nw3 to nyc

Observations on moving my family across the Atlantic


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She was just having a laugh

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I was having a bit of sit down in this gallery in the Whitney Museum of American Art having been through the Jeff Koons retrospective on the four floors below. Feeling a bit funny after all that Koons humour and colour and general gaudiness, I had found this room on the fifth floor. It is baffling.

What is going on here? I walk in, look at the 12 large silver framed pictures which are basically all white and a bit lined. I pull a face, read the blurb, find out they are by an artist called Agnes Martin who painted them in 1979. The blurb says “The Islands is among the most beloved works in the Whitney’s collection and is regarded as one of Martin’s great achievements. Hmmm.

If Martin had still been alive, I think she should have hung out in the gallery for 20 minute like I did and check out people’s reactions. They walk in one entrance, look at the room  and smile, but then they look perplexed.  If this were a cartoon, they would have a thought bubble above their heads that said “WTF?!?” Then most of them then look bored and walk on through.

Those who don’t get to the boredom stage check out the blurb, pull a face which says “eh?” and then walk out. The more intrigued then go and have a bit of a look at one or two and then clear off. The man next to me on the bench is reading his guide to NY and could be anywhere, he’s not bothered either.

After 20 minutes or so, having tried looking at the pictures by squinting, using just one eye and cocking my head to one side decide that she was just having a laugh. Bonkers.

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When is Fifth not Fifth?

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Aha, yes, tonight. Fifth Avenue shut down to traffic from 82nd Street all the way up to 104th Street. You’d never know this was Fifth Avenue in my photograph around 94th Street. This is Museum Mile. Starts with your world famous Metropolitan Museum, heads up past the Guggenheim to the Jewish Museum and ends up at the Museum of New York (with others in between). With a marvellous vista across Central Park, this is a beautiful part of New York. Ordinarily spoiled by buses, lots and lots of buses, cars and taxis all crammed into this one way street, but tonight was special, no vehicles allowed.

It is the night of the annual Museum Mile Festival. I don’t remember this from last year, passed me by, but this year we turned up at 6pm to wander down the whole length from 104th Street down to 84th Street. It was great. Lively, full of families with kids drawing all over the road with ‘sidewalk chalk’. Various kids entertainers doing their thing, with an escapologist wowing the crowd with his amazing fire tattoos and ability to escape from chains and a strait jacket. How lovely to wander down Fifth Avenue and not watch for the traffic; let your toddler wander along the road, confused because he can cross when the red hand is showing, rather than waiting for the regular white person to declare ‘it’s our turn to cross’.

And every museum and gallery along the way was open for free to the public. The lesser known Neue Gallerie on 86th Street was doing a roaring trade. It is hosting an exhibition on degenerate art from Nazi Germany and it is proving to be one of its most popular shows. People were queuing down the block for free entry to this one.

Just another lovely part of New York life.


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No Hoppers here

The Whitney Biennial, it’s the kind of exhibition where you wonder if the seat is really for sitting on or if you are about to sit on the art.

According to the guide I picked up earlier today:

“The exhibition offers a rare chance to look broadly at different types of work and various modes of working that can be called contemporary American art.”

Sounds good, eh? Then it just loses the plot by going on to say:

“Some borders – formal, conceptual, geographic, temporal – get tested, but how the breadth of art is expanding because it is the artist and makers themselves who are pushing boundaries: by collaborating, using the material of others, digging through archives, returning to supposedly forlorn materials, or refusing to neatly adhere to a particular medium or discipline.”

I love a bit of bonkers art, but this was all lost on me. Here’s my alternative guide:

“It’s a confusing mish-mash of media and ideas so far from attractive and understandable they made me yearn for something normal, something pretty to look at that I would actually recognise.”

I doubt anyone here really gets this stuff. I saw a lot of bored looking teenagers trailing after parents willing them to be interested. I would suggest that this is no place to inspire the next generation.

The Guide concludes by saying:

“We hope that the 2014 Biennial will suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid identity of America today.”

I’m not sure I’d agree with that hope. There’s certainly no new Edward Hopper here.

You can decide for yourself, all the artwork is on the Biennial website. On until 25 May.


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Fabulous Frick

I don’t think there are many people who’d know about the Frick Collection when they visit New York as a tourist. It’s not on the usual tourist trails despite being just down the road from the more glamorous Met on Fifth Avenue. I have to confess the only reason I knew about it was because I read somewhere that the Goldfinch painting by Fabritius was on display there and as I’d read the Donna Tartt book all about it, I went to have a look.

