Sunday, April 25, 2010

New York Historical Society

3/6/2010, Saturday 

MUSEUMS: New York Historical Society .....
TIME:  3 hrs 
COST:  Normally $12 each, but free this week.

Paul here:  On the day we went to the New York Historical Society, we were not planning on spending a lot of time at museums.  We actually had a few errands to run on the Upper West Side- primarily getting my coffee supplies at Zabars, who in my opinion roasts the best coffee in North America (  Yes, after 7 years of living in Seattle, I still maintain that an east coast medium roast is a better tasting cup of coffee than the dark bitter roasts of the est coast.  But I digress. 

The intention was to pick a single smallish museum in the Upper West side and then shop.  The NYHS seemed like a logical choice. Not only was it perceived to be on the smaller side, but during the week of Presidents Day in February it was free. So we hopped in the car and drove down to the city, a 20 minute drive.  Normally, we have pretty good luck parking in the upper west side, but today that was not the case.  After driving around for about 45 minutes we finally were forced to use a parking garage, much to Pauline’s (and our wallet’s) dismay. 

As we walked to the NYHS, I think it dawned on us that really, the NYHS was only small in comparison to the Natural History Museum next to it.  The NYHS is 4 stories of neoclassical hugeness that fills half a city block, and there was a lot of activity today.  Lots of people were taking advantage of the free admission.  As we made our way through the crowd we picked up a map and an audioguide for each of us.  Really, one thing we learned about during this project is: always get an audioguide. 

The NYHS is the one of the, if not the, oldest museums in the city of New York.  Founded in 1804, its holdings cover four centuries of American history, and include one of the world’s greatest collections of American historical artifacts, American art and documentation of the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State. 

The first exhibition we saw covered Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the city of New York during his rise to power until his assaination (  At that time, New York City was the biggest and most important city in the Union, and the State of New York was the most important state. Starting with his Cooper Union address in 1860, the exhibition showed the complex relationship he had with the powerful in the city.  The exhibit also demonstrated how attitudes towards Mr. Lincoln changed as the civil war evolved, as well as positions on the draft, Habeas Corpus and slavery.  The rise of the anti-Lincoln copperheads, the draft riots and his death and martyrdom were all addressed.  There were many different displays, ranging from original letters and documents by Lincoln, political cartoons from the era (cleverly deconstructed to better understand the meanings), and multimedia exhibits.  There were even people dressed in period costumes representing the first African American military companies.  As someone who has been somewhat passionate about this era of American History, I thought it was fascinating, but Pauline thought it was overly wordy and a bit long.  (Pauline here: I thought it was insanely detailed and focused on people like Paul who obsess over historical minutiae like how railway stock was affected in each stage of the civil war, and there was no place to sit while Paul attempted to puzzle out 150 year old handwritting in letters debating the best building for Lincoln to give a speech in NYC.  Yawn...)

Next, we went up to the top floor to check out the Luce Center for the Study of American Culture.  Boy, were we surprised at this collection.  One of the first things that came to mind was that they should change the name of the society to “The New York Packrat Society”!!!!   This floor is a treasure trove of nearly 40,000 artifacts crammed into a space that feels like a cross between an enormous attic and the storage warehouse in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.  Every nook and cranny of this floor was filled with stuff, all arranged haphazardly: a chair that Napoleon once sat on was located beneath shelves displaying old election buttons, between a full sized horse carriage and a display of old glass bottles, across from an enormous marble statue of an Indian head with full feathered headdress. Every wall was covered in paintings, every floor space crowded with furniture and shelving, and all the shelving packed to bursting with odd random things, like hundreds of complete sets of silverware, Washington's camp bed at Valley Forge, 911 artifacts, hundreds of ashtrays, children’s toys, police badges, and even plastic knickknacks from the 20th century.  It was amazing and overwhelming.

One of the things that stood out was the Tiffany lamp collection. It came from a single couple: Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife Hildegard.  They began their collection in 1935 with the purchase of a Tiffany desk lamp and from there Dr. Neustadt's interest in Tiffany shades and bases became all-consuming and he became one of the earliest serious collectors of Tiffany lamps, eventually cramming 135 lamps into a single East Village apartment. They left the entire collection to the NYHS in 1985, and they occupy a very colorful corner of the exhibit space.

In addition to the fascinating display of the Luce center, this floor had even more exhibits, including an exhibit on slavery in NYC, a section of paintings about the city and history of NY, and a small but impressive display of Audubon’s watercolors of birds.  As cramped and oddly arranged as it was, this floor was quirky and fascinating, and one of our favorite displays to date.  It took well over an hour, and we could have been there even longer if we had not run out of time. 

