Monday, June 21, 2010

Wave Hill

4/23/2010; Friday, continued

MUSEUM: Wave Hill ………………….…….. 1.5 hrs
COST: …………………...……………..…….. $8 each

After visiting the museums in the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, we stopped by the other museum in this leafy Bronx neighborhood, Wave Hill.  Wave Hill consists of two historic estates on the cliffs above the Hudson River that have been combined and converted into a public botanical garden.  The houses of those estates, Wave Hill House and Glyndor House, are still present but access is limited to their gallery and event spaces.  The real attraction at Wave Hill isn’t the historic buildings or even the immaculate gardens.  It’s the stunning vistas of the New Jersey Palisades, huge shear cliffs rising out of the Hudson River on the western shore, visible from numerous locations in the gardens.  The most classic views are found at Pergola Overlook (pictured above) and the Elliptical Garden, but most of the vegetation of Wave Hill seems specifically grown to frame this view.
Wave Hill was once the private estate of George W. Perkins, financier and former partner of J.P. Morgan, who spent years accumulating properties along the Hudson River which were deeded to the City of New York in 1960.  Perkin's involvement in the Palisades Interstate Park Commission was pivotal in preserving the Palisades, once heavily quarried for railroad ballast. 

The Perkins family resided in Glyndor House and leased Wave Hill House to a series of illustrious tenants.  Theodore Roosevelt's family rented Wave Hill during the summers of 1870 and ‘71, when the future president was 12 and 13.  By some accounts, Teddy's time here deepened his love of the outdoors that would later prompt him to preserve millions of acres of American parkland.  Mark Twain leased the estate from 1901-1903, setting up a treehouse parlor in the branches of a chestnut tree on the lawn.  Of winter at Wave Hill he wrote, “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”  Another famous nature lover to stay at these estates was pioneering naturalist and proponent of evolution Thomas Henry Huxley.  Huxley was astounded by the Palisades across the river, declaring them one of the world's greatest natural wonders.

Paul and I thought that the views of the Palisades were indeed great, but the gardens themselves were also worthy of a look.  Paul was impressed by the massive 100-year-old copper beach and the enormous American elm, which Wave Hill claims to be the largest tree in New York City.  Other good garden sites were the monocot gardens (though Paul and I had to struggle to remember our botany to identify it), and the wild garden with its hidden gazebo.  Paul claims that the whole time we were wandering he kept thinking of “Fern Hill,” a pastoral poem from his favorite poet, Dylan Thomas; see the first stanza below.

Wave Hill House is now used as a gallery space, with rotating exhibits that pay homage to it’s nature-loving heritage.  While we were there the main exhibit was “Propagating Eden: Techniques of Nature Printing in Botany and Art.”  Nature printing is a technique of creating impressions from the surfaces of organic forms, such as a leaf, flower, feather or bone, and it was an interesting collection of a type of art that I haven’t seen since summer camp, when we made cards with fern leaf impressions.  Paul and I both thought the most interesting piece was “earth/pool #3,” prints from zinc plate that had been buried for a year in a vernal pond, allowing the nitrogen to etch its surface, resulting in an abstract but peaceful image (see image below). 

In summary, the art and gallery spaces of this museum were modest, and don’t take much time to view.  The reason people come to Wave Hill is the gardens and the magnificent views, so if you go, be sure to come in good weather, bring your strolling shoes and pack a picnic.

First stanza of “Fern Hill”, by Dylan Thomas:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    The night above the dingle starry,
         Time let me hail and climb
    Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
         Trail with daisies and barley
     Down the rivers of the windfall light. 

Images in this post, from the top: view from the Pergola Overlook at Wave Hill; Glyndor House; the Elliptical Garden, "Spring Tree" by Dan Beyton; "Imprints from Nature" by J. E. Parritt; and “earth/pool #3” by Kate Temple, 2006.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Derfner Judaica Museum/Art at the Hebrew Home

4/23/2010, Friday

Hebrew Home at Riverdale:
  Art at the Home ……………...….. 30 min
  Derfner Judaica Museum …….… 30 min

Hebrew Home at Riverdale:
  Art Collection ………………....…. Free
  Derfner Judaica Museum …….… Free

Part of the fun of seeing ALL the museums of NYC is that, in addition to visiting popular attractions (like MOMA), we also get to tour some very unusual, hidden and even mysterious parts of the city we would never otherwise see, like unused subway tunnels (New York Transit Museum), an abandoned speakeasy (Museum of the American Gangster), and the inner sanctum of a 100 year old secret society of bookbinders (Grolier Club).  The location of today’s museum doesn’t sound as exotic as these, but it certainly isn’t a place we would normally visit, and, according to Paul, it was “the creepiest place so far.”