Seems I wasn’t the only one. I went just before Christmas but I read today in the New York Times that by the time the show ends on Sunday over 235,000 people will have done the same. This is nearly double the visitor numbers they had for their last successful exhibition. Most people went to see Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is impressive but doesn’t look that much like Scarlett Johansen. Ha ha. The very small painting of a goldfinch chained to a metal bracket should look cruel but it is just lovely. Set against a dramatic red wall, it stands out beautifully and looks quite different from each vantage point. I was quite taken with it. I even bought a postcard. My photo is rubbish, so I haven’t put it on here, but the New York Times link above shows it well.

The Frick Collection itself is quite a find. Henry Clay Frick  commissioned the impressive mansion overlooking Fifth Avenue at the beginning of the 20th Century with a view to him living there and giving it to the city on his death. He housed his magnificent art collection there and today you trip over Rembrandt, Turner and all manner of well known artists as you walk around the austere interior. It’s a bit like being in Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (or the set of Downton Abbey), he was inspired by English stately homes and it shows.

One big difference with the Frick Collection is that they ban the under 10s. I was unimpressed by this initially but having visited it I can see why. There are no barriers anywhere, nothing to stop grubby hands and curious toddlers from leaving their mark. So for a child free zone and some respite from busy New York, take a look, even though the Dutch masters will be on their way back to the Netherlands very soon.


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Nevermore

It’s been an interesting time of contrast for me in the last couple of weeks. I had been keenly anticipating visiting two particular exhibitions, one on the 100th anniversary of the famous Armory Show of 1913 and one of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Now that I write it like that, it does sound a bit dull, but they weren’t. Honest.

Please excuse poor quality of photos here, both taken surreptitiously as cameras were banned. The one below is of the original 1913 poster for the show.

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The New York Historical Society is on the Upper West Side, it’s next to the American Museum of Natural History in a grand building overlooking Central Park around 77th street. I’d not heard of it before I came here, but when I read about the exhibition I was excited to see it. I wanted to learn about how Americans viewed art from Europe when it was exhibited here for sale for the first time on the eve of the First World War. It was the first time mass audiences had seen artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin and Duchamps. Art that didn’t look like real things or real people was pretty radical back then. It’s a great exhibition and the catalogue is a monster at over 500 pages, weighing a tonne just for the paperback. Out of around 1300 works only 250sih were sold at a value of $1.6 million in today’s money. Incredible.

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Further downtown is the Morgan Library and Museum. Again, not really on your tourist trail, but hugely accessible from Grand Central Station or Penn Station and on a glorious block on prime Madison Avenue at 36th street. The one-time home of Pierpoint Morgan, financial whizz and owner of great wealth, he was a voracious collector and amassed an enormous and eclectic collection of art, literature and artefacts from all over the world. Subject to a recent refurbishment, the Morgan Library and the modern building that now surrounds it are well worth a visit.

I spent a good hour looking at the Poe exhibition and whilst small, it was filled with his original writings mostly drawn from the Morgan collection. Seeing how neat his writing was made me realise what a lost art penmanship really is today. Reading Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven, in the original newspaper that it was first published in is a real treat. Seeing a letter from Charles Dickens, his contemporary, writing to him about his work gave me a real thrill (the manuscript for A Christmas Carol is currently on display as well). You’ll need your glasses to read this lot as the room is darkly lit and the walls a rich burgundy colour adding to the gothic theme.

That’s my amateur review but actually, what I really want to share is how different these places are in terms of customer experience. The New York Historical Society is full of security guards who ignore you and look sullen and make you feel uncomfortable. Their policy about bags is laughable and the abuse the cloakroom staff were taking for not letting hand bags in was fairly unpleasant. For the Armory Show they don’t even let you take a buggy in – but you can take your marauding 2 year old with you… I didn’t, but let’s re-think that one, NYHS.

Let me contrast this to the Morgan Library. What a delight. The staff are lovely. They greet you with a good morning and they are incredibly helpful but understated in their presence. The ambience is welcoming, the building beautiful and light and filled with fabulous treasures from the Booker prize exhibition, showing how book design has changed since the 1960s, to the drawings of Da Vinci, to Venetian glass, to Poe.

Poe wrote about a Raven and its constant refrain of ‘nevermore’. For me, it’s more Morgan and nevermore NYHS.


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Miss you, Tate

I was a friend of the Tate for many years in London. I went to pretty much every exhibition they did in both Tate Modern and in Tate Britain. I worked very close to Tate Modern in the last few years and wandered around at lunchtime, but not as often as I should. And now I’m here in NYC, living about the same distance from the Met. On Saturday I read the FT’s review of the new exhibition, “Lowry and the painting of modern life” at Tate Britain and I felt sad. Sad, not because it was a poor review, in fact the review was brimming with enthusiasm, signing off that it was “a revelatory, enjoyable, historically significant show”. Sad because I can’t go. I console myself with having been to the Lowry gallery in Salford, but it was a long time ago. If you’re in London before 20 October, go and see it and think of me, nyc-newbie.

