Tag Archives: Art

Not to be too grandiose,

but it’s as if the universe knows it’s the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and presents us with a day that eerily resembles that day, the bluebell sky, the lovely cool of late summer, the feeling of peace and anticipation of all the good things fall will bring.

You know what comes next. And everyone has their 9/11 story, trotted out among friends and family for the occasion as if rubbing the old wound will heal it.

It’s the day before the anniversary, late afternoon, and we are on our way to an art opening on Manhattan’s southern tip, on South Street. The uneasy anticipation of the big day has begun to well up, along with excitement about the art show, which bills itself as the Independent Art Fair, and is to take place at Casa Cipriani, the swellegant restaurant we can’t ordinarily afford, situated on the upper floor of the Governor’s Island Ferry Terminal.

lThis show is where the up and comers hang their work. It’s a white hot market apparently for these comparatively juvenile artists, ones who haven’t made it yet to Upper East Side walls.

Driving down the West Side Highway toward 10 South Street, at South Ferry, we share tales of that day. How Gil and I went down to library park in Hastings, with its magnificent view of Manhattan Island, and watched the smoke plume from the towers before they fell. How I was on the phone with my father only a little later, both of us glued to the tv screen, when the first tower pancaked. Josefa’s husband was ill and she was rushing him to the hospital when she first heard about the tragedy on the car radio. A friend of ours who lived downtown abandoned her car on the FDR and ran toward the fire to pick up her kid at a preschool steps away from the flames. You have a 9/11 story too, don’t you?

So memories loom over the day before the anniversary, but can’t quell the sense that the city is coming back from its newest tragedy, the pandemic. Art as palliative.

We sit on the balcony of the Battery Maritime Building.

The Beaux-Arts building was built from 1906 to 1909 and designed by the firm Walker and Morris as the easternmost section of the partially completed Whitehall Street Ferry Terminal. It has backstage views of the Staten Island Ferry sign.

And various rushing roadways.

But you always feel the presence of another time, through design details it’s easy to overlook.

The reception is thronged with artists and patrons. If you must sit and eat dinner — and I am famished — it is delicious.

The art is relatively low-end in terms of an investment, ranging from 10 to 10,000 dollars, according to the knowledgable art dealer, Rick, who invited us. It’s quite a range.

I like some more than others.

As would anyone.

But it’s nothing to worry over, on this day before the anniversary of 9/11, a year and a half since Covid hit our city.

Humans. 

Cats.

Computer art. The toebone is connected to the ankle to the kneebone.

An homage to the early 20th century revolutionary revelatory Russian artist Malevich.

Textiles. I like that.

There is a shop at which you can buy an artist’s facsimile of her own notebooks for $25 apiece. Lee Lozano, look her up. Wow.

What a concept.

We wander among the rooms that used to be the ferry’s waiting area. You can still get transportation to Governor’s Island and Jersey City down below. People are boarding to go to Governor’s Island even now, at 7 pm on a Friday night.

Where we are, dealers are hustling, selling art.

I won’t buy any.

But it’s a kind of wonderful event, a way of marking the distance between then and now. Art flourishes, even in the wake of darkness.

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Come for the oak trees,

stay for the polka dots.

That was my idea at the New York Botanical Garden, along with hundreds of other visitors still drying out after being pummeled by Ida.

Yayoi Kusama has been the artist in residence for months, transforming outdoor and indoor spaces, populating them with her whimsical works. Now 92 and one of the most prominent Japanese artists, she drew acclaim in the 60s for organizing happenings where the naked participants would be painted with polka dots.

This installation is a bit more tame, though it has plenty of dots.

Eschewing the rock garden, the stand of virgin forest and the rose garden – a sacrifice, with the later bloomers at their peak – we visited Kusama-world.

Some works can be found in the peerless Victorian greenhouse, designed by Lord & Burnham, the preeminent designer of glass houses in the U.S. in the nineteenth century,  in the Italian Renaissance style, which houses the Garden’s collection of tropical plants. You can find flourishing palms like this one from Brazil.

Or this quite remarkable phallic charmer, also hailing from South America.

Now Kusama can be found here as well, with a pumpkin sculpture. The Garden has cleverly included a quote from the artist with each work.

I parted a row of zinnias and reached in to pluck the pumpkin from its vine. It immediately began speaking to me in a most animated manner. It was still moist with dew, indescribably appealing, and tender to the touch.

Everything is saturated with color. Even the flower beds are intended to mimic her work. I am happy that I have painted flowers. There are no objects more interesting.

Step outside. The lily pool, like everything else horticulatural here, has been annotated for your edification.

Personally I think lilies can speak for themselves.

Especially in the late summer sunlight.

The koi in the pool could probably eat a man. Are they alive or did Kusama paint them?

A path leads to a little Kusama-designed hut. You are handed a sticker with an image of a poppy and are told to place it wherever in the room you like. A lot of people have obviously preceded us.

The whole “house” is awash with poppies. Some prefer to take their poppies home with them.

