String Kings: Guitar Exhibit at Met in NYC

The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates the artisans of the archtop guitar

As of February 2011 in New York City, the grand façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art was adorned with giant banners touting artifacts from China’s Qing dynasty, a large Roman mosaic discovered in Israel, “card player” canvases by Cézanne, a Renaissance masterwork by Filippino Lippi, and then something altogether different. “Guitar Heroes: Legendary Craftsmen from Italy to New York,” on view until July 4, is an exhibit of stunning archtops built by John D’Angelico (1905-1964), Jimmy D’Aquisto (1935-1995) and John Monteleone (born 1947).

On one level, these guitars are utilitarian objects, tools that have helped shape the sound of American jazz and popular music. Yet many are also fine and rare works of art, standing up well next to the Met’s many other treasures. “The work of these three luthiers is firmly rooted in the long history of Italian, particularly Neapolitan, stringed instrument making,” explains curator Jayson Kerr Dobney in a companion book to the exhibit. Sensibly, “Guitar Heroes” looks not only at the work of D’Angelico and other immigrant builders who plied their trade in New York in the early 1900s, but also the work of their Italian forebears from Cremona, Padua, Naples and elsewhere, stretching back to the 17th century. “I’m in huge company,” said Monteleone, taking stock of the offerings at a press preview. “I’m incredibly humbled and honored.”

Entering the first gallery, we see “The Antonius,” a 1711 Stradivari violin, next to a 1951 D’Angelico Excel, a 1900 Bruno mandolin and an 18th-century Martin acoustic. Nearby, there is a Stradivari guitar from 1700 (“The Rawlins”). There are lutes with exquisite rosette woodcarvings alongside masterpiece violins by Amati, Grancino and Gagliano. A side room brings us to America, to the mandolins and guitars of early New York craftsmen such as Angelo Mannello, Raphael Ciani and Mario Maccaferri. There’s also a string-winding machine from the D’Addario shop, with a label explaining that Donato D’Addario was manufacturing strings as early as 1680. Look for D’Angelico’s earliest known surviving archtop (1932), in shockingly perfect condition. Other highlights include D’Angelico’s fourth-ever New Yorker (1937), along with Excels and New Yorkers once owned by Mary Kaye, Tony Mottola, Chet Atkins, Mel Bay, George Benson and others.

As D’Angelico’s protégé, D’Aquisto adopted more avant-garde designs as well as ideas from violinmakers—wood tailpieces instead of brass, for instance. He also made solidbody guitars, including the one played by rocker Steve Miller at one of several exhibit-related concerts held in the Met’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. (Miller’s jazz ballads? Fair to middling. Hearing bass giant Bob Cranshaw play “Fly Like an Eagle”? Priceless.)

Monteleone’s guitars are the wildest of the bunch, with elaborate scrolls, side soundholes and building materials such as African paduak, reconstituted stone, turquoise, diamonds and rubies. His one-of-a-kind creations include the Black Mambo, Deco Vox, Sun King and Rocket Convertible archtops. His crowning achievement, however, is the Four Seasons, an extremely spiffy set of guitars scheduled to be taken off display and played live in concert on April 10 by the quartet of Anthony Wilson, Julian Lage, Steve Cardenas and Chico Pinheiro.

For the occasion, Wilson has written an extended piece, “The Four Seasons,” as well as a kaleidoscopic arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” highlighting the tonal personalities of each instrument. “Summer is deep and generous, with powerful bass and sweet, mellow highs,” Wilson said via email. “Winter sounds great when strummed. Both Winter and Summer have large oval soundholes. Autumn and Spring have variations on the traditional f-hole, so their sounds are slightly more compact and pointed. What you notice is their great vibrancy, the way they simply soar when lines are played on them.”

Evident in Wilson’s new music is a span of guitar traditions, from modern jazz to steel-string flatpicking and fingerpicking, to chorinho and samba and beyond. In many ways, “The Four Seasons” captures the core idea of the exhibit itself: six simple and unchanging strings, a sound and style as unlimited as the imagination.

Originally published in May 2011

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