Art, Architecture, Parks and Recreation: My Begrudging New York City Staycation

Having misguidedly decided to return from Barcelona a full five weeks before the beginning of the semester, in the middle of the scorching summer and while most of my friends are still away, I resolved to try to make the best of it. Isn’t NYC a world-class destination? Well, then, why not enjoy it?

Fresh off the plane I called my dear friend Dr. A

W&A

and lucked out as her pretty little girls were at camp and she could play with me all weekend. The first night she got to decide what we were doing, although I did specify no movies because she can’t be trusted not to choose a Disney flick even on her kid-free eves (some day I’ll write about my hatred of all things Disney). Someone had given her a Groupon for a little Italian restaurant (owned by a Chilean!) where we had a pleasant if unremarkable dinner, and then I volunteered to accompany her to the Cubbyhole, a West Village lesbian bar where I totally cramped her style (for which I deeply apologize). We did have fun bickering about which patrons were or were not sexy, and I’m happy to report I did not stick out like a sore thumb and actually did pretty well with the ladies. All platonic, however: if I ever do see the light and give up men, I’ve already picked my imaginary girlfriend, Edurne Pasaban. I do believe we would both have to see the light–but seriously, who wouldn’t want an i.g. who has climbed every eight-thousander in the world and still looks great in a little black dress? As to why a famous mountain climber would dig me… well, I have my charms, if I may say so myself (I was once wooed by a gay beauty queen in a Providence bar–there were witnesses!).

Alluring as I can be, ultimately I’m just a little old lady who wants to sit down and drink wine, and although the Cubbyhole is quite funkily decorated and has a great oldies jukebox, it’s also a standing-room-only beer-oriented joint. So I eventually made us get the hell out of there and head to good-ol’ Chelsea’s Bar Veloce, “New York’s ‘old-fashioned’ modern Italian wine bar since 2000.” Definitely my vibe, old-fashioned yet modern! More recently, I went for the stylish bar experience during a visit from my dah-ling Miss L: the Spice Market in the Meatpacking District–also a yummy though expensive restaurant. The sultry Southeast Asian atmosphere (here caught on a previous occasion by my brilliant photojournalist friend Mistress Yodalina, with my always sophisticated BFF Miss G in the foreground)

G-SM

just calls for an exotic cocktail, so I ordered nothing less than a Mai Tai. Utterly delicious except for the part where I forgot that it contains pineapple juice, to which I’m viciously allergic. That ended up in hive/scratch central, so I might just keep sticking to the wine bars.

The next day, Dr. A and I went to the inaugural exhibit at the new Whitney Museum, “America is Hard to See” (to which I returned later with Miss L). It is hard to tell which is more spectacular: the art drawn from the extensive Whitney collection, much of which had not been on view for a long time in the former, smaller quarters, or the Renzo Piano building itself, which in addition to the massive luminous galleries has playful outdoor spaces framing magnificent views of New York and the Hudson river (OK, and New Jersey). In an interview, Piano–who also designed the lovely Morgan Library addition and the New York Times building, one of my city favorites–emphasizes the openness and accessibility of the ground floor (he calls it the piazza) and its connection to surrounding open spaces like the High Line, the Hudson River Park, and the Meatpacking District itself, bustling more than ever with new open-air cafes and markets (right now, it is probably the most outdoors-oriented ‘hood in NYC, and let’s not forget the excellent shopping).

Gansevoort

Piano wanted the Whitney to be used in ways exceeding its museum function, and people definitely sit on the sidewalk chairs, browse the street stands, make the museum a stop on their park stroll. For me the most enjoyable part are the splendid terraces and exterior staircases on all the upper floors, from which panoramas of the river and city (as much more than a skyline) are literally mesmerizing: they transfix your gaze in a way that complements rather than competes with the many representations of the same views inside.

Whitney Exterior Collage  Whitney Views Collage

The city landscape is even brought indoors, where it figures right next to many works (generally the most monumentally sized) in ways that play with your perceptions of nature/artifact, inside/outside, subject/representation. It is also Piano’s achievement that museumgoers can spend hours there without feeling at all closed-in (something the Whitney shares with other museums I fancy, such as the Bilbao Guggenheim and the Parthenon in Athens):

Whitney reflections   Miss L

(That’s Miss L’s silhouette on the right photo–only one of her I could catch as she is constantly disappearing from my sight in museums.)