We saw two other exhibits in the museum. One was one of the nation's premiere collections of eighteenth-century American portraits. Essentially a small group of native-born painters and European émigrés painted the elite colonial New York society developing a flat, stiff style that was both derivative of the European schools, but unique to the colonies. Neither Pauline nor I found this to be particularly compelling, but portraits often leave me cold.

The other exhibit was one of the first major American art movements, the Hudson River School (NYHS collection of Hudson River School paintings.).  The Hudson River School embraced a romanticized style of naturalist paintings that was extremely popular in the 19th century, producing some of the most evocative and dramatic images of nature ever seen, and serving as an early pro-America propaganda.  The NYHS has more than 100 paintings in its collection by well known artists of the movement, such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, Jasper F. Cropsey and Albert Bierstadt, all displayed together in an enormous cavern of a room and they make a pretty astounding impression, and defiantly worth seeing.

All in all, this was a great way to spend 3 hours. We did not intend to spend that kind of time here, and it didn’t leave us much time to run errands, but this was a museum that took us by surprise and it was time well spent. 

Images in this post, from the top: Ki-On-Twog-Ky (also known as Cornplanter) 1796 by F. Bartoli; Proposed coat of arms for New Amsterdam, New Netherland, drawing for presentation to the Dutch West India Company, c 1630; bust of Abraham Lincoln; Oak Renaissance Revival armchair made of timber from George Washington's New York City residence, decorated with the seals of New York and a bust of Washington, presented to the NYHS in 1857 for the use of the president of the society; NYC police badge and manacles; part of the display of Tiffany lamps at the Luce Center; Dragonfly Table Lamp, c. 1900-1906, designed by Clara Driscoll, Tiffany Studios; Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) 1825 by John James Audubon; California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) 1838 by John James Audubon; Autumn Woods, 1886 by Albert Bierstadt; medal of the Free Masons 1920.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

International Center of Photography

2/20/2010, Saturday (continued)

International Center for Photography ......................... 1.5 hrs
ICP Education Gallery ............................................ 20 min

International Center for Photography ......................... $12 each
ICP Education Gallery ............................................ Free

Deep in midtown Manhattan lies a plaza so ugly its been nominated as one of the worst public spaces in the world. The implausibly named Grace Plaza consists of an enormous barren white concrete slab boxed in by the windowless north façade of the WR Grace building, which looms like huge, blank prison walls 50 stories high on two sides of the plaza. During NYC’s seedy days, Grace Plaza was an infamous drug spot; today it's a haven for smokers, and no one else. Yet below this hideous ashtray of a square lurks the International Center for Photography (ICP), a prestigious school and unique museum.

ICP was founded in 1974 by Cornell Capa, a well-known Hungarian photographer, to preserve the legacy of his brother, the legendary Robert Capa (see picture above; 1913 –1954). Robert Capa was a 20th century combat photographer considered one the greatest photojournalists of all time. He covered five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across much of Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. He took insane risks getting shots of actual combat, becoming famous for photographing soldiers as they fell beside him in the Spanish Civil War and swimming ashore on D-Day to photograph the second assault wave on Omaha Beach. His lover, Gerda Taro, also a photojournalist, died in a battle while they were covering the Spanish Civil War, and Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while photographing a troop advance under fire, literally dying with his camera in his hand.

In keeping with its roots, the museum often mounts thought-provoking shows on divisive, sometimes violent topics such as gangs in L.A. and the war in Iraq. This day’s exhibits were no exception to the ICP museum’s almost pugnacious love of controversy. Can a photography museum have an “in your face” attitude?  We think so. 

The largest exhibit was devoted to the first American showing of the eccentric, possibly insane Czech photographer Miroslav Tichy. Tichy’s photographs appear to be badly damaged snapshots of girls and young woman in streets and public parks, going about their business and mostly unaware of the camera. The photos seem clumsy, often showing only pieces of a scene, like a woman’s foot or backside, and are blurry, badly printed and in terrible condition: battered, dog eared, scratched and water damaged. The juxtaposition of clearly sexual images, the surreptitious nature of the photography, and the trashed condition of the photos give the pictures an oddly dreamy but eerie quality. One reviewer called it an “uncanny fusion of eroticism, paranoia and deliberation” and it’s both captivating and highly unsettling. Obviously this was Paul’s favorite exhibit, EVER. He liked it so much he bought the Tichy exhibition catalogue from the gift shop, a first for us.

