Yes, there is Color to a New York City February

Am I crazy? It’s a sunless winter in Anchorage, made darker by minimal snow clinging to roadways, all icy and gritty. Forget sun and sand, I’m off to New York City to hunt down some color. Everyone knows unless you are headed into the woods for a true Alaskan winter, you don’t need boots and mittens for driving to Costco. Last night, while eating pizza at Moose’s Tooth, husband Dave and I sat near a guy wearing shorts and a t-shirt—yes, flip flops are replacing sorels in the far North. Ok, I need lots of polar fleece up here and when we landed at Newark Airport, we were glad to dig out gore-tex and mittens.

Portrait of Madame Cezanne (oil sketch on canvas c. 1895)
Portrait of Madame Cezanne (oil sketch on canvas c. 1895)

Walking around Manhattan with winds off the Hudson and East Rivers while ingesting the blowing road salt is not for weaklings. Luckily, overheated delis abound with big bowls of chicken soup to warm up while watching people trudge through slush, a little hubris never hurts. Junior’s in Times Square is our favorite deli. It’s modelled like an old fashioned ice cream parlor. We love their cheese-encrusted onion soup and meatloaf overlooking Shubert Alley where people stand for hours to get a glimpse of a star. This time we watched snow suited tourists, camera-phones at the ready, wait for Bradley Cooper to exit the back stage of Elephant Man while we sat in our cozy booth sharing coffee ice cream smothered in fudge. Grand Central’s Junior’s resides in a food court below the main concourse–convenient for getting coffee and a danish before day-tripping to the Metropolitan Museum, our next stop.

The Met’s Madame Cézanne (thru March 15th) features twenty-five portraits of Cézanne’s wife Hortense Fiquet along with warm-up sketches. Hortense began her relationship as mistress to the painter and eventual mother to Paul fils. The relationship was kept secret until the fiction writer and boyhood friend of Cézanne, Emile Zola, spilled the beans or maybe the turpentine, in Masterpiece, a novel about an impoverished artist and his mistress. Probably not very kosher to tattle, but Zola was financially supporting the famille Cézanne. Anyway, the Cézanne marriage and for that matter the Zola relationship wasn’t a fairy tale. Hortense liked to gamble and overspend on couture. Paul fils also was a spendthrift but he managed to keep Impressionism all in the family by marrying Renée Rivière, the adopted daughter of Auguste Renoir. Paul fils and Hortense retired in luxury thanks to Cézanne who died with an estate plan abetted by Ambrose Vollard, dealer to the stars.

A spectator viewing the show remarked that all the Hortenses appear stiff. Perhaps the poses reflect the rather circumspect relationship between sitter and artist. In any case, the figures are architecturally rendered much like Cézanne’s apples or his beloved Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne’s figures, furniture and wallpaper are all up-close and personal; kind of the reversal of a Sargent portrait where his frilly debutantes melt into their overstuffed sofas and brocade wallcovering with everything receding impersonally. Hortense is ‘in your face’ but distant at the same time. Cézanne paints like he’s putting together patches for a counterpane. In Portrait of a Woman (see attached), the onlooker sees how Cézanne renders like a sculptor, building up colors around the sketch of Madame. His painterly vibrations continue to inspire artists and spectators alike.

Sweat Shop by Boris Gorelick (lithograph 1938)
Sweat Shop by Boris Gorelick (lithograph 1938)

I have frequented the Met for over fifty years and it never disappoints. The bookstore offers one of the best selections of recent art books. Soup and a sandwich in their basement under a vaulted ceiling with walls of poster art is a great place to study the floor plan–don’t try to see it all.

Up Fifth Avenue, a few blocks north of the Met, is Frank Lloyd Wright’s bulbous Guggenheim. The exhibition, On Kawara—Silence (thru May 3) is not a show for the faint of art, at least without a better explanation, which was sadly missing. The Guggenheim has global visitors who must have been puzzled why multiple paintings of calendar dates are displayed around the circular cascading ramps, along with neatly folded old newspapers and postage-franked postcards. At first glance, this show reads like someone who obsessively likes to ‘scrapbook’ and neatly saves everything from Western Union telegrams to those old Kodachrome postcards that everyone bought when taking photographs meant waiting months to finish a roll, dropping canisters at the local drugstore and then waiting for disappointing prints. Most of us didn’t have the patience to turn the mundane into deep thoughts—a bit like On Kawara visits Antique Roadshow.

Kawara, 1932-2014, the son of a Japanese engineer, became a Conceptual artist traveling world-wide, gathering banal items most Westerners considered detritus. Front pages from the New York Times, circa 1970, placed exquisitely in cardboard boxes, are now highly prized art.
Is it their content which gives them worth, or the way they are displayed at the Guggenheim, an international venue that can say, ‘trash, you’ve arrived?’ Is Richard Nixon or an ad about Royal Hawaiian Airlines or the New York Stock Exchange’s final trading bell of February 27, 1970 worthy of a place in a building that houses Kandinskys and Picassos? Kawara could have chosen from many front pages. Is his choice of some front pages and rejection of others part of the art or the value? Has Kawara stripped these pages of their original meaning and can they be anything without their entire tabloid? Other newspaper clippings from 1969 papers which declare Beckett wins a Nobel for Literature, or Astronauts Swing into Moon Orbit, have been carefully cut and pasted onto 3-ring paper, thus removing place from the original story. Does that make the cut-clippings more personal to Kawara? What if he had glued them onto fancier bond?

