Saturday, October 25, 2014

NO RAIN/HARD HATS

Well, yesterday was different.  It did not rain.  We did not lounge around in the hotel until late morning.  I was out on my Starbucks run at 7AM, bringing back tea for Ellie, coffee for myself, and a slice of banana bread to enhance our hotel-supplied yogurt for breakfast.  We left the hotel shortly after 8, headed for Grand Central Station, whence we negotiated the subway down to the southern tip of the Manhattan island.  From the subway station, we made our way across Battery Park to the ferry terminal, expecting to arrive way too early for the first, 9:30 ferry to the Statue of Liberty and, beyond, to Ellis Island; and were amazed to find already a mass of fellow-tourists waiting patiently in line in cold. windy weather...


And we were still the early birds.  Behind us, the line continued to grow for another forty-five minutes before departure time.  Before that, though, there was the passage through airline-style security--which made us feel already like those immigrants whose point of origin in this country we had come to see.

We had read about the installation on Ellis Island by the French artist JR, whose "Pervasive Art" projects acts as interventions in socially-charged environments such as this one.  We had bought tickets in advance for a hard-hat tour to see his "Unframed--Ellis Island" project, installing enlarged photographic images of immigrants and island staff amongst the decaying buildings of the hospital where those deemed too sick to enter the country were treated; and, as I say, we had already begun to feel like those "huddled masses" as we passed through security and finally stepped onto the boat with literally hundreds of other tourists who packed the ferry's decks...


 As I suspected would be the case, most of them disembarked at the Statue of Liberty...


... leaving just a handful of us headed on for Ellis Island.

A friendly greeting there, once we landed, from the ranger staff.  We were joined by our tour guide, Jessica...


... who led us out of the main buildings and across the island to the hospital, where we were provided with the promised hard hats, to prevent accidents in what we would soon discover were seriously decaying buildings...



Our guide was knowledgeable and led the tour with great sympathy for both the immigrants who landed here and the medical staff who took care of them.  Contrary to popular belief, the place was not quite the cruel, uncaring reception area it is commonly reputed to be.  Over the 70 years of its operation, only 2 percent of immigrants were actually turned away.  The others, even the sick and the infirm, were treated with the intention to ready them to life in America--a country that needed this immigrant work force, much as we need out immigrants today.

The art installation we had come to see was not, then, the main focus of our tour.  We came across snatches of it, here and there, as we progressed through the buildings.  Had we been alone, coming across the photographs unexpectedly, I think they would have worked on us with great emotional affect: ghostly presences summoning the spirits of the past, they speak to us amongst the ruins from more than a century ago with all the eloquence of human suffering and aspiration.  Here are some snapshots that we took along the way...







Spectacular views of New York along the way...


Once our tour was ended, we decided that our Ellis Island experience was sufficiently complete and, rather than explore the rest of the many exhibitions there, we returned directly to the pier and caught the already departing boat back to Battery Park, finding it now even more crowded than when we left.  The whole of the southern end of Manhattan, we discovered, is a tourist haven.  We shouldered through the crowds as we made our way up toward our next intended destination, the 9/11 memorial and museum.  First, though, we had to deal with hunger.  Having eaten nothing since our early morning banana bread, we were in need of sustenance--and it proved hard to find, aside from the fast food places that cater to the visitors.  Directed, finally, to a local diner, we were lucky to be shown to a nice window table after only a short wait, and enjoyed a so-so late eggy breakfast there.

Out plan to visit the 9/11 museum proved unexpected naive.  We made our way down to the memorial site, where the two great water treatments marking the footprints of the fallen towers were both surrounded by milling tourist crowds...


When we found the museum, we were dismayed to find not only long lines for entrance tickets, but more long lines for designated entry times.  It would have taken hours to get inside.  Discouraged, we postponed our visit for another time, vowing next time to buy tickets in advance online.  Instead, we took the subway back to Grand Central and took advantage of a couple of free hours to rest before our evening's outing.

What an evening!  Our friend Alice, whom we had come to know in Los Angeles, now lives in an apartment with a peek-a-boo view of the East River...


... and she had assembled a marvelous, lively group of friends for us to meet.  Good food and wine, good conversation, good new friends... what could be better?  We returned on foot to our hotel much later than we had expected, quite weary, but grateful for another engaging New York experience.

Friday, October 24, 2014

MORE RAIN...

