Sunday, March 14, 2010

Morgan Library and Museum

2/20/10, Saturday
MUSEUM: The Morgan Library and Museum (
TIME: 2 hr 
COST: $12 each

An astute observer might have noticed that we’re a bit behind on our goal.  To reach our target of 180 museums in a year, we need to see 15 a month. We started this folly on 1/16/10, so by 2/20 (week 5), we should have seen about 17 museums, but we’d seen only 11.  At this rate we’re going to be spending next December seeing 74 museums in a month.  So today we were determined to make up for lost time and planned an ambitious schedule of 5 museums in a day.  To give you an idea of how ambitious this was, our record before this was 3, viewed in a very full day of 5.5 hours of museum time, which did not include travel between museums or meal breaks.  But this Saturday we’d chosen a group of smallish museums closely grouped in midtown and were planning to be in position by 9AM with our fit and ready friend “Peter,” and felt sure we could break the 3 museum barrier.  We were wrong.  Very, very wrong.

The first sign of things to come occurred when we picked up Peter, red-eyed, hungover and still partially drunk from the night before.  He’d gone out drinking with his brother, who was visiting from Tennessee and apparently starved for night life.  As we plied Peter with coffee and a slightly fussy aspirin from the bottom of my purse, he gave a blurry account of the night before.  I think his clearest memory was smoking a hookah while watching his bother feel up a waitress, until she said her name, which was the same as their mother.  Apparently that’s a big turn-off for guys.  We took pity on poor Peter and dropped him off at the train station, pointed in the correct way home, and then proceeded to the task at hand.  However the diversion put us in a different area of town, and running late.  It got worse from there: one of the museums was not a museum at all, one was closed for an event, and one was closed for no reason we could find.  By now, Paul and I have realized that museum staff can be as whimsical and flighty as the artists they exhibit, and the smaller the museum, the more whimsical it can be.  Rules are often non-sensical; signs and maps misleading, out of date, or just plain absent; and opening dates and times are flexible and change without notice. 

After hiking around midtown banging on closed doors and negotiating a few unstaffed phone trees, we stumbled upon a museum that had not even been on our list for the day, but we pounced on it like water in a desert.  I don’t want to disparage The Morgan Library and Museum though.  This stunning museum is one of the gems of New York.  It had not made the list for the day simply because we knew this museum would be worthy of several hours, and it did not disappoint.  The Morgan Library and Museum displays the private library and collections of John Pierpont Morgan (1837 -1913), a very wealthy financier and banker, famous for the mergers that created companies such as General Electric, United States Steel Corporation, and the original J. P. Morgan bank.  He was so wealthy he organized a bailout of the US economy during the panic of 1907.  (In his day, banks bailed out the government, not the other way around.)  Much of J. P. Morgan’s art collection was either sold during the great depression to Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza (and is now part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid), or was donated to the Metropolitan Museum upon his death.  Imagine a collection so vast that it forms the core of not one, but two of the world’s greatest museums.  There are still some great pieces, including “Old Master” works from Rembrandt, Raphael and Michelangelo.  But as stunning as the art is, it’s not what this museum is really about.  This museum houses one of the greatest collections of books in the world; its a shrine for bibliophiles. 

The museum itself is actually 4 buildings morphed into one: the original library building done in the style of a grand Italian Renaissance style palazzo, a lovely Italianate brownstone (the previous home of J. P. Morgan’s son), a modern annex building, and a large blocky atrium-like structure that joins everything together with a series of internal covered courtyards and gallery spaces.  The atrium structure was done in a simple modern style that contrasts jarringly with the classic designs of original library and brownstone, and has been heavily criticized in the press.  One paper described it as looking like someone “dropped a box of tissues, Gulliver-sized, between the buildings.”  I think I agree with the critics; looking at his original library buildings, Morgan obviously had a very clear idea of what he liked (elaborate Renaissance style architecture) and it really doesn’t mesh with something that looks like it was designed by Ikea.

