STUCK IN NEW YORK: A week in New York City
New York is a city of beasts and schizophrenics. It was hotter than the Devil's Knee-pit in New York: 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) with the humidity. Tempers flared; the theme of the week sweated from pores and coalesced as enmity. In the heat, it's harder to stay in your own world, harder to maintain the wall that separates you from others, and you find yourself split into multiple faces: one for the train, one for the street, one for elevators, one for your friends, etc. Two giant, mu-mu clad women burst into a spontaneous fist-fight in Grand Central Station as I walked past; a crowd gathered, but nobody volunteered to help break up the fight. It was like watching a struggle at a zoo between a Rhino and a Hippopotamus-- who wants to get in the middle of that? The air ululated with car-horns, voices, radios, music, and the smog that permeated each breath. One cigarette felt like three, and a brown density filled the empty space between buildings. It was the perfect setting for an exploration of the museums and galleries of New York, or as many of each as I could fit in during the week I was there.
It would be nearly impossible to grasp the immensity of the New York Art World in a mere week. I had to confine myself to a few spaces: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, MoMA New York, and various galleries in Soho and the Village. To most American artists, New York is the ultimate artistic culture bunker. The New York Art Community has a reputation as an edifice; it's like a skyrise building, fifty floors, 700 rooms, and you have to visit every room to find the forty or so collections that are worth merit, that haven't given in to the conceptual virus. Knowing that I was up against such an incredible task, I started with the big museums, figuring that it'd be hard to go wrong, that I'd still be able to find value in paintings by the Masters of the past.
I was absolutely correct.
PART ONE: THE MUSEUMS
If you visit New York City, go see the Met. It's imperative. It's huge. It's life-changing. Along with a massive collection of European Art from about 1200 AD onwards, it also contains halls and halls of art from antiquity, an entire Egyptian Temple you can walk through, a fantastic exhibit of arms and armour from around the world, Chinese art, Cretan art, Cypriot art, Sumerian art, yikes! The list goes on and on. Plan on spending at least a day in the museum. It's big enough, and chock full of goodness.
After spending two and a half hours in a gallery full of Modigliani, Soutine, Victor Brauner, Edgar Levy, Paul Klee, Kandinsky, and other painters I admire greatly, I was stunned to find myself in a room full of work by Van Gogh and Gaugin, including a number of Van Gogh's self-portraits, and one room over was work by Renoir, Monet, Degas, Pissaro, etc.. There's a modest collection of Symbolist work; I was especially glad to see "Isle of the Dead" by Bocklin, one of my favorites. There was very little conceptual work. I was actually empowered by the fact that the biggest art museum in one of the biggest cities in the world didn't have many white canvases or abstract dribble. Unfortunately, ol' Mondrian is omnipresent, much to my dismay, but I guess you have to expect that.
I was quite taken aback by how much I admire Van Gogh's work when looking at it in person. You simply don't get the depth and texture in all of his pieces by looking through art books. The man was a painting bad-ass, and seeing his paintings live, first-hand, only underscores the intensity of his style. The Met is definitely a must-see for anyone with Stuckist leanings, and if you only have a day in NYC, the Met is the place to be. My only criticism is that their selection of 'art' from Early America was restricted pretty much to furniture and decorations-- rooms and rooms full of chairs. But that certainly didn't detract from the overall experience, not one whit.
Frank Lloyd Wright designed the now familiar unoccupied snail shell that houses the Guggenheim Collection. Sadly, the featured exhibit was the architecture of Frank Gehry-- he designed the Experience Music Project here in Seattle, and, as I'd attended the opening of the building, I'd seen pretty much everything that was on display. However, Gehry does some interesting architectural work. It's not all good, but it does at least tend to be interesting to look at.