Tonight I get an early start on tomorrow's blog entry.  It has been a long, wet day, and we came back to our hotel much earlier than last night, to be ready for an early start tomorrow.

And tonight I get to start with a peeve, because what is a long, weary day without a peeve at the end of it.  Here's the peeve: it's about tipping.  I much prefer the European system, where they jut add the tip to the bill and have done with it.  If you're overjoyed with the service, you can leave a little spare change and everybody's happy.  Over here, we've been suffering from tip inflation, and it's getting serious.  There's something new going on here in New York City, and I don't like it.  When you get the bill, there's often a notation that reminds you that service is NOT included, and kindly suggests the kind of tip that is acceptable.  It STARTS at 18 percent.  The next step up is 20 percent.  And the third suggestion is 22 or 25 percent.  Was a time, not so long ago, when 10 percent was an acceptable tip.  The 15 percent was considered perfectly adequate.  Nowadays the suggestion is that you're cheap if you only add on 18 percent, and 20 percent is considered the norm.  Now, I don't like to be cheap, particularly with those who work hard and get underpaid for it.  But this strikes me as nothing more nor less than extortion.  If the restaurant is too cheap to pay their employees a decent wage, why should the patron be left to make up for their parsimony?  It just doesn't seem right to me.  Am I alone in this?  I'd really like to know.

That said, phew, let's get back to another terrific day in this great (and expensive!) city.  We were out late.  Ellie slept in, and I was working on the blog, which took me some considerable time.  After a lousy cup of room-machine coffee in the hotel, a Starbucks stop was unfortunately a prerequisite, along with a shared slice of banana bread.  Then on, through wind and rain, to Pace Gallery on 57th Street, where we expected, mistakenly, to see Ai Wei Wei and instead found a show of rather extraordinary portrait prints by Chuck Close and, on the lower level, "Fierce Creativity"--a group show curated by Chuck Close and Jessica Craig Martin to benefit a charitable organization called Artists for Peace and Justice.  It's a noble cause, and one which artists are to be commended for supporting with the gift of their work, but the show itself was honestly to terribly fierce not terribly creative.  Ellie and I were simply astounded by the prices...  But, well, this is New York, and this is the weird world of contemporary art.

On to Mary Boone's gallery on Fifth Avenue, and an much fiercer and more creative show by E.V, Day, whose prior work was unfamiliar to me.  The main installation, "Semi-Feral," reconstructed, in cleverly articulated stretched wire and skeletal fragments, the battle between two saber-tooth tigers...

All images are iPhone snaps, taken without gallery objection
In the adjacent gallery, enclosed in a box-like cage, a bridal veil and dress were as if torn asunder, their fragments caught at the moment of their flying apart...


... in an explosion that suggested at once the finality and the potential dangers of the marital commitment.  Engaging work.  Next door, at McKee Gallery, another group show, where it was fun to see some old acquaintances, including Vija Celmins, Philip Guston...


 and Harvey Quaytman...


 I liked, particularly, the installation of multiple terra-cotta Buddhas by Leonid Lerman...


A walk across to Madison and an interminable cab ride (street works!) up to 9rd Street, where we stopped at the Jewish Museum to see their dual exhibition of Lee Krasner and the African American artist of the Abstract Expressionist period, Norman Lewis.  There were some excelled paintings by both artists on display, but Lee Krasner came across as the more consistently interesting of the two, and it was good to see a solid exhibition of her work with barely a mention of her more famous husband Jackson Pollock.  Ellie managed to snap an image of her personal favorite...  


We both found it hard to find an intelligible reason for bringing these two very different artists to ether, and agreed that it did no favor to Lewis, whose work would probably be better seen on its own account.

A few block south, we waited in line outside the Neue Gallerie for the main event of the day, the exhibition of portraits by Egon Schiele.  (Sorry, no images.  Pictures not allowed.  Try the link to the website...) But first... lunch!  By this time it was three in the afternoon, and Starbucks banana bread had long since been digested and forgotten.  We were forewarned of an hour's wait for the restaurant--but found, downstairs, a cafeteria that served the same (excellent!) food with no wait and speedy (also excellent!) service.  Upstairs, the portrait show was a stunner, though it almost seemed there were two different Schieles at work--the one a skilled traditional draftsman, the other an agonized observer of the dark side of the human experience.  I found the latter spoke to me with far greater emotional appeal--the angular, distorted bodies, often set at dramatic, diagonal angles across the canvas or the paper.  The hands, particularly, are eloquent of suffering--elongated, claw-like creatures that seem almost independent of the body.  A sad thing, indeed, that this gifted and inventive artist survived that terrible "Great" War, only to be snatched away from us by something so mundane as the Spanish flu, at the age of less than thirty.  

