Tag Archives: Art

Nooks and crannies

pretty much define what’s so great about the Metropolitan Museum. Everyone who has gone there a lot has favorites.

It’s hard not to love the Atrium outside the American Wing. You can drink ridiculously overpriced coffee and gaze out the bank of windows at Central Park in its summer glory.

But your personal favorite might be the Rodin hallway, or the gallery with Vermeer’s Young Woman With a Water Pitcher.

Mine include the Astor Court, a Chinese garden inspired by one in China nearly four hundred years ago. Craftsmen travelled from China to NY to build it and did not use a single nail in its construction(gallery 217), a contemplative gem which you might be lucky enough to have all to yourself.

Or  the whole Luce collection. The Henry R.Luce Center for the Study of American Art occupies the mezzanine of the American Wing, and is sort of like the Met’s attic, there for scholars but for other culture grazers interested in not just the highest of high art. In perfect Lucite-boxed rows, dozens of versions of the same object are arranged. There may be 40 19th century green pressed-glass plates, for example. Or rare-vintage silver demitasse spoons. Or wackadoodle porcelain figurines like this deranged fawn.

When there is a major show, like the one that’s up now with Alice Neel portraits, you go.

It’s an amazing exhibit; visit if you’re in New York.

But there are still the nooks and crannies.

When I’m at the Museum I find that I must make a stop at the ancient linens. Hang a quick right coming out of the Temple of Dendur and you’ll find bolts and lengths of intact textiles from ancient times.

What really touched King Tutenkamen, and everyone else, was linen. People who lived in ancient Egypt believed that the Gods were clothed in linen before they came to earth. It was sacred and yet mundane. I always love historic textiles because they occupy a place so close to the human body. If you think about it, what other role do textiles play besides clothing and bedding and diapers (the old Dutch term for a type of linen, not just baby items)? Flags, maybe? This wool bunting is from an 1816 American flag.

Linen has been found in graves dating back to the Neolithic Period. And we all know that mummies are wrapped in linen. Actually, a mummy’s bindings are torn up linen bedsheets. Sericulture, the raising of silkworms, had not yet come to Egypt.

The Egyptians wore white linen because it was difficult to make a strong lasting dye, but they still loved color. They applied rouge to their cheeks, red ointment to their lips, and henna to their nails and feet. Ladies traced the veins on their temples and breasts with blue paint. They tipped their nipples with gold. A green eye shadow made from powdered malachite was paired with kohl. Worn above a sweep of white linen, what could be more godlike?

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“Everyone is an artist.”

So quoth Joseph Beuys, one of the most influential artists of the last century and German Green Party founder, and certainly the one who most used trees on such a grand scale in his work.

One of his best known pieces grows in Kassel, Germany. With the help of volunteers, he planted 7,000 oak trees over several years, beginning in 1982, pairing each with a basalt stone.

The effort provoked controversy at the beginning. People didn’t like the dark stones. A motorcyclist actually bashed into one and died. Kassel’s citizenry had been traumatized by its heavy bombing in World War Two, and this didn’t stauch the pain. He dumped the volcanic stones in front of the city’s public museum, and people didn’t like that. What a mess.

7,000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration has grown over time into something else. Citizens chose where to plant the saplings and developed a sense of ownership and pride about the trees. It was a proactive way of getting nature into our lives.

Here is Beuys: “I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak. Druid means oak. They used their oaks to define their holy places. I can see such a use for the future …. The tree planting enterprise provides a very simple but radical possibility for this when we start with the seven thousand oaks.” 

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Bringing a forest to NYC

can be a lot of work, even for Maya Lin. Yes, that Maya Lin, the one who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC (opened in 1982, when Lin was 23), winning a lot of criticism at first and then nothing but accolades.

The same Maya Lin designed a factory in Yonkers, the city next to where I Iive, that makes scrumptious brownies, which find their way into Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. The factory employs people who might otherwise be unemployable with open hiring policies—not requiring resumes, for example. It’s called the Greyston Bakery, and its motto is: “We don’t hire people to make brownies, we make brownies in order to hire people.” 

Every once in a while Greyston makes its brownies available to the public, and they are irresistible (coming from someone who makes a mean brownie herself).

Lin applied her touch to other Yonkers venues, including a shuttered city jail and an environmental installation at the Hudson River Museum. And she created wonderful waves of landscape art at upstate New York’s Storm King sculpture park. Worth a viisit if you are in the area.

Now, in a Manhattan park, she has planted a grove of forty-nine Atlantic white cedars, with the odd factor that the trees were dead before she harvested them  from the New Jersey pine barrens.

The piece is called Ghost Forest. It’s a harsh comment on climate change. Before the 1700s, Atlantic white cedars provided at least 500,000 acres of habitat for unique plants and animals. Today there are just 50,000 acres of the species. Ghost forests are a widespread phenomenon in coastal areas, a matter of concern among ecologists.