 


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From punk to toddler

Well, that’s not quite the title of the fairly new exhibition at the Met, but that is what I renamed it for this afternoon. Taking advantage of a 7 year old-free afternoon, I took J to the Met to see the Punk: from chaos to couture exhibit. I thought it would be reasonably quiet given it’s Friday afternoon and near closing time on a nice, sunny day. And it was. Sort of. I planned it meticulously so that J was in his buggy with snacks, trapped and safely away from the dozens of mannequins sporting bizarre wigs that I’d spied on the exhibit website. Err, well, that would have worked if I hadn’t been banned from taking the buggy in: ‘we don’t allow strollers into exhibits, ma’am’. Arse. I’m here. I’m prepared. I’ll risk it.

And J was the only child there.

I know a bit about fashion and it was great to see so much Vivienne Westwood – although I note she is actually the same age as my mum! We enjoyed the urinals and their graffiti strewn walls, safely hidden behind a perspex screen. J enjoyed the plinths hosting the mannequins of Amazonian proportions but unfortunately they were all alarmed, so every time J went near, the alarm went off and we were scowled at. He loved the enormous screens showing distorted images of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten with a punk soundtrack. The staging of this exhibition is fabulous. One room has fake vaulted brick walls to look as if you are in a cellar, painted black as a fantastic backdrop to the fashion. It’s a fine line between stimulation and sheer terror for J, who often sought refuge by grabbing my legs. And my favourite bit? The final mannequin wearing nothing but a few lines of black tape with her middle finger held aloft.

And then you go next door and you enter a room of Monet paintings and think happy thoughts as you wander further and stumble across a few Van Goghs or a Gauguin or two. In just a 15 minute walk from our apartment, we can be here amongst the most amazing art in the world: this truly is the privilege of living in NYC.


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Giddy at the Guggenheim

I’d been meaning to visit the Guggenheim for ages and finally made it today. It was pretty busy even at 11am, I think because the Met is closed on a Monday, it pushes arty traffic up 5th Avenue. It’s an amazing building, so different to everything around it, and it proudly looks out at Central Park. It is the youngest building to be landmarked in the US and when it was built in the 1950s, with its modern design by Frank Lloyd Wright, its stuffy Upper East Side neighbours campaigned against it. Ironically, 40 odd years later when the Guggenheim authorities decided that they’d run out of space and need to expand it, its neighbours campaigned for the frontage to remain untouched and for the extension to be developed at the back, unseen by 5th Avenue. They were the ones that got the landmark status.

It is lovely, so curvy and simple, it’s a great place to display art. At the moment, it has a fabulous installation called ‘Water’ by the Japanese artist, Motonaga Sadamasa. There are many polyethylene tubes of varying widths filled with brightly-colored water, weighing down at different points in the tubes which are suspended across the rotunda.

The first photo below is taken from the top floor, looking down, which is quite a long way up and no good for anyone who doesn’t like heights. The second photo is taken about half way down and shows more clearly the tubes and their criss cross effect. It is beautiful.

blog pic 12blog pic 13Find out more at:

http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view/gutai-splendid-playground

 


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The pleasure of the Met

What a lovely morning. The Metropolitan Museum of Art invited members to come in early, before the public are allowed in, to see the Matisse exhibition. I’m not a particular fan of Matisse, but I like to see exhibitions where the art is collected from all over the world into one place for a short period of time. The Met is huge, so big, I get completely lost in there. Being allowed in early is a real treat, it’s quiet, there’s no queues, the attendants are happy and smile at you. The galleries have  a wonderful peace about them and the light is lovely this time of day. I went with J out of his buggy, always a challenge with a marauding 15 month old, but he loved it. Not too many people so that he gets lost amongst them but enough to catch his eye and make him and them smile. He walks in straight lines and veers off randomly, looks up at ladies mostly and does his shy thing. He’s in heaven when a succession of young women who work at the Met walk down a corridor and say hi to him. The exhibition itself isn’t too long and luckily nothing is at toddler height but I do carefully prise J’s beaker from his hand to stop him hurling it at some priceless art. The ladies in the shop offer him some work but he seems uninterested and off we go back through the modern art galleries, also empty, stopping to take in an Edward Hopper or two. The cafe is also very empty and we watch the squirrels and dogs  in central park from the enormous windows at the back of the Met, drinking tea and munching on croissants. Wandering back to find the cloakrooms we get completely lost and end up in the wrong entrance, full of backpacks and teenagers and noise. The gentle quietness, the privilege of the empty Met quickly lost as we forge our way back to the cloakroom and out into the cold, snowy Manhattan morning. How lovely.