The original library building is by far the most impressive part of the museum, and showcases wealth and extravagance to a gaudy extreme.  You enter into a dramatic rotunda (see picture above), with a marble mosaic floor, columns of lapis lazuli, and variegated marble wall panels.  Statues and busts peer at your from all corners, and above your head this lavish hall is topped with a gilded ceiling mural inspired by Raphael's ceiling paintings for the Vatican.  This was the original entrance to the library and study of J. P. Morgan and was clearly intended to shock and awe the visitor and establish that you are about to see the one of the wealthiest and influential men of the time.  On one side of the rotunda you enter J. P. Morgan’s study, once called “the most beautiful room in the world.”  His portrait glowers at you from above the massive fireplace, and pieces of his incredible collection lie scattered about the room like the world’s most expensive knickknacks: an Etruscan cista (bronze jar) from 300 B.C. engraved with figures from the Trojan War sits on a table near the fire; an ancient Chinese oxblood vase hides in a shadowed corner; paintings by Italian masters line the walls, and myriad marble carvings and bejeweled golden altars lie scattered on shelves like trinkets. 

As lovely as all this is, you have yet to see the largest and grandest room of all.  On the other side of the rotunda is the library itself (see picture at the top of the post).  The 30 ft walls are lined with a triple tier of inlaid walnut bookcases containing a collection so vast it’s difficult to describe, some examples are: the original manuscript of Dickens's “A Christmas Carol”; the scraps of paper on which Bob Dylan jotted down "Blowin' in the Wind"; Henry David Thoreau’s journals; a Percy Shelley notebook; originals of poems by Robert Burns; autographed and annotated scores from Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Mahler and Verdi; Mozart's Haffner Symphony in D Major; three Gutenberg bibles; and over 600 volumes of the world's finest collection of illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts (see pictures).

As you walk along the lower tiers of the library and read the titles you can tell that the scope is amazing, but one of the problems that both Paul and I had with the museum is that the majority of the collection is inaccessible.  You only see what is put out for exhibit that day.  While we were there, they had exhibits on illuminated manuscripts and “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves” (considered the most beautiful illuminated book in the world), notebook pages and letters of the poet Dylan Thomas, and the writings of Jane Austin.  The Morgan Library has over a third of Jane Austin’s known letters and papers in the world, but these works haven’t been exhibited in over 25 years, making the point that you only see a sliver of the museum’s collection at any one time.  And even when you actually see a particular book you only see the one page that the curator left open.  We don’t blame the museum for this, of course you can’t have the public handling everything, the lack of access just seems to be an unfortunate consequence of exhibiting books versus other art forms.
Paul’s favorite part of the collection was not a book at all, but a collection of Mesopotamian seals, carved between 3500 - 300 BC.  These small carved cylinders were meant to be rolled over clay tablets (see image of imprint with seal above), marking them as official records.  The carvings on these cylinders were tiny yet unbelievably intricate and beautiful, and it made for an interesting glimpse of record keeping in ancient times.  

My favorite part of the museum was not a book either.  The librarian’s study was open for the first time, and with it a small exhibit on J. P. Morgan’s librarian, the elegant Belle da Costa Greene (1883 – 1950; see photo at right).  She was only in her 20’s when Morgan hired her to build his collection, but she rapidly became one of the most influential woman of her time, known for ferocious bargaining, quick wit and outspoken bohemian ways.  With the backing of Morgan’s bottomless wealth, Miss Greene wielded unmatched power in the art world and was known as the most astute appraiser of her day.  She moved easily in the most elite of society, but hid a secret all her life; she was actually a light skinned African American.  I find her amazing success in that fiercely racist and sexist era to be inspiring.

In summary, Paul and I both agree that this living memorial to J. P. Morgan’s incredible wealth and extravagance was definitely worth a visit.  Book lovers will be awe inspired.  But we strongly suggest you check the web page to see what’s on display before you come, as what is on exhibit will be the only things you see. 

Images in this post, from the top: photographs of the library, rotunda and rotunda ceiling of the Morgan Library and Museum, designed by Charles Follen McKim (1847–1909); gilt silver, enamel, and jeweled bookcover, probably Salzburg, ca. 760–90; details of St. Ambrose and The Mouth of Hell, from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, Illuminated by the Master of Catherine of Cleves, The Netherlands ca. 1440; A Winged Hero Pursuing Two Ostriches, a cylinder seal and impression, Mesopotamia ca. 1250–1150 B.C.; and photograph of Belle de Costa Greene, image taken from the cover of the book “An Iluminated Life; Belle de Costa Greene’s Journey from Prejudice to Privilege” by Heidi Ardizzone.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Paley Center for Media