Today’s museums were located in a very large, very wealthy and very private retirement home, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale.  Riverdale is a neghborhood in the Bronx, but this quiet, leafy historic neighborhood on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson feels so far from the bustling urban-ness of the Bronx that it might as well be on the moon.  To reach the museum, we started on typical Bronx streets, full of people, elevated train noise and traffic, but after we turned and began our descent toward the river, the densely packed brick apartment complexes of central Bronx abruptly gave way to spacious graceful private homes, partially hidden behind immaculately prunned shrubbery and ancient trees casting heavy shadows on the road.  The roads narrowed, the people vanished, all street noise faded out, and by the time we reached the retirement home, the only noises were the wind in the trees, birdsong, and the faint sound of distant water.

A large black fence surrounds this complex in the forest, monitored by a security system that would do a prison proud.  All visitors must check in at the heavily guarded gate and submit to a thorough security check, including ID check, justification of visit and car search if deemed necessary.  There wasn’t a cavity search, but it felt like maybe the guard who did that was off for the day.  If you’re allowed past the checkpoint, you’re given a visitor’s pass and a narrow window of time to complete your business.  Neither Paul nor I asked what would happen if we stayed past our allotted time, and we knew we didn’t want to find out.

After the interrogation, we proceeded into the complex.  Despite the map provided at the gate, we got lost instantly.  In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is not your average retirement home, and the place is huge.  Located on 19 manicured acres overlooking the Hudson River, the Hebrew Home has over 3,000 elderly residents, a fully staffed hospital, counseling center and rehab facility, and of course what we were there for: a 5,000 piece art collection, a Jewish history museum, and one of the larger sculpture gardens in NYC. 

There are virtually no signs (maybe they’re considered tacky?), so we found the first museum by entering one of the larger buildings and wandering around.  It turned out to be part of the hospital, so we had the bizarre and fairly disturbing experience of dodging gurneys and gowned patients while trying to find someone who didn’t look busy saving someone’s life to ask where any of the museums were.  Eventually we stumbled upon a lofty atrium-like structure overlooking the river called the Jacob Reingold Pavilion, the location of the Derfner Judaica Museum.

The objects in the Derfner Judaica Museum were originally the private collection of wealthy residents Ralph and Leuba Baum, and donated to the home upon their death.  This is how the home acquired most, if not all, of its extensive art collection, and after you realize that sad fact you begin to see every piece of art as representing a death at the home, just one of the many things that made this an intensely eerie experience.

A refugee from Nazi persecution, Ralph Baum (d. 1984) and his wife, Leuba (d. 1997) collected objects used by European Jews before the Holocaust, trying to persevere some of the history and memory of what was lost.  It’s an impressive collection of artifacts, ranging from ceremonial objects like elaborately decorated Torah cases and Hanukah lamps, to more personal items like kitchen spice containers and playing cards.  Paul thought it seemed the most personal of the Jewish museums we’ve seen, consisting largely of small but meaningful things people carried with them as they fled their homes, like a bridal belt worn by all of the women of a family on their wedding day, or a girl’s embroidered Matzah bag.  The object that made the greatest impression on me was an old Torah scroll, yellowed with age and partially charred, but still intact.  It had been pulled from the rubble of a synagogue near Hamburg burned to the ground by the Nazis on Kristall-nacht, the only one of 13 scrolls to survive.  It had been stored in a local police station, and when Ralph Baum returned to his hometown after the war, it was presented to him, the only survivor left to claim it.