Kapow-i Go Go at the PIT (2015)
Kapow-i Go Go at the PIT (2015)

Kawara mailed postcards to friends, stamped with ‘I got up at 7:32 A.M.’ Some of his friends, John Bladessari and Lucy Lippard, are now renowned artists. Did these artists save the postcards or immediately return them to Kawara as part of the gag? Do the postcards make Baldessari or Lippard more famous or reduce their aura to mere kitsch? Is the art the sender, receiver, image on the postcard, or the reverse side with the address? If anyone has the exact Holiday Inn postcard in her possession, would it be worth the same as the one at the Guggenheim? Why not? After all, if I own a Queen Anne chair and my friend owns another, they should be worth the same.

So is On Kawara’s renown like a magic wand touching these items, thus bestowing wealth and fame on junk, without which objects would return to the dust bin? When you view the date paintings or the many rows of postcards, does the overabundance of the banal cause the items to become even more banal? Once entering Kawara’s thinking, the possibilities become endless and then does the artist get forgotten? It is all a joke? The Holiday Inn postcard (see attached), is displayed so viewers can see both sides and ponder the now outdated post-war poolside scene or the side for postal inspection.

The Guggenheim has a great gift shop but their eateries could use re-tooling—one is too slow/pricey while the other is only coffee and cookies with minimal seating. Sadly, the Heavenly Rest Stop Café that resides in the Episcopal Church one block north which has great chicken pies beneath Gothic arches was closed for remodeling–will reopen in late spring, catered by Blue Stone Lane.

We walked over to Lexington Ave and caught the #6 subway to Astor Place for The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’1929-1940 (thru April 4th) at New York University’s Grey Gallery (100 Washington Square East). Depression artists with ties to John Reed Clubs were organized to promote ‘art as a social weapon.’ John Reed was an American journalist, an eyewitness to the 1917 Russian Revolution, and posthumously a symbol of political activism. This show has pieces by famed socialists: Stuart Davis, Joan Sloan, Reginald Marsh. Posters with red and black lettering on off-white backgrounds scream protest and desirous reform while black and white lithographs allow the museum goer to ponder how much white versus how much black does it take to render these social compositions truly brutal? A looping video shows street demonstrations and there is a copy of New Masses Magazine,1933, and John Reed’s book, The Day that Shook the World,1919.

On Kawara Holiday Inn Postcard
On Kawara Holiday Inn Postcard

How much did these compositions and reading material alleviate poverty? Or has this art passed into the canon having lost its original intent only to be seen as great design of the early twentieth century? Boris Gorelick’s lithograph Sweat Shop, has just the right balance of black and white to reveal the horrors that occurred; immigrants eking out a living while much of society was clothed at reasonable prices. Is there any similarity to On Kawara– Silence?

We finished our color visit with a night at the PIT or the People’s Improv Theater (123 East 24th Street) very accessible by #6 subway at 23rd Street stop. I confess, I’ve never been to a comedy club as my usual all-day trek through one of Gotham’s museums is quite enough. But PIT was sponsoring Kapow-i Go Go (clips on YouTube), a spoof of just about every ‘quest’ movie that’s been made. Kapow-i is a femme fatale warrior, played by daughter Maddy, a former West High thespian (see attached). The PIT has lots of intermissions so its bar can easily be frequented. We ordered their pizza which took an hour to appear—they could improve on munchies. I am always amazed at the vast number of entertainment venues that are not Broadway proper, a lot cheaper too, revealing a lot more about the underpinnings of drama more than many glitzy over processed musicals.

New Parting Shots

Travelling can be amusing, frustrating, and sometimes downright nasty. 1: I am eternally grateful to the gentleman who rescued my wallet from the Atlanta TSA beltway which I accidently left behind when getting unnecessarily frisked and thus distracted. 2: I am angry at the couple seated at a Sea-Tac’s airport food court table —it was the size of King Arthur’s. They refused to let us, who had flown from Newark with minimal sleep, share their spot. They had the snarkiness to chortle that finding a table would be next to impossible. 3: I experienced a generational gap moment in the ladies room at the Met Museum. A young girl asked her mom, what was on the wall? When the mom answered, ‘a telephone,’ the little girl then asked how did it work? Happy art travels locally and out of Alaska.

Catalogues for Madame Cezanne and On Kawara-Silence available on Amazon.

Information about Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940 is available by calling Grey Gallery (212-998-6780).

Kapow-i Go Go at the PIT—info on Google or clips on YouTube