon d'Automne in Paris, in which paintings by such Picasso contemporaries as Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger were hung closely on the walls and paired with sculptures by Modigliani and Lipchitz. The salon transports you to a specific time and place in the City of Light: It gave me the urge to sip an aperitif and light up a Gauloise (and I don't even smoke). The combination of the red walls and the crowded placement, meanwhile, made the art seem to practically jump off the walls.

The show also brings into the light a trove of works that are normally kept in storage. About 60 percent of what's on display -- including many fragile collage-style pieces -- is usually not shown anywhere.

Anyone with a strong interest in Picasso and in further linking this pivotal period with his earlier work should also try to schedule a visit to the Barnes Foundation, a quirky museum about 20 minutes outside Center City in Merion, Pa. The Barnes owns about 46 Picassos, including several key pieces from his early Blue and Rose periods. A visit now would be especially timely, because the facility is scheduled to close in June 2011 in preparation for a move to a new home near the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Whether you're a dedicated follower of art -- contemporary or otherwise -- or not, I can vouch that these exhibits will move you. I only wish I could have a do-over on that art history final.

DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer and the co-founder of TheCityTraveler.com.

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