As for the works inside… wow. I was never a fan of the old Whitney, which I visited mostly for Biennials that inevitably showcased a few interesting pieces along with lots of “well, I can do that too” or “the concept in your conceptual art is stupid” (I hear, by the way, that these will now be abandoned for what sounds like a promising project). The current exhibit, named after a fairly uninspiring Robert Frost poem, is nevertheless very inspiring–and worthy of the title, as it indeed helps one see the United States through its art in a comprehensive way that, at least for me, was quite new. Although works are in theory arranged thematically rather than chronologically, there is a loose sequential order that starts with the late 19th-early 20th centuries on the eighth floor and ends with the present on the fifth (after September 7th, beginning at the top, topical clusters will start changing to present more works from the permanent collection–there are also large performance spaces, in one of which I happened onto Matana Roberts’s suggestive “i call america”). Perhaps no other museum gives a better idea of how native-born and transplanted American artists reacted to issues in contemporary national history: early (and later) immigration and emigration; the rise of capitalism as well as socialist, anarchist, and other challenges to it; racism and the civil war movement; feminism and gender conflicts; AIDS; wars and terrorism; “liberal” vs. “conservative” politics; etc.

It would be futile to try to comment in any detail on particular works, as so much is included. Random mentions: I do love the seventh floor including the “Hopper and his Time” module that focuses on several wonderful Edward Hopper paintings (I love every Hopper, so lowbrow, I know) and displays other funky pieces like Alexander Calder’s 1926-31 “Circus” and George Bellows’s 1924 “Dempsey and Firpo“:

Boxer

To the right there are fantastic lithographs by a new (to me) artist I now love: Mabel Dwight. Another favorite work is George Tooker’s absolutely creepy 1950 “The Subway,” here photographed by Miss L,

Subway

in which the female protagonist seems to be experiencing existential angst in a metro station (as I so often do!). Or Arshille Gorky’s 1926-36 self-portrait with his mother, which I love not only because it’s haunting (the eyes… the hands!) but because I came to know it through Atom Egoyen’s equally haunting 2002 film on the artist’s survival of the Armenian genocide, Ararat.

Gorky

The pop art section is also tremendously, well… groovy, as well as gargantuan. Below you can see one of its coolest corners, featuring Malcolm Bailey’s 1969 “Untitled” (which I didn’t know from before), Allan D’Arcangelo’s 1963 “Madonna and Child” (Jackie and Caroline, of course), Jasper Johns’s 1958 “Three Flags,” Andy Warhol’s 1962 “Coke Bottles,” and the charming (and most grooviest) Dr. A–not part of the exhibit–admiring Claes Oldenburg’s 1967 “Giant Fagends.”

Fagends

The very contemporary galleries were equally rich in treasure, including two fascinating artists that I discovered only recently in other New York area shows. One is Kara Walker of giant Aunt Jemima fame

Sublety

(yes, I posed for a pic with her boobies, but it was an impressive and historically significant installation on the debt we owe to Southern plantation slaves). She is represented at the Whitney by a similarly-themed array of silhouette panels,

Walker

which mystified me when I tried to interpret them as a narrative sequence–but maybe they were extracted from a larger series so I shouldn’t have done that. And the other, Nam June Paik, a pioneer of video art (already in the 60s) whose visionary work I first saw at the Asia Society last October (it was also great to play with: that’s my cousin and I fiddling with his interactive camera installation below):

Paik

The Whitney features several works by him, including the 1982 V-Yramyd I photobombed:

Paik2

I was intrigued, I was flummoxed…

W Galleries 1 War

but, seriously, I’ve got to STOP. Just go (before September 27th), or browse through the works on view.

(A footnote: do combine this activity with dinner at The Standard Grill if you can. It’s not cheap, but not only is it a beautiful space in my favorite Manhattan hotel–it serves bitchin’ steaks. AND the maitre’d with dreadlocks and a suit–dreamy. Just make sure you get a table within eyesight of him; in and of itself, that will make your dinner exquisite. This isn’t just me being me; Miss L couldn’t have agreed more!)

I did just go to another exhibit with Miss L for the second time–first time was in May with my usual Costume Institute companion, Miss R. And I will tell you about it and hope you catch it before it closes (September 7th): the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute’s also enormous and breathtaking “China: Through the Looking Glass.” It follows in the footsteps of some of their previous exhibits, like the marvelous 2011 Alexander MacQueen show, the 2014 Charles James exhibit where Miss R and I were the very incarnation of glamour,

Woman's Confidence

and, shortly afterwards, the 19th-century mourning fashions collection that so engaged me in a previous post. The Institute quite outdid itself this time, spilling out of its usual space into the Met’s Chinese and Egyptian galleries, a truly arresting setting for a monumental show in which film serves as the link between antique (ancient!) and modern fashion. I feel a special connection to this exhibit as well, because the curator drew significant inspiration from my friend and colleague Homay King’s book Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier (Duke UP, 2010, buy it!). There I am again: one degree of separation from fame and sophistication!