We enjoyed a brief tour of the famous--and fabulous--Wiener Werkstatte design work on display in the permanent collection and left the museum near closing time.  Walked east to Lexington...

Love those water towers...!
 ... and the long way south to our hotel, pausing for a dinner stop at the Olive and Fig, a nice restaurant where we managed to eat less lavishly than the night before.  And back early, as I mentioned above, to the hotel.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

RAIN

It was raining when we awoke In NYC this morning.  It was raining when I went out for coffee next door.  The rain continued steadily throughout the day.  By late evening, it was a downpour.  For us Californians, it was a treat to feel the moisture in the air; to feel the skin absorb it.  We only wished we could have brought it home with us.

A lazy morning and a late start from our hotel room...

Still dry, before leaving...
Armed with a comfortably-sized umbrella, we walked the ten blocks or so from our hotel on Lexington to the Pierpoint Morgan Library and Museum further south on Madison.  Our intention was to spend a short while there and move on to other things, but the Morgan proved too beguiling for us to follow our plan.  We stayed there for the rest of the day.

Our original intention had been to see the Barbizon landscape show.  We had somehow overlooked the simultaneous exhibition of Cy Twombly's"Treatise on the Veil (second version)" but, on arrival, made that our first stop.


Nearly thirty-three length and of substantial height, this monster is a gasp-inducing vision as you step into the gallery.  Inspired by a piece of musique concrète, it features a series of scribbled "musical" notations following the length of the huge painting, left to right, against a textured grey background, marking intervals of time without apparent beginning or end.  We started with the twelve collaged and sketchily notated drawings Twombly made as he prepared for the first, six-panel version of this monumental work, finding in each of them the fascinating spectacle of the artist's mind at work.  (The musical inspiration, by the way, featured the prolonged sound of a piece of material, the "veil," being ripped apart.  Don't ask.  It's way too complicated to explore the detail here!)

No photos. by the way, in the exhibition spaces at the Morgan.  One wonders why.  They allow photos (without flash) in the library.  Is it because, as one reader suggests in yesterday's comments, they want to sell catalogues?  The images I use were pirated from books and postcards and frankly, in a couple of instances, snapped before the guard stepped in to inform us that, in this gallery, no pictures were allowed.  My readership is small enough for me not to feel guilty about this.  Here's a mostly legal partial image of the Twombly from outside the gallery...


Across from the Twombly installation, a gallery was offering the exhibition of the "Crusader Bible: A Gothic Manuscript..."



... and we thought to step in quickly to get a sense of it.  Silly us!  One manuscript page and we were captivated by these incredible paintings in small scale, filled with color and action, biblical stories of power and gore, love and friendship, royal pageantry and costume, ancient warfare interpreted with medieval weaponry and armor.  Unbelievable how the artist(s) crammed in so much action, so many battling figures, men and horses into so small a space.  How they framed the epic narratives in such compelling visual terms...



Contemporary visual novelists might well study these with envy for their sheer length and complexity.

We were entranced.  It was lunch time before we were able to tear ourselves away, and we found a table in Morgan's great, light-filled atrium designed by Renzo Piano...


... currently enhanced by an amazing installation of films of color and mobile glass panels designed by the American artist Spencer Finch...


... and inspired by the Medieval "Book of Hours"--the kind of colorful manuscript illustration in which we had just now been immersed.

Artsy selfie, in Morgan Atrium, b.g. model of the Libraropi
A very pleasant lunch, then, in this open space... and on into the dark splendor of J. P. Morgan's opulent personal study, where the corporate titan presumably oversaw the inner workings of his business and entertained the occasional privileged guest, surrounded by priceless works of art from ages past...


Talk about the 1 percent!  The wealth of this one man is unimaginable, the breadth and depth of his collections vast beyond comprehension.  Leaving his private study, we went on into the library and were stunned (once again, because we had been here before) by the books and manuscripts...



... the ancient relics and inscriptions, jewelry and art objects of all kinds.


Dizzying.  In one case, Ellie was thrilled to find a signed letter from FDR to an Arthur Spingarn...


her grandfather, great grandfather, grand uncle...? who was at one time president of the NAACP.