2/13/10, Saturday continued
MUSEUM: Paley Center for Media
TIME: 1.5 hr
COST: $10 each

Calling all couch potatoes, channel surfers, sofa sloths, remote hogs and television addicts.  Rejoice!  We have the perfect museum for you.  The Paley Center for Media is a museum devoted to collecting and preserving television, radio and other media (lots of TiVo).  There are no exhibits to see, no crowds to push through and we guarantee that you will get no exercise what so ever.  Just sign up for “library” time at the front desk, take the elevator to a quiet, dark room, sit down in a comfy chair in front of a nice large computer screen, and the museum docents will hand you the world’s most powerful remote control.  Nearly 150,000 programs covering almost 100 years of television and radio history await your viewing pleasure.  Sitcoms, comedies, variety shows, news, performing arts programs, documentaries, children's shows, sports, and even commercials are all available at the click of your mouse.  Watch the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, then switch to an episode of “Bonanza”.  Watch the 1991 Super Bowl, then find out who won the Bud Bowl for that year.  Look up Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video and compare it to the Beatles on the “Ed Sullivan Show”.  Or just sit back and watch a “Gilligan’s Island” episode and see what the Professor makes out of coconuts this time. 

This gem of a museum was founded as “The Museum of Television and Radio” as the brainchild of media mogul William S. Paley.  At the age of 26, Paley bought a group of bankrupt radio stations and eventually built the media empire that came to be known as CBS.  Broadcasting magazine summed up his place in the pantheon of the airwaves as: "Paley became to American broadcasting what Carnegie was to steel, Ford to automobiles, Luce to publishing, and Ruth to baseball."  Paley recognized early on that television and radio broadcasts are an ephemeral art.  Once a program is off the air, it’s quickly forgotten and easily lost.  Paley founded this museum in 1975 in order to preserve the media that he spent his life developing. 

I’ll admit that Paul and I were daunted by the selection at first.  I can have trouble deciding between our 400 channels.  Deciding between 150,000 is so much worse.  I started with some of the curated collections.  There was a collection with some of the major shows in science fiction, and I selected parts of my favorite “X Files” episodes.  A collection on police dramas caught my eye and I watched a section of the 1950’s noir “The Naked City”, a gritty black and white ancestor of “Law and Order”.  Paul checked out the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, watched an episode of “Red Dwarf”, then switched to an Edward R. Murrow historical documentary about Poland in 1958.  At some point we both found ourselves cruising through some of the major news broadcasts of the century.  I started watching the Challenger Disaster.  I got to the point just after the rocket exploded, and the camera focuses on the crowd, watching the austronauts’ families realize that their loved ones just exploded above their heads, and everyone begins to cry as debris starts splashing down in the ocean in front of them.  I started to cry at this tragic scene and I looked over at Paul to share the moment and saw that he was crying too.  However, he was watching “The Miracle on Ice,” a hockey game in the 1980 Winter Olympics.  (It's considered one of the greatest upsets in sports history.)  Later he attempted to preserve his sensitive guy image by claiming he chocked up while watching the Challenger Disaster earlier.  You can decide whether or not you believe him.

My favorite part of this experience was being able to look up the shows I watched in childhood.  I discovered episodes of “The Man From Uncle” that I used to watch with my grandfather.  That brought back some good memories of a very good man.  I also found episodes of my favorite childhood show, “The Muppets.”  I was hesitant to watch them at first, worried that reality would not live up to my very warm memories of the show.  However, I chose the episode with guest stars from the cast of “Star Wars” and watched in amazement as the Star Wars crew hijacks Swinetrek on “Pigs In Space”; Miss Piggy pretends to be a karate chopping Princess Leia; Chewbacca gets kidnapped by chickens; C3PO and R2D2's have a tap dancing solo to “You Are My Lucky Star"; and Mark Hamill dresses in an hideous argyle sweater and gargles a Gershwin tune with Angus McGonagle the Gargling Argyle Gargoyle.  Is that not the best half hour of television ever created?  Sheer genius.

Paul and I both agree that this museum was a lot of fun.  Initially, we were skeptical about the concept.  Paying to watch TV for a few hours did not sound like a good use of our time, but we both found it to be educational, often emotional and a very personal experience.  We highly recommend this museum if you’re ever in the area.