In addition to the Judaica museum, the Hebrew Home also has an extensive art collection, comprised of 5,000 works by renowned artists such as Pablo Picasso, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, and Joan Mitchell, as well as a large sculpture garden with breathtaking views of the Hudson River and Palisades. The art collection is recognized as a museum, but displayed in common areas throughout the complex.  To see it Paul and I essentially had to tour the retirement home.  I particularly liked the Warhol sketches of famous Jews, and the exhibition of Rachel Leibman’s collages made from images of ancient manuscripts.  Interspersed throughout the halls are also displays supposedly for children, including a huge model train garden designed by landscape architect Paul Busse, an antique doll collection, and a wall of creepy porcelain birds (they just stare at you with beady black eyes).  The art was nice, but it was difficult to just wander through other people’s parlors, feeling like outsiders as friendly residents asked whom we were there to see.  Paul had to constantly fight the urge to go talk to all those lonely people.

Our take on things: on the plus side, there were no crowds and the collections were interesting, particularly the Judaica museum and, oddly, the model train set.  However, their location in a swank retirement home, while certainly novel, made them difficult to get to and awkward to view.  We just could not shake the feeling that we were trespassers here.

Images in this post, from the top: three sculptures in the "River walk" sculpture garden of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale; "Illuminations" by Rachel Leibman; Torah scroll from Elmshorn Germany; “Artistic Palestine Play-Cards” from 1920 Jerusalem replaces the four usual suits with four symbols of religion and the land (fig, pomegranate, star of David and menorah). The kings are Ahasuerus, David, Saul and Solomon. The queens include Esther and the Queen of Sheba; "Olde West Garden Railroad" by Paul Busse, a model railroad depicting life in the 19th century American frontier; and Hanukkah Lamp, Bezalel School, Jerusalem, ca. 1920-29.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)

3/12/2010, Friday

TIME: 1.5 hr
COST: $20 each

The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is one of the world’s greatest museums.  Oh sure, there are bigger museums and a few with greater collections (but not many), but there is little doubt that MOMA has a huge influence in the art world and on the public at large.  Quite simply, it’s a legend.  Unfortunately, our visit this day was fraught with peril and mishap and we didn’t see as much of it as we would have liked, but we can’t blame that on the museum.  Our troubles really started when a tree fell in Dobbs Ferry, but more on that later.

Much of MOMA’s fame is derived from its massive collection (over 150,000 works), which includes iconic works such as Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Salvador Dali's Persistence of Memory, and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, and is considered by some to be the best collection of modern Western masterpieces in the world.  But this museum doesn’t collect just paintings.  MOMA has 6 different departments: Painting and Sculpture, Architecture and Design, Photography, Prints and Illustrated Books, Drawings, and Film and Media.  Film and Media alone has 22,000 films and 4 million film stills. 

A substantial portion of MOMA’s fame comes not from its collection, but from it’s daring.  Past and present curators have held true to the philosophies behind modern art, and love to shake things up.  The Architecture and Design, Film, and Photography departments were the first of their kind in any museum.  Groundbreaking MOMA exhibitions have included Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936), The Family of Man (1955), and Primitivism (1984).  Right now the exhibit just finishing up is a series of performance pieces featuring, among other things, 38 completely naked men and women in various poses, including lying under a skeleton and facing each other in a doorway that visitors have to push past.  Needless to say, the exhibit attracted a great deal of media attention, and not just because there were naked people in a museum.  Apparently not all visitors have kept their hands to themselves

Even MOMA’s origins are controversial, with its beginnings forged in a long lasting marital disagreement in New York’s most famous family, the Rockefellers.  John D. Rockefeller Jr. was brought up a strict Baptist, with a deep respect for traditional values and a love of traditional art.  His extensive collection of medieval art forms the core of the Cloisters (a huge medieval museum in Manhattan).  However, his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had completely different tastes.  She loved modern art.  J.D. became increasingly disturbed by the art his wife brought into their home, and as a result the allowance he gave her was quite modest in relation to the fortune he controlled.  Despite her limited funds, Abbey managed to amass a large collection of prints and small paintings during the 1920’s and 30’s.  One might say she eventually won their argument, as their sons Nelson and David became avid lovers of modern art, and if you ever visit Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in Hudson Valley, you’ll find Nelson’s large collection of modern art and sculpture looking very jarring and out of place next to his father’s Neoclassical architecture and nymph fountains.  The guide of the Kykuit tour I took called it a textbook case of a son’s rebellion, just done with a bit more money than most.