Then, finally, mid-afternoon, we found the exhibit we had originally come to see, "The Untamed Landscape: Théodore Rousseau and the Path to Barbizon."


It's a wonderful display of drawings and small paintings by an artist who clearly bridged the gap between Romantic landscape and the later Impressionists.  A refreshing look at the work of a man who was so much in tune with nature that he claimed to hear "the voices of the trees," and was possessed of such meticulous skill in rendering both the detail of their physical presence, their natural beauty, and the sense of awe that they inspire.  We have lost so much of our contact with the natural environment these days, it is inspiring to be reminded of its importance in our human lives.

A stop at the Morgan's gift shop, where we were parted from a bit of our cash reserves, and a walk back through the rain to our hotel, where we managed a half-hour's rest.  Then out into the rain again for a walk across town to the theater district and dinner at a small, crowded French restaurant I had found online.  Country French, not haute cuisine French. But very pleasant.  Totally edible...


We had booked tickets for our show from Los Angeles a couple of months ago, and we were glad we had.


"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" had just come across to Broadway from London's West End, where it had received rave reviews.  I discovered it by accident online and, knowing nothing about it, bought tickets.  It turned out to be perhaps the most extraordinary piece of theater I have ever seen.  It takes you literally inside the mind of a high-functioning autistic 15-year old boy who struggles to understand the people and the disturbing, fast-paced world around him; and at the same time explores the peculiar agony of those who know and love him.  The stage setting is amazing--a simple cube on a time/space axis defined by lines of nigh tech lights whose color and intensity is varied to infinite effect.  Imagine the thunderous sounds, the bewilderment of lights and motion in a London tube station brought to life inside the head, and you'll get close to the overpowering visual effects this show achieves.  This is not a review, or I'd have time and space to elaborate.  I don't.  Enough to say that the superlatives very soon run out in attempting to do justice to this mind-bending piece of theater.  Funny and tragic, both, it produces frequent sympathetic belly-laughs... and brings you close to tears.  If you get to New York, this is one that should not be missed.

The rain was bucketing down when we left the theater, but even so we ventured the walk back from Broadway across the Avenue of the Americas, Fifth Avenue, Madison and Park to Lexington--and arrived pretty much sodden at our hotel.  Another New York day...


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

STARBUCKS...

... in the morning, right next to the hotel.  A cup of tea for Ellie, coffee for me, and two oatmeals with nuts and raisins.  I brought them back to our hotel room, where we enjoyed a quiet breakfast before showering and heading out for the day.  An unsuccessful search, to start with, for an ATT store, to calm my nerves about roaming charges (we resolved these later in the day); then a brisk walk up to 53rd Street and west across Park, Madison, and Fifth Avenue to the Museum of Modern Art.  What a pleasure to be in New York City, where even the crowded sidewalks are filled with an irresistible energy.  Let alone the art...

Ellie at MoMA
We started out at MoMA with the currently-installed Robert Gober exhibition.  Having seen a smaller exhibit of this artist's work in Los Angeles a few years ago, we were nonetheless amazed by the breath and depth of Gober's vision.  There's a surrealist quality in the hairy body parts that project from the walls, and the white, fabricated sinks whose missing faucet holes look like vacant eyes.  Particularly vivid were two of these half-buried in a grass plot beyond a large window pane, upright like tombstones staring back at you as if from "beyond the grave."  And these but the introduction to gallery-scale installations, wall-papered floor-to-ceiling with (in one instance) images of male and female genitalia in chalk white against a black background.  One such installation, devoted to images and memories of the World Trade Center attacks, was especially poignant.

All good art, of course, can be seen from many different points of view.  What I came away with from the Robert Gober show was a profound sense of the pain and confusion that we humans carry around inside, and the compassion to make it bearable.

Lunch at the bustling MoMA cafeteria.  Long lines, thankfully fast-moving.  And an excellent menu.  Ellie had a variety of bruschetta, I a cauliflower quiche, and we shared a bowl of butternut squash soup.  Quite nice...

Then up the series of connecting escalators to the Matisse cut-out show on the seventh floor...