Both the book and the show center on the way in which Western culture has constructed the “Orient” as a site of mystery: an “enigmatic signifier.” Through a colonizing, fetishizing orientalist gaze at Chinese aesthetics, Hollywood simultaneously brings it into and excludes it from American experience. The collection is not just analytical–juxtaposing intricately detailed original pieces and their modern couture interpretations–

Emperor Robe   Dress

but… synesthetic. Photos (at least mine) don’t capture the experience of looking at the objects (costumes, but also china, calligraphy, even Asian-inspired perfume bottles) while walking between enormous screens showing epic scenes from The Last Emperor.

Screens 1 Screens 2

Or entering a custom-built pagoda awash with red light, crossing the magic “water” scene, walking past the acrylic “bamboo” lights.

China Collage

Video may do a better job (look at the first one here), but you have to imagine that to the sound of hypnotizing music–here‘s a video/audio selection of films referenced by the exhibit’s artistic director, filmmaker Wong Kar Wai. Again, I could go on and on, but I’ll just show you three dresses. The two I’d really love to wear:

Wear 1

Mantón Mantón 2

(Not even close to doing justice to that mantón de manila one!) And the Most Beautiful Dress ever, photographed well by Vogue and badly by me:

China Dress

Here is a better sample of the whole visual feast. I did discover this: pretty much every dress that made me want to die with desire was by John Galliano. Final proof that you can be a jerk and a genius at the same time.

What else is there to do in New York (woman can’t live by art alone)? A the Elder and A the Younger of Barcelona fame also came for a visit, and with a teenager who’s never been to the city (exciting!) you have to do New-Yorkish things. Of course, we headed over to the 9/11 Memorial. I hate that the site of such horror has become a tourist attraction, and haven’t yet been convinced to go into the museum–but the memorial itself is a serene, respectful place of peace I quite enjoy.

Memorial

We lunched at Battery Park, but missed the crazy new carousel that was only inaugurated a couple of days ago. Like real city dwellers do, we bypassed the lines for Liberty Island cruises and boarded the free Staten Island ferry, which takes you right by.

Ferry  A&W

We strolled at night through Times Square, which had acquired a brand-new addition in commemoration of V-J Day (it was temporary, Aug. 12-16):

Times Square

We dined at the newly-reopened 38th Street Bonchon, which had the BEST (Korean) fried chicken ever

Bonchon

before it closed for renovations this spring. I was slightly disappointed this time, will have to check again. (This is the way it looked in August 2014, doesn’t it look somehow different????)

Bonchon2

For something really off-the-beaten path (that I myself had never done), we went to Roosevelt Island. I was quite keen on seeing it, because its dark past as a home for lunatics and convicts seems fascinating. It did not quite live up to expectations. Taking the aerial tram there along the Queensboro Bridge was probably the best part:

Tram1 Tram2

There were nice views of Manhattan and the East River from Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park, including the United Nations building which I love (Niemayer, Le Corbusier!); and of the famous Pepsi sign in Queens:

Freedoms  UN

Pepsi East

But as for engrossing history… well, everything that was once interesting was completely abandoned and in disrepair before being recuperated (and “recuperation” is a bit of an overstatement, really). There’s a wall from the original asylum still standing, in any case:

Asylum

The quaint-sounding Main Street Shops were a horrendous half-deserted concrete development. And the impressive-sounding landmark lighthouse you had to walk miles past not-at-all closed rehabilitation hospitals to reach… I think the poor convicts who built this were exploited in vain.

Lighthouse

All in all, two thumbs down. Possibly a pleasurable excursion in the spring or fall. But in the stifling, muggy New York summer, better not.

THERE. No one can say I have not been a good sport, doing my very best to have a good time despite the ridiculous planning that led me to spend my vacation’s entire last month at home. I ♥ New York! (I do, I’d just rather still be in Barcelona…).

Doomsday (first day of class) is near–September 9th–and once again I feel like I’m on death row. But first, one more detour: an eight-day trip to sunny Puerto Rico. I’ll report.

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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