Images in this post, from the top: Nixon-Kennedy Debate, 1960; Naked City The Television Series, 1958-63; Challenger Disaster, 1986; Miracle on Ice, 1980; and Mark Hamill gargling Gershwin with Angus McGonagle the Gargling Argyle Gargoyle on the Muppet Show, 1980.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Jewish Museum

2/6/2010, Saturday continued 

MUSEUM: The Jewish Museum 
TIME: 2 hr
COST: Free on saturdays 

Pauline’s note: Paul’s favorite piece of art that we own is a photography print by Man Ray.  I hate it and have exiled it to his office.  (It was going to be in the bathroom, but Paul argued that it might get water damaged.)  The Jewish Museum has a large exhibit devoted to Man Ray this year, so Paul was the logical choice to blog about this museum and his favorite artist.  (Our controversial artwork in question is “Larmes” (Tears) 1930 by Man Ray, see picture.  Feel free to weigh in on the argument in the comments.) 

Paul here: Our second museum of the day was a trip back to Museum Mile and the wonderful mansion/museums.  There are actually quite a few Jewish museums in NYC, which befits the huge impact the Jewish community has had on this city. This is the biggest and most celebrated. The Jewish Museum is located in a renovated Gothic Mansion that used to be the home of Frieda Schiff Warburg, a trustee of the Jewish seminary where the original museum was housed.  It moved to the current site in 1944, and has four floors of exhibition space and a café in the basement.  While some of the building has been preserved inside (particularly the 2nd floor), the bulk has been changed to a clean, modern museum aesthetic.

The museum was high on my list because the subject of one of the current exhibits is one of my absolute favorite artists, Man Ray. We went on a Saturday, which is always free. Saturday is the Sabbath, so the store and café were closed. Also, there are no audio tours available on the Sabbath.  Most people took the stairs, but there is a “Sabbath elevator” that runs automatically from floor to floor, with no button pushing necessary.  For those who don’t know, the Sabbath is a day of rest and reflection; all work is forbidden.  It’s an important observation to many Jews, and it inspired Pauline and I to think about our workaholic ways.

The first floor housed the retrospective of Man Ray, a Jewish-American artist who was a major force in the Modernist, Dada and Surrealist movements.  Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in New Jersey, Man Ray experimented with all different art media, including poetry, painting, printed arts, sculpture, photography, performance art, and just about any other art form you could imagine.  He prided himself in not being pigeonholed into any single artistic trend or technique.  He often felt penned in by his critics, who defined him and thus confined him.  One of the first works you see is a testimonial to that: a life mask of Man Ray stuffed in a box and confined by newspapers on all sides, creating a disturbing, claustrophobic piece.  Man Ray’s work is ever changing and challenging, but the exhibition was a pretty complete representation of it. 

Pauline does not like Man Ray.  At best, she “doesn’t see the genius of it all”; at worst she finds it offensive.  However, I think he is one the more overlooked American artists of the 20th century.  His maverick and mercurial nature made him hard to categorize, and I don’t like all of his works, but really, it’s his spirit that I love.  He never seemed to settle in to a normal life and artistically he alternated between popularity and obscurity, but he always refused to be anything but true to his own quirky, absurdist views. 

The top floors of the Jewish Museum are one huge exhibit on the long history of the Jewish people: how they started, where they went, and how they exist today.  It is truly expansive, covering thousands of years.  The over 800 artifacts were impressive, and included primitive ancient artifacts, a replica of an early temple, and one of the most amazing collections of menorahs I've ever seen, ranging from intricate silver antique menorahs from eastern Europe to ultra -modern ones made out of copper drain pipe with a plastic pro-wrestler figurine as a figurehead.  One very impressive collection was the “Danzig” collection consisting of almost every important piece from the city of Danzig (now Gadansk) in Poland/Germany.  Its one of the few intact collections remaining from Eastern Europe, shipped to the US just before the start of WWII, before the Nazis destroyed most evidence of Jewish existence in that region.