There were some noteworthy paintings in the empty-nautilus-like halls of the Guggenheim, but the permanent collection had been stowed somewhere to make room for Gehry's balsa-wood models and video displays and building designs. Franz Marc's 'Bestiary' was a stand-out; he painted a series of various animals in abstract/cubist poses. He was a member of Kandinsky's Blue Rider group, and, as a student of theology, his animals are fraught with transcendent spirituality. The Bestiary was part of a larger exhibition of 'The Spiritual Landscape;' truth be told, the selection was disappointingly limited, with only one or two works representing each artist. By the time I'd walked to the top of the Guggenheim and checked out the selections from the permanent collection, I found myself thinking 'Is that it?' I only spent an hour and a half in the Guggenheim, alas. It's worth a visit, if, for nothing else, than to see the very last painting Modigliani ever painted, but if you're limited time-wise, I suggest skipping it.
The Museum of Modern Art, under construction, is only showing a small portion of its collection. But the portion is so important, so valid, so quality, that it's worth every cent to visit. In a three hour period, I saw van Gogh's The Starry Night, Monet's Water Lilies, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Cézanne's The Bather, a portrait of Zapata by Diego Rivera, and Dali's The Persistence of Memory. Gazing first-hand into the dull but intense eyes of Picasso's Demoiselles gives the viewer goosebumps: here is a painting that changed history, in a room next to another painting that changed history, across the hall from another painting that changed history. I can't remember ever having spent so much time looking at so few paintings.
MoMA is a bit Warhol-heavy for my tastes; I can't stand the man. But, this is MoMA New York, so it was certainly expected. And I can deal skipping a few Warhols to stand in a room filled with Water Lilies. MoMA does a great job of extending the value of works that post-modernism tends to dismiss as clichéd. Even though most of the paintings represented now spend their time on posters, prints, and postcards, or in dusty art-history books, seeing them in person is a different experience entirely, an almost Gnostic art event, where personal experience and acquaintance with the paintings gives one a completely new understanding of what aesthetics are, an indescribable understanding that underlines the artistic value of the paintings, supports their worth, both as cultural landmarks and as guideposts for Remodernists. As Stuckism seems to hope to show, the future of the art world lies in its past, and a trip to MoMA throws that past into an entirely new light.
PART TWO: THE GALLERIES
The Museums left me satisfied, but yearning for more (and gave me a million new ideas of my own!). So, one hot, hot, hot afternoon, my friend Ken Kresge (a Puppet's Lounger with Stuckist sympathies) and I set off for Soho to check out the independent gallery scene. It was here that I hoped to discover something new, to pick up on the overall feel of the NYC art world, to see if folks in one of the biggest artistic centers in the United States were producing quality art.
We didn't have too much time for our stroll, only a day or so, so we rambled the streets aimlessly, past countless galleries, telling ourselves that, since we were racing the clock, we'd hit the first gallery to catch our eye. In New York, you learn to rely on your peripheral vision. Often what is seen with the tiniest corner of the eye is far more important than the blaring object directly in front of you, so we paid close attention to windows, doorways, what caught us, like hungry fish waiting to be sucked up into a net, trolling for the best looking fishing fly.
Sadly, the galleries we passed were
pretty much devoid of eye-catching content, painting-wise. Breezing by a few,
we saw a sign advertising a gallery that was showing work by Thurston Moore
of Sonic Youth, but when we got to the address, the gallery wasn't even there.
I can only assume that it existed until we arrived, at which point it disappeared
into the heat and haze, dissolved into the brown mist or caught a cab to the
other side of town. Oh, we did see some 'unusual' and 'unique' works. It was
interesting to note that the worst of the independent conceptual crap, stuff
so devoid of content that I didn't even bother to remember the artists' names,
filled most of the street-level galleries, whereas anything that dared to try
to escape post-modern drivel was relegated to a upper floor apartment. It's
almost as if quality work is rising through the atmosphere, trying to achieve
an escape velocity that will remove it from the pretentiousness of the street
level revisionists. As an example of street level nonsense, Neon "art,"
for some reason, is fairly well-represented in Soho, almost disproportionately
so. We saw quite a few Neon installations (for an idea of what I mean, one of
the gallery's websites is here: http://www.neonshop.com/ -- note the link to
corporate art machine Dale Chihuly).