No pictures allow inside... Sorry!
I know, you're thinking colorful flowery extravaganzas and elegantly posed blue female nudes.  Me too,  And they were plentifully there.  A sense of irrepressible, exuberant joy in color and shape, as well as in the human form.  What I wasn't prepared for was the sheer quantity of these works, made for the most part in the last few years of the artist's life.  I last wrote about them, I recall, in the early 1990s, at the time of another Matisse show at the modern.  We had just received a call from my sister in England, to say that my father, who had been ill for some time, was now near death.  Having booked the first available flight back to the UK, we still had time for a stop at MoMA, and I was profoundly moved by the overflowing creative energy of this old man's work, recalling ruefully that my father's advancing age and disability had forced him to abandon his own creative work in his wood shop several years before.  It was a poignant moment, reflecting on both the potential, and the debilities of old age.  And I'm now twenty years older than I was back then!

This time, Ellie and I both found ourselves attracted by the more abstract of the cut-outs, small, simple, elegant works that seemed to foreshadow the geometric work of many of Matisse's artistic heirs in the 20th century--not to mention Ellie's own paintings in her Laguna Beach studio!

Leaving MoMA, we took a long, delicious walk up Fifth Avenue and into Central Park, heading up the east side of the park towards the Met.  To our surprise--we had been expecting rain and cold--the weather was quite wonderful, sunny, with drifting white clouds...


A well-deserved rest!
... and warm enough to walk without a jacket.  The park was at its most beautiful, the leaves only just beginning to turn from their summer green to the browns, reds and oranges of autumn.  Lots of wildlife...


We took the path that cuts through the zoo, and paused to watch a pool filled with seal lions at play.  They seemed to be channeling their inner porpoise, leaping joyfully out of the water as they swam, one of them even hoisting itself out of the water at the edge of the pool, as though posing for the cameras of a family standing by to watch.  A lovely scene.  Then on, past numerous grandparents with their grandchildren--we're specially attentive to these right now, and thought often of our little Luka...


After our unhurried walk, we arrived only late afternoon at the Met, where we were panning to see the current exhibition of Cubist works from the Lauder collection.

With only an hour left before closing time, we decided on a quick preliminary visit, to be followed up later in the week.  Though I recognize its historical importance and admire the work of Picasso and Braque, I have never felt that attuned to Cubist painting, and was surprised to hear Ellie say the same.  Their innovative compositional intricacies are endlessly fascinating, but they lack, for me, the kind of simplicity and there-ness I have come to love in works of art.  Their busy-ness has far greater appeal for the eye than for the heart.  No matter, the Lauder collection is an amazing revelation, a wealth of art history that commands respect.  Tired though the eyes were by this time, and still swamped by the colors of Matisse, I did find a lot to look at in our brief time there.  We will go back.

A walk across to Madison Avenue and a turn to the south, heading back towards our hotel.  Though it was still early evening, we were ready for food, and found it at a restaurant called, simply, EAT.  Shared a salad and a chicken dish.  Okay food, indifferent, offhand service.  But good artwork by Ellie...

Ellie Blankfort, 2014, Untitled, gravy on white plate, cutlery
Then, walking south again, we stopped at the still-open new Gagosian Gallery extension, to see a show of new work by Richard Prince--hugely enlarged "selfie" images with Twitter comments by the image's creators and responses by the artist.  Nothing could be more different from Matisse, Braque and Picasso.  Ellie was not enthusiastic, but I found the work quite fascinating, sometimes erotic, often quite funny with its multiple social cross-references.

We were left, then, with the long walk down Madison Avenue--from the mid-70s to our hotel at the corner of 47th and Lexington.  Plenty to look at in the storefront windows, ranging from uptown extravagance (Cartier, Ralph Lauren) to the more modest shops in the midtown area.  And of course the tall buildings and the city lights...


Very tired on our return to the hotel, and myself not a little irritable, trying to locate these images on the computer...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

WAKING IN NYC

Waking in New York City to the ceaseless, oceanic roar of traffic, the aggressive and impatient blare of horns, the rumble and throb of heavy vehicles, the familiar energy of the city...  and working, with the breath, in meditation, to reconcile it with my own, much quieter energy.  The small self feels much smaller here, in the massive scale of the buildings, each with its own restless cargo of human beings, the scurrying, elbow-to-elbow stream of human bodies on the sidewalks, the crowded museums, theaters, restaurants, department stores.  

I always find New York to be at once humbling and exhilarating.  This morning, with Ellie still sleeping, I find myself infected with the impatience of the city, ready to get up, take the elevator down (we're on the ninth floor, which in itself feels strange to us flat city dwellers!) and step out of the hotel to join the throng, and find a Starbucks and a New York Times.  There's much we want to do today...