Due to Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s more limited funds, MOMA began as collaboration between her and two of her friends, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan (pictured above from left to right), over an idea Abby proposed literally over lunch.  Nelson Rockefeller later remarked, "It was the perfect combination. The three women ... had the resources, the tact and the knowledge of contemporary art that the situation required. More to the point, they had the courage to advocate the cause of the modern movement in the face of widespread division, ignorance and a dark suspicion that the whole business was some sort of Bolshevik plot." 

In keeping with MOMA’s revolutionary attitudes, the headline exhibit when we visited featured the works of Hollywood superstar Tim Burton, not someone you’d normally think of being exhibited in a museum (see entrance to the exhibit in picture at left).  In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last three decades, Burton is famous for his dark and quirky films, featuring sensitive misfits triumphing over a world of repressive mediocrity.  His biggest hits include “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “Batman.”  The exhibit featured models, costumes and set pieces from his well-known films, but also many non-film works, such as sketches, photography and even sculpture.  Burton was an illustrator for Disney early in his career, and is a talented sketch artist.  I particularly liked the pieces he drew during his childhood in Burbank California, like his drawing for the parks department litter campaign.  Paul was fascinated by the big pink angora sweater worn by Johnny Depp in “Ed Wood.”  The exhibit also featured earlier and less well known short films, like the excellent “Vincent”, depicting a young boy who fantasizes that he is his (and Burton's and Paul’s) hero Vincent Price, with Price himself providing narration. 

The works all feature Burton’s particular brand of gothic macabre horror, which is funny and a little scary at the same time, and has made him famous.  Both Paul and I like many of his films, but the exhibit highlighted a problem that we both have with Burton’s work.  It all feels homogenous, with very little variety, and after wandering around looking at caricature after caricature with exaggerated proportions and bizarre disfigurements, we actually felt a bit bored.  Burton isn’t trying to say anything new with his art, he just seems stuck in the same “weirdo makes good” rut that he’s always been in.  All in all, the exhibit was fun for a while, but ultimately a bit of a let down.  Paul found a humorous short video to help explain our perceptions of Burton's lack of originality. 

The Burton exhibit generated a lot of fuss in the press, and was heavily advertised.  It’s been held up as an example of a shift in museum attitudes.  Many museums have been attempting to throw off their stodgy image and attract a younger audience.  To do this, they’re hiring younger curators and embracing popular trends, like Burton.  (This show was currated by the shockingly young 37-year-old Rajendra Roy, chief curator of film at MOMA.)  The strategy seems to have worked in this case, as Burton visitors were relatively young, averaging in their 30’s, and the show was a blockbuster.  Every weekend was completely sold out, which is where our problems began.

As we don’t live or work in Manhattan, it can be difficult for us to get into the city during the week.  I managed to get a ticket for a Friday afternoon visit (one of the few left) and Paul and I arranged to be free that afternoon so we could drive into the city BEFORE rush hour.  However, that afternoon a tree fell in Dobbs Ferry, knocking out power to all traffic lights in the vicinity, and Paul was stuck in a 2-hour traffic jam on his way home.  From there on it was a disaster, for now we were driving into the city during rush hour (another 2 hour traffic jam).  When we finally arrived at the museum, we were cranky, exhausted and extremely late for our ticketed time.  Fortunately the museum is open late on Fridays and they were still willing to let us in to the exhibit.  Unfortunately, the museum is open late on Fridays because that when it is free and it was completely packed.  We had to fight our way through crowds to see every piece in the Burton exhibit, and when we were done with that we just couldn’t face the rest of the museum in these insane crowds.  We had both seen MOMA in its entirety when we visited New York as tourists 2 years ago, so we called it a day and went home.

In conclusion, of course we would recommend MOMA for a visit; it’s in all NYC tourist guides for good reason, but try to avoid the crowds if you can. 

Images in this post, from the top: "Baboon Boy," by Tim Burton, in the lobby of MOMA; A visitor at MOMA walks between Jacqueline Lounsbury and Layard Thompson in "Imponderabilia," from the exhibit "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present"; John Bonafede in "Nude with Skeleton," from the exhibit "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present"; photograph of sculpture in the gardens of Kykuit, the historic Rockefeller estate; photographs of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan (from left to right); entrance to the Tim Burton exhibit; sculpture at the Tim Burton exhibit;"The boy with nails in his eyes" figure; sketch from the short film "Vincent," by Tim Burton.