Those who know me know I am a bit of a history buff, and I went into this hoping to get a good introduction to Jewish history, something I really don’t know much about.  There were a lot of history exhibits and discussion of the Judaic Faith and some of the branches- primarily the European Ashkenazi and Sephardic Judaism, but I wish they spent more time on Jewish Mysticism and the Cabbala and the text on the displays is very limited.  Both Pauline and I found ourselves wishing we came on a day we could have gotten the audio tour.  There were guides giving tours, and we found ourselves attempting to trail them so we could overhear.  Otherwise, we would have been lost.
The second floor felt like it was right out of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum. The exhibit, called Reinventing Ritual: Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life surveys the explosion of new Jewish rituals, art, and objects that’s occurred since the mid-1990s.  Contemporary artists and designers transformed the acts of Jewish ritual into new forms and reinterpreted ritual items, such as spice holders, Yamakas, wedding dresses and menorahs.  The projects included industrial design, metalwork, ceramics, video, drawing, comics, sculpture, and textiles from all over the world. The alterations of the spaces, designs and situations in which ritual is performed made this a fascinating and compelling exhibit and made me think about the how and why of the rituals we perform by rote. 

All in all, the Jewish Museum was a good mix of history and art, but we enjoyed the temporary art exhibits the most.  We felt that the history exhibits were largely for people who already knew a lot about Jewish history. 

Pictures in this post, from the top:  
A collage of Hanukkah lamps from the Jewish Museum: Hanukkah Lamp, Josef Kohn, Vienna (Austria), 1872-1921, silver: repoussé, traced, punched, and cast.  (A three-dimensional figure of a peacock set within a frame, as if on stage.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Eastern Europe (?), 18th-early 19th century, Copper alloy: cast and gildedHanukkah Lamp, ZK, Brody, Galicia (Ukraine), 1787, silver: repoussé, pierced, appliqué, parcel-gilt, and cast; copper alloy.  (The form and decoration of this lamp is derived from Torah arks of Polish synagogues of the 18th century. A "balcony" under the ark doors supports the oil containers in the form of leaping lions. Below, the double-headed eagle of Austria proudly spreads its wings.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Possibly Fez (Morocco), 19th centuryHanukkah Lamp, Eastern Europe, early 19th century (?), copper alloy: cast.  (Depicts the Garden of Eden surrounded by a fence and palm trees. In the center is the Tree of Knowledge, filled with fruit, a snake wound around its trunk.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Italy, late 19th-early 20th century, copper alloyHanukkah Lamp, Paris, France after 1917, copper alloy (The body of this lamp is made of two shell casings, while the candleholders consist of bullet cartridges.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Marek Szwarc (French, b. Poland), Paris, France, 1920sHanukkah Lamp, Central Anti-Atlas Mountains (Morocco), 19th century, copper alloy: cast and enameled.  Hanukkah Lamp, India, end of 19th century, copper alloy.  (Lamps in the form of the Star of David are characteristic of the Bene Israel community near Bombay.)  

Larmes” (Tears) 1930, by Man Ray; “Cadeau” (Gift) 1921 by Man Ray, “Black and White” 1936 by Man Ray, “Le violin de Ingres” (Ingres's Violin) 1924 by Man Ray; "Hevruta-Mituta" 2007 by Hadas Kruk and Anat Stein (Plastic chess board and thirty-two knitted skullcaps). 

A collage of modern Hanukkah lamps: Hanukkah Lamp, Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (American, b. Germany), Jerusalem, Israel, 1950-55, Copper alloy: repoussé.   Maquette for a Hanukkah Lamp, David Weinrib (American), Stony Point, New York, United States, 1989, Copper; steel; wood; wax. (This piece was created as a maquette for a Hanukkah lamp for Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, New York. It is made of "found" industrial materials.) Menorahmorph, Karim Rashid (American, b. Egypt), New York, United States, 2004, Silicone and stainless steel.  Hanukkah Lamp, United States, c. 1926-1940, Copper alloy: cast and gilded.  (The letters comprising the candleholders spell out the name of a Jewish woman's organization, Ivriah.)  Hanukkah Lamp, Silver: pierced glass, by Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert (American, b. Germany), Jerusalem, Israel, 1953 (Inscription: "To you, praise is fitting" from "Ma'oz Tzur").  Hanukkah Lamp, Manufacturer: Orivit-Aktiengesellschaft, Germany, 1900-1905, white metal: cast and silver-plated; glass: mold formed.