Notes on New York (NoNY)

by Joseph Phelan

Get On the Bus

There is no question about it. Bus travel, long despised and neglected by the snobs and the sophisticates, has come of age. With the round trip fare from Washington D.C. at 35 dollars and the travel time estimated at four and a half hours, it is now a serious alternative way to flying, driving or taking Amtrak.

Washington Deluxe, which picks up passengers near 15th St. and K as well as in Chinatown, is one of the best-run operations with brand new ($400,000) buses and conscientious drivers.

The travel time turns out to be overly optimistic: expect it to take more like 5 hours even with the best of traffic, but the bus drops off passengers right in midtown at 34th Street and 7th Ave, near Penn Station.

The New-York Historical Society

After checking in at my hotel on the Upper West Side, my plan was to walk across Central Park to the Met and spend the afternoon there. On the way up Central Park West a banner hanging from the roof of the New-York Historical Society caught my eye proclaiming The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. This show offers a rare opportunity to view about a hundred landscapes by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, Jasper F. Cropsey, and Albert Bierstadt from the society’s rich collection.

Cole’s The Course of Empire cycle, a wonderfully tragic vision of the rise and fall of civilization was the centerpiece of the show. A generation of American painters learned from Cole how landscape could be used as a metaphor for the national psyche. The sobering and almost philosophical reflection embodied in these five paintings continues to fascinate especially in these challenging times. It seems fitting that they are housed in this museum of the history of the Empire State.

The Met

But the Metropolitan Museum of Art with its fabulous summer blockbusters of Henri Matisse and Coco Channel beckoned. It is always heartening to reach 5th Avenue from whatever destination one is coming from and see the majestic entrance with its long steps and wide banners announcing the new exhibits.

Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams/His Art and His Textiles is not to be missed. In 1905 Matisse, as leader of the Fauves, became famous for bold, simple shapes, strong pure colors, and brilliant design. The exhibit reveals how his revolution in painting was inspired by his long familiarity with and passion for weavings, tablecloths, Turkish robes, Romanian blouses, and Islamic hangings.

Matisse’s simplification of form and manipulation of colors put me in mind of another innovator in color and linear pattern who lived six hundred years earlier the great painter of Sienna, Duccio. The Madonna and Child which the museum acquired last year for an astonishing 45 million dollars is a ravishing tour de force by the artist who is as important for art history as Giotto. Calvin Tompkins recounts the acquisition in his New Yorker profile.

Lincoln Center: The Light in the Piazza

The long afternoon was drawing to a close, and it was time to make plans for the evening. I decided to take a bus down 5th Avenue and then walk over to Duffy Square, the center island of 47th Street between Broadway and 7th Avenue for TKTS. The doldrums of summer meant that nearly ever show on Broadway as well as many off, were available that evening for half price. My first choice was The Light in the Piazza, this year’s Tony Award Winning Musical.

I would have wanted to see this show just on the promise of the poster by James McMullen. McMullen, who has been creating posters for almost thirty years, may be the best artist ever to devote himself to the New York theatre. Playwright John Guare gets this artist’s work exactly right: “they are inventive, they are beautiful, and they are disturbing. He illustrates plays at the highest intentions their authors imagine.” The Lincoln Center website has a gallery of his work and an interview.

Piazza is based on a novel by Elizabeth Spencer which became an MGM film in the early sixties starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as a mother and daughter traveling in 1950’s Italy. The musical proves to be a simplified, subtle and finally transcendent rethinking of the film. The evocative sets suggest much-loved locales in Rome and Florence. And how can I fail to mention the opening number with the mother singing about Leonardo and Michelangelo to her daughter in a gallery of the Uffizi?

Piazza is at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, the theatre at Lincoln Center for whose productions McMullen has done so many memorable posters. At the intermission I was able to admire Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, which sits in a reflecting pool in front of the theatre.

The MoMA

The next morning I made my way to the Museum of Modern Art to view their new building and its current exhibits. MoMA opened late last year but it was so crowed and overwhelming I declined to write about it then. MoMA is still an overwhelming experience and seemed more crowded then the Met though this is clearly impossible..

The big show this summer is Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865-1885 the story of two friends and fellow anarchists who spent a lot of years painting together in the region around Pontoise and Auvers. As a number of critics have pointed out, the total of 85 painting hung side by side asks a lot of viewers and wears one down after a while. Moreover, because we know Cézanne is going to come out the real pioneer rather than Pissarro, there seems to lack real dramatic interest in the narrative.

The audio tour does help focus one’s attention on a few paintings while the curators make their art history points. The surprise and delight of the show for me and, on the evidence of the crowds standing around it, for the rest of the audience, was Pissarro’s magnificent l’Hermitage at Pontoise (1867). This huge landscape offers all the pleasure of the great French tradition of landscape painting which Pissarro learned from Claude and Corot. And for that very reason it shows us how much Cézanne had to jettison in order to make his revolution. Thus one can only agree with him that “If Pissarro had always painted as in 1870, he would have been the strongest among all of us”

The Guggenheim

Finally, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Classical Tradition at the Guggenheim Museum. This must have looked like a great idea on paper. The curators wanted to bring together the bad boy of 80’s photography and the bad boys of the 16th century under the guise of the “classical tradition” they both were supposed working within. You didn’t know there were bad boys back then? Take a look at this painting by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (unfortunately not in the exhibit). There are many more examples of this kind of work both prints and paintings back in the dusty store rooms of major museums. But somebody at the Guggenheim must have lost their nerve and decided to pick the least erotic or offensive (depending on your point of view) work from Mapplethorpe’s and the Mannerists’ oeuvres.

Reprinted from