The exhibit takes on more depth as you learn more about Tichy from a film playing in the exhibit, made by one of his neighbors. Tichy studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and was for a time a celebrated painter. He was a nonconformist and a former member of the Brono Five, a group of painters who broke with the state-sanctioned Socialist Realism. Yet he also has a history of mental illness, and has been in and out of metal institutions for most of his life. He clearly considers his photographs to be a form of political protest, yet his monologues are not those of a completely sane person. Some things are clear however. The amateur look of his art is deliberate, and the product of a carefully orchestrated series of missteps that begin with crude, homemade cameras. These cameras are on display at the exhibit and are made out of rubbish, fashioned from materials like shoeboxes, toilet-paper rolls and Plexiglas, the lenses polished with toothpaste and cigarette ash.  The cameras look like trash, explaining why a lot of his subjects don’t seem to know that they are being photographed. As he says in the film, “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world”.

Tichy had a set routine for his photography.  Allowing himself three rolls of film a day, he wandered the streets of his town performing his own personal version of the Czech government’s surveillance program.  He wore a uniform of sorts, an unbelievably ratty coat that Tichy elaborately unraveled.  Taking his trash cameras with him, he cruised the same bus stops, parks and swimming pools everyday, looking for young women to photograph.  Looking at the photographs, the first thing that came to my mind was that if he tried that in America, he would be arrested as a potential molester, and that’s exactly what happened in Czechoslovakia.  He was repeatedly thrown into jails and mental hospitals, beaten and starved, but always released as a harmless old coot.  Upon his release, he would repeat his behavior until his next arrest.  According to his neighbors, his arrests were routine, always happening before holidays or official visits to remove a potential embarrassment.  As we left the exhibit Paul and I were still unsure how much of his art was political protest and how much was insanity, and where the line was between the two.

The other photography exhibits at the ICP are less radical today, but when they were first taken they were shocking.  “Surrealism, Photography, and Paris” was a collection of surrealist photographers of Paris in the 20’s and 30’s.  At the time, these artists were the height of the avante guarde, using fragmented and manipulated images to project a frenetic disjointed view of urban life in a rapidly modernizing city.  Many of the pictures were of prostitutes and dance halls, exposing the seedy dark side of Paris.  Others contrast new and old parts of the city.  In a 1934 picture of the Eiffel Tower, it soars against the night sky with electric lights illuminating its corners.  The tower is a beacon of the future, and in the foreground the silhouette of an old brick chimney is visible as a sign of a rapidly disappearing past.  Once again, this was more Paul’s type of art than mine, and it highlighted more of Paul’s favorite artist, Man Ray (although Tichy and Tino Sehgal are rapidly challenging that coveted spot).  We saw an entire exhibition on Man Ray at the Jewish Museum, and, for me at least, he does not improve with repetition.

Another exhibit highlighted the work of Alan B. Stone.  In many ways this exhibit echoed Tichy’s.  Stone was a gay photographer in Montreal in the 50’s and 60’s, a time when it was very dangerous to be gay.  The walls of this exhibit are lined with Montreal newspapers of the time, featuring stories of beatings of homosexuals and raids of gay bars, underlining the risks that Stone was taking in his work (although its all in French so we had to take the curator's word for it).  Stone was a purveyor of beefcake, specializing in pictures of male pin-ups, theoretically for women.  More risky were his photographs of his native city, where he wandered, Tichy-like, looking for good-looking young men to photograph.  The walls of this exhibit are lined with well-muscled construction workers, shirtless and glistening, swinging heavy hammers, and young nubile dockworkers flinging heavy ropes to each other.  Strangely, Paul did not find this photography as compelling as I.

The last exhibit was one Paul and I stumbled upon by accident.  The address we had for ICP puts it under Grace Plaza, but what is actually under the plaza is the ICP School.  (The museum is across the street.)  This school is one of the world's most extensive and best-equipped schools of photography, offering 400 courses every year, and it exhibits a constant rotation of student works.  We recommend taking a look at the (free) student gallery if you are visiting the ICP museum.  While we were visiting there were photos from several photojournalist projects from around the world, and it was worth a look to see the next generation of budding Robert Capas.

Images in this post, from the top: Leonore Fini, 1933 by Dora Maar; photograph of Robert Capa by Gerda Taro; 3 untitled images by Miroslav Tichy; one of Tichy's cameras; ; Eiffel Tower, 1934 by Ilse Bing; Molin Rouge, 1933 by Ilse Bing; Untitled, by Alan B. Stone 1964.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Scandanavia House

2/20/10, Saturday (continued)

MUSEUM: Scandanavian House  (
TIME: 0.5 hr 
COST: Free + Lunch for 2 at Smörgås Chef ($34) 

Museum food has come a long way.  I’ve vivid memories from my childhood of great museum visits followed by time in the horrible cafeterias that lurked in museum basements like leviathans, ensnaring weary travelers who just wanted a place to rest from a long day on their feet.  I remember the broken plastic chairs and the tangerine/avocado color scheme at the Smithsonian.  McDonald’s was classier, and had better food.  And who could forget the rotten milk smell of the damp cement echo chamber that passed for the café at the art museum in Portland, OR.  Yet as bad as the décor was, the food was worse: stale hamburgers, rubber hotdogs, soggy fries and sandwiches with questionable expiration dates, all sold at shockingly high prices.  The thinking of the museum staff at the time could only be something like that of airports today: if people have no other choices, you can charge high prices for awful food in ugly environments. 