A memento of a day spent with Yayoi Kusama.

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You can’t unsee the graffiti in the Bronx

once you see it. And it is all around you.

Some surfaces would seem to be left alone. Church walls, for example. Or cars. But everything else is fair game, and especially popular are store gates, the kind that get opened in the morning and pulled down at night.

Every surface is game.

You’ll find mailboxes.

Dumpsters.

Houses.

Even lightpoles.

Self expression. It’s such a powerful human urge.

A lot of these look as if they were spraypainted by the same person, but I’m sure I’m missing the subtleties.

I happen to like the metallic images.

The runic ones.

Indulge me. When I looked on the Grand Concoure in about a four block radius, I found so many striking examples.

And my favorite, I guess.

Washington Square Arch in the West Village has chronic problems with graffiti. It was tagged one night amongst general mayhem, and by the next morning they had removed the anti-cop slogans, leaving “ghost graffiti” that would only be finally removed from the porous, delicate stone  at a later date. 

In the Bronx, nothing gets removed.

You start to see color everywhere, even where it’s ungraffitied.

Utility markouts are  really a kind of graffit. You’ll notice them on every sidewalk. Yellow means gas. Don’t dig too near or you might get blown up. Red, electric.

Some fundamental graffiti history. A while back there was a huge warehouse called 5 Pointz in Queens – it was constructed in 1892 as a factory that built water meters — that served as the canvas for dozens of graffiti artists as well has leasing studios to artists inside.

We visited, and something amazing was that after a certain viewing period one artist would cover over the work of another artist with his own work. Just wipe it away. That was the accepted method of showing as much good stuff as could be shown. Very democratic.

I was wearing a cast on my foot at the time and I asked the artist named King Bee if he would tag it.

Fast forward and of course something so impossibly cool could not last. The owner of the structure announced that he was razing 5 Pointz to put up a residential complex, and all the artists would have to leave. He had the walls whitewashed overnight. Even a plea from Banksy could not save the brilliant assortment of aerosol art. The developer got payback – a judge made him pay 6.7 million in damages to 21 artists.

The Royal “King Bee,” born Alfredo Bennett the guy who decorated my cast, grew up in this part of the Bronx and honed his aerosol chops here, in fact.  His way of “giving back” was to furnish extravagant murals at 17-50 Grand Concourse and other Bronx locations. His oeuvre, which includes madly stinging bees, is something to admire. I like it better than the paintings of some of the genteel artists venerated by collectors and museums. George Seurat, for example, or Rubens.

There is a difference between the iconic murals of George Floyd – found now in cities including Houston, Philadelphia, Portland and Los Angeles, Miami Chicago as well as Minneapolis, and so often defaced  by white nationalists – and the personal idiom of the streets.

But they both require paint and skill – perhaps some just need a taller ladder.

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If you go to the High Line

don’t expect to have it to yourself. Once upon a time if you happened to be passing through Chelsea you could wander up to the one and a half mile long park and the sensation would be one of openness, a respite from the claustrophobia that comes with living in a city with 8 million people. Now you need a timed pass to gain entry.

The guy in the Willie Wonka hat gave us a break though, letting us by like a couple of celebrities.

What first inspired a coalition of people to create the High Line–once the railway for provisions headed to lower Manhattan and making its way directly through some buildings as it went–was the realization that the railbed had become host to a veritable meadow in its years of disuse.

It also hosted junkies and hookers, needles and condoms, but the coalition was made up of visionaries. This part of town had had many lives. In earlier years, the 1920s, a different train had gone down 9th Avenue proper, killing so many pedestrians that cowboys were called in to warn people away from the tracks, waving red bandanas as a visual aid. For a time the area was known as Death Avenue.

Once the tracks were elevated, transit of foodstuffs was assured. Meat, especially, came down to Gansevoort street and the warren of warehouses that made up the meat market. The trains stopped running with the rise of trucking, ending in the ‘80s. When I first lived in New York during that decade I remember seeing beef carcasses hung in open bays and cobblestones slick with blood and lard.

There is little residue of that time today, though the rails remain.

The gardening team has created a gem that changes with the seasons.

Today, purple coneflowers dominated. The rails show through.

Since the High Line opened in 2009, the birches have grown up.

And some trees you wouldn’t imagine would flourish, like this big leaf magnolia.

Art is everywhere.

Though sometimes you have  to seek it out.

But what also has grown is the throng of new buildings that crowd the park on every side.

Some apartments are so close that you feel like a snoop just walking along.

In fact, when I first started going to the High Line it was rather famous for a glass building that housed sexual exhibitionists.

Many views are blocked, though you can still look straight down 23rd street, and if you happen to be in the right spot you can see the Hudson.

But the main thing you see is people.

It is a babble of foreign languages, with the High Line featured in guide books all over the world.

And everyone is marching along, phones held aloft for pictures (me included, obviously). It’s a place that is quintessentially urban, a crowd scene – but isn’t that why we visit New York City?

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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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