being there
Yellow Cabs - Thither They Go, oil painting by Tom Ferguson
Thither They Go, oil painting by Tom Ferguson

Gotta set aside climate change guilt sometimes, do some rationalization. I figure the airplane’s going there anyway, with or without me… and my credit card points make it almost free… so we fly. Got the very last seats, no window but plenty of avant garde audio from the engine just on the other side of that thin skin. We navigate our way to the East Village and though we enjoy a very pleasant visit with daughter and son-in-law, this is about three days of museum-hopping in Yew Nawk.

Day 1. MOMA (Museum of Modern Art): We use my time-tested strategy – zip through the whole shebang, go get a coffee, decide what to go back to for a closer look. Except coffee is rip-off expensive and my companions have had enough so it is only me re-visiting the exquisite Picasso, Cezanne, Mondrian, DeKooning, Van Gogh (always a crowd around that guy)… that whole history they have there, thanks largely to Alfred Barr their early genius curator. There are newer works scattered outside the exhibition area proper, like a fine large Basquiat and a Jaspar Johns, his cross-hatch period.

Basquiat reminds me of a student I had in grad school. I asked folks to go up to the chalk board, one at a time, and draw something. Most folks had a little stage fright, like being asked to give an impromptu speech. One student though was nonplussed, improvising freely with the most delightful imagery just flowing out of his chalk. I hated later to see it erased. That’s what Basquiat seemed to possess, that uninhibited ability to freely draw. Picasso remarked that it took him forty years to learn to draw like a child. I think I know what he meant.

Johns’ painting was large-ish too, maybe 8′ square, consisting of parallel lines in bundles, “cross-hatching” but the line bundles stood alone, they didn’t cross each other. Where Basquiat was primarily about spontaneous imagery, Johns was about paint. The “cross-hatching” merely provided a place to put oozing, rich layers of color which sometimes splendidly dripped. Speaking of drips, a mini Jackson Pollock retrospective exhibit traced how he gradually evolved toward the later drips and splatters.

A room of large electronic screens, perhaps a dozen, each depicted maps and a hand marking a journey, while a voice-over described the trip. Conceptual Art, if that is what this was,… I get it but I’m also sort of over it. Some pieces, like one I saw at the Whitney the following day, hit me but mostly, he sheepishly confesses, that genre tries my patience. My painting addiction will not be diverted by that stuff much anymore, even though I’ve quit painting myself.

Day 2. The Whitney Museum of American Art, the new one. Interesting to discover that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken over the old Whitney on Madison Ave for their more adventuresome shows. We walked from the East Village, crossed the chilly Williamsburg Bridge, for the view, caught the subway back to 14th Street and walked then east to the Whitney. These museums ya know are expensive. And two floors being closed ought to warrant a discount. The new joint provides a view of the Hudson River and Manhattan from it’s balconies that stretch ever further east as you descend floor to floor. Like the Guggenheim, they recommend starting at the top.

Speaking of Conceptual Art, the top floor is occupied by Laura Poitras, the very same who documented whistleblower supreme Edward Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong then Russia. Laura herself had to sort of hide out until the dust settled, feeling justifiably, that the Patriot Act etc; made her freedom questionable, daring to question authority as she had. She was put on a watch list resulting in over 50 interrogations. So, the whistle blowers get hunted like criminals and the criminality they reveal gets hidden behind that famous last refuge of a scoundrel, the flag. This exhibit offers, aside from its own message, one that suggests the 1%, who fund these kind of museums, aren’t across the board right wing crazies like some I could mention (initials are Koch), for they would freak out by the exhibit if they were. There are slots in a darkened corridor in which are brightly lit memos, presumably obtained through the FOIA (freedom of information act), from CIA to NSA. The memos are not particularly damning in themselves, the ones I read, but generally raise the sinister issue of spying and manipulation. Another dark room allows you to ly down on a carpeted platform and observe a view of the nightly heavens, speeded up so you can see the zodiacs pass, along with clouds and occasional tracers or drones, muffled radio transmissions – as seen from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The vast comos shrinks the importance we mortals place on the most trivial of endeavors. Its indifference falls on the just and the unjust. Moving into the next room you see infra red video of yourself arriving and lying on the platform and you feel the shadow of the presence of the National Security Agency. A nearby wall is hung with FOIA memos, heavily redacted, to the point of absurdity.