In fact, believe it or not “ghost tree farts” are a recognized by-product of such tracts. Standing dead trees, also called snags, have been killed by saltwater. They no longer have a leaf canopy to photosynthesize and consume carbon dioxide. So they can potentially increase the ecosystem’s carbon dioxide emissions by up to 25 percent.

Snags don’t move water and nutrients around for growth. The gases they emit probably come from decaying wood or emissions oozing up from the soil. Scientists are alarmed by the world-wide profusion of dead forests, as the ocean rises and saltwater intrudes on heretofore healthy wetlands. Some ecologists have made it a focal point of their study, such as Emily Ury, here measuring soil salinity.

The trees Lin brought to New York came from  a stand that had been infiltrated by salt water and were being cleared as part of a regeneration effort. When I think of the pine barrens it brings a spooky scene to mind: we canoed down a river in November and as night came on passed close enough to a dead deer lying underneath the water to prod it with a paddle. A perfect crescent slice had been taken out of its flank, cattle mutilation style.

The deterioration of our forests unlikely to be an issue on the mind of any of the hundreds of picnickers among the Ghost Forest installation. It’s the most beautiful spring day of all time, at the final gasp of a horrific pandemic, after all. The last thing anyone wants to think about is the end of a livable earth as we know it.

But some visitors may tune in to another element of the installation, a soundscape accessible via smart phone, that renders what you might have heard at what is now 26th Street and Broadway five hundred years ago. The audio track has English names, Latin names and linguistic translations from the Lenape Center in New York City. How cool is that? Madison Square Park sits on the traditional homeland of the Lenape-Delaware people. Using West Virginia species that are living today, the acoustic exhibit takes you into the forest: grey fox howling, cougar meowing, American black bear vocalizing with a sort of urgent whine, a beaver splashing its tail in water. 

To me, the haunting “sounds of the silenced” was worth the price of admission.

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I’m tired of flowers

They’re too pretty. They distract you from all the miseries around you, inside you. They are beautiful effortlessly, which puts everybody to shame.

One of my favorite poems, Walking Around by Pablo Neruda, opens with these lines:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.

And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses

dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt

steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

He goes on in that vein for a while.  Then comes the line I’m thinking of, thinking of flowers:

Still it would be marvelous

to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily

So fresh flowers can be pretty outrageous, pretty powerful.

Sometimes I prefer the two dimensional.

That is still-life painter Eliot Hodgkin’s “May.” 

The scent almost wafts off of the nineteenth century Johan Laurentz Jensen’s clutch of lilacs.

It’s a relief sometimes to have flowers that stay safely on canvas.

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Venus in Ash

When the crew cuts down a tree, they lop off the upper branches first. The pruner in the bucket lowers the limbs carefully to the ground where, shaggy and brittle, they are fed into the monster of a chipper. Then the pruner glides through the air as the bucket returns to the truck.

What has captured my imagination watching tree after tree fall is what’s left standing, a chain-saw sculpted Venus to Milo. The Roman goddess of beauty, desire and ferility all covered in bark.

The Venus de Milo is widely agreed to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch. The statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, and it bears the name of Venus the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite. By the time it got to the Louvre it had been reassembled but the arms were never found.

The beautifully smooth Cycladic figurines, which are fairly numerous, came from Greece around the middle of the third millennium Bc. How often do you hold your arms crossed every day? Something so small generates so much power.

I love the even earlier Venus figures, one of which is the Venus of Willendorf.

She emerged from with all her limestone bumps and curves, evidence, say the archaeologists, of early female deity worship, dating to between 33,000 and 20,000 years ago. Austrian. Some knowledgeable people think they were self portraits. As ample as they are, they are missing one feature: feet.

They are imperfect Venuses. Aren’t we all?

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Burrata or blossoms

Usually you could have both, because the mozzarella store, Joe’s, in Arthur Avenue, is in so close proximity to the New York Botanical Garden, where the cherry trees are currently in bloom. The Sakura festival is upon us.

However, it’s 2:00, and “we sell out of the burrata early” says the counter man, not surprising when you consider how creamy, gooey, mild  and scrumptious is burrata. Joe’s has a wall of imported tomatoes.

Hoary cheeses hang above.

A picnic sandwich will have to suffice, al fresco.

It’s a good place to take pictures of people taking pictures. Everyone is doing it.

To hide behind the mysterious Prunus pendula.

We see a man juggling oranges as he walks along. And a mother with feet all dressed up for spring.

An artist named Yayoi Kusama had polka dotted the grounds. “Forget yourself and become one with nature!” says this mad person. “Obliterate yourself with polka dots!” Fabric stretches around the soaring red oaks. Patrons buy polka dot ponchos in the gift shop.

A funny combination. Blossoms.

And dots.

“Do these polka dots make my trunk look fat?” said the tree, smirking.

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