Yet at some point something changed.  Somewhere, somehow, a wise curator or docent with epicurean leanings finally made a suggestion that was listened to, and it caught on.  Paul and I eat at many of the museums we visit, and we’ve had no bad experiences: no dirty dungeons, no dated décor and not one soggy French fry.  Dishes have been imaginative, flavorful and strongly supportive of the Museums’ theme, managing to be both educational and tasty.  For example, El Café at the Museo del Bario had great Latin American food, with dishes like spicy black bean conch stew, hand rolled tamales, and tacos with the tortillas grilled in front of your eyes.  Sure the décor was simple, but the food was cheap, and if you wanted entertainment you could watch the Cuban children’s folk tales being read aloud at one end of the café.  It felt laid back and homey, like you could be in a popular café somewhere south of the border.

And speaking of transporting experiences, the best museum cafe for capturing a “Zeitgeist” was the glamorous Café Sebarsky in the Neue Gallerie.  The elegant black and white art deco décor and German language menus plop you down in turn of the century Austria.  The Austrian pastries are rich and delicious, and the coffee, rumored to be the best in New York, is pulled from antique copper espresso machines in a thick, strong European style, with froth thick enough to hold the intricate flower patterns the baristas create in your cup.  The cafe even has live cabaret performances in the evenings, in German of course.

The latest star in our series of excellent museum meals was at Smorgas Chef, the restaurant on the ground floor of the Scandinavia House.  The museum itself wasn’t much to speak of.  It’s a small gallery space on the 5th floor of the Scandinavia House, the headquarters of the American-Scandinavian Foundation, an American non-profit organization that “works to build cultural and educational ties between the United States and Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.”  While we were there, the gallery had an exhibit on Snohetta, a Norway-based group of architects known for innovative modern designs.  There were models, photographs and films of the group’s major works including Egypt’s Alexandria Library (the modern one), the Norwegian Opera House in Oslo, and the controversial plans for the 911 Memorial in NYC.  All of these were impressive thought provoking pieces of architecture, but honestly the thing that made the biggest impression on both of us was an interactive desk with a massive touch screen for selecting, moving and viewing files.  It felt like we were in a science fiction movie, and we were both wondering when we could get one for the office.....

By this point, we’ve seen a few museums for cultural exchange (like the Onassis Cultural Center and the Austrian Cultural Forum) but what made this one stand out was that it wasn’t just a museum.  It seemed to be more of a community center for Scandinavians in New York, importing Scandinavian TV series for weekly viewings, organizing classes in Scandinavian crafts like weaving and furniture making, and hosting a legitimate Scandinavian restaurant, serving what appears to be comfort food for homesick Scandinavians.  Apparently Smorgas Chef is legendary for its Swedish meatballs, and we certainly saw quite a few meatballs eaten by actual Swedes, but both Paul and I wanted to be adventurous and opted for the house-cured gravlaks, cold water shrimp salad, the pickled herring platter with cucumber salad, and aquavits flavored with cloudberry.  We didn’t know what most of this was when we ordered it, but it was all fantastic.  Gravlaks sounds like a type of space alien, but is actually tasty raw salmon cured in salt, sugar, dill and vodka.  The pickled herring was amazing, much better than pickled herring has any right to taste, and the cloudberry aquavit turned out to be vodka with actual cloudberries, and had a sort of a sweet and tart raspberry taste.  
If you happen to find yourself in this area of midtown, stop by and see what’s showing in the gallery space (it's free), but for a real Scandinavian experience, we recommend you try the food!

Ta for now.  I'll fill you in on the International Center for Photography next time, and Paul has promised a post about our visit to the New York Historical Society, which was much more interesting than it sounds.

Images in this post, from the top: King Abdulaziz Center for Knowledge and Culture, designed by Snohetta; exterior of the Scandinavia House; Tuballoon, a pavillion for the Konigsberg International Jazz Festival, designed by Snohetta; Ras Al-Khaimah Gateway Project, designed by Snohetta.