On the next floor down is a show of portraits by artists of artists or self-portraits, a fine Alfred Leslie in gray, a Warhol by Alice Neel, a selfie by the sadly late Hanna Wilke. Her use of her own body as subject at first was indistinguishable from cheesecake but as time passed and she aged, then contracted cancer, the difference became jarringly obvious. A few warhols remind me that he is an artist one can’t dismiss. His soup cans at MOMA were stand out, and immensely popular – people were contantly posing in front of them for photos. In the far end of that space, facing a mirror which reflects the view out onto that floor’s balcony, and doubles his already large self, is a wax sculpture of Julian Schnabel. “He” towers above the spectators in the round as he does in life, and ego rumor has it. There’s one of his broken plate paintings in the show also, the plates providing “canvas” for the portrait.

There were several other exhibitions that didn’t move me enough to mention. But a Michael Heizer conceptual piece is worth a word: the artist dug (or had dug) a 32′ deep hole in Germany then photographed the side and top edge from below before filling the hole back in. The exhibition which the Whitney proudly “owns”, consists of huge blowups of those photos, probably size-determined by the room which boasts of being the largest column-less space in Manhattan, something like that. That I can describe this and you needn’t actually experience it yourself is characteristic of Conceptual Art. I used to love this kind of stuff but lately I’m hopelessly, anachronistically enthralled by paintings of a previous era.

The High Line was too chilly for more than a brief foray so we walked back, through Greenwich Village, to the east side. New York is like that, unique neighborhoods, just walking the streets is a treat as fascinating as the museums, to a visitor at least. The homeless no doubt see it differently, but from that POV most places look pretty dismal.

Day 3. The MET (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The last time I was in town there was a construction fence blocking off the northeast side with a sign thanking David Koch for funding the renovation. So apparently he’s not all bad… or has too much money, or too many fingers in our culture. A guy who doesn’t accept climate change on the board of the Smithsonian. How does that work?

I used a different approach to the MET. I went straight to Washington Crossing the Deleware, that grand, if not grandiose, depiction from our founding mythology. It’s an impressive work. In the same room is a Bierdstadt illustrating an eight wigwam Indian village, with fascinating detail of daily life, next to a placid lake below impossibly huge mountains. An early Inness Italian landscape hangs nearby. I more or less rushed, from there, past Sargent, Eakins, the Ash Can school, some fine Mary Cassette and on to the Rembrandts, passing incredible paintings with only a glance. I did pause at a small but superbly detailed Joachim Wtewael and just couldn’t not pause at Vermeer… but the Rembrandts… I’ve been thinking lately these are the greatest paintings ever made. The Frans Hals aren’t bad either, though more extroverted, and further along is Bruegel’s Harvest painting, one of five, according to a tour guide who happened to be there, depicting the seasons… why five? Dunno.

Next, the Picassos and Cezannes and Matisses mainly. But who can ignore Gauguin, Van Gogh (crowded as ever), Pissaro, Monet… then dashing to the more recent stuff, Dubuffet, Jackson Pollack (whom I’m apparently finally ready for) Pat Steir, Chuck Close,… and Klee, Kandinsky, Stuart Davis, and Norman Rockwell – an exquisite painting by someone often dismissed as cornball… for all this work I need synonyms for the word exqusite. A Thomas Hart Benton mural reassembled from somewhere (?) in a large room is pretty impressive. The powerful painting touches on about every social theme you can think of, workers, drinkers, travelers, children, prostitutes, partyers, businessers, farmers… I guess that’s why they call it Americana. I’ve been reading a biography of DeKooning and find that DeKooning, Arshille Gorky and John Graham were the big guns of 30s New York. Here they all had paintings in the same room and of the same year, 1944, year of my birth… is that an omen or what?

The MET has a nice admission policy. They don’t promote it much but it’s whatever you want to donate, making it very affordable if you’ve got the nerve. They’ll get you back though at the cafeteria, watch those calories. Down the elegant MET steps on Fifth Avenue, over in a light rain to Lexington, south to find a subway entrance, down into the bowels again, south to Astor and that walk to home base and dinner, past Cooper Union, the Village Voice, busy busy streets, full of vitality and character, sky-high rent for postage stamp-sized apartments. One last night in that heady city before tripping back here, to the land of neanderthal politician-philosophers.

Tom Ferguson

Tom Ferguson

Tom is a painter, a cartoonist, a musician, a thinker and more. View some of his web sites:

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