Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York - New York

Apologies to Betty Comden and Adolf Green,

New York, New York, a serendipitous town.
Cloisters are up but the Red Fish is way down.
So much now and so much past going around.

We’ve been in Manhattan this week to see some friends and do some favorite things:  see a lot of art, see some performance art/theatre, hear some live music in a Village club and walk.  It was darkly serendipitous as the recent attacks in Paris had just happened and whilst we were there the terrorist group ISIS publically threatened New York City as well.  I say serendipitous as the implicit response of New Yorkers was simply to carry on.  We happened to be having breakfast at Pain Quotidian off 5th when a fire alarm went off and everyone simply behaved rationally.  For a moment everyone was  particularly observant, the alarm stopped and everyone went on talking passionately, eating and laughing.  It’s a kind of sensible, implicit everyday bravery which goes with the territory of living there anyway.

Even without those events I would have found myself remembering flying on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent late December immediately after.  Early in the morning on a bitterly cold and windy day, Lynn and I took a cab downtown to see the World Trade Center site.  In the midst of the great makeshift memorial adjacent to St. Paul’s Chapel someone had posted a small Welsh flag, which was more than a welcome reminder not only of others’ compassion but the grace of gentler times.

This trip we made the essential pilgrimage to the 911 memorial.  It is devastating public art, almost too much too bear, which is sadly appropriate.  Next to one of the nearly 3,000 names was a small French flag.  Dark waters flow steadily into oblivion.

Our first morning we did our best to be among the first that day into the Picasso sculpture exhibition at the MOMA.  When I first read about it I thought it would be nice to see.  Having seen it, I now wonder how I could have lived without seeing it.  The older I get, the more I love Picasso’s work, the more immediate and visceral it seems and the more I find it full of ideas.  A modest wire-frame construction elegantly conveys the idea of interpolation between an ellipse and a rectangle and the pyramidal frame surmounting is an almost gothic commentary on the Pythagorean beauty of the idea.  It took me so far that I found myself musing about the related meaning of arches in gothic architecture and the interpolation of physical and social forces.  And that’s just one, relatively minor, though exquisite, piece.  Then there are his sculptures and portraits of women.  I deeply love how he uses dimension and perspective to discover character beyond the physical force of his portrayal of their physicality and sensuality.  You wouldn’t think it’s possible.

One evening we took in “Sleep No More,” a kind of asynchronous, mostly silent portrayal of Macbeth in a 1920’s hotel by the Punch Drunk theatre company.  We were with friends and the four of us are haunted house veterans so the immersive experience was less novel for us than it might be for others.   Nevertheless, I found myself particularly fond of angel statuary (which reminded me of the weeping angels in “Blink”) and the way Birnam wood came, in this case, to the ball room.  I also found myself naturally contrary to joining groups of spectators following the characters racing through the rooms and so missed a couple of major set pieces, such as the witches’ Sabbath.   In retrospect, I think it’s best described as a kind of literal jigsaw puzzle of the play.

The Cloisters, the Met’s small and curious museum of medieval art in upper Manhattan, is an old friend that is always better than I remember.  There is something about the quiet, suggestive architecture that enables you to engage personally with the art in a way you just can’t in a more traditional museum, like the Met itself. There were a couple of school groups and you could see that proven in the response of the kids and the looks on their faces.

Trixie Whitley at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village was particularly good fun.  I barely remember the last time I was at a rock concert in which the audience was more interested in listening than in screaming louder than the performers and/or dancing.  The civility of her audience was more than welcome.  Maybe it had something to do with chocolate chip cookies with mugs of cold milk that the club served.  Her music was raucous, focused and occasionally ironic.

We finished with a walk through a mostly empty central park on a blustery day and a visit to the Chelsea Market.  Automobile traffic in New York has grown ridiculous; I’m reminded of Paris in the 90’s.  When you consider the wicked cool engineering of the World One Trade Center, the weak engineering of the city’s transportation system seems silly.  The city, everyone in that great city, deserves better.

But I have to come back to Central Park.  A solitary saxophonist played as we walked along the nearly empty Mall just past the statues of literary figures.   The last of autumn was being blown from the trees by the unsettled weather.  I have so many memories of the city now: not just that bitter winter.  I walked in a shower of all my days remembering everything from meetings with venture capitalists in the Rockefeller Center to Ricky Jay’s performances of the miraculous in the exquisitely small and unassuming Second Stage Theater.

Another image from an old movie I first saw as a child came to mind, too:  a distant shot of fourteen year-old Tippy Walker walking alone through the same part of Central Park in the middle of winter.  In the movie her character is impetuous, intelligent, passionate and unique.  That image is my personal icon for the city.  One could do worse.

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