A gallery we visited that comes to mind as an example of greater trends in the New York art scene is Tobey Fine Arts, a newer, smaller space, replete with abstract paintings, video installations (mostly people talking -- kinda silly) and dancing dildos. In short, nothing too exciting. The artists represented in this 'Summer Slam Show' (Brendan Klinger, Peter Kohler, Greg Svetz, Naomi White, Lorraine Williams and Eric Wilmer), who seem able enough to come up with original ideas, seemed to have difficulty expressing them, seemed to equate 'wackiness' with art, and after a while, it began to blend together. The space was too small to arrive at a good estimate of the actual output of these fine folks, but the prevalent homogeneity was shocking, to say the least. The pieces I saw were so amorphous, so self-similar, that they slipped from my consciousness. It seems that artists who show in New York are trying to out-do one another via absorption of style, that everyone is so set on pleasing the crowd with glass art, beads, jewelry, video installations, dolls, paintings of celebrities, neon nonsense, that any sort of uniqueness is constrained to tiny spaces above the street, or on the street itself. How many video installations can one see, and how can they retain their individuality? The first one we saw was interesting enough, but after five or ten, it starts getting very old, whereas looking at five or ten Soutines or Van Goghs never gets boring. Instead of working to arrive at an individual signature style, most artists who show in NYC seem to think that one good idea makes a career (which, sadly, these days, may be true!).
I must say, I do wish that it hadn't been as hot as it was. The temperature on the street increases exponentially in the city in summer, making too much time out-of-doors absolutely miserable. I would have liked to have had more than passing glances at the work that independent artists were selling on the street itself, in the hot, no air conditioning, no roof but the smog. I caught more than a few quality painters hawking their wares like so many fish vendors, fish vendors who were selling coelacanths and exotic sharks and skinned manta rays. The street was vibrant, alive with work that didn't need gallery permission for one to enjoy. I intend to return to New York some fall or winter and continue my stroll through Soho, staying out of the gallery trap and focusing on the roads themselves, where the real art is.
Overall, the New York museums cannot help but impress the visitor. They're bastions of culture for good reason-- one could easily spend an entire month visiting the art museums in New York, and each day would be more enjoyable than the last. But the gallery scene, or at least what I saw of it, is diseased and enfeebled, save for the occasional surprise. Now, I'll be the first to admit that a day is certainly not enough time to take in the gallery scene of an entire city, but the galleries I did see were indicative, according to everyone I spoke with, of the major trends in NYC-- the good ones are so difficult to find that you almost need to know someone who lives in New York to locate something worth seeing. If you're in town for a day or a week, you'll be hard pressed to find remarkable gallery art.
Of course, I wouldn't ever turn down a show at a Soho Gallery if I get a chance to show there, and nor would anyone else I know, I imagine. However, the most important thing I took with me is that there's no reason to desire a gallery show specifically in New York City-- it's no longer a vital and living art scene, no more so than Seattle, London, or, probably, Cinncinnati, Ohio or Little Rock, Arkansas, or any other city that has galleries and museums. Having a show in a New York Gallery is in itself meaningless. The desire to have a show in a New York Gallery simply because it's New York is a fruitless endeavour-- you'll be in the same art scene that focuses sharply on shock and novelty instead of innovation and sincerity. New York was, for the post-moderns, what Paris was for the various Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century schools. Now, it's an awfully crowded city for a place so devoid of aesthetic merit, exploration, or integrity. If anyone really wants to show in New York, I recommend heading to Soho with a van full of paintings and setting up a table on the street for a month. That'd be impressive, and you'd be in far better company. Unless you can get something in the Met, of course.
J. Puma, Seattle Stuckist 12.7.01