New York: October 2022
It is always a pleasure to be in New York. I lived here for 9 nine years long ago, but when I visit, it feels as if I never left. Its cosmopolitan energy combined with world-class art, theater, and food, is engaging and uplifting. The last throes of hurricane Ian kept the sky densely cloudy, and rain or drizzle came down for five of my six days, detracting from the full experience of the city, but not much.
On my first evening, I met a former colleague from when I was teaching at NYU Stern School of Business, at the dimly lit “Malt Bar” near the university. It was a small gathering of academics clearing their minds from the week’s exertion with beer on a Friday evening. We had a similar ritual at my graduate school named “liquidity preference” in economics parlance. After a light dinner there, my friend and I walked up from the West Village to see a play near Times Square. It was crowded with hyperactive people under flickering multicolored bright lights of huge advertisements, a stark reminder that I was in a metropolis.
We saw “Cost of Living” written by Martyana Majok, who had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for another play in 2018. As an erstwhile economist, I thought the play may be a riff on inflation, but it definitely was not. Instead, it was two serious stories about disabled people and their caretakers, who intertwined artificially at the end, I thought. The stories, though, were intriguing and complex: an educated young man with cerebral palsy cared for by an also educated young woman who had fallen on hard times; and a double amputee looked after by her ex-husband. The ‘differently-abled” people show little signs of feeling sorry for themselves, but the caretakers reveal the need to salve their loneliness, or penury, through their service. The hesitant and disconnected meeting of the caretakers at the end felt contrived. One actor’s performance, the ex-husband of the amputee, was somewhat halting and weak at the beginning, but picked up in pace and complexity as the play moved along. Ms. Majok, an immigrant herself, showed a deep understanding of many forms of alienation.
My apartment was quite close to the Metropolitan Museum. The next morning, I headed there as it opened to survey the exhibitions. Although the Met has a huge and interesting permanent collection, the slate of special exhibitions was thin for my interests. I decided to browse a couple anyway. I did not know that ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were originally colored, having seen only the weather-worn remains, which tend to be light brownish and patchy. Scientific methods were used to identify ancient colors and a few revived statues were on display, interspersed among the collection of Greek and Roman statuary. The colors were surprisingly bold and vibrant reminding me of statues in India. I particularly liked one of an archer.
The second exhibit was of a few newly acquired prints by Van Gogh, Mondrian and Munch, and other Dutch artists. I learned that Van Gogh had made lithographs. “At Eternity’s Gate” depicts an old man sitting in a chair, bowed and holding his head in his hands. Three others by him were also on display. The prints by Mondrian and Munch were less interesting.
Tom Stoppard is a famous playwright. His works have been performed in London and New York for decades. At age 85, his autobiographical play about his Jewish family’s trials before World War II, and then during the holocaust, is the subject of “Leopoldstadt”, a moving tribute to their losses and endurance. The family’s history unfolds from the end of 1899 through the mid-twentieth century in moving, and at times humorous, prose and persuasive acting. It was emotionally taxing to watch, especially so soon after seeing Burn’s six-hour documentary about the holocaust.
As with the Met, the Guggenheim Museum did not have a particularly interesting exhibition, and much of its permanent collection was taken down to prepare for a forthcoming show. The most interesting was the Thannhauser family collection of French Impressionists, including work by Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Vincent van Gogh, and more than thirty by Pablo Picasso. The family promoted artistic progress and advanced the early careers of many artists. They left Germany to escape the Nazi regime and eventually settled in New York, and later gifted their collection to the museum. The paintings were attractive and reminded me of the great works by these artists that I have seen in museums in Paris, London, and New York.
I ambled down Fifth Avenue toward the Museum of Modern Art. At the 60th Street entrance to Central Park, I noticed a huge statue of an obviously Indian woman clad in a sari. On closer inspection, it turned out to be by Bharti Kher, a British-Indian sculptor. The statue was commissioned by the Public Art Fund. It is brand-new and cast in bronze, but looks weathered, with muted colors and surfaces appearing to crack and peel. Titled “Ancestor”, it is an Indian goddess with hair that rises in a bun and extra heads protrude from her body, each peering in different directions. In an interview, the artist said that the figure is a mother and the heads represent “all her children,” but also perhaps “her other selves.”
At MOMA, sauntered through a substantial exhibit of Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography. Occupying several rooms, it had the full breadth and depth of the artist’s career, his vision of what it feels like to live today in every form of photography. Tillman believes that the role of the artist is to amplify social and political causes, and his approach is to forge connections and the idea of togetherness. “The viewer…should enter my work through their own eyes, and their own lives,” he said.
One afternoon, I went to Tina Kim Gallery in Chelsea where they had a few of my friend Pacita Abad’s large textile art on view for possible purchase by a museum. Pacita’s husband Jack and I were classmates in 1974. Our paths crossed in many cities in the world including Sana’a, Singapore, and Washington DC. Pacita’s work is distinguished by constant change, experimentation, and development. It covers such subjects as socio-political portraits, primitive masks, underwater scenes, tropical flowers, and wild animals.
On my last full day, I visited the Whitney and browsed its collection, whittled down to prepare for a Hopper exhibit, and the Biennial exhibit. I am not much inclined towards realistic art so the Hoppers and O’Keeffes did not turn me on. Neither did most of the Biennial exhibit, some of it quite far out for my tastes, but I did like one painting by Cy Gavin who grew up in Donora, an industrial town in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, and is of African-Caribbean ancestry. The blurb said he personalizes landscapes, but I saw an abstract painting with balanced colors. Later that afternoon, I walked through the Basquait exhibit nearby. His contribution was exploring many cultures and varied art forms such as music and pop culture, and also black American sports figures. Some of his paintings were striking, but the body of work did not appeal to me.
I met friends that I had not seen in decades. We caught up in brief about our lives in the intervening years. One couple had been neighbors in an East Village apartment building in 1969-70, where they still live. Amazing stability. Another happened to be visiting from Brazil and had been my student in the early 1980s. The get-togethers were over a meal. One of them was at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side. I can’t believe that in all the years I lived in New York, some of it fairly close to the restaurant, I never came across it. It is quintessentially Jewish in every way—the food, service, and ambiance. The shop is divided into a grocery and a restaurant with a wall separating them. Small tables are cheek-by-jowl with each other. I ordered Norwegian Salmon, scrambled eggs, and onions with a bagel and cream cheese. Although pretty expensive, only the well-toasted bagel and cream cheese were good. I am sure the salmon was too, but mixed in with eggs and onions, it lost its distinct taste. It was a tourist experience, but sadly not a good meal. Another friend from my stay in London during the 1960s prepared a meal for us and then we went to see “A Strange Loop”, Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a Black queer man’s self-perception in relation to his art. While the singing voices were sonorous, I found the African-American vernacular difficult to follow and was not able to understand much of the speaking and singing. All I got was the gist of the story, which was moving, uproarious, and disquieting at times.